They park on the side of a dark road, staring at an old railroad bridge overtaken by weeds. “This is your surprise?” Ruthie asks, her smile fading as William shuts off the car.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Ruthie shakes her head, laughing. “You’re joking. I’m not getting out of the car. Where the hell are we?”
“We’re in my old neighborhood. I know exactly where we are. Come on. It’s really cool.”
“William, I swear to God if you’re trying to scare me …” Ruthie trails off, staring at the bridge in front of them. It looks menacing, crumpled, bits of graffiti sprayed here and there in the shape of letters Ruthie can’t quite read.
“Rootie, I used to hang out here all the time in high school. Nothing’s going to happen. I promise.”
She reluctantly gets out of the car, crossing her arms in front of her chest. It is mid-October but Virginia is going through a heat wave and William is wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt that make him look very un-dentist-like. Lately she thinks he is going through some kind of mid-life crisis and she’s worried she’s part of the plan–the blonde mistress almost half his age. She would joke about it with him but she doesn’t really want to know. He comes around to her side of the car and drapes his arm across her shoulders. They walk along the side of the road, Ruthie’s heels tripping over pebbles and stones.
“Special night, my ass,” she mutters.
William pinches her ass and she squeals, smacking him on the arm.
“I can’t help it, it’s cute.” He sighs. “Come on, cheer up.”
“You said we were going to do something fun. I didn’t know ‘fun’ meant traipsing through the goddamn woods at night.”
“This is Bunnyman Bridge, Ruthie. I grew up ten minutes from here. I know this place with my eyes closed.”
Ruthie rolls her eyes. They approach the bridge, a concrete arch built into a hill. The road passes through the hill under the arch, creating a narrow one-lane tunnel, and then curves sharply to the right directly after the bridge. “Jeez, that looks dangerous.”
“It is.” He grabs her hand and starts pulling her up the incline to the top of the bridge. The brush is overgrown but a narrow gravel pathway leads up to the railroad tracks.
“What the hell are you doing, William? Do these look like hiking shoes?”
“It’s alright. I’ve got you. Come on. We have to get to the top.”
She lets him help her, complaining the whole way. It is dark and she is too old for this shit. She doesn’t understand his random acts of immaturity, although secretly she finds them endearing. Just a few weeks ago they’d been at a bar with some of her co-workers and he attempted to burp the alphabet with her project manager, Lou, who thinks William is divorced and hip like he is. They’d stopped after the letter “F”.
At the top of the railroad bridge, Ruthie and William stand directly over the road and look down at the lonely car. From here, the street below looks even narrower. The railroad tracks on the bridge are rusted, the wood between them rotting. “Is this safe?” Ruthie says, looking around at the woods. They are only a few miles from Washington, D.C., but out here it feels like the middle of nowhere. She shivers.
“I’ll tell you what this is,” he says, lowering his voice in a way that makes Ruthie feel like throwing him over the bridge. “It’s called the Bunnyman Bridge. Years ago, a bus was transporting a bunch of inmates from an insane asylum over to Lorton Prison—“
“Fuck you, William. You said you weren’t going to scare me.” She punches him in the shoulder.
“Just listen, will you? Jesus, like you don’t beg me to watch every scary movie ever made.”
“Movies are different, Billy Bud. You’re in a theater. With seats and people around you. Not in the middle of nowhere.”
“Shh.” He puts his finger on her lips and in spite of herself she bites it playfully. He continues. “Anyway, the bus crashed and a bunch of the patients escaped and ran into these woods. The police caught all of them except this one guy. They started finding dead bunny bodies all around here and figured he was surviving on the meat. Then one night they finally surrounded him, and you know, he’s all crazy, and just as they’re about to get him, he jumps in front of an approaching train and kills himself.”
Ruthie kicks him in the shoe. She is not scared, really, just a little confused by his definition of entertainment. She is still waiting for the punch line. She moves closer to him and looks up, shivering more at the nice way his eyes shine in the moonlight than by the silly story he is telling. She likes when he teases her. She also always likes to be touching him, as if to prove to herself he’s really there.
“So this place is haunted. He supposedly comes back every year and kills someone on Halloween.”
