Short Story / Writers / Writing

Reunion by Robin Vigfusson

         He’d finally found her and she’d been expecting him for years. There was no question who he was, the way he held his head or tersely blew smoke when he puffed on a cigarette. The mannerisms were uncanny. To be fair, he was much better looking than his father. He was tall and broad-shouldered and her own olive skin and dark hair had given him mysterious luster. In spite of her dread, she felt a ludicrous pride. She made beautiful children even with men she detested.
         His name was Matt Silk and she didn’t invite him into the house when he introduced himself. She came out on the porch and suggested they go somewhere to talk, maybe a restaurant. He was fine with that as if realizing his presence in her front yard was enough of a jolt. At least, she didn’t pretend she wasn’t his mother. He had to respect that.
         She was married with two children. A people search online had told him everything. “Not your grandma’s white pages’, the site’s slogan winked. There had been a drawing of a small family tree, ‘Michelle Rowan early 40’s – Husband Andrew Rowan early 40’s Children Jane 16 and Luke 12’. Her hobbies, her birth sign, and a map of the house’s location were included. Her phone number was unlisted which was why he’d come with no warning.
         He wasn’t familiar with her area so they took her car.
         “Do you like Thai food?” Michelle asked him.
         “Sure,” he told her, looking out the window. “Nice neighborhood.”
         “How did you find me?”
         “I got my ways.”
         He had a central Jersey accent which meant he’d been adopted in state. She was surprised and annoyed. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to place children as far away from their birth mothers as possible?
         “You’re really young,” he told her. “I can’t believe how young you are. How old were you when you had me?”
         “I’m not that young.” She was forty-two, sixteen years older than he was.
         “You were in your teens, right? Were you high school sweethearts?” he laughed and she felt he was needling her.
         “No,“ she abruptly stopped the car.
         “You Okay?” he asked.
         “No, I’m not.”
         “What are you afraid of? What do you think I want?”
         “I don’t know. What do you want?”
         “I wanted to meet you is all. That’s natural, isn’t it?” he lit a cigarette.
         They were silent for a couple of minutes and she noticed he even drummed the car door with his fingers the way his father used to.
         “There’s a sushi place across the street,” she said. “Can we eat there?”
         “No problem,” he told her and they got out.
         The place was small and dimly lit with orange lanterns. It was lunch hour, and every seat was taken. She didn’t like crowds, but the relaxed indifference of the customers was comforting. They were strangers with no idea how grave her situation was and their anonymity soothed her.
         A waitress handed them menus.
         “So why’d you give me up?” he looked at her unflinchingly as if he was the injured party.
         “I was in high school. My parents made me give you up,” she’d prepared this answer years ago in case this day ever came.
         “Ready to order?” the waitress asked them.
         “Shrimp Tempura,” Michelle said.
         “The same,” Matt said.
         They were silent for a few minutes.
         “How come you didn’t get an abortion?” he asked her.
         “I was raised Catholic. My mother wouldn’t let me.” That wasn’t true. Her mother had found out she was pregnant in the last trimester when she couldn’t hide it, anymore.
         “My parents are Catholic,” he told her.
         “Are they nice people?”
         “It’s complicated.”
         “How’s that?”
         “They had a kid after me. Their own. I’m nothing like them. We haven’t been in touch for a while.”
         Their orders arrived.
         “Did you go to college?” she asked him.
         “Two years.”
         “Are you working?”
         “Not at the moment.”
         She nodded in commiseration; she’d recently been laid off from a state job, herself. “I know it’s terrible out there.”
         “I might as well cut to the chase,” he said. “I need money.”
         It was what she feared most.
         “Like you said, it’s terrible out there. I could really use some help.”
         “Are you blackmailing me?” she asked bluntly.
         “That’s an ugly word,” he told her. She was stunned by his nerve. “Look, I’m not greedy. Whatever you give me will help. I’m desperate.”
         She was going to say “I have to think about this,” but she knew that statement was useless. Probably, he’d looked for her because his adoptive parents wouldn’t bail him out.
         “I can give you some money, now,” she said.
         He smiled resplendently, maybe at the ease of their transaction.
