She lived in the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, the one with the three-car garage and the sycamore tree at the corner of the yard. She wore designer stilettos everywhere she went, the click of the heel a herald of her arrival. She baked cookies for church each week and taught the second grade Sunday school class. Perfume radiated off her like sunshine on a spring morning, loud enough in my nose she was with me when I went to bed every night.
From where I stood, her life looked simple. Her husband was tax attorney, an unremarkable man whose face I can’t remember most days. Her children were just as ordinary, tiny humans to balance the composition of the family portrait. Hers was a one-point perspective life.
Sometimes, when she and her husband were both away, they’d pay me to feed the cat. She’d ask after church on Sunday or while dropping off a recipe for my mom. “How does two-hundred dollars sound?” she’d say and I’d nod, feeling like a thief. Easy money for a fifteen-year-old and an excuse to slip into her periphery.
This arrangement became a kind of routine. I’d enter through the garage, take the cat food from the pantry, and scoop it in a dish by the patio door. Only then would the cat appear, eat in a tense hurry, and scuttled back to its private hiding place. These were the moments I’d steal glances inside her private world, her scent suspended in the air like the drywall and carpet had been soaked in her perfume. I was drunk on her even though I didn’t know what being drunk meant yet.
She’d leave pumpkin bread on the counter with a note that said, “Help yourself,” her first name signed at the bottom of the paper among tiny exes and ohs. It was familiar, intimate. Probably more than it should have been, which is what kept me from peeling back the saran wrap. There were certain places you didn’t go, even if you imagined them from time to time.
She was playful when she’d payed me. “I must be a terrible baker,” she said. “You never touch the pumpkin bread.”
I’d tell her she didn’t need to bake for me.
“But you take such good care of the cat. How am I supposed to make it up to you?”
I’d tell her that’s what the money was for.
“Right,” she’d say, slipping the bills into my hand.
It was the fall of my sophomore year I finally accepted her invitation to help myself. I’d passed my driver’s test and her driveway was the first place I parked. I tossed my car keys on the kitchen counter as I fed the cat. I wasn’t a kid anymore — at least I didn’t feel like it — so I stripped the plastic from the pumpkin bread and took a piece. It tasted sweet, but heavy — too thick, too rich, too much. I swallowed hard and tossed the rest in the trash.
“I finally got you,” she said when she came to dinner the next weekend. “I always leave him a little something,” she told everyone at the table. “And he hasn’t touched it once.”
“Smart kid,” her husband said. She punched him in the arm. Both my parents chuckled.
“How was it?” she asked me.
I told her it was good and she gave me a satisfied smirk. Then onto business — she’d be in Denver a few days the following week.
“The usual?” she asked. I nodded. She smiled again without showing her teeth, then finished her wine and dangled her shoe from her toe beneath the table, all without taking her eyes off me. It was the first time her perfume made my stomach boil.
That week was the last time I set foot in her house. While she was gone, the routine was the same — garage door, food from the pantry, dish by the patio door — but the cat had disappeared. The first day, I waited for it in the kitchen. Her perfume still lingered in the air, making each breath a hurried gulp of cement. After twenty minutes of breathing through my mouth, I left.
The food was untouched the next afternoon, spoiled in the sunlight trickling in through the sliding glass door. A rank smell rose from the dish, dancing with her perfume. I held my breath and dumped food down the garbage disposal, but the bickering smells didn’t leave. The room stank of dead fish and department store romance.
I searched the house and rehearsed excuses in case I found the cat dead in an upstairs bedroom. Adrenaline rose inside me as I searched the finished basement, the dining room and den, then took the stairs one at a time and searched the kids’ rooms and then the guest room and the office at the end of the hall. Her room was last. Still no sign of the cat.
The door was open, but only a crack — just enough to be an invitation. My hands on the knob quivered, but I pushed into the room regardless. Waves of her scene washed over me, slithered in with each breath and coiled into a nauseous mess in my stomach. All these things I’d dreamt about — the sterling silver picture frames on her dresser, the rack of stiletto heels in her closet, the mirror on her make-up table where she painted on her smile every morning — I’d never imagined I would lay eyes on them. And doing so was an awakening, an electric revelation. Catching my reflection in the mirror above her dresser, I understood why some things are forbidden. This woman was not who I thought she was — she was real.