“Great. Great story, thanks.”
He laughs and puts his arm around her. “Rootie. Come on. Do you know what a great makeout spot this was for me as a teenager?”
“Yeah, I always get turned on by the thought of dead bunnies.” She’s frowning. She doesn’t like to think of him making out with other women. She wants him to herself, custom-made, one of a kind.
He snorts. “You’re no fun.”
She glares at him. “So, what? You were bringing me here hoping to get lucky?” Now she is the one teasing him. She puts her arms around his neck and presses her body into his. “Don’t you know there are a lot of easier ways to do that?” He smells like laundry. Under his shirt, his skin is warm and damp.
He laughs. “I forgot you were easy.”
She pulls away. “Whatever.” Ruthie leans over the concrete ledge and looks down at the dark road below. They haven’t seen a car since they’ve been there. “Did you bring your wife here to make out?”
William grabs her at the waist. His shoes scuff on the dirt and that is the only sound besides the rustling of the trees. “Here, Ghostie, Ghostie,” he whispers into her ear, causing her to shiver. It annoys her when he chooses to ignore those kinds of questions even though she knows, they both know, she supposes, that there is no way to answer them without trouble. The black treetops bend in the wind. William pulls away, his eyes bright from the moon. His face changes. “I think there’s someone behind you, there in the woods. Watch out.”
“You’re a jerk.” She begins the descent herself, eager to get back to the car. She can hear William behind her and then he stops and she looks back, balancing herself. Above her, William stands, one knee slightly bent, on the hill. His behavior irritates her, especially in moments like these when she sees him for what he really is, a middle-aged man favoring his knee.
“Did you hear that?” His face is hard to make out and Ruthie grows angry.
“Shut up, William. Act your age for once.”
“It sounded like, whispering. It sounded like, ‘Ruthie’.”
~ ~ ~
“You really are an asshole sometimes,” Ruthie says back in the car where, with the radio on and the headlights beaming across the road, she feels safe.
“You loved it. You were scared.” He pinches her cheek. Barry Manilow is blaring from the station and she punches his radio, not really angry but still wanting to be. “Come on, I was just kidding.”
“Don’t you have anything good?” She turns around, rooting through his backseat, ignoring the grey basketball sweatshirt and hand-held videogame on the floor that are signs of his son, signs of his other life. She finds a Pink Floyd CD and puts it in, settling back in her seat.
“That’s Michael’s music. He’s got better taste than me.”
Ruthie keeps her eyes closed. She doesn’t like it when William brings up his son as though it is perfectly normal. It makes her angry. But William seems to assume her silence is an invitation to talk more.
“He’s working night shift for the first time tonight at the 7-11 and Jackie’s all nervous. Every Friday night for the next month, like a damn slave, they have him working. Don’t you think he’s too young for that?”
“William, can we talk about something else?” Her tone is rude. Short and clipped. He calls it her ‘bullet talk.’
“Sorry.” He puts his hand on her knee and squeezes. “It’s ok, you know. You’ll get to meet him one day.”
She shifts, knocking his hand off her knee. Her mood has turned black since the bridge and she hopes he blames himself. “Don’t say stuff like that if you don’t mean it.”
He is silent. She is afraid to look at him. It is supposed to be a nice night, just the two of them. He’s told his wife something. Ruthie has stopped asking what the story is. She doesn’t want to know how well he lies.
“You know, I didn’t tell you the whole story about that bridge,” he says finally, turning down the radio. She recognizes what he is doing, trying to brush off the fight. It is an offering she can either ignore or accept.
“Yeah? What else is there?”
He grins. “Well, years later, after this Bunny Man thing had been a legend for some time, teenagers, like myself, used to go there to hang out and scare each other. In the 60s, these kids apparently went there and two of them slipped off into the woods to get it on and they never came back. They found them the next morning, gutted and hanging from the bridge.”
“I’m just telling you what I heard, baby. Aren’t you glad I kept that one until now? If I’d told you that back there, you would’ve killed me.”
“I believe in ghosts.”
“I know you do. You were scared. I could see it.”
