The Trolls Back Home by Scott Bassis

     Luisa finally understood why everyone hated the French. Of course, she was in love with one, Cédric. Last Christmas, when she visited Cédric’s hometown of Nantes, his family was wonderfully kind to her. Six weeks into her new life in Le Havre, however, she could see the rest of the world’s side of things.

     The French were mean.

     Luisa had never been very into make-up or clothes. As a child seeking to escape her harsh reality, she became obsessed with TV shows, movies and novels. At thirty, she still gave less thought to what she put on in the morning than to what book she wedged into her purse.  

     “That gray is terrible with your dark complexion.” Sylvie remarked in French on Luisa’s very first day. Luisa thought she must have misheard. Her French was far from perfect. She may have breezed through Rosetta Stone, but language wasn’t quite as easy to comprehend when it wasn’t spoken through headphones by photographs of smiling families.

     Unfortunately, the criticisms continued. “Iron the night before, so you won’t rush through it.” “Lipstick, Chérie. Even Angelina needs a swipe. Pretty as you are, you don’t have half her pout.” It wasn’t just Sylvie. It was Céline. It was Henri. It was Nicole, who spoke to her in English, leaving no chance of misinterpretation.

     “The French are frank,” Cédric explained with a shrug. Now, Luisa woke up twenty minutes earlier just to spend time on her appearance. “You’re learning. I wonder if all Americans can develop taste.” Thérèse remarked the other day, the first compliment she received since she started.

     The French were devious.

     Nicole was fluent in English. Her father was English. Following her parents’ divorce, Nicole spent her childhood summers in Manchester. Nicole herself told her this. During her first week, she was friendly and helpful. She gave Luisa her extra stapler, saying not to hesitate to ask if she needed anything else. However, when Luisa regularly took her up on her offer, each time she stumbled over vocabulary or grammar, Nicole’s proficiency in English took a steep decline. By now, Nicole had perfected a befuddled stare to use whenever Luisa asked her a question. This morning, Nicole didn’t know what a “stapler” was.

     The French were arrogant.

     Cédric was an incredible boss. During his tenure as manager of the U.S. branch, headquartered in Jersey City, profits doubled. When the company’s CEO in Le Havre stepped down, he was selected unanimously by the board to replace him. Cédric was also a nightmare to work for. If a report wasn’t turned in on time, it wouldn’t be five minutes before you received a vicious email. A phone call was your final warning. Once you spotted him marching to your desk, you better have the report, or a cardboard box at hand.

     Only Luisa was exempt from his exacting standards. He didn’t care what she did, or that she was capable of very little with her tenuous grasp of the language. She wasn’t afraid of him, but he was terrified of her. He avoided her like the plague. If their relationship were exposed, it would undermine his absolute authority. He wouldn’t inspire respect, but gossip and ridicule.

     No one had any notion that they lived together in a quaint house by the coast. He drove to work, she took the bus. He sat her at a cubicle at the opposite end from his office. He never gave her more than a terse, “bonjour.” Once, by chance, they found each other alone in the same elevator. The moment she opened her mouth, he glanced up pointedly at the elevator camera.

     Cédric thought just because he was handsome, brilliant, sweet and caring, he could utterly ignore her the entire day, and she would automatically forgive him at night. His first words to her, whether she greeted him at the door, or he kissed her awake, were always the same, “Je t’aime mon amour.” Her anger dissipated instantly. But just because he was right, that didn’t make it right.

     If she had more to do, perhaps she wouldn’t have minded Cédric’s cold shoulder. She had one task: compiling the daily sales report. She took it over from Sylvie, the office manager. Sylvie confided she had been lobbying for years for it to be delegated to someone else. (The French were complainers.) Luisa finished the report before lunch. The afternoon was a long stretch of nothing. When she worked in Doctor Scheinfeld’s office in Jersey City, each day was exhausting. He was usually overbooked and understaffed. Still, the time seemed to pass quickly, and she was good with the patients. She had made a favorable impression on at least one of them.

#

     When Cédric walked into Doctor Scheinfeld’s office, she didn’t see a handsome, debonair businessman. She saw a pasty, older man with bedhead squinting at her through two pink eyes. She certainly didn’t think, eighteen months from now, she would be living with him in Le Havre, France. She thought, he should have come here a few days ago, before the conjunctivitis spread. He approached her, but Gloria was handling the patients.

     “Insurance cards and photo ID,” Gloria snapped. Gloria treated patients like criminals. She reminded Luisa of the nasty clerk at The North Brunswick Psychiatric Center, who remarked upon Luisa being enrolled at such a fine college, yet still on Medicaid, “You can fool the State of New Jersey, but not me.”

     “I have no photo ID,” he announced, in an exotic accent Luisa had definitely never heard in this office before.

     “Bring it next time. Insurance, please.” Luisa spoke before Gloria could. She could tell Gloria already didn’t like him. Gloria might “unintentionally” place his file to the side, leaving him waiting an hour until she “noticed.”

     “No photo ID? You have to carry photo ID. It’s the law,” Gloria said, refusing to relinquish him to Luisa. Incensed, Cédric’s skin matched his eyes.

     “You can find that law on a government website?” he asked. Gloria didn’t like that at all. She shuffled to her feet, which seemed to emphasize that she was roughly the same mass as Cédric and Luisa put together.

     “Fax it,” Luisa said. “Today!” She added sharply, hoping that would appease Gloria.

     “Tomorrow,” he said. Luisa smirked, incredulous. He searched calmly through his wallet while Gloria stood in his face, nostrils flaring. At last, he smacked his card down on the desk. Upon seeing it, Gloria’s eyes gleamed with mirth.

