STEFAN, Published by “Red Fez Magazine” 2/13/18

I was twelve when I learned the truth about my father. I’d always wondered about him. Ever since I could talk, I asked my mother about him. Who was he? Where was he? Did he know about me? She would spark a cigarette and puff on it a minute before responding. And then, when she finally did, her answers were always different. He died in the war. He was lost at sea. Sometimes she’d ignore me, walk into her bedroom and lock herself inside. When I was eight, for an entire year she had me convinced the mailman from Cheers, Cliff Claven, was my dad. And when I found the nerve to ask her more about him, she switched the story up, telling me my dad was a spaceman, and then weeks later a pirate. She never repeated the same story twice. 

For years, I never understood why my mother made up stories about my dad. It was as if she wanted me to know there was something more to it than whatever lie she mustered up. It was why, I was sure, she left the picture and court papers in her sock drawer. She knew I’d find them. And when I did, I knew her and I could never have an honest conversation about who my father was. 

I became angry. I acted out. Fights at school, drugs and all that. I hated myself. I hated her. Even though it wasn’t her fault. It was him I wanted to hurt. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what my mother thought of me. When she looked at me, did she see him? 

After an overdose in the spring, I spent the summer playing catch up on schoolwork. Brought my grades up, but had to repeat my sophomore year. Which was okay. I wanted to make the most of my time and thought the best way to do that was to become a doctor. I needed the extra year to learn and study and figure out how to make that happen. After school, I worked as an assistant instructor at the Queen’s Tae Kwon Do in Flushing. A fifteen-minute walk from the house, I made sure to be home each night to watch Dexter with my mom. I’d come to earn my black belt, and I promised myself, whatever I was doing, I’d practice the art three times a week. 

I studied pre-med at City College and went to Columbia for my med degree with a concentration in biomedical science. My mother had a small amount of money she’d inherited from her parents. Along with that, I was given some financial aid, took the rest out in student loans and emptied my savings to pay for books. 

I dated a bit. There was Natalie during pre-med, who had an eager compulsion to talk about everything from Homer to Kafka. Harper, senior year, who was a cigarette addict with a lingering stink that kept me up at night. Aria, during my second year of med school, who drank more coffee than I did, left bite marks on my neck and ate most of the food in my fridge. I’m not a fan of flings, which means I usually stay in a relationship longer than I should. Each time finding myself curious about her story, wondering what secret she carried and hid from me. But what I found instead, once learning their whole story, was that they were tedious or shallow, and eventually I lost interest and moved one. It was that way with each girl except for Jackie. 
I’d just completed my MD/MS in biomedical sciences at Columbia and landed a job at the Sloan Cancer Center as a clinical researcher, collecting data for leukemia studies when Jackie walked into my life. I’d seen her downtown here and there, hanging alone at a few local pubs. At the time I didn’t know she’d been following me. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what made her seek me out. But when she approached me that night at The Blind Tiger, before I knew it, we were in the streets heading uptown, walking the park’s trail, holding hands and stopping to make-out beside trees and under the bridge corridor. She had this power about her. Part beauty, part something intangible. She was almost too tall, with her high hips and thin bones. She had brown eyes, brown hair, perfect teeth; the kind of smile I grew to appreciate. She looked lanky, but beneath her clothes, her arms and legs were solid like fiberglass. Abundantly independent, Jackie made a decent living working in real estate. There were no needy phone calls in the middle of the night. No endless sleepovers every day of the week. She understood my job consumed me and it was clear her job was equally important; she took calls from clients regardless the time of day. She never asked about my family and didn’t mention anything about hers. The two things I did know were about her father: he was dead, and the apartment Jackie lived in on East 57thused to be his. I found that out on my own, digging through the safe she kept in her closetI stopped there though, knowing I were invading her privacy and detesting the thought of anyone interfering with mine.

