Frank M. Meola has published in New England Review, the NY Times, and other places. He recently completed a novel and is working on a new one. He has an MFA from Columbia and teaches at NYU. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their two cats.
The letter came at a time in Lea’s life when she felt particularly disconnected from things. She was twenty-nine but already sensed the verge of middle age—“verge” as in cliff-edge. Her arms and legs were thinning, possibly because her body had not adjusted itself to her new, vegetarian diet. Either that or she had some horrible disease. She half-wished she could give up other things besides meat, such as her job as a paralegal and her boyfriend, Todd. Lea had begun to suspect that what she had was a paralife. On the morning the letter arrived, she had been up for several hours after a restless night, while Todd slept the sleep of the annoyingly complacent. Lea was struck by the envelope—light pink, scented like a perfume ad—and even more by the loopy, childish handwriting and the unfamiliar name and address in the upper left corner. She sat by the one window in her old wicker chair and began to read the letter over the New York street noise.
It was written by a woman named Dilma Lambert in Rockville Centre, Long Island. She had obviously mistaken Lea for someone else with the same name, although Lea couldn’t imagine how many Lea Bricks there could possibly be in the greater New York area, or anywhere else for that matter. She regarded her name as a cruel joke by her parents, although they always maintained that the name did not sound odd or funny to them. Dilma Lambert claimed to have known this other Lea Brick in the 1950s, when they were both growing up in Queens. Dilma had recently “lost” her husband—a phrase that always made Lea picture someone left carelessly in a shopping mall or a theater, wandering in search of their owner. Dilma was lonely. Dilma was going bonkers in fact in her cluttered little house. She watched the home shopping channels compulsively, but never ordered anything. She just liked to imagine all that new stuff transforming her home. In reality, she couldn’t even bring herself to throw out her husband’s decrepit old chair. The husband (Arnold) had died in it. He sort of gasped and slumped over, Dilma wrote. Heart attack. Years of smoking. Now she would often sit and look at the empty thing as if Arnold might reappear.
Lea put the letter down, looked out the window. Something about the letter disturbed her in a way she couldn’t pinpoint. She felt simultaneously that she was invading someone’s privacy and that the letter was in fact directed specifically to her.
It was an unseasonably warm day, in weather-report language, and the window was open onto the grimy street. The buildings across the way blocked the light. When she’d moved in two years ago, the view seemed bracing, stark, appropriate to the new life she was starting out in, a truly adult life after several post-college years of living with her parents. But lately all she could focus on out there were the dark streaks running down the gray, industrial facades. Right now a delivery truck was parked at the opposite curb, in front of the plumbing supply company. Reliable Fixtures the truck read. The words, for some reason, made her shudder.
Lea looked back into the room, the one room with its tiny attached kitchen. Todd was sprawled across the open futon as if he’d fallen from the ceiling. He lay on his belly wearing only his white jockey shorts. Something about his splayed posture, his grip on the pillow, made it seem as if he lived there, as if this were his apartment, not hers. This bothered Lea so much that she didn’t call out to him—he was half-awake already—to listen to the crackpot letter. Actually she didn’t feel it was crackpot at all, another reason she kept silent and continued reading.
Dilma had lost touch with all her old friends. She thought about looking some of them up, but she didn’t know their married names, couldn’t remember them, although she knew most were married. Except for Lea, who’d remained single and made a life for herself in Manhattan. Dilma herself dreamed of selling the house and moving to the city, and at least she’d know one person there.
Lea put the letter down again, unable to control an irrational thought: that in fact she was that Lea Brick, and she had known Dilma Lambert in the ’50s in Queens. She forced herself to laugh this off. She looked over at Todd, debating again whether to show him the letter. She decided she did not want to; she wanted to keep it private. She jammed it back into its envelope. Todd was stirring now. One leg had dropped off the futon onto the floor; he was slowly preparing to get up. Todd was as lazy before rising as he was alarmingly energetic the rest of the day. She had begun to think of this manic display of masculine dynamism as a symptom, a fever. Now the other leg hit the floor, and Todd pushed himself upright with his arms like a reversed film of a man falling.
