Victorian Novel

by Jay O'Shea

Claire was my weekend lover but I figured she wouldn't mind me turning up on a Thursday. I was pretty sure she would mind about the girl but that was a bridge I planned to cross later.

I could see her sitting in her rocking chair as I approached her building. Cast in the light of her reading lamp, bathrobe draped around her, she smiled out into the darkness at the sound of my footsteps. As if she knew it was me. By the time I got to her bedroom door, she had already crossed the room. She didn't say anything, just sidled in close.

Claire's short. You wouldn't realize it if you looked at her from a distance. She has an athletic physique that makes you think of sharp, sudden action. You'd think she was a big, muscular girl. She's not. I wondered if it affected her tennis game, being little. Maybe that's why she never went pro. I could've asked her, I suppose, but I never did.

Anyway, Claire is short enough that when she slides up next to me, she tilts her head to look in my eyes. Some short people, they look like children when they do that. Not Claire. When she lifts her chin, she looks defiant, not beseeching.

She flicked off her bathrobe, a minor annoyance. She was naked underneath.

We made love, swiftly, fluidly but with no sense of urgency. There was never a sense of urgency anymore. That didn't bother me; I liked the ease I felt around her, even in bed. Especially in bed.

Her head rested on my shoulder, blond hair fanned across my chest. When I told her about the girl, a blank, tight expression pushed away her smile.

"Oh for fuck's sake." She sat up, drawing the sheet around her. Claire had an English boyfriend once and she still used some foreign expressions. It pained me to hear them; it reminded me there was a whole world to Claire I would never know.

"She followed me home," I said.

"She followed you here."


"She's not a cat."

"I know," I said.

Claire waited as I explained.

The girl stood on the corner, under the streetlight. My first thought when I saw her was, that's brazen, a hooker right in front of the station. Not my problem, though; I was off duty. I took in the dirty clothes, the tangled hair, the way she looked everywhere but at me. If she was a whore, she wasn't a successful one.

I don't know when I decided I to go to Claire's instead of going home. The idea planted itself in my head before I knew it was there. I drove the few, short blocks to Claire's, floating down city streets the way you do when you're used to operating those boatlike squad cars. The girl trailed behind in the weeknight quiet of Claire's neighborhood. West Philly but they're calling it University City now.

I glanced in the rearview mirror, checked my holster and felt the bulk of metal. It was just habit. The girl was no perp. I could see that. She didn't twitch and scratch like a junkie. She wasn't scrapping for a fight like a cholita. Not that cholitas follow middle aged white men down side streets anyway.

She was just a scared, lost girl.

When I got out of the car, the street was empty. I heard footfall. The girl stepped into the glow of the streetlight. Slumped, clay-colored hair covering her eyes, she still managed to stare right at me.

"What do you want?" I asked.

She shook her head. Maybe she was a junkie after all. I couldn't see her eyes to check.

"Don't be afraid." I spoke louder this time. "I'm a cop. I can help you. What do you need?"

She shook her head again, harder. A schizophrenic without her meds maybe?

I turned away. She grabbed my wrist. Up close, her eyes were wild but clear, not junkie pinholes. She didn't smell like the street. Didn't smell like liquor. Behind the forest of hair, she grinned. Something told me she was alright, not crazy, not strung out, just alone, lost, and determined.

* * *

Claire stared at me as I finished.

"This is crazy," she said. "It's straight out of a Victorian novel. Some waif on a corner, under the street lamp…"

What did Claire know about Victorian novels? All I ever saw on her shelves were self-help and sports books: fitness, finance, emotional health, one or two on some spiritual fad, a few copies of Sports Illustrated, and a handful of magazines on interests that passed quickly: cooking, interior design, photography.

"It's strange," I said. "I'll grant you that."

"You're a cop," she said. "You're supposed to know what to do."

"Of course, it's a routine part of the job, weird girls following you home." I didn't have a right to be sarcastic but the words slipped out.

"Missing persons? Child protection services?  Any of them ring a bell?" Claire scowled.