Jackie lived seven blocks from the Waldorf on the top floor of the Galleria Condominium with eight rooms and a marble kitchen with heated floorboards. Glass steps led to the upstairs bedrooms, where the hallway resembled an abstract art exhibit and every outer wall in the place was a window overlooking the city. At night, the sky was electric blue with the light from surrounding buildings. We sometimes spent weekends hanging at the rooftop pool a few floors above. There was a bar and a restaurant and while Jackie read or fell asleep on the chaise lounge, I’d swim laps or play a round of tennis with the neighbors she otherwise ignored. 
We’d been together five months when I learned Jackie spoke French. We were eating dinner on the balcony and halfway through the meal I was telling her about an article I’d read in the Huffington Post. Apparently some Kung Fu master whacked himself in the crotch with a brick over and over again because he believed it cured erectile dysfunction. I showed her the video and she’d been laughing hysterical when she got a call from her boss. She needed to take it and excused herself. As she got up from the table and turned away, I heard her say où est-il situé? She walked into the kitchen and closed the sliding door. Having studied a bit ofFrench in college, I knew the phrase. It was something like: Where’s he situated? At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. After the call, she returned, and I picked up where I left off, about there being no scientific evidence to back the Kung Fu master’s theory, but I could tell by the way my words crept passed her eyes, she was no longer interested in the story. 

Jackie was unpredictable. I guess that’s why I hung on for so long. Every experience with her was different. There were times she and I could carry on a conversation about organoids and stem cells with me being stunned she knew a thing about either. We ate at new restaurants every week where she had a daring appetite for rabbit, kangaroo, and one time even gator. There were road trips to vineyards upstate where we hiked and canoed along the Finger Lakes. Jackie was thrilling, and even the times she seemed off and peculiar, I found only made her more appealing, drawing me closer to wanting to figure her out. 

Once, I woke up in the middle of the night and found Jackie outside, holding onto the balcony’s ledge, her face red and quivering. I asked her if she were okay and got no response. I stepped forward and tapped her on the arm. Still nothing but the chattering of her teeth. It was only when I leaned in and noticed her eyes half-opened and glazed over did I realize she’d been sleepwalking. I placed my arm around her shoulder and led her back into the house. Just as I finished locking the balcony door, returning my attention back over to Jackie, she let out a savage howl and snap kicked me in the thigh, nearly knocking me to the floor. When I asked her about it the next day, she had no recollection of any of it. 

Sometimes Jackie’s nails were polished and well-kept. Other times her nails were cracked as if she used them as box-cutters to open a package. There was one instance where she’d been running late – before she gave me a key to the place, I was sitting at the door waiting. I expected her to step out from the elevator, but when she reached me, she was huffing, out of breath, her shirt damp with sweat, her hair stringy and hanging in her face like she’d ran up fifty flights of stairs. She opened the door, her hands unsteady, and let us both in. When I asked about her strange state of arrival, she became defensive and called me untrusting. I grabbed my stuff and headed for the door, but she clutched my wrist and insisted I stay. Said she was sorry. She’d had a bad day at work. She didn’t mean to take it out on me. When I asked her about the bad day, she told me some guy she worked with demeaned her in front of her boss in a big meeting. She got upset, left work early and went to the gym. She told me to order food; she’d explain the rest at dinner. She went off and showered. 

At dinner, Jackie went on about a weekend trip to Newport, leaving me to bring the work incident back up. “So what did the guy say at the meeting?” I grabbed a piece of shrimp with my chopsticks. 

“Oh, don’t worry about it.” She took a bite of her food.  
“You’re not going to tell me?
“It’s been handled,” she said, meeting my eyes.  
“How so?”
“I filed a report with HR.”  
I stared at her from across the table, stirring the ice in my drink with my straw.
I left directly after dinner.  

Once home, I grabbed my laptop, sat on the couch and googled the name of Jackie’s real- estate agency. I thought I’d take it upon myself to find the guy who ruined our night. I hit the link. Discover incredible places to live in NYCpopped up with a picture of the skyline. I went over to the navigation bar and clicked on the agents. I scrolled through the names. There were only six woman working at the company. There was no guy. I clicked on Jackie’s link. All that came up was a blank page. I hit back on the navigation bar, thinking I made a mistake, or that the site needed a second to reload. I clicked on Jackie’s link again. Nothing but a white screen. I returned to the homepage and opened every link on the site. There were no pictures, no contact information, no phone, no email, nothing. I began googling other real estate agencies, and found other companies had whole rosters of agents listed in alphabetical order, with pictures and contact information; an entire separate page to fill out when inquiring about a listing. I stayed up, searching and comparing different agencies until I was certain Jackie’s site must be a sham. And that’s when I first suspected, that like me, Jackie had a secret. 