“Quite a move there,” Lea said.
“Did you like that? I’m working on trying to get out of bed more quickly, with greater economy of motion. Life is too short.”
“And you’re too tall. You’ll injure yourself.”
“Nah.” He yanked on his jeans from the rug where he’d dropped them. “Coffee, coffee,” he said, beelining for the kitchen area.
That’s just what you need, Lea thought. Soon he would be dashing around the apartment putting everything in its place. Even if he didn’t know its place, he’d find one. Meanwhile she’d sit there feeling like some lady of leisure watching the housekeeper work. She should probably feel grateful, but she didn’t. She felt she was losing control, turning her life over to someone else. Not Todd, not exactly. Someone absent—the person this apartment seemed to belong to, along with most of the objects in it. That black and white Indian rug, the posters of contemporary gallery shows, the Southwestern-style sheets bunched up on the futon—whose were those? Todd might as well clean up for that person; she might arrive at any moment and was no doubt too busy to worry about cleaning. She led a hectic life and never slowed down, didn’t dwell. The only things in the room Lea really considered her own were the chair she sat in, the big antique dresser that had once been her grandmother’s, and her cat, Boris, at the moment hiding from Todd under that dresser. (Boris had never taken to Todd and would hiss and try to claw him as he passed by.) These were in fact the only things she had taken with her from home when she’d moved to New York. That sharper, more energetic Lea bought the rest of the stuff, although her ordinary self was left to pay the bills like a deserted wife.
She thought again about the letter. How could anyone be that lonely, she wondered, that isolated? Maybe it was a crank. She pulled out the envelope again, ran her fingers over the letters of her own name, not her own name, on the front. There was something alluring about the feel of handwriting. Nearly all of her exchanges nowadays were electronic; most of her friends lived out of town. This personal script was almost sensual by comparison, like a tender, feminine touch. Lea imagined herself writing back, pretending to be the long-lost friend. It made her recall junior high, when she wrote long pen pal letters to a girl in Ireland, letters filled with adolescent traumas and trivia. Lea had been one of those lonely, overweight girls whose bedrooms are havens, and those letters were like messages from a different, friendlier world. She never got to meet her pen pal, and the correspondence ended with high school. Lea’s mother had never approved of the letter-writing, especially as Lea’s involvement in it grew more intense; her mother claimed it put “crazy dreams” into Lea’s head.
Todd sat across from her now, on a modern chair only Swedes might find comfortable. His wiry body perched there like a gawky bird’s. One leg moved up and down restlessly, as if it were ready to take off by itself. Todd was a native New Yorker who regarded even Pennsylvanians like herself as the slow children in the class. He was always asking if she got enough vitamins. He bought tempting little steaks and offered to cook them, but they ended up going to Todd himself, or to already-overweight Boris.
“What you got?” he asked, gesturing with his coffee mug, which had her law firm’s logo.
“Oh, a letter from an old friend,” she said, tucking it away.
“Wow,” Todd said. “Snail mail. People still write letters?”
“Apparently some people do.” She spoke rather coldly without really knowing why.
Todd didn’t seem to notice. He gulped his coffee. “Well, what’ll it be today? A friend of mine has a photo exhibit opening. There’s the usual wine-and-cheese thing with it. Or we could see that new movie by that guy who did the one you liked so much last year, about the anorexic kid in Nebraska.”
“Autistic. And it was Iowa.”
“Well, anyway, we could do that.”
“Okay. Sounds good.”
“Whichever. Either one.”
“Please don’t do that. It makes me feel like shit.”
“Your indifference. Your lack of enthusiasm.”
Lea could not refute this. Enthusiasm was one of those words that had lost meaning for her lately. It was as though it was part of some golden oldie word list—hey, remember “enthusiasm,” that was a great one, and “passion,” boy we danced to that one over and over, and who could forget “fun”?
