You're Leaving Me
By Tom Bonfiglio
There was a sex offender on the loose in Pine Bush the summer Claire’s sister got married. Every two to three nights he would find an open bedroom window, of which there were plenty, it being the hottest July in fifty years, unlatch the screen or simply cut through it with a sharp tool, climb into the room and strip to his underwear. Then he would slip into bed, always a bed containing an unaccompanied female, giving the authorities the idea that he, the Pine Bush Fondler, as the newspapers referred to him, staked-out his victims first. He was called the fondler because that’s what he did. He rubbed sexually against his sleeping victims, sometimes placing his hands on their breasts and cupping, in some instances kissing them on the back of the neck. The moment they would wake up, he’d be out the bed, his clothes in his arms and back out the window. His victims ranged from thirteen to thirty but he specialized in teenage girls. Those were his favorites. Community groups and a local feminist gadfly wrote letters to the newspaper demanding they use some term more fitting, more direct and frightening than the Fondler, like the Attempted Rapist, but the Fondler seemed to stick. It was just nonthreatening enough where people continued to keep their windows open at night. His victims mostly described him as gentle, seeming frightened, probably not yet in his twenties. All of them said he was crying.
Claire and her best friend Bella each had a crush on him, or imagined they did. They made a collage of newspaper clippings about him. “He just sounds so lonely,” Claire said one afternoon, studying the large piece of cardboard, looking for the perfect place to glue the new composite sketch that was in that day’s paper. In this one he had sad eyes and large soft lips and his ears weren’t stuck out nearly as far as they were in earlier drawings. "He’s getting cuter,” she said.
“I liked his eyes better in the last one,” Bella said. She slept over every night, her mother’s time and attention focused on a boyfriend who lived the next town over, her dad out of the picture.
The girls looked enough alike to be confused as sisters, skin like butterscotch, each tall for her age, most of their height in the legs, Bella more physically developed. They each had shoulder-length black hair streaked with red and the same shade of hazel eyes.
Their supplies were spread out on a table in the basement, glue sticks, scissors, newspaper clippings, captions unrelated to the fondler himself which they cut from magazines and used as headings and to add colorful pictures. It was naturally the coolest place in the house and even with several ceiling fans, a few small windows and a door leading to the side yard kept open most of the time, the screens shut to keep out the flies, they still would sweat so much they’d strip down to their bras, as they had on this day, or put on their two piece suits.
It was an exciting time in the house that summer; Claire’s brother Doug graduated from high school and at the party the girls had their first vodka drinks. Afterward Bella told Claire that she was in love with Doug and they both cried and threw up. It was ridiculous. Doug was older than them and between baseball and his car and many, many friends and outside of teasing them about their fondler obsession, as he called it, he barely noticed they were alive, or so it seemed to Claire. Occasionally he would punch her hard in the arm or wrestle Bella to the ground, tickling her. Lately he had been playing the tickling game with Bella more and more often.
There were the endless wedding preparations, the fittings, visits to the florist, visits from the florist, talk of caterers and rented limos, chicken or fish, tuxedoes, seating arrangements and organists, her sister freaking out over a new zit or a gained pound, hotel arrangements for out-of-town relatives, but most of that took place upstairs and Claire was uninvolved except for the fittings, and on those trips Bella tagged along. Claire’s mom bought Bella a new dress to wear to the wedding as her own mother had neither the funds nor enough interest in her own child to do so, chasing after a new man every week, as Claire’s mother would sometime whisper when Bella wasn’t around. She owned nothing other than school uniforms and knock-around stuff. It was a light silk, flowery, with a bow just above the waist, resting on the swell of her bottom, the back cut low enough so she couldn’t wear a bra without the strap showing and the front cut low enough so it showed off her breasts, which were bigger than Claire’s. Bella pretended she didn’t ever have any money but she did. She always had a fifty dollar bill in her wallet that her father had sent her the first and last time he ever remembered her birthday, three years before, but she would never spend it. It was sentimental.
“I wish they’d finally decide what color eyes he has,” Bella said, leaning over and studying the collage.
“They better be brown,” Claire said. “Most of them said brown. That’s what I’m picturing anyway.”
“I’m hoping gray.”
The door swung upon and Doug came in, fresh from mowing the lawn. He brought the smell of the outside in with him, stray blades of grass stuck by sweat to the thick hair on his legs, and on his dark chest and red shoulders. He was growing sideburns. Claire reflexively covered her chest, folding her arms over her breasts, but Bella stayed the way she was, pretending she didn’t notice him. “You two freaks still working on your shrine?” he said. “I’d have thought you’d have outgrown that by now. Claire, why the hell are you covering yourself? You don’t have anything to hide. She, on the other hand, does.” He pointed at Bella. “I used to get the two of you confused. Not anymore. No confusing who’s who now. Someone grew up when I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I can’t wait until you go to college,” Claire said, pulling her shirt on. “Bella, put your shirt on.”