I let it go. I figured whatever she kept hidden didn’t really interfere with what we had going on. Like mine, as far as I knew, her secret didn’t hurt anyone. If she wanted me to know, she’d tell me. 
We carried on. As long as I didn’t ask questions, things between us were decent. More dining at different restaurants, and when winter came there were ski trips to Vermont, and cabin stays with snow fights, a steady fire inside that kept us warm. But after a while, it seemed like every corner we turned it became harder for me to overlook certain things. 

Wherever we were, out or watching movies at home, more often when Jackie got a call, she’d disappear for longer and longer periods of time, sometimes half the night. 

I followed her once. We were sleeping. She didn’t think I woke when I heard her phone vibrate. She said, Je serai là– I’ll be there. She stepped into her closet and came out shortly wearing a long black coat and pair of high heels. She took the elevator. I ran down the stairs. I stood inside the door and watched her step into a cab. I trailed behind her in another, telling the driver to keep his distance. At the time, I was convinced she was seeing another guy. 

We followed her seven miles north of Manhattan over to a deserted-looking building by a railroad track in Yonkers, which I discovered later on was an old power plant. I gave the driver a fifty and had him shut the lights off. I watched Jackie from the far side of the road. Her driver kept the cab running as she stepped out and walked up the two steps to the front door. 
There was graffiti all over, broken gates and busted windows, overgrown weeds and shattered wood. Jackie came out five minutes later carrying a yellow envelope. She stepped into the cab. I told my driver to book it back to the city. In the nick of time, I made it home before her. I tore my clothes off and jumped into bed. When she came in, she walked into her closet with the envelop and came out empty handed. She went to sleep and the next morning when she was showering, I checked the closet and that’s when I found the safe bolted to the floor. At breakfast, she carried on about a weekend business trip to DC. She asked me to go with her.  
In DC, Jackie wanted to visit the Holocaust Museum, but once there, she got a call and had to leave. Before she took off, she lied about having to meet one of her DC clients, who was interested in buying a condo on the upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a sale she couldn’t pass on. She’d call me the minute she was done. 

From there, I headed to the Library of Congress over on Independence Ave, where I initially planned on sitting in the main reading room to scope out the science reference guide – it was the largest around and I was eager to sort through it – but instead, found myself drifting over to the genealogy database where I spent a couple hours, trying to dig up history on Jackie, which wasn’t easy. Other than the two things I’d come to know about her father, I learned the name of her mother, Anna, and her third husband, Skip. That’s when I called it quits and left to grab a bite to eat at Pete’s, a four-minute walk straight down second street. I ate a sandwich outside and watched people pass, amazed with how happy they sometimes looked. Some laughed widely, eagerly swinging their arms, while talking to the person beside them. 

What was I doing with Jackie? Why did I subject myself to her lies? Who was really on the other end of those calls? And what was her actualline of work? I paid the check, walked back to the hotel, grabbed my suitcase, and caught the next bus back to NY. When Jackie called, I let it go to voicemail. She left four messages. The first, she was sorry she left me alone for so long. The next, she was worried she hadn’t heard back from me. The third, she would call the police and file a missing report if I didn’t text her back. I sent a text. I’m fine. Back in NY.In the last message, she said she had to stay in DC for the night. She’d be back in the a.m. and would call me the minute she got in. I texted her not to bother. 

The next day, when watching the morning news, there was a breaking story about a local NY family man being drugged and assaulted in a downtown hotel in DC. He’d been on a trip for business and was expected home last night. 

He’s currently getting treatment at MedStar Hospital. The family refuses to comment on the incident. Video surveillance was destroyed, but eyewitnesses saw the suspect leaving the hotel wearing heels and a long black coat. If anyone knows anything pertaining to this event, please contact the authorities immediately
Sure enough, when Jackie showed up at my door, her nails were broken and the knuckles on her hand were split open.