Todd was staring at her, looking annoyed, confused. She thought about the lovemaking of the night before. It was enjoyable, but there was also something desperate about it—all that moaning and heaving (mostly his) had begun to feel like the erotic version of a workout routine. To some extent it had always been that way, but for Lea it had gotten worse. Of course, they were different from one another. Todd was solid, direct, decisive. He had set out to be an artist but soon concluded that he wouldn’t be successful at it, so he started working at an ad agency, a career to which he now devoted himself as if making up for past sins of aimless creativity and wasteful disorganization. They’d met a year ago at a mutual friend’s party at a Tribeca loft. There was witty banter and semi-accidental touching, and they went home together. At first it was a classic case of opposite qualities seeking their completion, like puzzle pieces: she liked his dark features, his no-nonsense mode of talking, of moving through the world as if fully expecting it to accommodate his demands. And Todd liked her “tranquil intelligence,” the understated humor and reserved judgment which (somewhat patronizingly, she’d always thought) he ascribed to a sheltered, dreamy adolescence and a prolonged childhood.
She had for awhile enjoyed that sense of easy exchange and yin-yang accommodation—she sank into its warm bath. But increasingly she had come to dislike Todd’s presence, his large, galumphing body that barked coughs and directives with the same crude force. Sometimes, in bed, she wanted to push away that hard, hairy body as it grasped her. That morning she had begun to imagine it dead, inert there beside her, a thought that shocked her into getting up. She’d quickly dressed and walked out into the quiet, still street, lined with warehouses and wholesale outfits. The pavement shimmered like fish scales in the early light. She used to like the anonymity of the street, the commercial promiscuity of names and transactions. EZ Parking. Major Meats. On weekdays vehicles came and went, delivering and picking up. Communication was direct, pragmatic. Lots of shouting in guttural foreign languages. For a long time this impersonality had suited her, but it had become more and more unnerving. That morning on the street, it had seemed as if no one else was alive, or everyone but herself was. The few people who passed by her did not seem to notice her at all. After several minutes of walking in this invisibility, she noticed a man approaching her wearing only what appeared to be a woman’s housedress or a hospital gown, she wasn’t sure. Before the man reached her, she turned around and hurried back home where she spent the rest of the morning watching the street slowly come to Saturday life while Todd slept. At 10:30 she went downstairs to get the mail and found the letter.
. . .
Todd ended up walking out in anger, but not because of anything Lea said. It was her refusal to speak that finally got to him. In recent weeks, he had grown more and more impatient with her. It was a chicken-and-egg thing: she couldn’t be sure if her erratic behavior (abrupt irritation, tears, sullen silences) was the cause of his gradual withdrawal or the result of it. In any case, Todd was beyond the end of his rope with her. He was like a driver with somewhere to go stuck behind a lost tourist doing thirty. After Todd went off to the photo exhibit alone, Lea realized that all along she had wanted him to leave. Now she could be alone with the letter, which had come to seem more and more important. She wanted to answer it immediately. She found some rarely-used paper deep in her desk and began writing.
She told Dilma about the mistaken identity but immediately added that she (Lea) would be happy to continue corresponding. She told Dilma about herself: her job, the fact that she’d been thinking about a career change, maybe law school. The problem, she told her absent reader, was that after law school you become a lawyer. This was a transformation Lea wasn’t sure she wanted since she knew many actual lawyers. Anyway, she liked some of her work: the research especially, and the engagement with words, the ramifications of language. I have a boyfriend, Lea continued, a commercial illustrator who paints on the side as a sort of hobby. Sometimes I think I’m a sort of hobby for him too, just as he seems to me like a lingering habit—
Lea broke off here, alarmed at writing this to someone she didn’t know. And yet there was a sort of illicit joy in it, confiding to a person who might as well not be real.
As Lea thought about the other Lea, the intended correspondent, a sudden thought chilled her: maybe that other Lea had died; maybe she was writing for a dead person. A dead letter. With a nervous laugh, she tore the page into pieces.
. . .
On the day another letter from Dilma arrived, a week-and-a-half later, Lea woke up very early again and couldn’t get back to sleep. It was weirdly quiet; the only sound came from Boris, emitting mantra-like hums at the foot of the bed. She got up. It was predawn; the pink-orange streetlight and thin sun colored everything outside like some lurid photograph. The windows of the plumbing supply company were black, as usual, but Lea could make out vague shapes in the darkness. She thought she saw someone sitting there, eyelessly staring back at her. Jolted, she quickly shut the blinds.
