Mariette had been told many things over the past few days, none of them by Hap. For whatever reason, he didn’t think it important that she be kept in the loop. He could spill things to Ted and to Jude, and he could take Daria with him to Boston. But with her . . . well, she was the Dominican workhorse, heading up business development on top of managing her own client list. She was like a more fuel-efficient heating system that paid for itself. It struck her that it wasn’t Ted who was the machine; it was her. She was the machine that people turned on and forgot about.
One of the things Hap didn’t have the time or inclination to tell her was that he gave her brother twenty-five thousand dollars. Jude told her the crazy, convoluted story. All Hap could spare the time for was to worry about Ted freaking out because of Frank’s death.
But what about her freaking out over Frank? He was her friend too. She cried last night. Today’s papers said the man in custody had no criminal record and didn’t even know Francis X. Sullivan, S.J. They also said the police suspect the man was a hired assassin.
The last time she saw Frank she told him that it was her number up. Her number as La Femme qui marche de la glace. He told her to stop walking on frozen ponds. And now he was dead. And she was perfectly incidental to what was going on around him and around Hap. There was no drama. It was just time.
She couldn’t do it in her apartment building—the Dominican doorman was too nice and too dumped upon by the entire universe. Midtown on a Sunday night was the way to go—literally, the way to go. She approached the project workmanlike, as always. No notes, no delays. Outcomes-driven; that was Mariette Ludmilla Bonilla.
As she stared down at the suit in a heap, it nearly made her cry to think how people didn’t understand how considerate she was. Just because she did not suffer fools gladly, that did not mean she wasn’t always thinking of others. She’d wear Ted’s suit so there would be less to clean up. She wondered why these one-piecers weren’t sold near the pharmacy at Duane Reade. One neat-and-clean method fails you, you’ve always got a backup.
But then no method was neat and clean because you were leaving behind a corpse that did all kinds of crazy things when left to its own devices. And who knows if the suit would do anything to force containment. But it was the thought that counts. As a child she always wanted to throw herself into a volcano when life seemed unbearable. It seemed like a hot and fast way to go. In so many educational books for children of a Central American heritage, there was a volcano on an island. Why weren’t there active volcanoes in Manhattan? It was an island; that was one of the first things you learned in school.
For some reason she slipped off her shoes before getting inside. She didn’t think why so at the time, but now that she was zipped into the monstrous, noisy yellow costume, she realized it was because the Repetto ballet flats were expensive and could be given away to the less fortunate. She placed them at the center of Hap’s desk. Immediately she imagined being the one to come upon the exit scene, the small shoes left just so in plain sight. If she were that person, she would think of an empty bird’s nest discovered on the ground fully intact, having floating down from somewhere high.
And of course it was sad, wasn’t it? The things of ours we had to leave behind. If only every object could disappear with us, the process would be much less weepy. She didn’t want to use Hap’s chair to get up, so she pulled another chair over to the window. She sealed the suit’s face mask so that everything outside seemed very far away. She stepped up on the chair, turned the window lever, and pushed. Even from her new isolation, the sound of the city seemed so thick with life that you wouldn’t be able to fall through it. Why this? she had to ask herself. Why had it come to this? The answer—from all those other times it had almost come to this—was the same: quid pro quo. Although she realized that it would be better right now if she got a push from someone with a crutch.
Suddenly there were lights—the fluorescent overheads that Hap never even used. “Fuck me” is what she thought she heard.
Standing there at the threshold, he looked just . . . wrong, as usual, wherever he was.
She stared at him from both the chair and the handicap of the mask with its plastic shield. “Ted, what the fuck are you doing here?” Her voice sounded huge and claustrophobic.
He walked in without taking his eyes off her mask. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“What does it look like?”
He noticed the shoes on the desk. “It doesn’t look like anything rational.”
“The windows open.”
He shook his head at her. “Mariette, why? Is it National Jump Week and no one told me?”
“I’m not going away.”
“Don’t talk to me.”
“Why are you wearing that fucking suit?”
She normally was terrified of sounding ridiculous, but now she didn’t care. “Because I don’t want some Dominican to have to clean it up.”
He lifted his arms straight up and let them bend and collapse onto his head. “Why do you always think that! That the only ones who get shit upon in this world are Dominicans? Maybe a Puerto Rican would have to clean it up.”
She shook her head, but the suit barely moved. “A Puerto Rican would just leave it and walk on the other side.”