We stood in the hall.
“What happened to your hand?” I asked.
“I hit it on the dresser when I saw you left.”
“No you didn’t.”
She flinched. 
“I followed you to Yonkers.” 
It looked like she wanted to say something. She left instead. 
It’d been two weeks since I heard from Jackie. I knew I was better off without her. Only, I couldn’t get her out of my head. I still had the key to her place. All I had to do was go to her. But I couldn’t, unsure of who she was and what she was wrapped up in. I’d been reading a handful of conspiracy thrillers. One in particular about a young, charismatic socialite recruited by the CIA who undergoes intense training to become a deep covert spy to a group of terrorists, with a mission to destroy each and every one of them. I somehow convinced myself that this was Jackie. 
I’d been working overtime researching the side effects of a drug we were testing for treatment in a clinical trial. It’d been raining all day. After work, I walked forty blocks downtown without an umbrella over to the tavern around the corner from my place to grab a bite to eat. The pub was crowded but I spotted one seat open at the bar. When I pushed my way through a mob to claim it, a woman bumped into me and spilled her red drink all over my shirt. She apologized. I told her it was no problem, then grabbed the seat before anyone else had the chance to. Having already been soaked from the rain, the spill didn’t bother me, but after sitting, drying off a bit while waiting for my burger, I went to the bathroom to rinse the sticky residue from the drink off from under my shirt. Heading out of the restroom, I pushed my way back through the crowd towards my seat at the center of the bar. On the opposite corner of the room, beside the jukebox and wall with whisky logos and picture-frames of old-timey families stood a woman with light, short hair, coldly staring at me. I squinted, fixating on her for a minute. I’d seen her before. 

I turned to the bartender and ordered a drink, took a bite of the burger and glanced back at the corner. She was gone.  
Jackie wasn’t only a mystery. She became a beautiful dangerous mystery; each day, trying to figure out all the different levels to her consumed me. Whether I liked it or not, I was ensnared in the trap she’d set. It was why, I was sure, I let her stay when she showed up in my bedroom the next night. 
I didn’t question how she got in. Probably through the window. I didn’t care. She wasn’t wearing the wig this time. Her long hair felt like a breeze against my chest. No words exchanged. Just a certain look in her eyes that implied she wanted me as much as I needed her. A faltering smile as she pressed her nose and lips to my neck, my entire body slackening as she slid further down. When I woke the next morning with no sign of Jackie, I wondered if I’d dreamt the whole thing. 

I felt sick all of the next day. I left work early finding I was getting nothing done. I hadn’t eaten. I walked for hours aimlessly. Uptown, then down. Then uptown again. I realized what I needed was answers. Closure. I walked to Jackie’s building and stood outside her door, contemplating whether to wait there, or let myself in. It was 3:13, Wednesday afternoon. Whatever she was doing, I knew she wouldn’t be home until after 5:00.

I used the key and entered through the door. I kicked off my sneakers, put the TV on with no particular channel in mind, and lay with my eyes closed on the couch. When I woke a few hours later, it was after 6:00 and dark. Jackie was not home. I walked onto the balcony, looking out at the murky slate sky. I checked my phone, ignoring the missed calls from work. Jackie wouldn’t call. She hadn’t called in weeks. I kept checking my phone anyway.
I’d fallen asleep again on a chair outside when I was jolted up by the sound of keys jingling in the foyer. I walked in and glanced at the clock. It was after midnight. Jackie stepped through the door. She flicked the light on. I stood in front of the couch, running a hand over my face, feeling like a fool for being there. 

But when Jackie spotted me, she didn’t seem at all disconcerted. She was trembling and dropped the shoes she’d been holding onto the floor. She was whimpering while limping towards me with stiff legs like a mannequin. Her feet were swollen as if they were full of all the blood in her body; her stockings were ripped down to her ankles. As she neared, I saw purple-spotted handprints on her jawline down to her clavicle – giant welts on her arms, scratches on her face. I caught her in my arms. 