She slowly got up and moved lazily across the room, purposely taking her time. Then she made a show of putting it on, stretching her arms way above her head, Doug staring at her brown belly and of course her boobs. Her shorts were barely shorts they were so small and tight on her. She couldn’t even buckle them. “We do it because we’re bored. There’s nothing else to do in this town,” Bella said. “If there was something else to do we’d do it.”
“Oh,” Doug said. “There’s plenty to do in this little burgh. You just have to know where to look.”
The day before the wedding was mayhem. The girls did their best to stay out of the way. There were last minute hair appointments, her mother to no avail begging Claire to come get the red streak dyed out of her hair, people arriving from out of town and in some cases greeting Bella instead of Claire and showering her with hugs and kisses and telling her how grown up she looked and how beautiful she had become, but then acting disappointed when the confusion was straightened out and they saw that she was still just plain old Claire. Doug was lording about the house in his swim trunks, alternately working on what he called his wedding tan and crowing that he finagled a date with a cute cheerleader and was taking her to both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. The restaurant refused to add another person to the reservation and so Bella had to stay home to make room for Doug’s date. It was okay with Claire because lately Bella had been getting on her nerves. She was acting weird, like her thoughts were way off somewhere else. She got mad when Claire tried to get her to guess the fondler’s real name, a game she used to happily play.
“Bella, make sure you close all the windows,” Claire’s dad said before the rest of them left for the dinner. “I don’t want that creep getting into any of my beds.”
“He’s not a creep,” Claire protested. “He’s just lonely.”
“It is pretty creepy what he does,” Bella said. “I’ve been thinking about it lately.”
“Rape I could understand,” Doug offered. “But just touching? There’s no point in just touching.”
“He’s probably just a little boy,” Bella said. “Afraid to do anything else.”
“It’s been eight days,” Claire said. “This is the longest he’s ever gone without appearing.”
“Good,” Doug said. “Maybe his mommy wouldn’t let him sleep in bed with her anymore but now he’s allowed back in.” Bella started to giggle but stopped when Claire glared at her.
Dinner was a disaster. Doug and his date got drunk; they were underage but the restaurant didn’t card and none of the adults seemed to notice as she and Doug both ordered drink after drink. Doug even ordered two pina coladas for Claire and they were delicious. She was excited to tell Bella that she found something they could drink that tasted like dessert and wouldn’t make them barf.
Doug and his date fought when the dinner came, Doug accusing her of flirting with the waiter, which she was actually doing. He tried to storm away from the table in a huff but fell into a busboy carrying a large tray of dirty plates and sent them scattering onto a table of horrified diners. His date vomited into several water glasses, never once getting up to use the bathroom, everyone hurriedly draining their water and sending the empty glasses to her end of the table as she kept filling one after another. They each had to be driven home as they had come separately and needed their cars first thing in the morning, so along with the endless goodbyes, which proved to be actually a series of shorter goodbyes strung end to end, there were many machinations and trips from the restaurant, people needing to be dropped off, the cars delivered, and finally Claire got home past midnight with a headache. Bella was already asleep on the fold out couch they shared, her head under a pillow.
The next morning was a whirlwind of activity and Claire was up early, getting in line for the shower. The bride and bridesmaids had to be at the church early. Bella slept in. She could get a ride with one of the many caravans going between the church and house that day. Claire’s dress was a rosy pink, shiny, and made a crinkling sound like a piece of paper being wadded into a ball. Her stiff shoes were the same color.
With all of the commotion it wasn’t until after the ceremony outside the church that she saw Bella and stopped dead in her tracks. Bella had dyed her hair blonde. It wasn’t platinum or a bleach job but instead a warm blond, shining like honey in the sunlight. It took a few seconds for Claire to recognize her. “I was bored,” she said. “There was nothing to do. I found a box in your sister’s bathroom.”
Claire still had a headache from the night before. “Don’t snoop through my house,” she snapped and walked away. She was furious, of course. She had every right to be. If she would have known she would have dyed her hair too. Or at least gone with her mother and had the red streak taken out. The only reason she didn’t was because they didn’t have an appointment for Bella and so Claire kept hers in as well. She felt stupid. And why was she snooping? She had no right to snoop.
