Morning light edged over the horizon as I awoke to the sound of low, urgent moans coming from Jane's room. San Francisco emerged from the night, glistening before me in shades of white, and Jane's howls of pleasure rose with the sun. Below my window, furtive whistles called across Dolores Park, hawking drugs, while Jane's muted laughter filtered through the wall that divided our rooms. I fixed my eyes on the distant Bay Bridge and imagined driving across it for good, soaring east as far as the Atlantic. I imagined a new life in a quiet, charming town she could not find, where I would become stable minded and marry a tall, sensitive man. We would have children and dogs. And money--we would never worry about money. I touched a purple gash above my eye, still raw and wet, and as if to comfort me, Jane knocked three times on the wall. I pulled a pillow over my head, pressed my knees to my chin, and willed the world away.
A few hours later, Jane stood naked in my doorway with a sly smile spreading across her face. I blinked at her perfect silhouette from the cave I'd built with my pillows and waved a small hello. She absently slipped her thumb into her mouth and blinked back at me with warm, curious eyes. Climbing into my bed, she drew my arms around her, squirming like a puppy for the perfect spot. With shallow breaths she sucked her thumb and waited for me to ask about her night.
I said nothing. We lay there in silence, cautious, in the aftermath of battle. I knew Jane was already returning to the fantasy of our strange, platonic marriage, and I was once again exhausted and anxious, awaiting the next disaster.
"Did someone say pancakes?" she asked in a small voice.
I held my breath. She waited.
"Or . . . was it waffles?" she whispered hopefully.
I swallowed hard.
"Honey?" Jane's thumb paused between her lips. She tilted her head to look at me. I met her blue eyes as they narrowed and searched me for clues. Soon she would read my silence, and her sweetness would turn to rage. But I could not speak. November was freezing the air outside, stasis before the spring. And I was dormant, too, stilled by Jane and her stare, frozen by my own inertia; paralyzed by the impossibility of escape.
It was close to Christmas then, which meant that soon my family would be gathering in St. Louis. My father and sister would be dressing the house with greens, a tree, and our beloved Santa, who swings in a hot-air balloon and sings "Fly Me to the Moon." They would recline by the fire, talking medicine, or putter in the kitchen with opera filling the house. My brother would fly in from Washington, D.C., loaded with presents and stories from Capitol Hill, and he'd head straight to the market to buy bagels, yogurt, and five cartons of eggnog, all of which my father would discover sometime in February. My parents' friends would stop by with food and gifts and report on their children, who, I felt sure, were either getting married, having children, or working their way up ladders of success.
And then there was the Void. The Void would envelop this routine, would dull all of the holiday smells and sounds. It would be what was left of our mother, who had died two years before. It would sit across from my father at the dinner table, stroll our gardens, and sleep fitfully on the sofa. I knew this presence well; it was as strong, devastating, and vivid as was my mother's living self.
When I left Jane that morning, I was late to meet a psychiatrist--a woman Jane had found--and I was circling her house when it dawned on me that the wet sensation creeping down my neck might be blood. I touched the spot, and my fingers came back red and sticky. I lifted my jaw to the rearview mirror and turned my head, keeping one eye on the narrow road. Old, economical cars lined the quiet, residential street. This was Berkeley, 1992. In those days, riding in a big Republican car was asking for trouble.
It was a cold, washed-out November, and I was sick. I had gotten used to it, to feeling like I had the flu all the time, but I wasn't used to the cold. The chill followed me everywhere. It hung near me at work, trailed me home, and crawled under my bed covers at night. It didn't seem to bother other people, but I was shivering in my car that morning, even with the heat roaring full blast.
I felt the back of my head again and found the soft welt just above the base of my neck, seeping red on blond. I must have awakened it with my hairbrush, trying to look presentable. I turned the mirror away and cursed. So much for first impressions.