All I could hear was my pulse pounding in my ears. She’d been assaulted. I was certain of it. I thought of my mother. I held Jackie as she dug her nails into the back of my shirt, as if afraid she’d fall if she were to let go. 

“I’m calling the police.” I reached into my pocket for the phone. 
Jackie grabbed it out of my hand and threw it across the floor. “No police.” Her voice croaked. “Water.”  
I placed her down on the couch and got her water. 
We sat side by side, our knees touching; her quivering hadn’t subsided. 
“You have to go to the hospital.” 
“Jesus Jackie, you’ve been strangled. There could be internal damage, loss of oxygen to your brain. You need to get checked.”

But she wouldn’t let me take her anywhere. I convinced her to let me take a look at her, and rushed home to grab supplies. When I returned, Jackie was showered and in clean clothes, sitting on the couch, icing her neck. 
I checked her temperature, her pulse rate, her blood pressure. They were all a little high. I dabbed ointment onto the swollen parts of her body, the scratches on her face and bruises on her arms. There were noticeable veins and tiny red spots in the white areas of her eyes. 

“How long did he hold on for?” 
“A little over a minute.” 
“Did he-”
“No,” she stated bluntly.
“How’d you fight him off?” 
She stared ahead at the black TV screen.
“You need to go to the hospital.”
She snarled. 
Neither of us said a word. 
“Fine,” I said after a moment passed. “But then I need to stay. Check you regularly. Make sure your vitals go back within the normal range.”
She eyed me for a split second.
 “It’s the only way I won’t call this in.” 
“Okay,” she tucked a pillow against her lower back, placing the bag of ice onto her face. 
I flicked the TV on. A 60-day workout infomercial was playing; she and I watched it in stillness for thirty minutes. 
I was angry. I had come here for answers. And now here I was all over again, knotted-up in Jackie’s life, keeping her secrets.   
I flicked the TV off. 
“What’s with the wig, Jackie?”
She shook her head slowly, gazing forward. 
“You have to stop treating me like an idiot.”
She faced me. 
“I know you’re not an idiot.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. 
She stared back. 
“It’s better you don’t know,” she whispered.
I softened my tone. “Know what?”

She slowly lifted her legs up on a cushion, then turned around so that her back faced me. She used her finger to split her hair into two sections down the middle of her scalp. At the bottom of the nape of her neck, she revealed a black-ink tattoo, #4, written in what looked like a jailhouse scrawl.  

“What is that?”
She turned back around. 
“The sick fuck,” she said, gathering her hair to one side of her shoulder. “I didn’t know he’d done it. Must have been after he drugged me, after he …” She lowered her head. “I was only fifteen,” she muttered.  She took a breath and looked back up. “I was clawing at the back of my head for days. Went to the school nurse, thought I got bit by a bug. That’s when she told me what it was.” 
There was a fury in her eyes; the back of her ears turned red. 
“And that’s when I knew,” she exhaled. “I wasn’t the only one he’d done it to.” 
I took a second to let it sink in. 
I couldn’t fathom how a man could be so vicious. What could possibly make a person hurt another so badly? 
“I’m sorry. I can’t imagine.” I shook my head. “That’s horrible.”
 “It was.” Her eyes were teary as she stared passed me into empty space. She gave her head a shake then returned her attention back to me. “It’s fine now.”
“How so? You got help? Talked to someone abou-”
“Then how is any of this fine?”
“People deal with things their own way.” 
“What do you do for work, Jackie?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. 
“You don’t have to tell me. I’ll stay tonight but once you’re back on your feet, I’m leaving. For good.” 
She buried her face in her hands and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. She sighed, then looked up at me. “I can’t tell you everything. Ask what you want. I’ll try my best to answer.”
“Who do you work for?”
She appeared uneasy. “A high-level security agency.”  
“Who, the CIA? Department of Homeland Security?”
“Do you work for the government?”
“No. We’re on our own.”
“Does your work have anything to do with terrorists?”
“Do you hurt people?”
She hesitated to answer, took a breath then replied, “Yes.” 
“Good people?”
“How do you know if they’re good or not? You take your boss’s word for it?”
“I’m shown proof.”
“Proof of what? How?”
“They’re criminals. Monsters. I know it.”
“So what are you, like some sort of vigilante?”
“I’ve dedicated my entire life to keeping these assholes off the street.” 
“Have you ever killed anyone?”
I stared deep into her eyes to see if she were lying. I believed her. “Then what do you do to them?”
She tightened her lips. 
“I can’t confirm that.”
“So what happened this time? What went wrong?”
“I misjudged his height and weight.”
“You use drugs to sedate them?” 
She stared at me blankly. 
 “Has anything like this ever happened before?”
“So what’s your agency going to do about it?”
“They might give me a driver from now on.”
“Someone to escort you to your jobs?”
“Why hasn’t that been an option before?”
“Never needed one before.” She placed the ice back on her neck. 
I ran my hand through my hair, sighed heavily and sunk back into a cushion. 