He kept shifting his weight from one leg to the other, but the process allowed him to subtly move closer to where she stood, like a crab. “I can’t believe you’re orchestrating your own postmortem.”
“I told you don’t talk to me.”
“What do you mean don’t talk to you?”
“I don’t want to hear what you come up with to try to get me not to.”
“Kierkegaard said that some people are more afraid of jumping into the abyss than falling.”
“What the fuck’s that from—Dead Poet’s Society?”
“In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, ‘If you bring forth the genius within you, it will free you. If you do not bring forth the genius within you, it will destroy you.’ ”
She laughed. “You’re quoting Jesus?”
“You’re keeping the genius inside that suit, Mariette.”
“Don’t quote Frank to me, please.”
“It’s Jesus, not Frank.”
“Whatever. They’re both dead white men.”
“If you do this they’re gonna make you drink from a river, Mariette. The Lethe or the Mnemosyne—choose your poison. I guarantee you’re not gonna like either.”
“Ted, you’re rambling. I told you to go away.”
“You can’t do this.”
“Why do you care?”
“You’ll bust up the group.”
She laughed. “You mean like the Beatles? For your information, John Lennon’s already dead. He got decapitated by a garbage truck.”
“OK, quit the group then. But don’t do it this way.”
She laughed again. “There is no group.” She lifted her yellow arms. “Welcome to the Island of Misfits Toys.”
“You do this and you’re not ghetto girl who’s tough as nails; you’re ghetto girl who shuts everyone out and feels sorry for yourself.”
“So what?” she snapped. “Ethylynn felt sorry for herself. Everyone holds her up like some kind of saint. But she was a mess. She wanted to fuck her father. It’s like she knew there was no way out. That guy you’re with, Ethylynn. He’s your daddy. How many times did she repeat that, like a song lyric? Dancing with her daddy to ‘Sweet Lady.’ ”
He stared hard at the mask. “I know your story by heart.”
“There’s no way out, Ted. The song my mother was playing when she was going to burn up a baby was ‘Keep Your Head Up.’ You want tragedy, honey boy?”
“Why are you letting her wreck your life still?”
“This is my fate.”
“You keep letting her win.”
“I’m sick of guilt!” She bent her knees so she was closer to his face. “I can’t live with it, Ted!” She stood back up. “And the jealousy! Jealous of everyone. I’m jealous of everyone because everyone’s not me.”
“What about Chase and Ty?”
“I can’t take care of people forever!”
“I don’t want you to die.”
“God, that’s not good enough!”
“It has to be good enough, because it’s what I want.”
He seemed to her a million miles away down there. “How you seem to me from inside this suit is how you seem to me outside the suit. And I mean you personally, Ted.”
By now he was very upset, trying to stop himself from nervously walking in circles. “If you jump out that window, I warn you, I’m jumping right after you. I’m going with you. And I’m a lot heavier, so I’ll pass you on the way down. Like you always say, you don’t have the boobs to anchor you anywhere. You’ll just float, and I’ll land first, and that’s the last thing you’re gonna see—my guts on the pavement.” He paused to wipe his eyes. “Without a suit.”
Even through the mask she could see that his eyes had begun to tear. “Stop it, Ted.”
“You want me to go first? ’Cause I will, Mariette. Don’t fuck with me on this.”
“Don’t anyone cry please.”
“You just told me I wasn’t good enough. You told me I mean nothing. Less than nothing.”
Now she realized how much the suit could compound preexisting communication problems. “I didn’t say that.”
“You said you were jealous of everyone. But you’re not jealous of me, are you?”
She felt terminally stuck.
“You think I’m such a lightweight,” he continued. “That I haven’t suffered enough.”
“Don’t talk to me about suffering.”
“Who gave you that power—the one who decides how much pain makes someone worthy of being alive? Who gave you that right over everyone else?” He turned quickly, as if something moved behind him. “Do you have to be black or Dominican for your mother to give you blow jobs when you’re fifteen?”
Her eyes had already turned to water, and it was steaming up the mask. She couldn’t see out. “What do you want from me?”
He was blurry to her, like the world outside the bus window when it’s raining like hell. “Everything.” She heard but couldn’t see him. “I want everything.”
She stepped down off the chair, and then she sat on it. He came closer and sat on Hap’s chair. They didn’t say anything. The window remained open, the obnoxious lights prevailed without pity. Sirens came and went.