She wrinkles her forehead. “And you liked that I was scared? Was that your purpose?” She shakes her head before he can answer and puts her hand on top of his. She loves him and it hurts, but it is even more than that, a deep, bright pang, like an itch that’s so satisfying to scratch even as it stings and opens, raw. She can’t shake the feeling that they are never alone, that even speeding down the dark highway right now there is someone behind them, looking over their shoulders, waiting for them to fuck up.
~ ~ ~
Ruthie often meets William at his office, which is only five minutes from the software company she works at in Reston and a good forty to fifty minutes from either of their houses and either of their other lives. She started going to him last year after waking up with an impacted molar. She likes his office with its little green awning out front, located in a brick office park area between an insurance agency and an optometrist, the professionally stenciled “William Fairfield, D.D.S.” in silver letters on the front glass door.
The receptionist in William’s office looks up at Ruthie with a tired expression, her pointy nose smudged as though she’d rubbed it all over the newspaper she is reading between patients. “I’ll let him know you’re here,” she says, grabbing a file folder and disappearing through the door to the back offices. Ruthie wonders, as always, if the woman says the same thing to William’s wife when she stops in. The thought makes her blush. The waiting room is empty. It is decorated for Halloween, the windows covered with cardboard pumpkins holding toothbrushes and happy witches with perfect smiles. Ruthie sits, legs folded awkwardly, flipping through the latest issue of People without reading anything.
The receptionist comes back quickly and sits, not acknowledging Ruthie. She picks up the phone and talks loudly.
“Hi honey. Just calling to say hello. What should we have for dinner tonight?” By the time she has decided on meatloaf and green beans that she’ll pick up at Giant on her way home, William pokes his head through the door and motions for Ruthie. She is excited, as always, by the way he looks dressed up. Today it is a beige Nautica dress shirt with a silver, beige, and navy blue-striped tie.
In the examining room, he closes the door behind them and kisses her, his hands spreading through her hair and massaging her scalp. “You smell good,” he mumbles in her ear.
“Dr. Fairfield, I’m not sure this is professional behavior.”
He pulls away, lifts her lips to reveal her teeth, and then kisses her lips once again. “Ok. You’re checked out. Teeth look good, Ms. Carter. Thanks for coming in.”
“I miss you.” She feels very bad, very secretive in his office, with its padded dark chair and unidentifiable instruments. It always makes her want to have sex with him. She takes his hand and puts it on her breast, but when she tries to pull him down into the chair with her, he pulls away.
“Hon, we can’t.”
“Why?” She recognizes the whining in her voice and she doesn’t like it.
“Well, for starters, if we’re going to go get some food, we have to go now because Michael’s stopping by here in about an hour to pick up my car and I have to be here to see him.”
“Oh. Well good. Maybe he and I can sit down and have a nice chat about how much we both love you.”
“I’m sorry.” She tries to kiss him again, harder, but she can feel his impatience. “I just miss you, William. We’ve hardly been able to talk.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy week, and I’m leaving for that conference thing this weekend—“ Ruthie pouts, her head tilted, and William grabs her bottom lip and tugs playfully, “but I wanted to see you before I left. And here you are.”
“And here I am.” They go to a small Italian restaurant a ten-minute drive from William’s office. Whenever they meet for lunch, they choose from a variety of places around their work areas, busy restaurants where people don’t pay attention to other people. Ruthie doesn’t like the smaller, quieter places. They make William nervous, always glancing around. The line is long for lunch hour rush and Ruthie sits at a corner table to save them seats while William waits to order. He stands with his hands in his pockets, whistling, while she watches him with a smile. He is tall and commanding, a good foot or so taller than the rest of the people waiting in line. He has a full head of hair and perfect teeth, very white and straight and she remembers looking at them that first time they met in his office, her mouth full of gauze, and wondering if he thought she was a complete dolt for letting her molar get that bad. He turns and winks at her from the line and she gives him a little wave.
Just then, the shorter man in line behind him taps him on the shoulder. “Bill Fairfield?” William turns around and looks, his eyes dawning recognition. She knows he hates being called “Bill.”
“Paul! Hey, buddy! What’s up?” William offers a strong handshake, his face breaking into a smile that makes him even more handsome. Ruthie crosses her legs, leaning over the table to watch him. “How’ve you been?”
