By Sonia Coleman, written for Master’s degree class in 2006
Running shoes. Check.
Black stocking cap. Check.
Melanie nodded her head and smiled in satisfaction. She folded the list and tucked it into her purse. She slid into a puffy black parka and pulled the stocking cap over her head. She was ready.
Twenty minutes later, she reached her destination under the cover of darkness. Melanie turned onto the street slowly, looking for the best place to park. Tall trees lined the road like sentries. Wind blew their limbs, sending leaves dropping like rain to the concrete. She squinted, examining the mailboxes for 108. It was ahead on her right. She stopped in front of the house next door, about 50 feet from 108. Melanie scanned the front of the brick ranch. She could see light in both windows. Excellent. She turned off the engine and leaned back. She unfolded the blanket sitting on the passenger’s seat and laid it on her legs. It was going to be a long night.
The cold slowly invaded her Honda, chilling her toes. The streetlight illuminated cloudy water spots on the windshield. Melanie absentmindedly traced the streak left by the wiper as it arced across the windshield. She shifted in the seat, pulling her feet back, bending her knees, and readjusting her back. Melanie twirled one of her long black curls, thinking about Linden. Was he worth all this effort? He had reeled her in so easily–even when she had always said that she wouldn’t date a divorced man. Too much baggage. Sometimes she wanted to kick herself for falling for his easy smile and kind eyes. But then again, she was quickly nearing old maid status. The biological clock had started to tick. Loudly.
She wanted to love Lin, to freefall into this romance. But she couldn’t, not yet. First she had to know.
Melanie had decided that tonight was going to be the night she got her answers. She had planned the stakeout as best she could. In the next few hours, if everything went as planned, she would know what she needed to know. But if it didn’t, she could end up losing the very thing that brought her here. The cops might even come. Melanie tapped her fingers on the steering wheel nervously. She didn’t like risk. But she also didn’t like the constant pressure of uncertainty.
The suspicion had started a few weeks ago.
She and Linden had driven to a state park a few hours away. The sun beamed its blessing on them as they hiked the rocky trail to the top of the bluff overlooking the river. Huge rocks scattered the hilltop. Linden scaled a boulder six feet tall and dared her to follow. She couldn’t resist the challenge.
They had played like children all afternoon, laughing and chasing each other, jumping between rocks. Finally, exhausted, they collapsed on a ledge and ate their sandwiches. The sun was beginning to wane. The air had a slight chill and smelled like wood burning in a fireplace, but the rock warmed them. They sat close, legs straight out before them, arms propped behind their backs, looking at the trees below.
Lin leaned his head on Melanie.
“Mel, you know you are something special, don’t you?”
She stared at her feet, but snuggled closer to him. Her pulse began to beat faster. Was he going to say it? Was he going to say the “L-O-V-E” word?
“I really enjoy being with you.” He turned her face toward him and looked her in the eyes. “I hope you are interested in spending more time with me because I really like you in my life.”
She threw her arms around his neck. She kept her mouth shut because she was afraid she would say something stupid. Besides that, all the relationship books said that men liked women who were mysterious.
Lin pushed her back on the rock and kissed her.
On the way home, Melanie was a mass of wiggles and giggles. Her feet tapped a lively beat on the car mat as she thought of names for their first child. Sure, Lin hadn’t said the “L” word yet, but it certainly seemed like he was serious. She couldn’t wait to call her best friend with the latest update and scream in joy.
Lin’s phone chimed. He grabbed it and pushed a few buttons quickly, looking at the phone intently. His face softened and his lips curved into a slight smile. He looked amused and…smitten. Melanie’s brain shouted, “Alert: another woman! Alert!” She craned her neck, trying to see who it was. No avail. She turned her attention back to the windshield. “Did someone leave you a voicemail?”
“No,” he said. “It was just my ex-wife text-messaging.”
“Oh.” Melanie felt the grip of fear. “You all still talk, eh?” She wanted to shout, Why! Why do you still talk to her, stupid man?
“Yeah. Now and then. We’re friends.”
“Really…Hmm…didn’t she cheat on you?”
“Well, yeah. But it’s been two years. Since then, I’ve come to grips with the things that I did wrong too. Brenda wasn’t the only one who made our marriage fall apart.”
