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You Love Me

Caroline Kepnes

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  For my Mom, the MonKon


  I think you’re the one I spoke to on the phone, the librarian with a voice so soft that I went out and bought myself a cashmere sweater. Warm. Safe. You called me three days ago to confirm my new job at the Bainbridge Public Library. The call was meant to be short. Perfunctory. You: Mary Kay DiMarco, branch manager. Me: Joe Goldberg, volunteer. But there was chemistry. We had a couple laughs. That lilt in your voice got under my skin and I wanted to google you, but I didn’t. Women can tell when a guy knows too much and I wanted to come in cool. I’m early and you’re hot—if that’s you, is that you?—and you’re busy with a male patron—I smell mothballs and gin—and you’re foxy but subdued, showing off your legs as you hide them in opaque black tights, as concealing as RIP Beck’s curtain-less windows were revealing. You raise your voice—you want the old man to try out some Haruki Murakami—and I’m sure of it now. You’re the one from the phone but holy shit, Mary Kay.

  Are you the one for me?

  I know. You’re not an object, blah, blah, blah. And I could be “projecting.” I barely know you and I’ve been through hell. I was detained in jail for several months of my life. I lost my son. I lost the mother of my son. It’s a miracle I’m not dead and I want to talk to you right fucking now but I do the patient thing and walk away. Your picture is on the wall by the lobby and the placard is final, confirmation. You are Mary Kay DiMarco, and you’ve worked in this library for sixteen years. You have a master’s in library science. I feel new. Powerless. But then you clear your throat—I’m not without power—and I turn and you make a peace sign and smile at me. Two minutes. I smile right back at you. Take your time.

  I know what you’re thinking—What a nice guy, so patient—and for the first time in months, I’m not annoyed at having to go out of my fucking way to be nice, and patient. See, I don’t have a choice anymore. I have to be Mr. Fucking Good Guy. It’s the only way to ensure that I never fall prey to the American Injustice System ever again. I bet you don’t have experience with the AIJ. I, on the other hand, know all about the rigged game of Monopoly. I used my Get Out of Jail Free card—thanks, rich Quinns!—but I was also naïve—fuck off, rich Quinns—and I’ll wait for you all day long because if even one person in this library perceived me as a threat… Well, I won’t take any chances.

  I play humble for you—I do not check my phone—and I watch you scratch your leg. You knew that you’d meet me in real life today and did you buy that skirt for me? Possibly. You’re older than me, bolder than me, like high school girls to my eighth-grade boy and I see you in the nineties, trotting off the cover of Sassy magazine. You kept going, marching through time, waiting and not waiting for a good man to come along. And here I am now—our timing is right—and the Mothball is “reading” the Murakami and you glance at me—See what I did there?—and I nod.

  Yes, Mary Kay. I see you.

  You’re Mother of Books, stiff as a robot in a French maid costume—your skirt really is a little short—and you clutch your elbows while the Mothball turns pages as if you work on commission, as if you need him to borrow that book. You care about books and I belong in here with you and your pronounced knuckles. You’re a librarian, a superior to my bookseller and the Mothball doesn’t have to whip out a credit card, and oh that’s right. There are good things about America. I forgot about the Dewey Fucking Decimal System and Dewey was known to be toxic, but look what he did for this country!

  The old man pats his Murakami. “Okay, doll, I’ll let you know what I think.”

  You flash a smile—you like to be called “doll”—and you shudder. You feel guilty about not feeling outraged. You’re part doll and part ladyboss and you’re a reader. A thinker. You see both sides. You make another peace sign at me—two more minutes—and you show off for me some more. You tell a mommy that her baby is cute—eh, not really—and everyone loves you, don’t they? You with your high messy bun that wants to be a ponytail and your sartorial protest against the other librarians in their sack shirts, their slacks, you’d think they’d be put off by you but they’re not. You say yeah a lot and I’m pretty sure that a wise Diane Keaton mated with a daffy Diane Keaton, that they made you for me. I adjust my pants—Gently, Joseph—and I donated one hundred thousand dollars to this library to get this volunteer gig and you can ask the state of California or the barista at Pegasus or my neighbor, whose dog shit on my lawn again this morning, and they’ll all tell you the same thing.

