This is my world,
And I am the world leader pretend.
-REM, "World Leader Pretend"
We were fighting about our upcoming vacation when the doorbell rang.
It was one of the more pointless fights we'd had, but I was determined to at least make it a memorable one. I wanted to go to Bermuda. She did not.
"Richard, why don't you get the door?" she suggested calmly.
What I really wanted to do was assault her with the head of lettuce I held in my hands. She was being even more stubborn than usual.
"Why don't you explain to me why you won't--"
"No," she said.
She was standing next to the sink, a scrubbed carrot held in one hand like a dagger. Her voice was the one I imagined she'd used at the Bureau. It was very final and very in charge. It meant I was going to get the door, and she was not going to explain anything.
Of the two of us, her vegetable looked more capable of carrying out a deadly assault. I slammed my lettuce down on the kitchen counter and stalked from the room. Wiping my wet hands on my khakis, I reminded myself that there were things about Dana I was probably never going to know, and that I had to stop pushing her.
I opened the front door, expecting to find Mark and Julianna. Instead there was a man in a suit, the kind of man that, on TV, stands on your doorstep with really bad news.
He pulled out an FBI badge and proceeded not to disappoint me.
"Fox Mulder. I'm here to see Dana Scully."
There was a noise behind me, and I turned to see Dana framed in the kitchen doorway, still holding that stupid carrot. Her eyes were cold and hard.
"Mulder," she said, and there was that voice again, sharp and authoritative. She was like a knife. I stared at her.
The man named Mulder shrugged, as if his presence couldn't be helped. This unfroze her, and for a moment I was sure she would throw the carrot at him. Instead she returned to the kitchen and went back to making the salad, leaving Fox Mulder on the porch.
It was my house, or at least it had been before Dana moved in, but now I felt even more unwanted than the man still standing in the doorway.
From the kitchen, I could hear the water turn on at a velocity that was rather extreme for the simple task of washing vegetables. She could have been outside washing the siding with that kind of pressure.
Mulder put his hands in his pockets and looked back at his car. The spirit of my mother made a brief appearance at my shoulder to harp at me for letting a guest stand outside for so long. I told her I could handle it.
In the kitchen, the garbage disposal turned on, its growl momentarily heightened as something was shoved into it. From the noise it sounded like she'd fed it the whole head of lettuce.
I found myself walking toward the front door, whether I was going to close it, or step outside myself, I didn't know.
Mulder took my approach as encouragement to speak. "When we were working together and she got angry, she'd go to the gym. There was one winter when she could have kicked my ass one-handed."
"You worked together?" I asked.
He gave me a funny look. "We were partners for seven years."
"Oh," I said, now completely convinced I probably shouldn't let him in.
There was a crash from the kitchen and then very clearly, "Fuck."
I willingly abandoned my post at the door and went back into the kitchen. The lettuce was still where I'd slapped it down on the counter, the tall vase of cosmos on the table was upright. Nothing appeared to be broken, but Dana was standing with her back against the refrigerator, shaking, her arms folded across her chest.
There were footsteps behind me, and I turned to see Mulder had followed me. Dana glared at him, and I wanted to profess my innocence in the matter. I hadn't let him in; I just hadn't locked him out.
"Why don't you ask him why I won't go to Bermuda?" she suggested to me, still glaring over my shoulder.
"You're not still angry about--" he began.
"Who said I was angry?" she interrupted, now apparently fascinated by the jar of sunflower seeds on the counter. It was half-empty, and I'd peeled off the label long ago, but for some reason she was staring at it like she'd never seen it before.
A boisterous knock at the door broke the silence. "Helllooooo?"
I stepped around Mulder and found he hadn't shut the door behind him. My twin sister and her husband were poking their heads in and looking down the hall. Julianna caught sight of me and stepped inside.
"Why's the door open?" she asked, giving me a hug.
"We brought wine," her husband added.
I made a non-committal noise and took the offered wine, a merlot. It was a little light for steak, but Jules was on a merlot kick and currently had about ten different kinds at the restaurant.
They followed me into the kitchen. It was empty. Through the sliding glass door I could see Dana and Mulder, supposedly setting the picnic table out on the deck. Dana had a handful of silverware and was waving it around while she talked. Mulder had a stack of paper plates held in front of him like a shield. He'd taken his jacket off.
Mark went to go play with my stereo system. My sister started washing the lettuce I had abused earlier. She looked out the window above the sink. "Who's that with Dana?"