She called me the next afternoon, after her flight had landed. I told her I’d lost the cat, but she wasn’t worried. “He does that,” she said. “Probably camped out in the basement somewhere. He’ll turn up.” She told me to come by for the money before she picked up the kids from soccer practice.
Her feet were bare when she answered the door, invited me in, and asked if I wanted something to drink. I told her no, thank you, I can’t stay long, but she told me not to be a stranger. A hand on my shoulder, she pushed me onto a stool at the kitchen counter.
“You sure about something to drink?” she said, turning towards the fridge. I refused again but she insisted.
I asked if the cat had turned up. She nodded with a smile.
“Camped out in the basement, just like I thought.” She handed me a soda, then pointed to a plate of pumpkin bread on the counter, wrapped and dressed with a note, a detail I’d missing during my search of the house.
“Didn’t like this batch?” she asked.
I told her I hadn’t been hungry. She nodded again, but this time didn’t smile.
We made small talk as she found her purse and began to dig for her wallet. She asked about school and work and girls, the kind of chitchat you make with neighborhood kids.
“You have a girlfriend, don’t you?” I said I didn’t and she giggled. She’d stopped digging through her purse. “Why not? You want one, don’t you?”
I told her it wasn’t that simple.
“Sure, it is,” she said. Her fingers grazed the buttons on her shirt.
I told her I needed to go.
“Actually, before you do, there’s something I could use your help with.” She strode down the front hallway and beckoned me to follow. I asked her what she needed, gripping the banister that led upstairs.
“Just a little help with something I can’t quite reach,” she said, leading me into the bedroom. I followed. She shut the door behind me.
When I asked again what she needed, what it was she couldn’t reach, she laughed.
“Oh, don’t be a tease,” she said, stepping to me and taking my wrist. She was whispering, even though there was no one to hear us. “I know you were in here. I know you what you were looking for.” Her hands flew to unseen places, her touch an icy sting. “You like that, don’t you?”
When I tried to speak, she placed a finger to my lips, the manicured nail stabbing the tip of my nose. She pushed me down onto the carpet and lifted her skirt.
Seconds unrolled in tiny eternities. There was no soundtrack, only heaping, heavy breaths and the chatter of thinking too fast but also too slow. She tore the skin beneath my t-shirt, digging her way into me or maybe even through me. She drank my face one violent kiss at a time, her breath a tide crashing against my face. I was motionless, frozen by her touch and choking on her perfume that didn’t smell like sunshine anymore.
Afterwards, she stood and fixed herself in the mirror, then went downstairs without a word. I followed as the sun disappeared through the sliding glass door. She stood at the kitchen sink, washing her hands.
“You should go,” she said without turning around. I started for the door, but her bare footsteps came behind me. She told me to wait and I listened because I couldn’t help myself. In her outstretched hand were two hundred-dollar bills, creased down the middle.
“For the cat,” she said.
I took the money and left.
When I got home, I laid on my bed with my eyes closed tight, her perfume still clinging to me — poured into the spaces that made me and spilling out over the sheets. I threw my clothes in the hamper and showered, but the scent only got stronger. My hands shook while running through my hair. I imagined tiny invisible parts of myself vanishing with the water circling the drain.
I smoked my first cigarette that night, taken from my dad’s nightstand. Standing at my open window, I let it burn slow so the smoke would sting my tongue, punishment for not remembering the words no and stop and don’t. And when it burned down to the filter, I pressed it out on my arm, just to see what would happen. Then my mom called that dinner was ready and I pulled down the sleeves of my sweatshirt to hide the marks from her nails.
After dinner, I rode my bike to the 7–11 to buy a pack of cigarettes, my own this time. Then I sat on the curb in the parking lot, a hollowness echoing through me, like I’d been all used up and thrown away. I asked questions for which there aren’t answers, like whose fault was any of this anyway. Of course, no answers came.
So I lit another cigarette and another after that. Then another and another and another, each one burning with that tangerine glow and discoloring the memory of her perfume, still burning in my nose and stuck to every breath I’d ever take.