  I am a good fucking person.

  It’s a matter of legal fact. I didn’t kill RIP Guinevere Beck and I didn’t kill RIP Peach Salinger. I’ve learned my lesson. When people bring out the worst in me, I run. RIP Beck could have run—I was no good for her either, she wasn’t mature enough for love—but she stayed, like the hapless, underwritten, self-destructive female in a horror movie that she was and I was no better. I should have cut the cord with her the day I met RIP Peach. I should have dumped Love when I met her sociopath brother.

  A teenage girl zooms into the library and she bumps into me and knocks me back into the present—no apology—and she’s fast as a meerkat and you bark at her. “No Columbine, Nomi. I mean it.”

  Ah, so the Meerkat is your daughter and her glasses are too small for her face and she probably wears them because you told her they’re no good. She’s defiant. More like a feisty toddler than a surly teenager and she lugs a big white copy of Columbine out of her backpack. She flips you the bird and you flip her the bird and your family is fun. Is there a ring on your finger?

  No, Mary Kay. There isn’t.

  You reach for the Meerkat’s Columbine and she storms outside and you follow her out the door—it’s an unplanned intermission—and I remember what you told me on our phone call.

  Your mom was a Mary Kay lady, cutthroat and competitive. You grew up on the floors of various living rooms in Phoenix playing with Barbie dolls, watching her coax women with cheating husbands into buying lipstick that might incite their dirtbag husbands to stay home. As if lipstick can save a marriage. Your mother was good at her job, she drove a pink Cadillac, but then your parents split. You and your mother moved to Bainbridge and she did a one-eighty, started selling Patagonia instead of Pan-Cake makeup. You said she passed away three years ago and then you took a deep breath and said, “Okay, that was TMI.”

  But it wasn’t too much, not at all, and you told me more: Your favorite place on the island is Fort Ward and you like the bunkers and you mentioned graffiti. God kills everyone. I told you that’s true and you wanted to know where I’m from and I told you that I grew up in New York and you liked that and I told you I did time in L.A. and you thought I was being facetious and who was I to correct you?

  The door opens and now you’re back. In the flesh and the skirt. Whatever you said to your Meerkat pissed her off and she grabs a chair and moves it so that it faces a wall and finally you come to me, warm and soft as the cashmere on my chest. “Sorry for all the drama,” you say, as if you didn’t want me to see everything. “You’re Joe, yeah? I think we spoke on the phone.”

  You don’t think. You know. Yeah. But you didn’t know you’d want to tear my clothes off and you shake my hand, skin on skin, and I breathe you in—you smell like Florida—and the power inside of my body is restored. Zing.

  You look at me now. “Can I have my hand back?”

held on too long. “Sorry.”

  “Oh no,” you say, and you lean in, closer as in the movie Closer. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I ate an orange outside and my hands are a little sticky.”

  I sniff my palm and I lean in. “Are you sure it wasn’t a tangerine?”

  You laugh at my joke and smile. “Let’s not tell the others.”

  Already it’s us against them and I ask if you finished the Lisa Taddeo—I am a good guy and good guys remember the shit the girl said on the phone—and yes you did finish and you loved it and I ask you if I can ask you about your daughter and her Columbine and you blush. “Yeah,” you say. Yeah. “Well, as you saw… she’s a little obsessed with Dylan Klebold.”

  “The school shooter?”

  “Oh God, no,” you say. “See, according to my daughter, he was a poet, which is why it’s okay for her to write her college essay about him…”

  “Okay, that’s a bad idea.”

  “Obviously. I say that and she calls me a ‘hypocrite’ because I got in trouble for writing about Ann Petry instead of Jane Austen when I was her age…” You like me so much you are name-dropping. “I can’t remember…” Yes you can. “Did you say if you have kids?”