“Oh.” What was going on here? Was he still in love with her?
“Does it bother you that we talk?”
“Why should it? I’m sure she’s a very nice woman,” Melanie said nonchalantly. She was lying through her teeth. Why would she want him talking with his ex-lover?
“Brenda’s a character, that’s for sure,” he said, laughing. Melanie heard something in his voice. Was it admiration? Devotion? Attraction? Or worst of all, love? Whatever it was, it cracked Melanie’s ball of shining optimism.
In the days that followed, Melanie couldn’t get that uneasy feeling out of her mind. Every time she was with Lin, she analyzed what he said, his expressions, even how often he checked his messages. She was looking for clues, for any sign that she should run away from this relationship. If Lin was still in love with his ex, she didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire. For the first time, she realized that he never talked about their future together, and for the first time, it bothered her.
Melanie shivered. She cast a furtive glance in the direction of 108, looking for signs of life. None, just the same lights glowing out of the same windows. She turned the key in the ignition and flipped the heat to high. She knew what she was doing was strange. She probably would have shrugged off her feelings of jealousy and suspicion if had not been for the events of the morning. The day had started out badly. First, before she could even rub the sleep out of her eyes, her best friend, Robin, called.
“Oh my God, Mel, you won’t believe what I just read in, ‘Redefining Mars and Venus,’ Robin said.
“Is this a different book than you were telling me about last week?” Melanie said, stretching and yawning.
“Of course. This one really applies to your situation. You’ve got to hear this. Hold on, I’ve got the page marked.”
Melanie could hear the pages turning.
“Ok, ok. Here it is: ‘If a man doesn’t make the decision to end the relationship, it is always an open door, and he may return to his previous lover if given an opportunity.’
“Uggghhhh…that’s not good,” Melanie said.
“Oh wait, there’s more. The book says that ‘this is especially true of a man who has been left by the woman for another man; he will always have a longing to prove his sexual prowess.’ You know what that means, Mel–a man’ll go back to his cheatin’ woman,” Robin said, singing the last few words with a country song twang.
“That’s crazy.” Melanie said. “I don’t know where you get this stuff. Why would a man want to go back to a whore?”
“Dunno. Since when have men ever made sense? I thought you’d be interested in that since you had some concerns about Lin and what’s her face.”
“Yeah, whatever. Just be careful. Don’t be his stomping mat. He could be one of those. Talk to you later.”
Robin’s call delivered a considerable dose of doubt.
Then the phone rang again, delivering the second blow.
“Hey, Mel, it’s Lin. I wanted to give you a call first thing. I’m not feeling well today, so I think I’d better cancel for tonight.” He coughed.
“Oh, what’s wrong?” Melanie said, with sympathy oozing from every syllable.
“I think it’s probably just a cold. My body aches and someone turned on a faucet in my nose. No big deal.”
“Do you want me to come over and bring you something? Soup? Hot cocoa?”
“No, no. Thanks, but I think I’d rather just sleep this thing off,” he said.
“Ok. Let me know if you need some company later,” Melanie repeated her offer.
“Thanks again, Mel, but I don’t think so. I’d rather be alone. Sorry to bail out on you. Can we have a raincheck for next weekend?”
“Sure.” She mumbled. “I hope you feel better.”
Linden hung up the phone.
Melanie felt like she’d had the wind punched out of her.
Was Lin really sick? Or was he really planning on spending the night with Brenda? Was he just using her until he won back his first love–and gained back his damned ‘sexual prowess?’
Melanie began cleaning the kitchen, feverishly scrubbing the counter. How dare he do this to her! She flung silverware into the sink. She would not be taken for a fool! She would show Lin; she’d catch’em together tonight. Melanie abandoned her dishrag on the counter and headed to the computer. Too many times she’d sat back patiently and hoped that that everything would work out, that her dream man would come. This time that she wasn’t going to just sit back and wait. She’d find that bitch’s address and find out the truth, once and for all!
The car vibrated as it idled. The heat blew on Melanie’s face, and she wondered how long she could let it idle before it hurt the engine. A light went out and Melanie caught a glimpse of a blonde woman walking around. Brenda must be getting ready to go somewhere. Finally! Now that her anger had mellowed, Melanie was ready to get this adventure over with.