She got to work around eight. Only a few people were there, mostly eager young associates, and she slipped into her cubicle seemingly without anyone noticing. She had a case to do some research on, a strange thing, dragging on and on like that case in Bleak House. Some guy was contesting his mother’s will because she had married a man with no legs, then left the man her entire estate. The case had become almost an obsession for Lea.
She had just begun taking some notes on her yellow pad when she heard two voices from a nearby cubicle. Although she recognized both (young male attorneys), they sounded strangely furtive, conspiratorial. One was describing a date from the night before—nothing unusual, the standard male bragging, but the tone was odd. Obsessive and self-satisfied, as if he were describing some act of revenge.
By eleven o’clock Lea was falling asleep over her work and felt a little nauseated. She told her supervisor she felt ill and wanted to go home.
She walked, as she did every day, from her Wall Street office through Trinity Churchyard to the subway. Often she ate lunch in the graveyard, sitting in an out-of-the-way corner, trying to read the names on the worn, mossy stones. Today she hurried through, only glancing up at the restored Gothic church. She had followed the slow restoration day by day, the gradual cleaning of the soiled sandstone. Every day a little more of the encrusted grime had disappeared, like winter clothes or callused skin, revealing something raw and pinkish and renewed underneath.
It was still sunny, and warm for early autumn, but everyone she passed seemed to be dressed in variations of gray. They were like pieces of the surrounding buildings, fallen fragments taking on a form of life. She had never noticed before how many shabby-looking people there were walking around in this luxe, vaulting city, how many seemed to be just clinging to respectability by the worn threads of their clothes. As if they might tip over any minute and fall into some abyss of degradation. She had also never before felt so much like one of them. Her own blouse, she noticed now, was wearing at the sleeve. It was a prim blouse she’d worn to her old job in Jenkintown, at the insurance office on Old York Road. She hadn’t worn it since then.
She had recently returned to Pennsylvania to visit her parents for the first time in over a year. Her father was retired now from the bank he’d worked in, and he seemed to have shifted his energies into somewhat compulsive, relentless leisure. Golf, running, classes in painting and woodworking at the local community college, finding endless new ways to use his computer. Maybe in reaction, her mother, who had long since given up work outside the home, seemed to have fallen into a despondent, mechanical state. Grace Brick’s hazel eyes would not meet Lea’s but drifted past her, as if searching out something or someone. She would not discuss Lea’s life in New York; she had always refused to acknowledge that her daughter had a life at all in the large, mysterious world beyond Grace’s often-closed window curtains. She spent most mornings at church—“like a goddamn Catholic,” Lea’s father said. “Like someone died. I expect her to start wearing black.” Lea spent most of the visit driving around Bucks County flea markets and antique shops with her father, while all the time thinking of her mother sitting at home, alone, mourning things she wouldn’t discuss. Lea had fled from the house, from serene Jenkintown, after three days.
Now, walking back to her apartment, Lea felt hungry and decided food might make her feel better. Across Broadway she spotted a Chinese stir-fry place. She sat at a table near the door, but before she could order anything a pungent urine odor wafted in from the steamy street. She glanced outside and saw an old woman in a tattered cape crouching on the sidewalk, a puddle spreading beneath her as if she were melting like the Wicked Witch of the West. Lea felt sick again and hurried outside, almost running until she reached her block.
She turned into her street and saw the man in the gown walking toward her. She wondered if he had escaped from a hospital or a mental institution. He passed by without looking at her. He smelled of something vaguely chemical, like rubbing alcohol or disinfectant.
As she approached her building, her legs felt like mannequin limbs. Sweat trickled down her arms. She was startled to find among her mail the second letter from Dilma Lambert, in the same type of envelope with the same flowery scent.
