Rules of Estrangement

 

 

The first rule of murder club: You don’t talk about murder club

 

There was always someone new at the paper, or so it seemed to Cindy—a different humorless, wiry, balding guy with rectangular glasses and tight, loudly patterned shirts who was surprisingly not gay, had self-esteem issues possibly related to penis size, was called something like Craig or Dirk or Derek, and was always lording his wee bit of power over Cindy by presenting her with half-assed assignments from the Editor-in-Chief. This week’s Craig-Derek-Dirk was now positioned on Cindy’s desk, half-sitting, half-leaning, as if he were a drag queen chanteuse in training. Cindy wondered if this one was indeed gay. She waited for him to burst out in a rendition of “My Heart Will Go On,” but instead he pulled out his cell phone and idly toyed with it.

 

“So—you know The Boxer,” began Craig-Derek-Dirk.

 

“You mean the Simon & Garfunkel song? Yeah, but just the part that goes, la la la! La la la la la la—”

 

He winced. “No, genius. I mean Lindsay Boxer. The detective.”

 

She knew, of course, what he had meant. Perhaps the club was not quite on the downlow as Cindy had initially envisioned it, but nonetheless she hedged.  “Sort of.”

 

Before she could ask why, Craig-Derek-Dirk opened his cell phone and placed it lovingly, reverentially, in the palm of his hand. As it sat cradled in front of Cindy’s face, a video clip played. Cindy watched as a lanky, blurry figure with flowing dark hair—suspiciously Lindsay Boxer-like—chased a middle-aged man over what looked like a gold course before tackling him and sending both of them into a lake. Chaos ensued, at least for the recorder of the video: Cindy watched a series of blurry shots of the crowd, including a liver-spotted hand and someone’s plaid pants. Distant voices were heard—amid the chatter Cindy recognized Lindsay’s growl and her partner’s smooth retort. But after thirty more seconds, the frame filled up with Jacobi’s angry face: “You wanna record me sticking this phone up your ass?”

 

Of course, Cindy knew about the incident—everybody did, and all she could do was silently curse her bad luck at missing an opportunity, perhaps never so shamelessly presented again, to see Lindsay in wet clothing.

 

Thus ended Craig-Derek-Dirk Theater. The phone snapped shut. “You can also see it on YouTube,” he added.

 

“Wow,” Cindy said.

 

Craig-Derek-Dirk narrowed his eyes at this bit of insubordinate sarcasm, but plowed forward. “Bit of a faux pas for the police—a detective recorded cursing out a senior citizen.”

 

He has to be gay, Cindy thought. What straight guy would use the phrase “faux pas”?

 

“So word has tumbled down from the top—the police department needs some good publicity, and we have to provide it. In other words, we need a fluff piece. And since you, my dear, are a bit of a fluff piece yourself and you know The Boxer—“

 

“Only in the most tangential sense—” Cindy interjected. And sadly not a Biblical one, she thought.

 

“Big word, color me impressed!”

 

Cindy raised an impudent hand. “—and by the way, seriously, why do you keep calling her ‘The Boxer’?”

 

Craig-Derek-Dirk barely restrained his hauteur.  “We’re trying to build up a mystique about her, Cindy.”

 

“Mystique?” Thus far to Cindy, the only remotely mysterious thing about Lindsay Boxer was the fact that she had ever been married. To a man.

 

Exasperated, Craig-Derek-Dirk sighed. “Just listen. We want you to do a profile of The Boxer.”

 

“No. No. No. Are you crazy? She’ll hate it. She’ll hate me.” Cindy gnawed her lip. “Why not Jacobi? He’s the one who screwed up.” Although Jacobi would, no doubt, be as recalcitrant and hostile a subject as Lindsay, there would be no mindlessly giddy lust clouding her mind and making her feel like a complete masochist as she tolerated every stoic, sarcastic answer.

 

Again, Craig-Derek-Dirk bestowed upon Cindy a look of thinly veiled disgust at her earnest, obvious questions. “He’s not as pretty.”

 

And Cindy could not argue with that. Poor Jacobi.

 

 

The second rule of murder club: You don’t talk about sleeping with Lindsay either

 

Saturday night encroached stealthily upon the city, gradually unfolding all its usual gaudy, tricked-out promises: Bright lights and free-flowing pleasures. Saturday night in San Francisco was sort of like that guy Mystery on that VH-1 show, whatever it was called, Cindy thought: Best viewed through a drug-and-alcohol haze, with all contact severed the moment sobriety and daylight crept in. Yes, as far as Cindy was concerned, Saturday night (if shortly before 6 p.m. counted as such) was not all right for fighting, but just perfect for passive-aggressive snooping. She sat at Lindsay’s desk in the squad room, on the pretense that she was waiting for the detective, and surreptitiously pried open a desk drawer with the edge of her sneaker, hoping for the informative goldmine of an illuminating private journal (Dear Diary, Today I kicked ass again and glowered at everyone so seductively that at least a dozen women in my path wet themselves and my pussy ex-husband groveled at my feet. I am made of awesome!) Instead it revealed candy wrappers, old Chapstick, and a pair of bikini briefs.