  Stephen King doesn’t have to murder people to describe death and you don’t have to have kids to understand being a parent and technically I have a kid, but I don’t “have” him. I don’t get to wear him like all the khaki fucking dads on this rock. I shake my head no and your eyes sparkle. You hope I’m free and you want us to have things in common so I steer us back to books. “Also, I love Ann Petry. The Street is one of my all-time favorite books.”

  You’re supposed to be impressed but a lot of book people know The Street and you’re a fox. Reserved. I double down and tell you that I wish more people would read The Narrows and that gets a smile—fuck yes—but we’re in the workplace so you put your hands on your keypad. You furrow your brow. No Botox for you. “Huh.” Something bumped you on the computer and do you know about me? Did they flag me?

  Play it cool, Joe. Exonerated. Innocent. “Am I fired already?”

  “Well, no, but I do see an inconsistency in your file…”

  You don’t know about the money I donated to this library because I insisted on anonymity and the woman on the board swore that she would spare me the nuisance of a background check, but did she lie to me? Did you find Dr. Nicky’s conspiracy theory blog? Did the lady on the board realize I’m that Joe Goldberg? Did she hear about me on some murder-obsessed woman’s fucking podcast?

  You wave me over and the inconsistency is my list of favorite authors—phew—and you tsk-tsk in a whisper. “I don’t see Debbie Macomber on this list, Mr. Goldberg.”

  I blush. The other day on the phone I told you that I got the idea to move to the Pacific Northwest from Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Fucking Cove books and you laughed—Really?—and I stood my soft, picket fenced-in ground. I’m not a dictator. I didn’t command you to read one of her books. But I did say that Debbie helped me, that reading about pious, justice-seeking Judge Olivia Lockhart and her local newsie boyfriend Jack restored my faith in our world. You did say you’d check ’em out but that’s what all people say when you recommend a book or a fucking TV show and now here you are, winking at me.

  You wink at me. Your hair is red and yellow. Your hair is fire. “Don’t fret, Joe. I’ll eat the beef and you eat the broccoli. No one has to know.”

  “Ah,” I say, because the beef and the broccoli are a reference to the show. “Sounds like someone went to Cedar Cove to check it out.”

  Your fingertips hit the keypad and the keypad is my heart. “Well I told you I would…” You’re a woman of your word. “And you were right…” BINGO. “It is a nice ‘antidote to the hellspace reality of the world right now’…” That’s me. You’re quoting me. “All the bicycles and the fight for equity, it kinda lowers your blood pressure.”

  On you go about the pros and cons of escapism—you learned my language and you want me to know it—you are sexy, confident—and I forgot about sexual tension. Beginnings. “Well,” I say. “Maybe we can start a fan club.”

  “Yeah…” you say. “But first you’ll have to tell me what got you into it…”

  You women always want to know about the past but the past is over. Gone. I can’t fucking tell you that Cedar Cove helped me survive my time in prison. I won’t tell you that it was my Mayberry-scented salve while I was wrongly incarcerated and I shouldn’t have to spill the details. We all go through periods when we feel trapped, caged. It doesn’t matter where you suffer. I shrug. “There’s no big story…” Ha! “A few months ago, I hit a rough patch…” Fact: The best prison reads are “beach reads.” “Debbie was there for me…”… when Love Quinn wasn’t.

  You don’t badger me for details—I knew you were smart—and say you know the feeling and you and I are the same, sensitive. “Well, I don’t want to bring you down, but I must warn you, Joe…” You want to protect me. “This isn’t Cedar Cove, not by a long shot.”

  I like your spunk—you want to spar—and I tilt my head toward the empty table where you stood with that old man. “Tell that to the Mothball who just went home with the Murakami you suggested. Now that was very Cedar Cove.”

  You know I’m right and you try to smirk but your smirk is a smile. “We’ll see how you feel after you’ve made it through a couple winters.” You blush. “What’s in the bag?”

  I give you my best smile, the one I never thought I’d use again. “Lunch,” I say. “And unlike Judge Olivia Lockhart, I brought a ton of food. You can eat the broccoli and the beef.”

  I said that out loud—FUCK YOU, RUSTY BRAIN—and you get to hide in your computer while I stand here being the guy who just told you that you can eat my beef.