"Someone she used to work with."
The refrigerator looked like a bear had been through it. I found the steaks and tossed the package on the counter. A streak of blood trailed behind it as it slid.
My sister squealed. "Gross, Richard."
Dana would feel the same way, working in a hospital made her more paranoid about germs than most of the chefs I knew. I put the steaks on a plate, then got out a towel and some bleach spray to clean up my mess.
Outside, Dana was scraping off the grill while Mulder watched her.
"Is he staying for dinner?" Jules asked.
"I don't know."
REM suddenly started blasting through the speakers in the living room and out on the deck. Mulder and Dana both glanced toward the house. I nearly trimmed off a finger along with the fat on the meat.
"Sorry," Mark hollered, immediately turning the music down to a more reasonable volume.
I wanted to leave. There were too many people here, too much I couldn't control. I laid the knife down, braced my arms against the counter, and took a deep breath.
My sister came over and touched my arm with her cool, wet hands. She smelled like lettuce and roses. "What's wrong, Richard?"
"I don't know," I said for the second time. I nodded toward the deck. "That's Dana's old partner. Something's not right."
"What do you mean?" She returned to ripping up the lettuce, but stood closer than she had been.
"You know she never talks about what she did at the FBI. She didn't seem too happy to see her partner." It was making me nervous just thinking about it. The steaks got a little more pepper than they deserved.
I noticed Dana was drinking a beer right from the bottle. I hoped she didn't start smoking again. It was how I'd met her -- slumped in a lawn chair at a party, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. A year ago she'd been thin and sad. She was still thin, and maybe she was still sad too, though recently I'd see her angry more often than anything else.
I shouldn't have pushed her on Bermuda.
There I was,
Just sitting on your porch,
Drinking in your sweetest decline.
-Beth Orton, "Sweetest Decline"
Mark was minding the steaks while I offered quality control from my lawn chair. "It's not as hot in the middle."
He wasn't listening. He was talking to Mulder about tax shelters.
Dana was inside, finishing up the salad with Jules. I was sitting on my ass, drinking a glass of red wine my sister had pressed into my hand. She was probably hoping the wine would kick in before the panic attack did. I wasn't so sure. Michael Stipe was singing about war, and I was feeling pretty hostile myself.
The screen door slid open and Julianna stepped out onto the deck, carrying a bowl of radishes. She liked to eat them raw with salt. I cringed in memory and took another drink of my wine.
Julianna wrapped her free arm around her husband's waist and offered Mulder a radish. He accepted, ate it without grimacing and washed it down with his beer. Mark flipped the meat, and Jules chided him for not listening to me about the barbecue. Grabbing the tongs from him, she moved the steaks away from the middle of the grill.
I looked toward the house. Dana was watching me through the kitchen window. We stared at each other. It was getting dark outside.
"Richard, light that citronella candle, will you?" My sister called, drawing my attention away from the house. She pointed at the table next to me.
I opened the matchbook and lit the fat blue candle in the terra-cotta pot. The wick caught and burned sluggishly. Aggravated, I pushed it away from me. The citronella smelled and did nothing to deter the bugs, but it made Jules happy so I put up with it.
I closed the matchbook, realizing as I did so that I had never been in the hotel advertised on its cover. I wondered how it had gotten here.
The wine had done its job and I was no longer panicked, but my unease had settled into a thick blob at the bottom of my stomach. Things looked normal enough out here, and it would be easy to pretend that they were. Just a normal barbecue: sister and brother-in-law, girlfriend in the kitchen, an old coworker who dropped by out of the middle of nowhere and might as well have fallen from the sky for as much as I knew about him. So much for normal.
My wine glass was empty.
Mark and Jules started jostling each other in front of the barbecue, and Mulder came over and sat down in the chair next to mine.
"We didn't really get introduced," he said.
I stuck out my hand. "Richard Vadeboncoeur."
He shook my hand, and the macho I-can-break-your-fingers grip I was expecting was curiously absent. I considered waving Jules over to refill my wine.
"Sorry to have surprised you like this, but I had to see Scully, and if she knew I was coming, she wouldn't have talked to me." He stared past me at the candle that was hardly giving off any light.
"So, did she talk to you?" I asked, playing with the stem of my empty wine glass.
He laughed. It wasn't a happy sound. "Barely."
"She didn't look too pleased to see you," I commented, aware that Dana was watching us through the window. I hadn't known she was such a coward.