 

Among Cindy’s family, she was known for being grabby—growing up, her hands had been smacked on a regular basis as she went for forbidden cookies, extra dinner rolls, and the remote during reruns of Charles in Charge—and this moment showed no deviation in this impulsive pattern. Cindy grabbed the briefs and quickly, quietly shut the desk drawer.

 

Her chest tightened with a mix of fear, anticipation, and erotic elation. She pictured tossing them on Craig-Derek-Dirk’s desk: Couldn’t get the interview. Will these do?

 

This delicious moment of quasi-triumph came to quick, dismal end when she realized that Jacobi loomed over her. Unshaven, and clad in a black overcoat, he appeared far more menacing than usual. It didn’t help that his eyes glowed suspiciously, and in Cindy’s powerful imagination she feared that perhaps he had developed the power to immolate the guilty and the unsuspecting with laser beams from his darkly glinting pupils.

 

Instead, he nodded curtly at the bundle of fabric in her guilty grasp. “Those better be yours,” he threatened quietly.

 

Cindy’s mouth opened and her jaw flexed quite willingly, but nothing approximating language emerged. She reopened the bottom drawer of Lindsay’s desk, returning the briefs to their dubious hiding place.

 

The uneasy staredown continued for approximately half a minute longer before Jacobi turned to leave, but not before he had the final word: “That’s what I thought.”

 

Hoping to look casually unperturbed by her encounter with Darth Jacobi, Cindy managed to wait only a minute before scuttling out of the squad room. 

 

She hoped to find solace in a frothy latte at the Starbuck’s three blocks away—knowing full well that “The Boxer” (I am going to kill Craig-Derek-Dirk, she thought) ran on coffee (and judging by her wiry frame, not much else) frequently procured from this particular locale. But there was no sign of Lindsay, so she slumped into an overstuffed chair, pulled out her notebook, and let whatever flowed from her pen make its way to the page. It was what she loved best: Losing herself within the act of writing. She was so thoroughly lost and enchanted with the nonsense that scrolled along the paper that she did not realize she had company.

 

It was Jill, looking lawyerly in an elegant pinstripe suit, her fine leather attaché bouncing saucily against a slim hip, and clutching a grande-something-or-other in one hand while cruelly abducting Cindy’s notebook with the other—for a writer, it was a capital offense that merited the death penalty. If only she weren’t secretly afraid of Jill.

 

“Whatcha workin’ on, Cindy Lou?” Jill chirped while ruffling the pages with a thumb.

 

As if outside her own body, Cindy was dimly aware of many things happening simultaneously: Making a protesting noise along the lines of “Gah!”,  leaping up and knocking over her latte, whose gloppy, sticky spray marked the messenger bag of a sullen young man with many unfortunate facial piercings and who apparently had taken lessons in glaring from Jacobi, while the remainder of said beverage splattered Pollock-like against Cindy’s pant leg and pooled in the crevices of her sneakers, and mumbling apologies to the young man while feebly attempting to blot the mess on his well-worn Chrome bag.

 

All this while the already-guffawing Jill (“‘Lindsay Boxer: San Francisco Treat’? Are you serious?”) settled in a chair across from Cindy to read a soft-core profile—well, Cindy hadn’t gotten to that part yet—about her dear best friend, Lindsay.

 

Latte sweetly squished in her left sneaker, a mound of soggy, dun-colored napkins formed a pyramid in front of her. Could the day grow any more humiliating?

 

Apparently, because Jill’s raucous peals of laughter could probably be heard all the way to Sausalito. All pretense of professionalism dissipated as she contorted like an epileptic with a spastic colon caught by a tickle monster. “Oh, God,” she wheezed. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. You are so crushed out on her. I knew it!”

 

“It’s for a profile,” Cindy stammered. “They want me to do Lindsay—I mean, do a profile on Lindsay.

 

“What the hell are they teaching in journalism school these days? ‘Raven tresses’? ‘Chocolate orbs’?” 

 

“It’s a rough draft!”

 

“Thank God. ‘Cause my azure orbs can’t believe what they’re reading!”

 

Defeated, Cindy sank further into her chair and fitted the heels of both hands into her eye sockets. As if self-blinding would help in the matter. She wasn’t certain how long she maintained this hopeless position before Jill’s laughter finally faded away. When she dared to look again, Jill was regarding the notebook in a thoughtful manner that was, Cindy thought, strangely melancholy. In the brief time they had known one another, Cindy had seen a parade of emotions march across Jill’s face—all of them vibrant and active, none of them possessing the aspect of the quiet repose she now witnessed.

 

But her own anxiety overrode this tiny sense of wonder at observing something that, she believed, she was not supposed to see. “You’re going to tell her, aren’t you?”  As soon as she said it, Cindy felt as if she were a soap opera actress.

 

Startled, Jill blinked. “Don’t be so melodramatic. It’s none of my business.” By way of apology, she gently slid the notebook across the littered table toward Cindy.

 

Before Jill had any second thoughts about reclaiming the notebook, Cindy snatched it back. Idly, she flipped through its damning contents. “No?”