I kept circling the psychiatrist's house; there was nowhere to park. In all of Berkeley there was never anywhere to park, but this once I was happy to delay my arrival. Along with the blood, which had just found my shirt collar, the welt above my left eye was ripe with fall colors. I was on my third cigarette in as many minutes, and I had nothing but my hand to stop the bleeding. I figured I wouldn't have to say a word when I met Francine; she'd probably take one look at me and pull out her prescription pad.
I paused in front of her house, and then, as if witnessing one of those comets that appears only once in a lifetime, I watched a car pull out of a spot and drive away. I was known to risk lives to claim such a spot. Like a heat-seeking missile, I would accelerate across three lanes of traffic--pedestrians be damned--then slip my Celica neatly between bumpers with a finger's width to spare. This skill had developed over time, after night upon endless night of closing up the bookstore where Jane and I worked, turning away the midnight shoppers, and driving home across the Bay Bridge together, only to search San Francisco's deserted, car-lined streets in vain, with the moon smiling upon our rootless hunt. Eventually I started pulling my car up on the grassy median right in front of our building, leaving it for the parking police to laugh at in the morning. Jane left them notes of explanation, written carefully, eloquently, during the drive home. I stored them in my top desk drawer, next to the piles of tickets I could not pay.
I stared at the open spot, put on my blinker, and smoked. I could either take the bridge back to San Francisco and clean myself up, or park. The first scenario had a lot going for it, except that Jane might be home, and returning bloody, even from an old wound, would just get her going. Then again, part of me suspected that she was somewhere close, hiding in the bushes maybe, watching to make sure I went in.
I took the spot. I waited there and studied Francine's house--a small brown shingled cottage with lights glowing yellow in the foggy air--and wondered who awaited me. I didn't know much about her, just that she had written a book on Eastern philosophy that Jane liked, and on the book flap Jane saw she was a therapist living in Berkeley. The next thing I knew, I was scheduled for an appointment.
I threw mints in my mouth and rubbed lotion on my hands to hide the cigarette smell. The front door of the house opened, and I slid down in my seat. A woman picked up a newspaper from her porch and waved it in my direction. She was tiny, no taller than a child, with long white hair tucked behind her ears. Even from my distance I could see deep crevices carved into her narrow face. She looked to be a hundred years old.
"Coming in?" she yelled.
I sank farther into my seat and pulled sunglasses down from the top of my head. Francine stood on her porch and opened the paper, peering at me over the headlines.
Damn. I wanted another cigarette.
I tried to smile as I hid my stained hand and crossed the street to meet her.
"Caroline," she said. "Hello." Her lips drew back into a lopsided smile, showing long, crooked teeth. Everything about her was crooked--her nose, her chin, her fingers--even her glance.
I extended a clean left hand to her right and felt like a giant as she switched hands, reached up, and gave me a firm shake.
"May I use your bathroom?" I asked.
"Okay," she said, drawing out the word. She peered behind my back.
Inside it was warm, and a fire was making loud cracking sounds in a small living room off the front hall. I thought right away of a hobbit's house, with its small, dimly lit rooms, knitted afghans draped over chairs and sofas, and ancient, wooden furniture cluttered about. For that matter, Francine looked like a wise old hobbit herself, with that long white hair, creased face, and shuffling gait. I had to laugh. Leave it to Jane to find me a hobbit shrink.
I made quick use of her bathroom, which also seemed strangely miniaturized. After rubbing tiny shell-shaped soaps against the back of my head and rinsing away the blood, I lowered my sunglasses. I emerged from the bathroom and felt my way through the shadowy kitchen and study, arriving in the living room, where Francine sat by the fire, reading the newspaper. She pointed to a small brown sofa across from her. The room smelled of burning oak, and I removed my coat cautiously, welcoming the heat.
"I'll let it go this time," she said, dropping the paper as I took my seat. "You are supposed to be here at ten."
My watch read almost eleven. I stood to go.
"I said I'll let it go," Francine repeated. She pushed rimless bifocals up on her forehead like a pair of headlights. There was not a clock to be seen in the room or even a watch on Francine's wrist. Maybe she told time by the sun.