This was a longer letter. Dilma wondered why her old friend had not contacted her. She described her neighbors—some new families, some speaking languages she couldn’t understand. But mostly empty-nesters like herself, in houses needing constant upkeep. Many of her friends, though, had moved away—to Florida, Arizona, even Nevada. Dilma thought about getting a job, but what would she do? She hadn’t worked since her early twenties, before she married Arnold, when she had a job at the old Klein’s on Union Square. Here the language became more addled, repetitious, rambling, as Dilma began to lose her way in thickets of memory and sidetracked longings and regret. She ended up talking about her daughter, whom she rarely saw—I’ve nicknamed her Halley’s Comet, she wrote, and Lea could almost hear the manic humor in the words, the undertow of pain. On her daughter’s last visit, Dilma had talked about maybe studying cosmetology. “I think you’re going off the deep end,” the daughter had said. “Maybe she’s right,” the letter ended.
Lea did not know how to respond to Dilma. The desperation she could sense under all the chattiness haunted her. For a week she brooded over it—at work, on the subway, walking along the street. Strange things continued to happen. She saw the man in the gown three more times on her street. The third time he walked up to her and told her he was dying and needed money. There were patches of red on his grayish skin, like roses blooming in a bed of ashes. She gave him a dollar and he walked away laughing.
She began to notice unusual trucks in front of the plumbing supply company. One truck was completely white except for the words Used Parts stenciled in black on one side. No address or phone number or any other writing. Men in white loaded variously shaped, small cartons into the truck. She tried to imagine what plumbing stuff would fit into such packages, but instead she pictured body parts in the boxes. Then she saw her own body hacked up and carted off.
Todd did not phone. She hadn’t seen him or talked to him since he’d walked out.
Two weeks after she received the first letter, Lea sat down and wrote again to Dilma. She realized it was becoming absurd, but the activity had taken on its own life, like a self-gratifying secret habit. She found herself writing more about herself now. She began to understand how people got caught up in email and texting and tweets. And yet pen on paper was more intimate, more like the telephone somehow, distanced but bodily warm. Lea told Dilma about Jenkintown, amid the hilly Philadelphia suburbs with the stone buildings, the lush parks, the Quaker meetinghouses. She talked about her Presbyterian upbringing, her mother’s propriety, and how she herself had rejected her mother’s way of life. She had come to New York because she thought it would be exciting and different, and for awhile it was. The guys she met were exciting and different too, but Lea didn’t seem to know what she wanted from them. Lately time was passing so fast she couldn’t keep up; her word-a-day calendar at work was often several words behind the date. Yesterday the word “sepulchral” had come up, and she’d thrown the whole calendar into the trash. It must be nice to have children, Lea went on (rambling herself a bit), even if you don’t see them very often. They’re out there somewhere, like your future running around, doing things.
Lea read this over. It sounded self-absorbed and self-pitying, sarcastic and a little crazy. Not like the person she was raised to be. It was as if the descriptions of herself on sheets of paper were layers of shedding skin.
After mailing the letter, she passed some men coming out of the meat place, in overalls and masks, carrying a large box. They loaded the box into a truck marked Speedy Waste Disposal. Lea hurried away from the truck as if it might lunge at her.
. . .
Todd showed up again the following Saturday. Lea opened the door, and there he was, bearing flowers and a grin.
“Have you come to clean?” she asked, smiling back. “I can’t afford you.”
“I’ve tried to live without you, but I can’t,” he said in much the same jokey, aggressive tone.
“Ha,” she replied. “Well, come in. You know where the coffee is.”
They ended up making love before Todd cleaned. Boris hissed the whole time from under the dresser. This time they went out together in the afternoon to see a movie Lea chose, about alien-controlled sinkholes swallowing housing developments in Florida.
They had sex again that evening after dinner—all the tension seemed to have made them both horny. She sat in her rocker after Todd left for a party she didn’t feel like going to, and she soon began thinking not about him but about Dilma. All evening she found herself filling in details about Dilma, creating a person, and simultaneously creating a past in which she actually had this old friend.