Bella tried to talk to her at the reception but since Claire was sitting up front with the wedding party it was close to impossible, not helped by the fact that Claire was also pretending to ignore her. Claire was able to drink freely, though there were no pina coladas. She saw Bella sitting at a table with a bunch of Doug’s guy friends, flirting, it seemed, always a drink in her hand too.
When the dancing started, Claire had to have her first with Doug. He was a doofus. Yes, he was a very handsome, or at least cute, doofus. She recognized that, and that he was popular and smart, but there was the matter of how he treated her. He either ignored her or goaded her. From the time she was old enough to capture memories it had always been him picking on her or simply pretending she didn’t exist. Lately he had been acting nice to Bella but still made her feel like a small dog about to be kicked. Maybe it was just something about boys. Girls weren’t human until they got big boobs. His date was still sick and she felt a little sorry for him because not only had he been up half the night vomiting, he was now also solo. He smelled good and his arms felt strong. His sideburns were coming in thick. Unlike everyone else in a tuxedo, he looked like he owned his. It fit him perfectly. “You should dance with Bella,” she said.
“Frick and frack have a falling out? I see the two of you don’t even look alike anymore. What, you’re not the same person anymore? Yeah, I’ll dance with her.”
Doug and Bella danced one fast one and then a slow one, his hand resting just below her bow. Claire watched them. When her back was turned it didn’t look like Bella at all. From behind she looked like some pretty blonde stranger, someone her brother picked up, someone his age. After the second dance he drifted to some friends and Bella sought Claire out. “I wish you wouldn’t be so mad. I love you. I didn’t want to ruin your day. I’ll dye it back tomorrow. I promise. Jim. I think his name is Jim. The fondler.”
“I’m sorry too,” Claire said. “It might be Jim but it might be James.” She hugged her and even though she had accepted the apology already, when she smelled the dye coming off of Bella’s hair, she retracted it a little inside of herself.
They danced together and had even more drinks. They suspected the alcohol had been watered down because neither of them felt drunk, though they certainly exhibited all of the signs of being inebriated. It was just that they didn’t feel it. Claire was forced to sit and tell a series of relatives all about herself and to pretend to be interested in who they were, let alone whatever they were going on and on about, telling her she was the spitting image of some Aunt Ida she never heard of and for good reason, being Aunt Ida died fifty years ago. While they were talking she wondered where the fondler would hit next, where he was right at that moment, what he was doing. Was he sleeping? He did need to stay awake in the middle of the night so he must have rested sometime. Maybe he slept all day like Dracula and only came out at night, wandering the neighborhoods, trying to heal the wound that most certainly must have been his heart, not thirsting for blood but instead for an even more essential life-force. Maybe even for her. For Claire. Maybe right at that moment he was pouring through middle school yearbooks and had come upon her picture, was looking up her address, was right then sitting in her backyard waiting for her to come home, turn off the lights and get into bed. Maybe he had seen her at the mall one day and followed her. The thought that she and Bella shared a bed nagged at her. What if it was her neck he kissed? Maybe it would be Bella he was following in the first place and he had never noticed Claire at all. She did have full sized boobs while Claire’s were just beyond the nubbin stage. When school started Bella would have to go back to her own house, her own family, as meager as that family was. Claire was getting sick of sharing everything with her. She was sick of the way her parent’s treated her like she was an actual daughter. Her mother bought her things, her father fixed her bike and taught her how to play a song on the piano, the two of them sitting next to each other on the bench, their legs touching, him taking her hand in his and showing her which fingers to use with which keys. Then there was Doug, him always ogling at her breasts, all the wrestling and tickling with her, though who could blame him, the way she showed them off. She was surprised her father didn’t stare at them too. Her bras were too small for her, her shorts too tight; her shirts came nowhere near reaching her belly. Not having enough money to buy new clothes is no excuse to dress like a slut, Claire uncharitably thought.
She had another drink, this time flirting with the teenage boy working the open bar and getting him to pour her mostly alcohol with just a splash of mixer. Boys always were such pigs. His tongue was practically hanging out while he punched what he thought was Claire’s cell number into his phone. She gave him Bella’s number, said her name was Bella. The drink tasted poisonous but she managed to finish it. What she would have liked to do was find Bella and rip that pretty dress right off of her, tear it right off of her there in front of everyone, though of course all the boys, especially her brother, would immediately fall in love with her if they saw her just in her panties, panties that actually belonged to Claire herself and were far too small for Bella, disappearing into her butt crack even though they weren’t a thong. There was too much noise, with a band playing pop songs and wedding classics, “Mandy” and “Feelings” and all the rest, a disco ball spinning, directing a kaleidoscope of color into her face. The room was warm, crowded and everywhere she tried to turn there were either tables or couples swaying slowly to the music. One of those couples was Doug and Bella and so she staggered her way across the dance floor, bouncing from one couple and off another like a human pinball, only to realize it wasn’t them at all. It was actually two men having a conversation.