They exchange pleasantries. William glances quickly over at Ruthie. The line moves ahead a bit and the two men shuffle forward, still talking. She can tell William wants to end the conversation but doesn’t know how. The other man is persistent, talkative, his hands flying everywhere. He has to look up at William to talk with him.
“So, just on a lunch break? Are you here alone? Want to sit down and catch up?” The man, Paul, glances around the restaurant, no doubt looking for an empty seat, and his eyes rest for a moment on Ruthie. She glances away, out the window, and hears William reply, “No, actually. I’m just picking up this order to go. It’s crazy at the office today.”
“Oh. Right. Well, someday we’ll have to play some golf again or something.”
“Definitely,” William answers.
He and Paul order and William gets the food wrapped to go. Ruthie knows what this means. She gets up from the table and slings her purse strap over her shoulder, taking the pile of napkins she’d set down. “You leaving?” Paul asks her, balancing his drink and sandwich on a flimsy tray. Up close his face is red and pimply, though he must be William’s age or older. “What great timing!” She gives him a weak smile and heads toward the door, following William.
They eat in her car in the parking garage across the street, sandwiches balanced on their laps.
“Sorry about that,” William says, taking a sip of his drink. “That guy is an ass, too. Real estate guy. Always wants me to move my office up to Tyson’s Corner, where all the crooks are.”
Ruthie says nothing. Her car is on the second level, underground, and the dim light and smell of exhaust makes her a little queasy. William sighs and crumples up his paper, tossing it in the bag, and leans back. “These seats feel like La-z Boys,” he says. “You’ve got it made.”
“I’m not hungry anymore.” She puts her sandwich down. “Want this?”
“Are you mad at me?” He waits. “Hon, I don’t want it to be this way.”
“Then do something about it.”
“These things take time.” He zips, then unzips his windbreaker. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, the trees outside of the parking garage are beginning to change color. “Next week will be better, when I get back from the conference. I can probably stay over on Monday night, say my flight’s coming in Tuesday morning or something. I’ll take you to dinner or to a movie or whatever you want.”
She pinches her lip. A young woman in a business jacket and skirt walks next to her car on William’s side and gets in her SUV, starts it, and drives away. Ruthie is thinking about leaving him, about telling him it’s over, right then. Like that. She’s thinking how William will be 50 in only nine years, and she will still be in her 30s. He leans forward in his seat and smiles at her, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Rootie. Hon.” He kisses her. She lets him. He’s a damn fine kisser. “I love you.”
“I know.” She surrenders, leaning her head on his shoulder. He smells like toothpaste and pleasant chemicals.
“Doctor, I’ll take you up on that dinner.” She looks over at the dashboard clock and realizes he is already late for his son. Lunch hour is up already.
~ ~ ~
Ruthie is sitting in front of her television, drinking bourbon and eating Milky Ways wrapped in orange and black paper. It’s almost Halloween. On the news, the anchorman reads a story about a young girl who’s gone missing after a costume party at the local YMCA. She was last seen wearing a witch’s hat and cape.
William is at his conference and Ruthie is waiting for him to call. She picks up the phone and tries to call her friend Julie, who just got married, and then when there is no answer, she calls two other friends. Even her mother isn’t home, her upbeat voice on the answering machine making Ruthie feel even sadder. She hangs up the phone and wanders through her apartment. She feels like everyone else is doing something, going somewhere and she is home missing William. It makes her angry. She is sick of her place. All these things.
The news anchor comes back for a story on trick-or-treating safety. Parents are urged to make their kids wear reflectors and go in groups in neighborhoods they know. Ruthie decides she has to go out. She does not want to be at home, waiting like an obedient little mistress, if William calls her. She wants him to wonder.
It’s late, almost 11 p.m., and there is nowhere to go. Ruthie turns on her radio and Pink Floyd is playing “Dark Side of the Moon.” She drives past the Save Mart with its blinking neon sign and thinks of William’s son, Michael, working late at the 7 Eleven. She checks her watch. He would be getting off his shift in an hour, going home to his mother, sleeping in his safe bed down the hall from where his father usually slept.