"I'm used to that. Or at least I was used to it," he amended, taking a drink from his beer.
I wondered what they'd seen together in those seven years.
"Steaks are done!" Mark called. I glanced over at him. His face was the same color as his red polo shirt.
"I'd better be going," Mulder said, getting up from his chair. "It was nice to meet you, Richard." He nodded to my sister. "Julianna. Mark." They waved at him, and he went into the house. Dana's face disappeared from the kitchen window.
I stood up and went over to the table. She hadn't even set him a place.
China decorates our table.
Funny how the cracks don't seem to show.
Pour the wine, dear. You say we'll take a holiday,
But we never can agree on where to go.
-Tori Amos, "China"
Jules and I sat down while Mark parceled out the steaks like they were precious artifacts. A car engine started up out front, and Dana came back a few minutes later, carrying the salad and smiling.
She handed me the bowl, and I must have had a mutinous look on my face because she refilled my wine glass before she sat down.
"We forgot the bread," I muttered, getting up.
The kitchen was dark except for the light over the sink. I found the bread board, but the knife was missing. Opening the utensil drawer, I noticed a piece of paper on the counter. It had a phone number with a Virginia area code on it.
I jabbed at the phone number with my bread knife, but it wasn't talking so I gave up trying to torture it for information.
When I stepped back outside, Dana was in the middle of a story that seemed to be amusing Jules to no end.
"Her name was Bambi?" My sister asked.
Dana laughed. "That's what I said. And it turned out that Mulder was deathly afraid of bugs, so there he was, surrounded by cockroaches, and this entomologist named Bambi busts him for being on government property...."
I put the bread on the table and sat down next to her. She stopped to give me a smile and then continued with her story.
I drank my wine and played with my food while listening to her talk. She was smiling and laughing and rolling her eyes. I was completely taken by her. I had never seen her like this.
"...and this guy was convinced that Mulder was a cockroach, so he was shooting at him, but the sparks from the gun ignited the gas the manure was giving off, so Mulder and I were running through this 'alternative fuel' factory, trying to get away from this madman with a serious bug phobia before the whole place blew, and we'd only just gotten clear of the building when boom!" She mimed an explosion and nearly knocked over her wine glass.
"Manure everywhere!" Jules announced joyfully, giggling.
"And, and," Dana said, squirming in her haste to get to the good part, "there had been cockroaches inside the building, so occasionally a cockroach would fall out of the sky too. One actually landed on Mulder's head, and when he realized what it was, he started doing this dance like he was at a Metallica concert." She bobbed her head up and down like a seasoned head-banger. Her copper hair was falling in her eyes, and her cheeks were flushed.
I loved this woman, but I had no idea where she'd come from. The phone number on the counter probably knew.
"So for the rest of the day while we were at the police station, giving our statements, I'd sneak up behind him and tap him on the shoulder, and he'd freak out and let loose this girlie scream, thinking another cockroach had jumped on him."
She was grinning at her own cruelty.
"You probably scarred him for life!" Jules snickered.
I watched Dana's face shift suddenly, like it was trying to rearrange itself but was missing a piece. She was still smiling, but her eyes didn't belong to the grin.
"Yeah, I probably did."
She looked ready to cry, but it had gotten dark, and I think I was the only one who noticed.
She looks like the real thing.
She tastes like the real thing,
My fake plastic love.
-Radiohead, "Fake Plastic Trees"
She was crying when I got to bed. Curled up on her side, with her face hidden under one hand, I think she was pretending to be asleep, but her little gasping sobs gave her away.
She was folded in on herself like a dying beetle, and I lay flat on my back next to her, unsure she if wanted my comfort. Even if she would accept what comfort I could provide, I wasn't so sure I was willing to give it.
She'd been angry earlier, at me and then at her partner as well, and I was having trouble forgetting the quick way those cold blue eyes could hate with so little justification. She'd been angry with me before, but this had the feel of something more serious, a lingering kind of resentment that I hadn't expected to come from a simple argument about vacation plans.
She'd seemed to forgive both of us after Mulder left, but her renewed good spirit had only made me more uncomfortable. I didn't like the idea that her anger with me was in some way dependent upon her anger with him. I was starting to think our argument about Bermuda had nothing to do with Bermuda.
As her tiny shape shuddered in the dark, I wondered what she was keeping from me.
The hand covering her face suddenly turned into a claw, and her fingers started to press into the delicate skin around her eyes.