"I don't want to send her back to where she came from. Whatever it is, it's not good. I mean, why doesn't she have a place to live? What's she running from? Her pimp? Some asshole boyfriend? A creep of a stepfather?"

"What about a homeless shelter?"

"You can't send a girl to a place like that. It's filled with men, perverts, winos, and plain old disgusting men. Not that they ever have a space anyway. Guys line up all day just to get a place to sleep."

I tried to explain what I knew – or thought I knew – about the girl. That her appearance wasn't an accident. She approached me for a reason. Why me among all the cops that came and went from the station?

Claire sat up on her knees and turned to face me.

"Fine, there's nothing wrong with her, aside from being dirty and homeless. Oh, and we don't know where she belongs. Why don't you bring her home, then?"

 "You can't just take in some street kid. Not without going through the proper channels."

"Like the ones I suggested?"

"OK," I said. "I'll think of something to do with her."

"And in the meantime?"

"Let me think," I said.

"You can't leave her on the street. You want to be the virtuous cop? Take her home with you."

"Claire, my wife …"

"Of course." Her sigh was tight and heavy. "It's always your wife. You know, there was a time when I wanted you to divorce her for my sake. Now, I want you to do it for your sake."

"It's not that simple."

"As simple as what?"

"As when you're not married," I said.

"Marriage is being beholden to someone you don't even love?"

"That's not what I mean," I said.

"Are you lying to me?" she asked.

"No," I said. I wasn't.

"It's not like you're staying together for the kids."

"Obviously," I snapped.

"Didn't realize it was a sore point," she said.

Claire got out of bed. She put on her little white socks, then her robe.

"Where is she now?" She asked.

"Outside," I said.

Claire's face hardened, a shutter lowering over a window.

"It's freezing out."

"She's been out all night looks like."

"You care enough to let her follow you but not enough to make sure she's warm? What the hell is wrong with you?"

I lifted myself off the pillow. A foolish thought ran through my head: if I moved quietly and smoothly, I could get out of Claire's apartment and avoid her rage.

Claire opened the door and gestured the girl inside. She stood in the foyer, wrapping her windbreaker around her and shivering, the filth on her skin and clothes all the more obvious in Claire's neat apartment. Claire saw it too; she asked the girl if she wanted a shower.

No reply.

"She doesn't seem to speak," I said.

Claire sighed. She pointed to the bathroom. The girl shook her head. Claire tried to rephrase, or restage, it as a command, stabbing her finger toward the showerhead.

The girl pointed to Claire's bathrobe. It took us a moment to understand: she didn't want to get back into her dirty clothes. Claire pulled an old flannel robe out of the closet and handed it to the girl. While she showered, Claire laid out sheets and blankets on the couch that took up most of the living room.

"You can't let her stay," I said.

"You're the one who brought her here," Claire said.

"She could rob you blind," I said.

"You're going to kick her out?" She asked.

Once the girl was settled, Claire and I went back to bed. Seeing her yawn and stretch out beside me, I could almost forget the girl in the other room.

"I'm thinking about moving to New York," she said.

"You say that every few months." I kissed her forehead. People need to say these things sometimes; it keeps them content.

"I'm serious."

"They need tennis instructors in New York?"

"They need everything in New York." She paused. "Want to come?" She spoke so quietly it could slip by unheard.

"I'm a second rate cop in a second rate town." I laughed but it came out hard and brittle. "I've found my niche."

She turned away.

I woke at five, my arm wedged under Claire's head. Numb.

"Shit," I jumped up.

Claire blinked in the sudden, incongruous beam of light. Its yellow was angry, admonishing me.

"What?" Claire said.

"Early shift," I said. My stomach growled, already feeling weak coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts gnawing at its lining.

"What do you tell your wife?" Claire muttered, as if she were a normal mistress and mine a normal marriage.

* * *

Claire met me at the door the next time I came over.

"The girl moves things," she said.

"What kind of things?"

Claire led me to her bedroom. The dresser jutted out into the room. Underneath, the wood floor was smooth, no skid marks tracking its surface.