She needed a ladies room which she thankfully found but the line was too long so she let one of Doug’s friends take her into the men’s room and he stood watch, listening while her urine hit the water. He hadn’t seen Doug in over an hour. He hadn’t seen her cute blonde friend either, as he described Bella. She wandered around the perimeters of the ballroom but couldn’t find a sign of either of them. She was calmer now. If they wanted to hang out together, her friend and her brother, it was fine with her. It was the alcohol speaking in her before. She was horrified that she had wanted to tear Bella’s dress off. It’s just that the summer had been so hot and was dragging on forever, day after day of trying to figure out what to do, how to stay cool. She was also worried about the fondler. Eight days was a long time, eight straight mornings of her being the first up, running out and checking the local paper, looking for any mention of him, standing there at the end of the driveway in her nightshirt, ripping it apart section by section and finding none.
She needed the bathroom again and on the way ran into them, the two of them together, coming out of an elevator, Claire draped against Doug like he was the only thing holding her up, which it turned out he was. One of her knees was bleeding, it looked like a terrific scrape, some of the blood already drying black and crusting, preparing to scab. The bow had been torn off her dress or in any event was missing and her back was red and scratched, with small stones sticking to her skin, and indentations where presumably there had been other stones.
“Hi, my sister,” Bella slurred. Her voice sounded ugly.
“What did you do to her?” Claire said.
He looked around to see if anybody heard. “Shhh. I didn’t do anything to her.”
Claire didn’t like the way he emphasized the word to, as if he did something, just not to her.
“You’re the one who stuck me with her,” he said. “Here. Take her back and get her the hell out of here.” He pushed Bella toward her but Claire missed and she fell to the floor, curled up in a ball and seemed to fall asleep.
“Where the hell were you two? Where did you take her?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, little sister. You’re not perfect. I know about your drinking. We went up on the roof. She needed air. The roof is covered in stones. She fell. She laid down. She puked. Get her home or somewhere. Send her to her own house. Why the hell is she at our house all the time anyway? Don’t fucking tell Mom and Dad I was on the roof with her, that I was with her at all. Especially don’t tell Dad.” He handed her a twenty dollar bill. “Get her home in a cab pronto. I’ll cover for you.” He helped Claire get her to her feet and directed her back into the elevator. “Let her sleep it off.”
“You come with,” she said, imagining her and Doug together and conspiring. Sharing a secret.
“I’ve had enough of that fruitcake. She keeps telling me she loves me.” He pushed the button for the first floor and while holding the elevator doors open with his hands, as if in a display of super strength, said, “Don’t listen to any of her crazy talk. She’s saying a lot of crazy things. On and on and on. It never ends. Why is she always at our house, running around in her underwear? Even with clothes on she looks naked. It has to stop. I don’t think she knows what it does to people.” The door closed.
Claire struggled to walk Bella through the lobby to the exit where she hoped she could find a cab. It wasn’t like this was a big city with taxis racing up and down the streets. They passed a couch and Bella sprung from her grip, fell onto it and curled back into a ball. Claire would have liked to sleep too but instead she diligently called a cab company and then collapsed onto a chair to wait. At this point, she didn’t mind waiting. The longer Bella slept the easier it would be to gather her up and when it was time to go. Why was it that she had to be the responsible one? Weddings were supposed to be fun and she felt nothing but misery. She wished all of the relatives would go back home. She wanted the heat wave to break so she could go back upstairs to her own bedroom and sleep in her own bed. It would give her the excuse to kick Bella out too, being that it was a single bed. If Bella wanted to live in the basement she could, Claire thought. Or in her sister’s old room, as long as it wasn’t Doug’s room when he left, but Claire needed her own space, a place to call hers and hers only.
The taxi driver, a bald sweaty man with crooked wire glasses, a bloated face and a tee shirt with yellow underarm stains, refused to help move Bella but Claire managed herself, dropping her only twice and banging her head against the door on the way out onto the sidewalk, while the driver stood and watched, enjoying the show. The hit on the head seemed to wake her up. In the ride, she whispered to Claire. Or at least she thought she was whispering but because she was drunk, was loud enough for anyone within spitting distance to hear, including the cab driver. “I lost my panties,” she said, and as if to prove it, pulled up her dress. They were stopped at a light and the driver actually spun around and tried to see but Claire acted quickly in covering Bella back up again. He kept staring at her in the mirror, smiling, his teeth small and gray. He had a sour smell about him, like milk gone bad.