  But you don’t torture me for long. “Okay,” you say. “The computer’s acting up. We’ll take care of your badge later.”

  The computer has some fucking nerve or maybe you’re testing me. You’re leading me toward the break room and you ask if I went to Sawan or Sawadty. When I say Sawan your Meerkat looks up from her Columbine and makes a barf signal. “Eew. That’s so gross.”

  No, kid, being rude is gross. She raves about Sawadty and you side with her and I don’t speak your language. Not right now. You put a hand on my back—nice—and then you put a hand on the Meerkat’s shoulder—you’re bringing us together—and you tell me that I have a lot to learn about Bainbridge. “Nomi’s extreme, but there are two kinds of people here, Joe. There are those who go to Sawan and those of us who go to Sawadty.”

  You fold your arms and are you really that petty? “Okay,” I say. “But doesn’t the same family own both restaurants?”

  The Meerkat groans and puts on her headphones—rude again—and you wave me into the kitchen. “Well, yeah,” you say. “But the food’s a little different at both of them.” You open the fridge and I stash my lunch and you’re being irrational but you know it. “Oh come on. Isn’t this small-town quirk what you wanted when you moved here?”

  “Holy shit,” I say. “I live here.”

  You rest your hands on my shoulders and it’s like you’ve never been to a sexual harassment seminar. “Don’t worry, Joe. Seattle is only thirty-five minutes away.”

  I want to kiss you and you take your hands away and we leave the break room and I tell you that I didn’t move here to take the ferry to the city. You peer at me. “Why did you move here? Seriously. New York… L.A.… Bainbridge… I’m genuinely curious.”

  You are testing me. Demanding more of me. “Well, I joke about Cedar Cove…”

  “Yeah you do…”

  “But I guess it just felt right to me. New York used to be like a Richard Scarry book.”

  “Love him.”

  “But it lost that Scarry feeling. Maybe it was Citi Bikes…” Or all those dead girls. “L.A. is just somewhere I went because that’s what people do. They go from New York to L.A.” It’s been so long since anyone wanted to know me and yo
u bring me home and away all at once. “Hey, do you remember those black-and-white pictures of Kurt Cobain and his buddies in the meadow? Photos from the early days, before Dave Grohl was in Nirvana?”

  You nod. You think you do, yeah.

  “Well, it just hit me. My mom had that picture up on the fridge when I was a kid. It looked like heaven to me, the tall grass…”

  You nod. “Come on,” you say. “The best part of this place is downstairs.”

  You stop short in Cookbooks. Someone’s texting you and you’re writing back and I can’t see who it is and you look at me. “Are you on Instagram?”

  “Yep, are you?”

  It’s just so fucking easy, Mary Kay. I follow you and you follow me and you are already liking my book posts—heart, heart, heart—and I like your picture of you and Nomi on the ferry, the one with the best fucking caption in the world: Gilmore Girls. It’s Instagram official. You’re single.

  You lead the way to the stairs and tease me about my account. “Don’t get me wrong… I love books too, but your life strikes me as a little off balance.”

  “And what would you suggest, Ms. ‘Gilmore Girl’? Should I post my beef and broccoli?”

  You turn red. “Oh,” you say. “That’s Nomi’s little joke. I got pregnant in college, not high school.”

  You say that like the father is a sperm donor with no name. “I’ve never seen that show.”

  “You’d like it,” you say. “I used it to get my kid to think of reading as cool.”

  I know what you’re thinking. You wish there was more of me on my fucking “feed” because here I am, seeing your whole life, pictures of you and your best friend, Melanda, at various wineries, you and your Meerkat off being #GilmoreGirls. You don’t get to learn much about me and it’s not fair. But life isn’t fair and I won’t bore you by humble-bragging about being a “private person.” I put my phone away and tell you that I had Corn Pops for breakfast.

  You laugh—yes—you leave Instagram—yay!—and I feed you the right way, mouth to ear. I tell you about my home on the water in Winslow and you roll up your sleeves a little more. “We’re practically neighbors,” you say. “I’m around the corner in Wesley Landing.”