As she lay in bed that night trying to sleep, Lea heard her neighbor moaning and sighing on the other side of the wall like a bad actor in a death scene. She heard him often and always assumed he was making love. Or just masturbating since she never heard anyone else. She pushed her head down into her pillow, which still smelled of Todd, and covered her other ear with her hand. She tried to think of something else and drifted back to the Dilma she was putting together. She saw her as a somewhat overweight woman with large breasts barely contained by a tight, black dress. Lea became aroused by the image. She reached between her legs and began to caress herself, aware of every part of her body. She thought of Dilma’s chubby, middle-aged hand stroking her, and she felt an orgasm slowly spread through her—the orgasm she had not had in either of the two sessions with Todd that day. Afterward she lay awake, perplexed, unable to separate anxiety from anticipation. And she realized that what she was anticipating with such fearful excitement was an actual meeting with Dilma.
. . .
Lea decided to call in sick the next day and take a morning train to Rockville Centre like a reverse commuter. She chose a different look for her trip; she would dress the way she’d wanted to (but never had) on her trips back to Jenkintown. She wore a black blazer over black jeans and an oversized, white T-shirt, and she put on her black, wraparound sunglasses. She arranged her hair so that blond spikes stood up here and there like antennae. She looked like a Nordic Yoko Ono from Mars.
Lea had never been on the Long Island Rail Road. Bumping through Queens in a shabby commuter car seemed like a voyage into an exotic, vaguely threatening country. She watched the rows of attached houses go by. They looked like parts of severed houses, forced into union with other mismatched halves. They seemed to huddle together in fear and confusion. As the train crossed into Nassau, the environment was more like the one she’d grown up in—larger lawns, separate houses, more trees.
She got off at Rockville Centre, a shabbier station than she’d imagined. Graffiti on the dirty walls. Newspapers and trash. But there were well-dressed people on the platform, mostly men in suits, who gave her amused, sometimes flirtatious looks as she passed.
Lea crossed to the nearest store, a small grocery. The fat, bald man behind the counter, who seemed to smell of sausage, gave her directions to Dilma’s address. He asked if she knew Dilma and she said yes. He nodded slowly and murmured “hmm.” Lea decided to buy some coffee cake to bring to Dilma.
The streets were lined with sycamore and oak trees and modest houses. She noted the variety of styles, as if choosing a prospective place to live. Tudor, Colonial, Cape Cod, split-level, ranch. All the houses looked a little rundown; some seemed abandoned. An elderly man paused while washing his car to observe her go by; she felt her strangeness as palpably as the clothes against her skin. The address that was Dilma’s belonged to a smallish Cape Cod with red shingles. The front door was white and had a brass knocker. In front of it was a white, aluminum screen door with a black eagle on it. A small lawn, divided in half by a walkway, sloped down to the sidewalk. The grass was scruffy, overgrown. At the side of the house she glimpsed an old brazier and a twisted bicycle rusting in the autumn sun.
Lea walked up to the door. Beneath her feet a black mat read Welcome Friends. Close up, she could see that the red shingles were peeling badly. She rang the bell. Silence. She waited a minute or so, then tried the screen door. It opened, and she rapped the brass knocker on the inner door.
After a few seconds, the door slowly began to open, and Lea was struck first by the smell—an overwhelming odor of stale food, dirt, roaches. She recognized it from lots of Manhattan vestibules and apartments. It seemed bizarre here. But more bizarre was the person opening the door: a short, frail woman with densely wrinkled skin like that of the very old, wearing bright red lipstick and rouge and a curly brown wig. She stepped toward the light from a cave-like darkness; her greenish eyes gazed at Lea with a lack of focus that suggested blindness. But she blinked, and it was clear she could see Lea, even if she wasn’t quite registering her reality. The woman wore a long, stained housedress with a paisley pattern, and her body gave off a smell that triggered in Lea a very specific memory: of the librarian in her elementary school, from whose armpit a similar odor wafted each time she reached for a high bookshelf.
“Are you Dilma Lambert?” Lea asked.
“Yes.” Lea noticed teeth missing.
“I am Lea Brick.”
Dilma’s mouth opened into a nearly-perfect circle, but she did not speak the “Oh.”
“I… I…” she stuttered. “I didn’t expect…”
“I was curious.” Lea was suddenly aware that this was not a very good explanation for showing up at a stranger’s door unannounced. But Dilma seemed surprised, not annoyed or shocked. Lea noticed crusty dirt in some of the folds of Dilma’s skin, which seemed weighed down, as if by many more years than Dilma could have lived.