Melanie put her car into drive, ready to follow Brenda’s car. The clock’s green numbers glowed 8:30; Melanie was drawn to the flashing colon between the hour and minute. This woman is a slow mover. Finally, when the clock had crawled to 33, she saw the garage door open.
A white Toyota backed out of the driveway and headed down the street. Melanie hesitated and thought about going home. But after a slight delay, Melanie slammed the gas. She focused on keeping up with the white Toyota. How did Magnum P.I. tail people? How much distance was she supposed to leave between her car and the Toyota? Before Melanie had a chance to figure it out, the Toyota turned into the parking lot of TastyMart.
Melanie pulled into a spot at the end of the lot and watched as Brenda’s trim silhouette disappeared into the grocery store. Wait outside or follow her inside? Melanie tried to think about what Magnum would do. She pictured his relaxed, mustached smile, and knew he would be up to the challenge…from a safe distance, of course. Melanie followed Brenda into the store, hastily pulling off her cap. She grabbed a cart with one hand while attempting to smooth the static from her hair with the other. Melanie caught a glimpse of Brenda’s blond hair turning the corner in the fresh produce. She’s heading to the meat. Melanie began the chase.
She rounded the corner at breakneck pace, nearly knocking over an old lady examining the bananas. Brenda was strolling, pausing to grab lunchmeat and hamburger. Could that be all? Was she really grocery shopping on a Saturday night? Brenda was not living up to her adulteress reputation. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for her to be out buying sexy lingerie? Of course, food could be sexy, Melanie thought. Brenda could be gathering all the fixings for a late-night romantic dinner for two.
Melanie knew that if she was going to learn anything useful she’d have to get closer; she decided to stage a drive-by, face-to-face. Besides Melanie was dying to see what her nemesis looked like.
Melanie bypassed the canned good aisle–where Brenda was dawdling before the Campbell’s display–and zoomed over to the cereal, two aisles away. She threw in a couple of boxes of Frosted Crunchies–to add to her cover–and then briskly marched to the next aisle and waited. She pretended to examine Jello flavors as she waited for Brenda to enter from the opposite end. After a few minutes, she decided to move back a few feet to avoid drawing attention to herself. Still no Brenda.
Without looking behind her, Melanie pushed her cart back a few feet. She bumped something and turned to see what it was.
It was Brenda. Melanie’s eyes widened. How in the world did she get back there? They were face-to-face. Wow, she was good looking. Brenda looked like a Barbie-doll TV news anchor: short straight blonde hair, cut stylishly, but with a slightly wind-blown look. Blue eyes. Lips shiny with gloss. Petite. Nice boobs. Stylish even in a velveteen jumpsuit and tennis shoes. Melanie could only imagine what Brenda thought of her all-black sweatsuit and static-cling afro. Melanie mumbled, “Sorry.” Brenda nodded an acknowledgement.
Melanie continued pushing her cart down the aisle, ready to give up this stupid stakeout. Brenda looked like a perfectly normal person. Melanie had found no evidence that anything was going on with Lin. Why chase Brenda around like she was some kind of desperate man snatcher? Why would she want Lin back anyway? She left him. It seemed absurd.
Then Brenda’s cell phone rang. The curiosity was too much for Melanie; she paused in front of the cake mixes and eavesdropped.
“Hey, baby, I was waiting for you to call,” Brenda said.
Baby? Who’s that? Melanie wondered. The doubt creeped back in. Could it be Lin?
“I’m not up to much,” Brenda said. “Just doing a little grocery shopping. What about you?”
Melanie leaned close to the shelf and closed her eyes. She still couldn’t hear the other person’s voice, so she focused on the words Brenda was speaking.
“Sure, I’d love to see you. Feel free to stop by later if you want to. I’ll be home in about half an hour.”
It was definitely a man. Brenda was being too sugary.
“Ok. We can just chill out and watch a little TV. Don’t worry, I’ll make you feel better. I’ve got a few really effective remedies up my sleeve,” Brenda said.
Feel better? Was it just a coincidence that Lin was sick today? Melanie’s ire mounted again. She wanted to shove Brenda’s flirty little head up her sleeve. It had to be Lin.
The stakeout wasn’t over yet.