         “Great — Mom,” he laughed and finished off the rest of his meal. She was done eating for the rest of the day.
         After she paid the bill, they went directly to her bank. He asked for three thousand dollars, but she told him she didn’t have that much. She withdrew two thousand dollars and handed it to him like a complaisant hostage, telling him it was all she had.
         “Thank you,” he said. They were completely silent on the drive back to her house. He seemed sated. Content.
         After parking the car, she wanted to flee to the porch without having to look at him, but he grabbed her by her sweater.
         “Hey, wait a minute,” he said. “At least, give me your number. I’d like to stay in touch.”
         “You’ve got to be kidding.”
         “What if I want to see you, again? You wouldn’t want me dropping by at a bad time, would you? Like when your family’s around. That could be awkward.”
         “I’ll give you my cell phone number. But I don’t want to hear from you ever again.” He shook his head, but couldn’t help grinning. “This is a bad note to end on.”
         He strode across the street to where his Honda was parked; the same sullen lope as his father.
         His father had been a high school boyfriend named Philip Halbrook, a senior, two years older than she was. They’d dated for six months and he’d wooed her into a trusting acquiescence like a sneak-thief casing a house. There was an understanding that she wanted to keep her virginity, but one afternoon while they were necking, he’d pulled down her panties, forced himself between her legs, and ejaculated as if spitting inside her.
         “What the hell did you do?” she had screamed at him, rushing into the bathroom and filling the tub with hot water, seized with the lame idea she could rinse his semen out of herself. His parents weren’t home. They were doctors who seemed to work around the clock.
         “I guess I lost control.” He shrugged and seemed completely unphased.
         A few days later, he broke up with her, telling her she’d taken him for granted.
         She was positive now that he knew he got her pregnant. Probably, he’d known before she did, watching her disintegrate before his eyes. When she missed her second period, she slid into a state that could be likened to a walking coma. Panic so severe, it drained her of all feeling though she still appeared to function.
         Any change in her behavior struck no one as significant. Her adolescence had been troubled from the start. From an open, sunny child, she’d turned moody and recessive, afflicted with a host of symptoms the pediatrician diagnosed as ‘mild anorexia,’ ‘low-grade depression’, ‘migraines’, ‘school phobia’. When her mother found out she was pregnant, it was as if a disease she was suffering from had finally reached a critical stage.
         No one was angry at her; nobody judged her. Not even her father who was more grief-stricken than when his own mother died.
        Dr. Katz, her pediatrician, spoke to her in a gentle monotone like a voice-over in a commercial.
         “What do you want, Michelle? More than anything, your parents are concerned with what you want. Do you want to keep your baby or give it up for adoption?” he asked as if offering two courses of treatment.
         “I want to give it up.”
         “Michelle, are you sure?” her mother asked anxiously. She was crying. She cried so regularly now that Michelle had grown immune to it as if it were an affectation she’d picked up. “If you want to keep the baby, I’ll help you raise it. Daddy and I don’t care what anyone thinks. We love you, Michelle!”
         “I don’t want it. I just want it out of me.”
         “Why is she so cold?” her mother turned to Dr. Katz.
         “She’s in shock,” he explained.
         She had started to show, and Dr. Katz did her parents a great favor. He informed her principal she was suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion” and she was taken out of school. It was decided she spend the last months of her pregnancy with her Aunt Patty in another town. It was imperative her condition be kept secret from her ten-year-old brother. “Little jugs have big ears,” was how Aunt Patty put it.
         Aunt Patty had married well and besides the home in Basking Ridge, she owned a summer house in Cape May. She opened it early that season so Michelle could stay there and she took Michelle to the beach every day, insisting that the sun and ocean air were ‘therapeutic’. Michelle was fawned over by her aunt and mother as if they were atoning for a time when girls in her position had been treated like reprobates. There was also an unspoken fear that she might be suicidal.
         Toward the end, Michelle developed edema and her feet and ankles swelled. This added to the aura of illness and made her feel the approaching due date would be a surgery, removing everything that was wrong with her. Afterwards, she would be well, again. Better than she’d been before.