Ruthie sings along loudly to Pink Floyd, happy to be on a mission. The gas pedal feels powerful against her thin flip-flops. She is glad it is still warm, that she can drive with the windows down and feel the air rip through her hair and lift it off her shoulders. She knows the neighborhood where William lives, just a few blocks from the 7 Eleven. She’s memorized his address—7890 Peace Rock Road, such a lovely sounding address—and even drove past his house, speeding, one night coming home alone from a bar, one night after they’d kissed but before she’d slept with him, swearing to herself she wouldn’t but knowing already that she would. She is already a sinner. There can be no harm in just seeing his son, no harm at all in just looking.
She pulls into the parking lot of the 7 Eleven. The windows at the front of the store are covered in advertising posters and look dim and greasy. Two Hispanic teenagers are standing outside smoking. They look her over as she walks past them, eyes up, then down.
A hard rock station is playing loudly inside and Michael is there, his back turned to her, sweeping the back counter. It is all so ordinary. She doesn’t know what she was expecting. Michael turns around and glances at her, just for a second, and turns back to what he is doing. He is tall, like his father, and skinny, hair dyed black. The thick chain around his neck looks like a dog collar. Too young to be punk, Ruthie thinks. William must hate it.
She turns down the first aisle and grabs the first thing she sees, which is peanut butter, and heads to the counter. She is nervous. She pulls her top away from her skin, smoothing it down, wishing she’d worn a bra.
Michael barely glances at her as she places the peanut butter jar down on the counter. It is plastic; it doesn’t make a satisfying sound. The jaunty letters in green, blue, and red seem to mock her, to make her purchase seem even more silly at 11 p.m. at night, like she is a pregnant, lonely soul seeking to fulfill a craving. She feels like he must know, that she has somehow given herself away, though this kid couldn’t know, would never suspect. Then in her paranoid mind flashes a thought, a picture of the future. The two of them finally meeting properly somewhere down the road—Michael stepping forward ruefully to shake her hand and it dawning on him — she was the lady buying the peanut butter that night, that hot fall night at the 7 Eleven.
“Long night for you, huh?”
He grants her a quick shrug.
“Two forty-five,” he says and she pulls out her bills from her back pocket.
“Can you add a lottery ticket to that?” She counts three ones. He rips a ticket off the roll under the counter and hands it to her. Their eyes meet briefly; she sees a flicker of something that makes her more confident. “I’m feeling lucky tonight.”
He doesn’t say anything and she laughs, a loud sound that seems to echo through the store. “Good luck,” he says, handing her change. She uses one of the quarters to scratch off the ticket, blowing the shavings off and then hands it to him. “Fifty bucks.” She grins.
“No shit!” He grabs the ticket, his fingers brushing hers.
She pauses a moment. “Just kidding. I lost.”
“Oh.” He blushes, ashamed he fell for it.
“I’m never lucky. Are you?”
He shrugs. She leans forward over the counter, closer to him and sees he is unsure if he should back up. “I bet you’re a lucky kind of guy.”
In the reflection above the counter, she sees herself out of the corner of her eye, aware that her tank top hangs low, exposing the tops of her breasts. She notices him look, quickly, and glance away. His neck is red. She laughs, remembering how his father steadied his glance at her cleavage that first date until she blushed. The boy had a lot to learn.
She straightens up and grabs her peanut butter. “Goodnight!” she says cheerfully, winking. At the door, she almost runs into a young girl with long black hair and eyes circled in dark makeup like two bullseyes. She watches through the window as the girl flips her hair over her shoulder and kisses Michael over the counter, her bony hips exposed above low jeans. He is smiling and laughing, and Ruthie is already forgotten. Even the Hispanic kids have turned their back on her, talking into their cell phones.
~ ~ ~
The peanut butter is good and as she drives through William’s neighborhood Ruthie eats more and more of it with her fingers, digging gobs of it out. She wonders if William is calling her from his hotel room in Boston. It’s funny, she thinks, how most of their relationship consists of the two of them continuously wondering what the other is doing.