“Come in. Please.” It did sound like a plea.
Lea hesitated, or rather she thought about hesitating, but found herself moving into the house, past Dilma, who closed the door. The hall was very dark and the smell overwhelming. Lea put her hand across her nose and mouth. Now she felt a strong impulse to turn away and run back to the train station. But her body would not obey this impulse; it stood still. It moved forward, following Dilma deeper into the dark house. They entered a living room to the right. It also stank but did not have the intense, bad odor of the hallway. There were piles of magazines, an ancient fan, empty bottles and cans, rags, shoes, and other random junk all around the room. A battered coffee table held a butt-filled ashtray and several plates, on one of which rested moldy crusts of bread, on another the bony remnants of a chicken breast. There was only enough light to make out these objects; the window blinds were shut. A sofa covered with a soiled bed sheet faced two chairs across the coffee table, all of the furniture at right angles to a fireplace piled with cinders. The flowery wallpaper was stained, yellowed, with strips of once-white wall exposed. One of the chairs was a dark brown recliner whose leather was patched with gray electrical tape.
Lea noticed something in the chair, a longish shape leaning to one side. She thought the unthinkable: it was Arnold there, long dead. Embalmed, cosmetologized. But on closer inspection, a large pillow emerged.
“I was actually hoping you’d come,” Dilma said. Lea turned to her, met her straining gaze. “I mean, hoping my friend would come.”
Lea felt a tug of panic at such pitiful loneliness, but it was soon replaced by a realization as she noticed a weird look in Dilma’s eyes, fatigue and sadness giving way to a sort of anxious questioning—Dilma knew that her friend was dead and had deliberately written to a stranger with the same name. It was even possible that no friend named Lea had existed, that Dilma had written randomly.
But it did not seem random. And now, in some odd way, Lea had become the other Lea for Dilma, as if in a time when time had not yet passed. As if this house was waiting, suspended (Lea thought), and I’ve been moving toward this place and toward this woman who oddly knows me. This knowledge was one reason they could not seem to speak now to each other; another reason, Lea guessed, was that neither was the person the other had imagined.
She looked again into Dilma’s eyes, ignoring the camouflaged flesh around them, and she saw a much younger person, a familiar person whom she couldn’t quite place. There was a vitality and curiosity there that hadn’t been obvious at first. It was as if they knew each other in some life that wasn’t the life Lea had been living. It felt eerie and comforting.
“Let me take that,” Dilma said as she reached now for the cake box, collapsing from the moisture and pressure of Lea’s grasp. Lea looked at Dilma’s furrowed hand as it brushed hers, the hands that had written their letters now in sudden, warm contact. “You sit,” Dilma continued, “and I’ll make us some coffee.”
Lea suppressed a nervous laugh, and it folded into a tight smile. She felt as though they were acting out a benign domestic ritual in a house under some insidious attack. And yet it seemed they were connected in this decaying place, not as Lea had found herself fantasizing, but in some other way that was both within and apart from the body’s joy and gravity. As they had connected through words, through voice. Lea felt both terrified and relieved at the thought that somehow she was destined to be here. Remain here, as in some dilapidated retreat? Help Dilma escape from here? Or maybe they’d help one another to escape, into strange new lives that were somehow also old lives. Like finding something vital thought lost, transformed in the finding. Like a long recovery that leaves you no longer yourself. Lea felt an edgy, vertiginous pleasure at these notions.
Dilma walked toward a lighter rear room and disappeared into it.
Lea went to the mantelpiece, noticing a framed photograph there. Unlike much of anything else in the room, the glass and frame of the photo were dusted and clean. The photograph showed a girl, maybe twelve, sitting on a pony, looking into the distance as if she was prepared to ride off and conquer the earth. The girl’s eyes were round, intense, determined, free of regret, without anxiety or sadness. Lea at first thought it was Dilma, but the photograph was far too new for that. It had to be the prodigal daughter. Lea felt her own eyes filling (a strange giddiness and yearning) as she took the photograph down and sat with it in the late Arnold’s disintegrating chair. •