"No, Dana," I whispered, pulling her hand away. "Don't do that." She rolled over without answering and pressed her wet face against my side. I put my arm around her.
She had a string of scars across her stomach from when she had been shot, and as I rubbed her back I could feel the rough blossom of the exit wound through her t-shirt.
She made a quiet sound of protest and shifted so that my hand moved away from her scars. Her fingers went back to pressing on her eyes.
"Dana," I warned her, scared she might do something to hurt herself. "Stop."
"I have a headache, Richard. Is that okay with you?" she snapped, rolling away from me again and pinching the bridge of her nose.
"What's going on with you?" I asked her, sitting up to glare at her back.
"Nothing," she said, not sounding entirely convinced. "I'm fine." This was said with more conviction, despite its obvious inaccuracy.
"You're fine?" I repeated, stunned that she'd try to get away with such a transparent lie. "How is this 'fine'?" I demanded.
Her mouth dropped open slightly, as if amazed by my nerve, and she turned to look at me over her shoulder. She'd stopped crying at some point and now just looked angry, angry and strangely satisfied, as if she welcomed the chance to be mad, like it gave her some advantage that crying didn't.
"You wouldn't understand," she said to me.
I understood more than I wanted to. "Is this about Mulder?"
"No," she said, but I knew that it was. I wanted to say she actually was fine until he showed up, but even in my anger I knew that to be untrue.
"Did he say something to you?" I asked, returning to the only explanation I could come up with for her behavior.
"It's not that simple," she said defensively, looking away.
"Then what?" I insisted.
"Just seeing him...reminded me--"
She sounded so small. So different from the woman who had refused to talk to me about Bermuda. Different even from the woman who had hidden in the kitchen and watched us through the window.
"And you don't want to remember," I stated. She'd told me often enough, and I was getting tired of fighting with her. If this was how she wanted to live, I couldn't do anything to change it. I could only decide it wasn't the way I wanted to live.
"It's not that simple," she said again, covering her face.
"Then tell me," I offered, trying to sound calm.
"We'd just finished a case where our boss nearly died because of our investigations, and then about a week later I got shot by another field agent during a trivial assignment, and I just couldn't do it any more. I left. I came here. I met you. And I don't talk about it because it makes me miss it. Sometimes I wish I'd never left. Most of the time...but I wanted a normal life," she finished with an indistinct mumble.
I lay back down and stared up at the ceiling. She wanted something she thought she shouldn't have, so she settled for me. How wonderful. I turned on my side with my back to her and tried to fall asleep.
Congratulations, Richard. Now you know.
Last time she jumped out the window,
Well, she only turned and smiled.
You might think she would say something,
But you'd have to wait a while.
-Talking Heads, "The Lady Don't Mind"
My alarm went off. I untangled myself from the sheets and stared at the clock for a moment. It was earlier than it should have been. I remembered Jules telling me at dinner that I had to go shopping for the restaurant today.
I stumbled through my shower, barely able to keep my eyes open. I did the math and realized I only got four hours of sleep last night.
When I got out of the bathroom, Dana was still a woman-shaped lump under the covers. She was usually up and dressed by this time, having farther to drive to work.
On my way to the closet I saw she was awake. "I have to shop this morning. Our head chef's off in New York or somewhere," I said, explaining myself.
To go with the khakis I was already wearing, I pulled on one of the millions of cotton pique polo restaurant shirts that take up space in my closet. Today it was white with periwinkle detailing on the breast, "Le Bon Coeur."
"You getting up?" I asked her, sitting on the bed to tie my shoes.
"I'm not going in today," she mumbled, still turned away from me.
"What?" I dropped my shoe and turned to look at her. Dana never called in sick. She'd gone to work half-blind the day she ripped one of her contacts.
"I'm not going in," she repeated, more forcefully this time.
And I didn't have time to second-guess her. I had to get to the market before the fruit got bruised. Jules had a serious thing about her fruit - it had to be hand-selected early in the morning or she obsessed about its freshness. She obsessed anyway, but if Claude or I bought it, she was a little more relaxed. With Claude in New York, I was left to battle Julianna and her strange fruit neurosis on my own.
I went back to tying my tennis shoes. "Are you sick?"
"I have a headache, and I didn't sleep well. I'm staying home." She pulled the covers up higher and burrowed down into her pillow, clearly deciding this discussion was over.