“You’re the porcelain doll inside the spacesuit,” he finally said, staring at the floor in front of him. “I’m the cowboy riding the ostrich.”
She laughed. “I’d take him over the dentist any day.”
He didn’t look up at her. “People will take my name but not me.”
She didn’t know what to say. “I didn’t know that about your mother.”
His downward gaze was that of a high school boy. “She always knew who my father was. I pretty much could tell that my whole life.” He paused. “I don’t know what happened. Whether he just didn’t want her or was in some other way gone. Sometimes it seemed like he was dead. And then when I got older I thought he had to be gay. Jurgen’s gay. She knew a lot of artists.”
Now he straightened his back and sighed heavily. “I could tell that she worshiped him. She’d tell me I look exactly like him—whenever she wanted to touch me.”
Her mind bristled with so many thorns. “It’s so not fair.”
“She always needed a man to be obsessed with,” he continued. “I mean, being hung up on some guy was the only thing she understood. People who call themselves ‘passionate’ are usually like that. There were no other kinds of love for her. She couldn’t care less about her parents or friends. She really didn’t have any women friends. She had no other reason for living really.”
She shook her head. “That’s a miserable way to be.”
“There was usually some guy she was sleeping with, but she was obsessed with my father for most of my life. And then, luckily for me, she met Drew and became obsessed with him instead. And then she left me alone—just like that.” He laughed. “I think that’s why I always liked Drew even when he was a real douche.”
“Who else knows about th—”
“No one,” he snapped. He slapped one palm against his knee. “No one at all.”
She could find nothing to say.
He leaned forward to look at the mask. “Can you take off that suit, please?”
“I feel safe in here.” She sat perfectly still for a moment. “Now I know why you wear it.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to do that anymore. Take it off.”
When she unzipped and stepped out, she was wet underneath. Not just her face and her hair at the back of her neck; but everywhere. Her T-shirt clung in dark circles. “Holy shit.”
“Welcome to my world.”
“This is disgusting.”
Ted picked up the limp suit and quickly zipped and secured the many pieces of Velcro.
“What are you doing?”
“I think it’s time to put him out of my misery.”
She smiled. “The demise of Martin Guerre.”
He made like the empty suit was fighting him back, fighting for its life. “Did you see Singing in the Rain?”
She laughed. “You saw Singing in the Rain?”
“Jude made me go to Film Forum.”
“In this one scene, the other guy—not Gene Kelly—”
He looked at her. “You know what I’m going to say?”
She nodded. “Fighting with the dummy behind the couch.”
“Jesus Christ, Mariette.”
“So what are we waiting for?”
Ted carried the suit to the window, lifted it out, and let go. They both leaned out and watched it twist and writhe a couple times before falling in a path they could not see.
“I can’t believe someone killed Frank,” she said. “Like it was nothing.”
He shook his head. “There’s something going on.”
“I went to see him at his room on Thursday. He asked me down there to make me promise that I would take these paper notebooks of his if anything happened to him.”
She laughed. “You with paper?”
“I know. My own Guantanamo.”
“So you got them?”
“No, I didn’t. The landlord let me in yesterday, and they’re gone from the drawer they were in. I looked around as much as I could stand, but I think someone took them. There’s some secret, Mariette. And I think Hap is involved.”
“In hurting Frank, you mean?”
“No, but I think he and Frank are on the same team. And the hurters are on the other.”
They heard a noise that made them turn from the window.
“What are you two doing here?” asked Alan from the doorway.
Mariette pulled at the T-shirt stuck to her stomach. “Having sex?”
Alan walked into the room. “How come only one of you is sweating?”
“We take turns,” said Ted.
Alan stared at them.
Mariette looked at Ted. “I need to talk to Hap for a second by myself.”
Ted looked at Alan. “Don’t anybody do anything weird.”
When he left and shut the door, Mariette rolled Alan’s chair back into the desk. “Someone’s going to kill you, aren’t they? If it’s not my fucking brother it’s someone.”
He looked at her. “What were you doing in here?”
“Looking through your stuff, trying to find out why someone killed Frank and wants to kill you.”
“No you weren’t.” He looked at the open window. “One of you was going to jump.”
She laughed. “Both of us were going to jump. Holding hands.”
“Why the fuck is everyone suddenly jumping?”
“Jesus Christ. I’ve never heard you say fuck.”