It was half past three. I checked Jackie’s vitals one more time and then she passed out on the couch. I lay on the floor, waking every hour to make sure she was breathing. 

The next morning I called out sick. Told my boss I had the flu. That I needed a couple days and the weekend to recover. She didn’t ask any questions and gave me the okay. 

Jackie was outside on the balcony, drinking tea, leafing through a book. Her eyes were unfocused; she seemed to be somewhere else completely.  
I poured myself a cup of coffee and grabbed a seat across from her at the table. 

“How’s the book?”
“Fine,” she said and slapped it shut. Her one eye was red and swollen. The bruises on her arms and marks on her neck had darkened to a reddish-purple. 
“So what now?” She sat up. 
I took a sip of my coffee. “Not sure,” I shrugged. 
She looked out towards the city. The building across the way was being renovated. The drilling was loud and unsettling, but neither of us had the desire to move inside. 
Jackie tapped her fingers against the mug. “You think we’ll be okay?” 
“What do you mean?”
“Us. You and me. Now that you know what I do.”
“I barely know anything.”
“But is it enough?” Her tone was gentle.
I looked out past the balcony. Other than drilling, I could hear heavy traffic stirring up and down the street, the police whistles, horns. 
“Let it go,” I said. 
“Let what go?”
“The agency. You already said you’ve dedicated your life to the cause. Look at yourself. Haven’t you had enough?”
She brought the mug to her face and breathed in the steam. 
“Isn’t there anything else you want to do? Don’t you have otherdreams?”
She got up, walked over to the balcony and placed her hands onto the ledge, looking out. 
I stepped beside her. “Look,” I waved my hand out towards the city. “We can have all of this. We can travel. See the world. Go everywhere with no ties to anyone.”
“Sounds like a pipe dream.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
She turned to me. “And when we get back from traveling the world, then what? You’ll go back to your job and what will I do?”
“Anything you want.”
 No reply as she stared across the way at a woman watering plants on her rooftop. 
“Jackie. Don’t you want something more, something better?”
She turned to me. “You’re not getting it.”
“What? Tell me.” 
She stared hard into my eyes. “He took something from me that I’ll never get back.”
I grabbed onto her hand. “But it doesn’t have to be your life anymore.”
Her eyes were dark and empty. “This is the life I want.”

The words felt like a glacier moving slowly downslope, working its way through my ears, down my throat and straight to my gut. I let go of her hand.

She frowned, then turned away.  
I sat down at the table and finished my coffee. 
Sometime later, I checked Jackie’s vitals. Everything was back to normal. 
I left right after. 

On the walk home, strolling by a cathedral, I watched as people standing beside the gargoyles talked and huddled and clasped each other’s shoulders; a red-haired girl smiled as she caught my eye. I could hear water rushing along the sidewalk from an earlier rain storm; I listened to the hushed sound of it draining into the gutters. I carried on to the end of the avenue, waiting for the light to turn so I could cross. I heard laughter behind me, I crossed the street and stepped onto the road to bypass a nebulous group hovering around a bus stop. The buildings glittered as the cloud coverage passed, and in the shade of a massive skyscraper I looked out into the great directionless flow of people picking their way through the sun-dappled streets; spring was here. 
 Published on February 13, 2018 by Red Fez Magazine