I stood up and moved around the bed. Her eyes were half-open. I leaned down to kiss her good-bye, but my presence didn't seem to register with her. If she was still angry, she wouldn't let me touch her. I pressed my lips to her forehead and she didn't even move.
I didn't know what that meant.
The bike ride to work passed by in a frenzy of traffic and indignant car horns. Baltimore hated being up early, and it hated bicyclists even more. I ignored the dirty looks as the rat race drove one-handed, clutching double-tall lattes or cell phones as they changed lanes wildly and fought their way to work.
I thought of the Land Rover in my garage. Three years ago I had driven from San Francisco to Maryland in it, trying not to fall apart on the way. For five years I had been the head chef of a prestigious five-star restaurant, and the constant fear of being upstaged by someone newer and more daring had finally gotten to me. I'd had a nervous breakdown on the three-thousand dollar couch my interior decorator had fallen in love with. He'd said it "fit the space." Sitting there with my head in my hands, I'd stared at the polished wooden floors and envied the couch its ability to fill space. At the same time, I'd realized I had nothing in my life to fill the space in me. The couch certainly didn't count. Two weeks later I left San Francisco and moved back home to help my sister start her new restaurant, giving the culinary legacy of Vadeboncoeur a new coast to conquer.
The front windows were being washed when I arrived at the restaurant. It was a square building, painted light yellow with white trim. Inside it was decorated in the Provencal style, simple tables and chairs in a light wood, buttery yellow walls and a light green border of ivy painted about four feet up from the floor and again near the high ceiling. As I stood in the archway from the kitchen to the dining area, I stared up at the ivy near the ceiling and remembered the image of my sister, standing on a ten-foot stepladder, wearing overalls and a painting cap and demanding to know if the stencils looked straight.
"Where's my fruit?"
I turned to find Jules standing behind me. She was carrying a long-handled carving fork.
I lifted my hands in surrender. "I don't have any fruit! Please, lady, I'm too young to die!"
Julianna gave me a dirty look and put her hands on her hips. "Why aren't you buying my fruit?" She came a little closer and then, "Jeez, Richard, you look like hell."
"Thanks, sis. I'll be going now." I tried to get past her and into the office, but she moved to block the way.
Pointing the fork at me, she declared, "You didn't get any sleep last night. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," I said. "Now, are you going to let me into the office so I can get some money, or will I have to prostitute myself to buy you peaches?"
She put one hand to her heart and sighed. "That is the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me. Additionally, you are a big fat liar. You think I can't tell when something's wrong with you? No, I can tell." She crossed her arms over her chest, the fork jutting out at a dangerous angle. "Is it Dana?"
"Do you want fruit today?" I asked.
She scooted out of the way, but followed me into the office, still asking questions. "Does it have something to do with her partner?"
I slam my hand down on the desk. "I don't know, okay, Jules? This guy shows up out of nowhere and suddenly Dana's crying, and she didn't go to work today. I don't know what's going on, but it's not good, okay? It's just not good."
My sister nodded, her mouth slightly open.
"Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go buy fruit," I said, storming out of the office and already wishing I could apologize.
You fill in the mortar.
I raised the walls.
-REM, "World Leader Pretend"
All the lights were on when I biked up the driveway.
Dana would sometimes get in these moods where she'd turn the house inside out, pulling the drawers out and dusting behind them, replacing all the lightbulbs, checking the phone jacks, shredding old junk mail, throwing away anything she didn't recognize. More often than not, these little fits happened at night. I usually hid in the den and did my best to stay out of her way. Just another one of those things we didn't talk about.
I hung my bike up in the garage and went up the stairs into the house.
I was wiped. I wasn't sure I could put up with one of Dana's crazy cleaning fits. The day's peaches had turned out to be bruised and the plums were underripe, and when I showed Jules the beautiful pears I'd bought her, she clammed up and spent the rest of the day sulking. She hated pears.
The diners had liked them at least.
Inside, the house was quiet. The kitchen was spotless, but it usually was. I tossed my keys on the counter and flipped through a small stack of mail. Bills, a bundle of coupons, more bills.
The phone was off the hook in the hall. I set it back on the cradle, assuming it was a victim of Dana's cleaning frenzy, except there was a handprint in the dust next to it.
I checked the bedroom, the bathroom, the guest room, the den, the closets, the crawl space.
Dana's car was still in the garage. The doors were all locked.
There was no note. Nothing missing. Nothing but her.
She was gone.