         She was now allowed to spend all day in bed, watching endless cycles of music videos on MTV the way she’d watched cartoons as a child when she was home sick from school. Sometimes, her aunt and mother sat with her. Once, they saw Madonna sing “Like a Virgin,” flouncing around with self-enamored arrogance.
         “That goddamned slut!” her mother had screamed, not able to control herself. “Really, I have to turn this off! She’s making me sick! Is it any wonder-“she stopped suddenly, but Michelle didn’t take the tirade, personally. It wasn’t Madonna’s fault what had happened.
        Madonna was just the current Whore of Babylon, to be offered up and trashed like Elizabeth Taylor before her. Whipping Girls for the messes ordinary ones got into.
        Michelle didn’t hear from Matt for a few months. In the interim, she’d found a part-time job through a friend as a proof reader on a local newspaper. It was tedious work which made it easy to fixate on Matt and his father. She was sure she hadn’t been Philip’s only victim. His girlfriend before her was named Kelly. Kelly had often stared at her in the school cafeteria or when they passed each other in the hall, not the snotty glare of a spurned ex, but a sad, tentative frown. Michelle now realized that Kelly had pitied her.
        When Matt did call again, Michelle blamed herself as if she’d conjured him up with her musings.
         “How have you been?” he asked. This sociopath’s stab at small talk unnerved her.
         “Let’s cut to the chase,” she said curtly and he burst out laughing. “There’s something I need to pick up. Do you know where Willowbrook mall is?” She didn’t want to sit down to a meal with him.
         “Sure. Where do you want to meet?”
         “Macy’s. The bridal registry on the second floor.” Her cousin, Lauren, was getting married. Lauren was her Aunt Patty’s daughter.
         “What time?”
         “I should be there at 4:30.”
         When she hung up, her face burned. She shouldn’t be carrying the brunt of this, on principle. Her husband was a very decent man; he would sympathize if she told him the whole story and what Matt was subjecting her to. He would suggest they go to the police, but that would only complicate matters, make this miscreant a fixture in their lives. Andrew shouldn’t have to know he existed. She loathed Philip Halbrook more than ever.
         She left work at four and drove to Willowbrook Mall. The shoppers at Macy’s had the same tranquilizing effect as the customers in the Japanese restaurant. They all had their traumas to deal with, but shopping and eating were required distractions. She watched a heavyset woman surveying black dresses, maybe to wear to the funeral of someone she loved. Suddenly, everyone in the world seemed either in shock or wounded.
         She looked through her cousin’s houseware requests and bought her a Cuisinart food processor, one of the pricier items. Michelle still felt indebted to Aunt Patty for seeing her through that disaster. She wondered if Aunt Patty had ever told Lauren about it, even as a cautionary tale and was sure that she hadn’t. After the adoption, it was never mentioned, again.
         While she was paying for the food processor, Matt appeared at the cash register.
         “Hey there,” he said. He was wearing a suit, tie and trench coat, and he looked like a movie star. “You want to sit down somewhere?”
         “Not really.” Her plan was to write him a check right there in Macy’s and then leave. The whole business was distasteful enough. She wanted to keep it as brief as possible.
         “Well, I’m hungry, myself.” He told her.
         “Well, I’m not. How much do you want anyway?”
         “Another two thousand.”
         This was out of hand. She didn’t have that kind of money. She was paying him out of a checking account she kept separate from the one she shared with her husband.
         “I can’t do it,” she told him. “I can’t give you this kind of money all the time. I haven’t got it.”
         He was not dissuaded. “Well, what do you have? Let’s sit down and talk about it.” He spoke as if they were putting together a payment plan for a debt that she owed him. “I’m starved.”
         “We can go to the food court.”
         He made a face, finding that option offensive.
         “I don’t want anything myself, just coffee,” she said. “Can we just get this over with?”
         They left Macy’s and walked past other stores to the Food Court. He ordered burritos from Taco Bell while she drank a café au lait.
         “You look very nice,” she felt compelled to tell him. “Really handsome.”
         More than handsome, he looked glamorous. She didn’t often notice men’s shoes, but the ones he wore were beautiful. There was an intricate design in the leather and his trench coat was dashing.