“Where are they?” she whispered to Bella.
“Dougie has them. Dougie has my panties,” she practically shouted. “I told him to leave them alone but he wanted them so bad. I didn’t tell him they were yours. Your brother has your panties in his pocket. He sniffed your panties.” Then she did whisper, “He did it to me. I told him to stop but he kept doing it anyway. I didn’t want him to but he made me. Don’t be mad. I love him so much. I’m glad he did.” Her eyes rolled back into her head and she was out again.
“You and my brother had sex? You and Doug? You had sex with my brother?” She knew she was talking to herself, as Bella was in no state to hear or comprehend, or at least thought she nobody was listening.
“Already screwing, at that age” the driver said. “How old are you girls anyway?”
“Eighteen,” Claire lied. “Or at least she’s eighteen. I’m only sixteen.”
“That’s a mighty young looking eighteen,” he said.
“She’s eighteen. Here. I’ll show you.” She rifled through Bella’s wallet, pretending to look for her license and came across a picture of Doug, a picture she recognized from when it was above her dresser, stuck in the frame of a mirror. “She left it at home. But she’s eighteen. We had a huge party for her birthday.” She went on to describe the nonexistent party, hinting at alcohol and drugs and sex.
“You ladies should come out and party with me,” he said. “I’m just getting off shift.”
Claire looked at Bella lying there, her head slumped back, mouth open, a string of drool crawling down her skin. It was easy to tell her hair was a home dye job. The black peeked through in places when her hair was splayed, as it was then. It looked cheap. “Dougie,” she moaned.
“Pull over,” Claire said. She took out a notepad and a pen from Bella’s purse and wrote out an address. She gave it to the driver and said, “I’m getting out now. Just drop her off here, at this address. It’s where she lives with her mom but her mom won’t be there. Nobody will be there. Here’s the key. Just go right on in and find her bedroom. It won’t be hard, there’s only two. It’s real small. Nobody will be there.”
“Should I put her to bed?”
“Tuck her in real good.”
“I should really tuck her in? Should I put her in her pajamas?”
“She sleeps naked,” Claire says.
“Naked, does she?”
“Not even a pair of socks. Like on the day she was born. I know, I usually share a bed with her. She’s quite beautiful. She’s posed nude before. In magazines and stuff. She’s very proud of her body. She likes boys to see her naked.” His smile was hideous but talking like this excited her. She couldn’t see his hands but she was sure she knew where they were and what they were doing. “Do you sleep naked?” he said.
Claire felt a burning on the back of her neck. There was a heat building between her legs. “I’m much too modest. I was raised better than that. Her mother’s a prostitute,” she said, wiping the drool from Bella’s mouth with a tissue. “Bella will probably be one too, or at least a stripper. It runs in the family. Is this enough money?” She handed him the twenty.
“This isn’t going to give me much of a tip.” She had some money in her own purse but didn’t want to spend it. She wanted a new blouse and was also sick and tired of paying for Bella every time they went to the Sweet Shop. She went back into Bella’s wallet and found the fifty dollar bill, the one her father gave to her, the one she refused to spend even if it meant other people paying for her. It belonged to Claire now. Bella owed her at least that much money, not counting rent and food. It was a down payment and she intended to collect on the rest. “Give me the twenty back and take this,” she said.
“I get to keep this?”
“Just make sure you give her extra special treatment, okay? Extra special. I’m going to warn you. She has a reputation. No definitely means yes though she hardly ever says no.”
“How about you coming along?”
“I have a boyfriend that I have to go meet now, but just take care of her.” She made sure to take Bella’s cell phone out of her purse and put it into her own.
“Extra special,” he said.
She shook Bella enough where she was somewhat alert. “Baby, this nice man is going to take you home. Do whatever he says. He’ll take good care of you.”
“Don’t leave me, Claire. Don’t leave me.”
“I’m not leaving you, baby. You’re leaving me.”
The taxi pulled away from the curb in a roar and its lights quickly faded in the distance. It was dark by then. The streetlights were glowing yellow, there was a breeze rustling the full branches of the trees, the leaves glimmering in the light. She took Bella’s phone and smashed it onto the street, kicking the pieces into the sewer. She pulled her shoes off and threw them as far as she could. She started to run. The breeze became an actual wind and blew her hair back. She felt wonderful. Her head was clear, as clear as it had ever been. She would be home alone for at least a few more hours. All alone. She would open every window in the house, take out the screens and get into bed. Then she would just lie there and wait, wait for the feeling between her legs to keep growing and growing until it eventually took hold of her entire self.