I sat down and found my ballpoint pen with the top that clicks. I had developed a habit of clicking that pen whenever I felt nervous. I never left home without it.
"So," Francine began.
"So," I repeated.
She watched me for a minute, then said, "Why don't you start."
"That's okay," I said. "You start."
A smile rose and fell like a sigh across her face. "Well, you have the advantage over me," she said. "Only you know why you are here."
"I'm here because Jane called you," I said. "It's her idea. Didn't she tell you something?"
"She said you've been . . . not yourself lately. I think that's how she put it."
"Not myself," I repeated.
There was a big canvas pillow by the fire and a half-chewed bone on top of it. By the size of the bone, I figured the dog must be big, and I wondered how a big dog would fit into such a tiny house.
Lately. That part made me chuckle.
Francine followed my eyes to the dog bed.
Whatever. Jane would have probably said I was cracking up, and that cracking up, along with a few other things, ran in my family, so Francine should be on the lookout. Jane had read a lot about ailments, and she had diagnosed me with one thing or another just about every month. Earlier in the year she had thought I had digestive problems, and before that I was anemic. I withstood acupuncture, boiled herbs, and weeks of chard, kale, liver, and collard greens before Jane resorted to a shrink.
"What's with the pen?" Francine asked. I had been clicking, and stopped.
"It's comforting," I said, surprised by my own honesty.
Francine paused. "Well then, click away," she said. Her right hand was shaking, and she anchored it in her lap. "So. Jane also said that your mother died."
I clicked faster and looked right at Francine. "Yep."
I turned my eyes to the ceiling and stalled. The further away I got from the day, the more I hated that question.
It's not that I couldn't have answered. I could have recited the day, hour, and minute that my mother died. I could have described the eerie order of my parents' bedroom, Dad leaving for his morning run, and the sheer cotton nightgown Mom wore, damp with sweat. Had Francine wanted me to gauge the angle of Mom's head, I could have told it. Or the quality of light? Pale dawn. The world had been silent around us that morning, until my mother began to fight for air and I started to scream.
"Where is your dog?" I asked.
"She's out back."
"Springer spaniel mixed with something. Her name is Sherry." Francine stifled a yawn, and for a second I thought she might return to her newspaper. "What's with the sunglasses?" she asked.
I should have known that sunglasses always give you away, especially when there is no sun. I removed them.
"Oh," Francine said.
I felt my whole body tighten and seal like Fort Knox.
Jane and I had been passing each other in the hall of our apartment after it happened. She saw the cut and bruise above my eye and stopped, pressing me against the wall to look closer. Her expression had been polite incomprehension at first, followed by fear.
"What the fuck is that?" she'd demanded.
I turned away, even though I had wanted her to see it, to see it, finally, in Technicolor. I had hoped my face would speak for itself, but in that moment, as if dropped without a parachute into reality, I realized I'd crossed a bad line. I had entered Jane territory.
She gave me a cutting, dismissive laugh and then went to run a bath.
I followed her.
"I'm not feeling right," I admitted.
The bathroom door closed in my face.
"It won't happen again--"
Jane opened the door. Steam flooded behind her.
"Do you really think I believe that?" she asked. "Do you think I'm blind? Stupid? Look at who you're talking to." She shut the door, then opened it to finish a thought. "You are way out of your league," she added. "Only a novice would do it so it shows." Then she closed the door again.
I waited with my ear to the door.
"I've been thinking . . . maybe I should go, Jane," I said. "I'm not--"
I heard the water shut off.
The door flew open, smashed into my face, and knocked me down. Jane came out swinging. She was on top of me before I could speak, hands around my neck and knees on my chest. Her expression was frozen in terror, eyes wide, teeth bared. The back of my head hit the floor, and the skin split just enough to make me yelp.
I froze beneath her, completely still. She released her grip and stood, disgusted.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Borderlines by Caroline Kraus. Copyright © 2004 by Caroline Kraus. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.