 

“No.” Jill’s retort was flat, unreadable.  “But Cindy?”

 

Cindy looked up.

 

Jill leaned back and sipped her coffee. “Be careful what you wish for.”

 

The girl frowned briefly at her friend’s cryptic comment before turning her attention, once again, to those scrawled secret wishes that, now read by another, were granted an incipient power.

 

Why Cindy, of all people, chose not to pursue this tantalizing lead Jill could not say, but she was quietly relieved. She had already said too much. If her life sometimes felt bound by rules she ached to disobey, she knew that breaking this sacred, multifaceted one—don’t talk about the past, don’t wish for the future—would have larger consequences. She would have to let Cindy wade into the deep end alone; who knows, maybe she would emerge emotionally unattached and relatively unscathed. Unlike Tom. Unlike me.

 

Jill touched her lips to the edge of the coffee lid. Who the hell am I kidding?

 

 

The third rule of murder club: You let her in when she shows up at your door

 

Jill knew it was her even before opening the door. Who else would show up unannounced on a Saturday night? She even anticipated the pose: forearm braced against the door frame, head slightly bowed but with that dark, sly glance half-demanding, half-begging for entrance—Lindsay Boxer, the worst penitent ever. 

 

She knew she would offer Lindsay a glass of white Burgundy kept on hand just for her, something that would make them yearn for sweetness, something heavy that would roll on their tongues and season every word and gesture with regret. Something that would make them wish they were elsewhere, because the primary rule—the only inflexible, unbreakable one of their own exclusive club—was, you don’t fuck in the home you share with your boyfriend.

 

Lindsay was gazing past her, into the apartment.

 

“He’s not here.”

 

Lindsay’s shoulders loosened. “Saturday night at the ER, huh?”

 

“It was either that or watch me catch up on paperwork.” Jill stepped aside, permitting entrance. “So you can see why he would prefer the company of crackheads with gunshot wounds.”

 

Lindsay did not move from the doorway. Somehow she managed to stuff her hands deeper into those tight dark jeans as her shoulders took on an awkward, anticipatory hunch, not unlike a teenage boy bracing himself for either ecstasy or rejection.  Momentarily Jill felt disappointment at the deprivation—no matter how many times and in how many places she had witnessed it beforehand—of Lindsay making an entrance,  that swagger carrying with it that fleeting, spicy composite of leather, sweat, and soap. Always it evoked that first time—weeks after the miscarriage, lounging on the couch together, how natural it felt to press her face against Lindsay’s neck and tangle her hand in Lindsay’s shirt, how quickly came the recognition of I want this.  How ferociously it started, how it never seemed to stop, how all the rules heaped upon it only served as tinder for the fire:

 

Okay, we’ll only do it if we’re both not dating anyone. Relatively easy to break, since Lindsay hadn’t dated anyone since breaking up with Tom, and frankly, at heart Jill didn’t give a damn who was dating who. 

 

Okay, only if one of us is having a really, really bad day. Again, easy: Lindsay was always pissed off about something. Last week she had been mad when Jacobi bought her a latte made with whole milk and not skim. If similar minor mishaps resulted, like this one, in Lindsay riding her like a rodeo star, she would gladly bribe Jacobi to screw up his partner’s coffee every day.

 

Okay, only if Claire runs out of tootsie rolls in the skull. Luckily, Cindy had petitioned frantically for tootsie rolls to always be present in Claire’s candy skull.

 

Okay, only if it’s Friday and it’s raining. Jill was only happy when it rained.

 

“Ah.” Lindsay cleared her throat. “You wanna go out for a drink?” Translation: You wanna go to my place? I won’t let the dog watch this time.

 

“We can’t keep doing this. Well, I can’t keep doing this.” Jill briefly wondered how wise it was to conduct a personal conversation in a hallway more or less, but decided that the other tenants were probably just as busy and self-absorbed as she was, and didn’t give a damn about two women conducting what amounted to a half-assed affair.

 

Lindsay winced guiltily. “I know.”

 

“I feel like—like, shit afterward.”

 

“I know, I know. I’m sorry.” Lindsay rubbed her brows, pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’ll go.”

 

“Don’t go,” Jill blurted.

 

“But it’s not Friday. It’s not raining. I haven’t had a bad day.” Lindsay shifted nervously, hopefully. “Although when I saw Claire this afternoon, I did finish off all those tootsie rolls.”

 

“Ah. Poor Cindy.” Jill managed to keep her tone sarcasm-free.

 

Lindsay smiled wistfully. “Yeah.”

 

She was already fond of the kid; Jill knew that. It was only a matter of time before it went further. But beyond that? Men would come and go, as would infatuated, starry-eyed reporters, but Jill would always be around. She was the constant. And despite all the risks that entailed, she was but helpless in accepting the role—and unable to see how she could have it any other way.

 

Jill walked back into the apartment for her jacket. Her fingers curled around its collar, she hesitated, sighed, almost relented, but the moment passed quickly. She shook her head, grabbed her keys. “The rules are always changing with you, you know?”

 

As she turned to go, she saw that look of sad contentment, an acknowledgment of the one constancy in her life, on Lindsay’s face. “I know.”