         “You really have good taste.” She said. “I like those shoes.”
         “Should I say thank you?” he asked sarcastically.
         “Maybe you should,” She was sure her money had paid for them. The last time she’d seen him he had on sneakers.
         He lit a cigarette and she half expected him to blow smoke in her face. How shabby she must seem to him in her Old Navy sweater coat. No wonder, he was contemptuous.
         “The way you’re dressed; did you come from a job interview?” she asked.
         “That’s none of your business.”
         She had to laugh. “I think you should get in touch with your father. You’re really more his son than mine.”
         He turned his head, eying her sideways, as if sizing her up from all angles. Another quirk of Philip’s. “Are you going to tell me who he is?”
         “Of course. If you want to know.” She felt tense and hopeful.
         “Sure, I do. I just didn’t think you two were still in touch.”
         “We’re not.”
         She’d googled Philip on and off for years. The internet had extinguished the privilege people once had of fading into memories, pleasant or otherwise. They could now keep tabs on each other for as long as they lived.
         “What’s his name?” Matt asked.
         “Philip Halbrook.” She said.
         “Do you have a pen on you?”
         She took a pen from her purse and handed it to him.
         “What did you say his name was?”
         “Philip Halbrook. Dr. Philip Halbrook,” she watched him write the name down on a napkin.
         “Doctor?”
         “That’s right. He’s a psychiatrist. His parents were doctors, too. So is his wife. A dermatologist. I think she has her own skincare line.”
         He was clearly impressed.
         “Where does he live?”
         “Tribeca.”
         “You’re shitting me?’ He looked very alert, now.
         “No, I’m not.”
         “De Niro lives there.”
         “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been there since I was a kid. Not since the eighties. Philip always knew he’d live there, even back then. I hardly go into the city, myself. Not if I don’t have to.”
         He was no longer listening to or even looking at her. His whole manner had turned dismissive.
         “I’ve got to run,” he said. “Just write me a check for a thousand.” Despite his disinterest, he couldn’t let an opportunity slide.
         She signed a check and handed it to him. “I bet I’m not the only woman who gives you money.”
         He laughed. “Aren’t you a hardass?” He put the check in his wallet and walked away.
         A week passed, then a month, then a year, and she didn’t hear from Matt, again. Initially, she’d been fearful and wildly curious. Even obsessed. Maybe Matt had confronted him in his office. Knowing Philip, he’d deny being his father and Matt might threaten a paternity suit. She fantasized interminable harassment, a lot more urgent and violent than what she’d been through. They were both men, after all, and treacherous people, and Philip had a lot to protect. Let Matt shake him down for money.
        She checked for Matt sometimes on Facebook, but there were no entries.
        After a while, other issues usurped her attention. Her father died suddenly of a heart attack. Her mother developed Alzheimer’s. Her daughter dropped out of college because of a crushing love affair. Michelle had reached an age when life feels treacherously earnest and all outstanding debts are being called.
        She no longer thought about Matt or his father. She resolved to put all that was odious away from her and live in the present with kindness and calm until one day the two of them inadvertently crossed her path.
        It was in the subway station at Lexington Avenue and she was waiting for the Number 6, on her way to Sloan-Kettering to see her Aunt Patty who’d been diagnosed with cancer.
        Directly in front of her, standing in a small crowd, close enough to touch, were Matt and his father. She recognized Matt immediately, and Philip hadn’t really changed at all. He was now an aging, rancid version of himself. He and Matt were standing close to each other, talking conspiratorially and laughing. Neither of them seemed cognizant of their surroundings, just completely immersed in themselves
        For a few seconds, she stood and watched them as if caught in a lucid dream. She couldn’t hear a word they said, but apparently, the inconceivable had happened. They had bonded. Maybe Philip and his wife were childless. What was catastrophic for Michelle might have been miraculous for him. He’d suddenly become a parent in late middle age.
        She looked at them for no more than a minute, then quickly turned and walked away, searching for an exit. Seeing them together was a freakish event like watching a solar eclipse; she knew if she stared for too long, the damage might be irreparable.

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