My back seized up when I lifted its end. I was relieved to see Claire grimace, too. We lugged the dresser back into place. By the time we finished in the bedroom, the bookshelf was out of place in the foyer and the end table shifted in the living room. Moving them was too much effort. We went back to the kitchen.

The girl sat at the table in a pair of clean, faded Wranglers, a U Penn sweatshirt, and Converse hip tops; I guess Claire took her to a thrift store. Her hair hung over her face as she bit into a pop tart. Her mouth was covered with crumbs. She was small and slight. Not small in a Claire kind of way, packed with tight, explosive muscles. Small as in scrawny.

Tomato sauce simmered on the stove. I opened a bottle of wine. Claire mentioned New York again as she drained the pasta.

"I'm ready for a change," she said.

"Change is one thing," I said. "Moving to New York is another. It's a bit drastic, don't you think?"

"It's two hours away," she said. "It's hardly drastic."

"Do you even know anyone in New York?"

She didn't answer.

"I thought you might come with me," she said.

The girl ate Hershey's kisses from a bag. She pulled them out one at a time, unwrapping them and crumpling up the foil, then snapping the chocolate in half with her front teeth. I glanced at her, then back at Claire.

Claire shrugged.

"Not my kid," she said. "She can ruin her appetite all she wants." She smiled at the girl and the girl, through her curtain of hair, smiled back. At least I assumed it was a smile. With her mouthful of chocolate, it looked like a grimace.

"I've got my wife to think about," I said.

The girl jerked her head up. She turned to look at Claire, then back at me. Wiping the chocolate from her mouth, she pointed at Claire.

I shook my head.

The girl dropped her eyes to the bag of chocolates. She unwrapped a Hershey's kiss, fumbling as she tore at the foil. She bit down hard, cracking the chocolate against her teeth and smacking her lips.

* * *

Often a week went by when I didn't call Claire. Things got busy at the station and I didn't want to call from home. My wife wouldn't have noticed but, with some things, you still stand on ceremony. I guess I could have called from some street corner or while grocery shopping, but it wasn't like that with us. We didn't worry about phone calls. I just showed up and there she was.

On Friday, I stood on her doorstep, a bottle of wine in my hand, ringing the buzzer. Her apartment was dark. I checked the row of nameplates, as if that might tell me something, and listened to the bell echo in the empty house. I let myself in. The space was littered with the debris people leave behind: dust bunnies, receipts, and balled-up wads of notepaper. The girl's red windbreaker lay crumpled on the living room floor. Otherwise, the room was empty. The CDs were gone, so were the end table and the lamp. The phone left a vacant square where the dust built up around it. Reminding me I didn't call Claire; why, just this once, didn't I?

The bookshelf was still there but empty. Almost. There were one or two books left, little beige hardcovers, like they sell at street markets. They rested lopsided and off kilter with nothing to support them.

Questions ran through my head and nightmares came as the answers. What did the girl do to Claire? Who did she know who hurt Claire? Was Claire dead? Kidnapped? Why did they clear out her apartment?

Why did I bring this girl to Claire's home?

Claire's bed was still in her room, naked without its covers. The dresser, too. The rocking chair and the reading lamp were gone.

On top of the dresser was a note. Addressed to me.

Gone to New York. Needed a change. It had to happen now. I'm sorry.

That was it. No forwarding address. No let's meet when I'm next in town.

I knew how it would go. I would call Claire's cell but she wouldn't pick up. She would recognize my number – she wouldn't add me to her contacts – and ignore the call. I would spend my days off back in Torresdale, my house with its white siding and tiled roof, sedan parked in the driveway. My wife, her hair limp gray, face pinched, barely noticing I was back. My neighbors drinking beer and barbecuing in cramped backyards.

Second rate cop, second rate town.

BIO: Jay O’Shea is the author and editor of several books on dance. Her essays have been published in three languages and six countries. Her novel The Alchemy of Loss is currently seeking a good home. An enthusiastic, if somewhat inconsistent, practitioner of yoga, rock-climbing, and martial arts, she lives and works in Los Angeles.