Not long after, Melanie followed Brenda back to the house. However, Melanie had to abandon her parking spot by the neighbor’s house and drive further down the block; if Lin was coming, she didn’t want to have her Honda parked out front. This time, she’d have to hike to the back yard. Melanie put back on her stocking cap.
The night was chilly and damp. After just a few feet on the slippery grass, she felt water soaking through the tops of her tennis shoes. Shoulda worn boots. That was one thing she’d forgotten on her checklist. She scrunched her head down and jogged slowly through the neighbors’ yards, hiding behind trees. Melanie’s left toe caught on something, and she fell forward, smacking the ground. Ouch. She crawled to her knees; her right knee slid on something squishy and slick. Uhhh, not that. Oh, please not that! She lowered her nose to her knee, but quickly yanked her head back up. She closed her eyes, exhaled deeply, and shook her head–like she was trying shake off the smell. Disgusting.
Melanie stood and continued her trek, only this time with more care. She considered turning on her flashlight, but she was afraid of being noticed in the backyard blackness.
Finally, Melanie reached the back of Brenda’s house. A large window to the left of the patio had a clear view of the living room; the blinds were only partially shut. Melanie sidled up to the window, keeping her body pressed closely to the sandpaper-rough brick. She counted to three and then peered into the glass. It’s safe. Brenda couldn’t see Melanie. Brenda was sitting on the couch, watching T.V., with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
Melanie mentally toured the room, starting with the front door: a couple of flower-patterned couches, an entertainment center with a television, stereo, some books, and a few framed photos. A glass-topped coffee table was cluttered by magazines, books, and abandoned drinking glasses. Nothing out of the ordinary. With her binoculars, Melanie scanned the room–looking for any sign of Lin. He wasn’t in any pictures. She examined the framed snapshots: the first was Brenda standing, with a wide smile, next to two friendly-looking elderly people. Probably her parents. In another, Brenda’s arms were wrapped around the shoulders of two other blond women who looked about the same age. Brenda seemed pretty cool.
Melanie stepped away from the window. What went wrong between Lin and Brenda? From what she knew of Lin, he was a great guy, and Brenda seemed like a pretty decent person too. Melanie crossed her arms and hugged her self tightly. How could she stop the same thing from happening to her? How could she ensure that she wouldn’t get hurt?
She experienced a wave of the uneasiness that she’d felt ever since she became suspicious of Lin. Only worse. The “What If’s” bombarded her mind. She wanted to escape. She wanted to return to her comfortable, solitary life, where her biggest risk was eating a bag of fat-laden potato chips. Where her heart was safe. She missed the security of boredom.
And yet, Melanie remembered all the lonely nights, all the times she’d wished for someone to hold her. She loved being with Lin. Felt so alive. She wanted him to be a part of her life.
Melanie straightened. She was ready to be in love. She was ready to take a risk. Even if it had disastrous results, it had to be better than isolation. She inhaled the cold air deeply, savoring the crisp smell of fireplace smoke. Even if it didn’t work out with Lin, there’d be someone else. Yeah. She smiled. She’d give trust a chance. Well, after tonight anyway.
By the time the doorbell rang, Melanie couldn’t really feel her legs; the cold had made movement awkward. Melanie carefully slid to the window and watched. Brenda opened the door for someone. It was a guy. With short dark hair. Lin had short dark hair. They hugged. And kissed. Brenda kept blocking her line of sight. Finally, Melanie saw his face. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in surprise. She whispered, “No way!”
It was Lin’s best friend, Pete. Brenda was dating Pete…Melanie couldn’t believe it. She put her hand over her face and shook her head, embarrassed. Silly, silly, girl. She didn’t know what she was thinking. Some detective alright. Even Magnum would be laughing at her stupid, inflated suspicion.
When she looked up, she caught her reflection in the window. She was covered in mud. And who knows what else! She looked like the psycho stalker from “Fatal Attraction.” Now who’s the one looking the fool?
She had definitely gone overboard. Totally. But Melanie didn’t regret it. She was glad she’d stepped out. Left the comfort zone. Done something brash. Taken control of her destiny. But it had served its purpose. No more extremes. And hopefully, she looked down at her black-stained, foul-smelling pants, no more punishment.
Melanie started the trek back to her car, meandering back across the backyard jungle. She switched on her flashlight.