He walked over to the window, leaned out to grab the lever and yanked it shut. “Here I called you, thinking it was Ted I should worry about. I should’ve given him more credit.”
“’Cause I’m the real fuck-up.”
He shook his head at her in confusion. “Why do you say that?”
She looked away. “You loved Ethylynn because she was such a good person. And now it looks like you’re gonna love Daria in the same way, even though she’s an idiot.”
“She’s not an idiot.” He realized he said that forcefully. He moved so he could look her in the eye. “She’s not you, but that doesn’t mean she’s an idiot.”
She seemed like she was going to cry, which he had never seen her do. The he realized she had already been crying, when Ted was there. He made her sit down. He picked up her shoes from the desk and bent down at her feet. “Give me your foot.”
After putting both slippers on the princess he sat in his own chair and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Why don’t you want anyone to care about you?”
She laughed in the way crying people do. “I’m nobody. Who are you?”
He refused to be led astray. “You want to be like Anne Sexton and kill yourself?”
She looked away. “I don’t have the talent to be a poet. No lingo, amigo.”
“You’ve got two languages to choose from.”
She rolled her eyes. “Spanish is the language of bitching on the street. I learned English from a Lithuanian Canadian trying to sound black.” She shook her head. “That’s a clown heritage.”
“You know why I called you, to take care of Ted? Because you’re smart and strong and you immediately take responsibility for other people’s lives. You never even blink. You just . . . take the wheel. You’ve given a life to Chase. You’re always doing things for Ty. They love you, Mariette. You’re more than one person.”
“No one can be more than one person.”
“You know how Frank always talked about apostles like they were people in Kennedy’s cabinet? Peter, that’s you. The rock.”
She laughed. “So you’re Jesus?”
He shook his head. “It’s not about me, Mariette.”
She looked at him with tears in her eyes, nodding in exaggeration to say like hell it’s not. “Did you sleep with Ethylynn?”
He inhaled and sat up straight. “No. But I probably would have if she didn’t die.”
She looked down into her lap. “She was hung up on you—crazy hung up.”
He looked away toward the window. “She was confused. She believed that she was obsessed with her father, like he was this one special man. But I think . . . I think she was exhausted from everyone looking to her for an answer. She wanted someone like a father to come in and make the right decisions for everyone.” He paused. “Sound familiar?”
She laughed. “Nothing sounds familiar.”
He still couldn’t understand her. “Why, Mariette?”
“Suicide runs in families,” she said, turning her bleary eyes at him. “Don’t you know that?”
“Your mother had a lot of serious problems and addictions, but your dad’s OK.”
Her expression was firm. “Don’t you know that suffering abuse in childhood is a major suicide risk factor?”
He couldn’t answer that.
She nodded vigorously. “It can cause changes in the receptors of brain cells that regulate cortisol. That is known to leave the brain in a chemical state of increased alertness that causes a person to overreact to stress.”
He couldn’t hide his frustration. “You’re too smart to give yourself up, Mariette.”
“It’s always just me. It’s always just me alone, making all the shit work.”
“That’s not true, Mariette. After that happened with your mother you had all these people on your team—your grandmother and your family, your caseworkers and psychologists. Judges for God’s sake. Practically the whole City of New York was on Team Mariette because they knew that shouldn’t happen to anyone. You are who you are because people wanted you to get over that and succeed. You had years of help.”
“But my bothers didn’t. I saw it happening. I was pretty and good in school and I got so I acted white. All these white people swoop in to save me. Everyone gets excited when you can act white.”
“I don’t have an answer for that, Mariette.”
She looked down at the hands in her lap. “If you slept with Ethylynn, what would’ve happened?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I just found out yesterday that my daughter is married to man who’s probably twenty years older than me.” He paused. “I don’t even know what to say to that.”
She looked at him with wet eyes. “Who do you love?”
He didn’t have to think, but he couldn’t look at her. “Special people.” He paused. “You.”
“You still love your daughter?”
He sighed. “I just realized that the love doesn’t go away. It may not be active, but it doesn’t disappear. I always thought love was something that could be erased.” He paused again. “But there are things that, until you yourself are dead, they can’t disappear.”
Her eyes continued to water. “Why are people so quick to fall in love when everyone is flawed?”
“People get loved because being flawed makes them real.”
She looked away. “I’m nobody. Who are you?”
He had to shake his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever known.”