The blocks in his neighborhood are short and littered with stop signs trying to dissuade her from continuing on. It is a rich area of town, the houses large and hung back from the streets, hidden in part by thick-branched trees. William’s house is one of the smaller homes in the neighborhood, a corner house that sits diagonally across his lawn, segmenting his backyard into a triangle.
There is a light coming from the back porch. Ruthie pulls over on the side of the street down from their house and gets out of her car. The wind picks up, cooler now, and Ruthie shivers. She is small crossing the street in the dark. Shadows lurk everywhere, dark spots where things remain hidden, undefined, and Ruthie hurries to the sidewalk where the trees shadow her.
Closer to the house she can see the black and white television casting a small light on the porch, but William’s wife remains hidden from view. Ruthie will have to cut across the neighbor’s yard and maneuver her way through the line of trees to get a better look.
The neighbor’s yard looks very dark—the people are either asleep or not around and Ruthie feels safe crossing their lawn. She can’t see the ground at her feet and steps tentatively, trying to be as quiet as possible. She makes her way to the trunks of the first few trees and looks around them, startled at how close she is to William’s back porch. From that angle she can see the TV screen—a newscaster standing in front of a storm-wrecked beach somewhere far away. It is still hurricane season. Ruthie feels a deep stir in her stomach, verging on fear and something else, an excitement, a secret. William would enjoy this, she thinks, remembering their jaunt to the Bunnyman Bridge. She is looking down, pressing onward without really thinking about what she is doing. The rough bark of the tree on her palms grounds her and she has the urge to hug it to feel its hardness against her body.
In an upstairs window a light is on. A woman’s red scarf and a hair dryer hang next to a mirror on the wall. She imagines the woman wrapping the red scarf around a delicate neck, surveying herself in the mirror, her mirror, in her house. It pushes Ruthie on. She needs to move farther down the line of trees, so she is smack in the middle of William’s backyard, where the television light will cast on his wife’s face. Jackie. Whenever William says her name in passing, it hangs in the air.
She creeps along, slipping on the roots of the tree, and scrapes her leg on the bark. Somewhere far away an animal howls. The thing she hates about the dark is that you never know who else could be there. It smells vaguely of dog shit—William has never said anything about a dog.
Ruthie walks into a spiderweb, the feathery feeling of a net cast across her face makes her spit, rubbing her skin and hair vigorously. She can hear the TV now. It is very low, maybe so it doesn’t disturb the neighbors and maybe so Jackie can hear her son return home safely.
“Jackie.” Ruthie whispers the woman’s name, imagining William saying it in the dark. It is all so perfect, the silk scarf, the screened-in porch, the sound of crickets. From behind the tree, she whispers again, this time fierce and loud.
Ruthie gets up from the ground and forces herself to move. She is one now with the darkness. It is her friend. She cannot imagine herself there, on the porch. She is not a Jackie, she is a Ruthie. She is not sure what that means, but in the spirit of things she believes it, imagining she would rather impale herself on the picket fence, trickle blood down onto the lawn, than be on the other side. At least from here she can still run. William’s backyard is narrow and she is now only a few feet from the porch. She rounds a tree, bracing herself, and hits her shin on something hard and sharp.
The pain runs up her leg and she bites her lip to keep from crying out. She can make out what it is, the lid to an old barbecue grill balanced on a tree stump. The grill sits next to it like a silent gremlin. Ruthie smiles and pushes the lid over into the grill, startled still at the loud sound it makes as metal clangs on metal. She shrinks back behind the tree, rubbing her shin. The noise echoes through the neighborhood like a shot and stirs William’s wife from her seat.
“Who’s there?” Jackie’s voice is loud but Ruthie can hear the fear. “Michael?”
Ruthie tastes blood. She leans hard against the tree and whispers the woman’s name again.
It sounds like a growl and it stirs something deep inside her, below her belly. She can sense the woman’s fear pressing into the darkness and it shames Ruthie at the same time that it excites her. Jackie, Jackie, Jackie. Her breath comes loud and fast and she is sure the other woman can hear her, sure that Jackie is standing behind the screen door, just a few feet away, hesitating. She won’t come out into the darkness, Ruthie knows. No one ever wants to find out for sure.
—> First published in So To Speak, Summer/Fall 2009
© 2004-2010 Tara Laskowski