     “This is your prescription card, not an insurance card. You need an insurance card to see Doctor Scheinfeld,” Gloria declared with relish. Cédric frantically searched through his wallet again. There wasn’t much there: a few business cards, his debit card, his social security card, a card that looked like it was for laundry.

     “What company?” Luisa asked. He shrugged. Gloria shook her head, tsking.

     “Gloria, you forgot to fax yesterday’s medical notes!” Luisa pretended to remember just now. Gloria rushed to the back. Gloria forgot every day. Luisa had faxed them herself last night.

     “You probably have Blue Cross. That’s what usually comes with Express Scripts. Can I get your social security card?” she asked. He handed it over. She phoned Blue Cross. With his social security number, she could get his ID number, which was all she needed to file a claim. As she waited on hold, she noticed he was staring at her. He smoothed down his hair with his palm. Aside from the infected eyes, he was kind of cute. He smiled at her. Heat rushed to her cheeks. She realized she was blushing. It was then she might have had some inkling this was the man she would leave her whole life behind for.

#

     Pop sensation Stacy McCall was at it again. These days, of course, Stacy McCall was making headlines for her bizarre antics rather than her music: tweeting incoherent rants, being detained by airport security with a roach in her sock, showing up at court with the left half of her head shaved. Celebrity gossip was Luisa’s guilty pleasure, one she indulged in far more frequently now that she had her whole afternoons to fritter away. Her favorite source was The Biz. It was less trashy than most sites. The Biz would never post a starlet’s leaked nude selfies, even if the links would be in blue for the curious.

     Baring her teeth, her hands tensed into claws, her eyes ablaze with fury, Stacy McCall was a fierce animal photographed mid-pounce. The shot was taken an instant before the photographer, one Arlene Gooley, was attacked. Witnesses described Ms. Gooley, a hairdresser and mother of three, being punched, kicked and dragged around, ironically, by her hair, until a patron at a nearby Ruby Tuesday intervened.

     As Luisa read the readers’ comments, she felt nauseous, grimacing at each cruel word: “blimp,” “slut,” “monster.” For the first time, she was compelled to leave a comment of her own.

     LuisaViloria: “The monster isn’t Stacy McCall. To me, she looks like a cornered, frightened animal. If anyone’s to blame, it’s this Arlene ‘mother of three’ Gooley. I only hope she puts her earnings from exploiting Ms. McCall’s illness into her kids’ college funds. Still, she’s no monster, merely an opportunist. The real monsters are you, reveling in this young woman’s breakdown. I grant you, it’s not the most flattering shot, but the true ugliness lies down here, at the bottom of the screen.”

     It felt cathartic, as if she was telling off that awful clerk at North Brunswick Psychiatric, or the dean who revoked her scholarship, making it effectively impossible for her to reenroll. Being ill didn’t make someone not a person. Over the next few days, Tom Winston announced he was leaving Your Majesty. Trial and Error was being canceled. The Winding Road was supposedly exquisite, though the only American movies to make it to Le Havre were brainless blockbusters. Stacy McCall was brought into police custody for assaulting Arlene Gooley, identified as a waitress at Ruby Tuesday. Certain that wasn’t what she read before, she clicked on the older article. As she thought, it stated Arlene was a hairdresser.

     While the page was up, she scrolled down to see how her post was received, bracing herself for all kinds of insults. She wasn’t prepared, however, for what she found: fifty-six likes. Replies filled the screen several times over: “I’m so glad someone had the sense to stand up for this poor woman.” “You tell ‘em! Nothing uglier than a troll with too much time on his hands.”  “So right! That white trash baby factory made fifty grand at least.” “What kinda names that? Terrorist, or getto Trash? STFU.” Though not every response was flattering, clearly her words struck a chord.

     It had been years since her writing got this kind of attention. The last time was in Creative Non-Fiction with Professor Gupta during her sophomore year at college. After each assignment, the students went around in a circle reading their pieces aloud and critiquing each other. She held back nothing, recounting what it was like to be raised by a junkie, the parade of low-lives in her apartment at all hours, her mother’s cycle of getting clean and relapsing, and the abuse facilitated by her lack of vigilance over her.

     She was a star in that class. The other students sometimes broke into applause when she finished. Professor Gupta once pulled her aside to tell her she deserved to be published. Outside of Professor Gupta’s classroom, she wasn’t nearly as popular. In fact, she didn’t have a single friend. She lacked the most basic social skills. She never knew the right words to say, even to easy questions, like how she was doing. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t make herself look others in the eyes. It had been the same back home. The difference now was that she was an adult, nineteen. It was apparent she would live her life this way, forever alone.

     Almost certainly, she would have gotten an “A” in Professor Gupta’s class had she ever finished. She wondered what Professor Gupta thought upon learning of her suicide attempt, foiled when her roommate returned before midnight for the first Saturday all year. She hoped Professor Gupta didn’t blame himself. Even if he should have seen it coming, no one could have saved her.

     When she arrived upon one reply, her heart stopped.

     LeatherJacket: “Beautifully stated, Luisa. You should be a writer. Anyone ever tell you that?”

     It was the name. Of course, it must have been a coincidence. The comment itself wasn’t unusual. Her teachers had told her she should be a writer for as long she could remember. Doctor Scheinfeld would say it, in a condescending way, when she helped him write insurance appeals. She thought hard, back to her five week stint at North Brunswick Psychiatric. She was sure Pablo never even said those words to her. That didn’t mean he wasn’t saying them now.

     Feeling unsettled, she perused The Biz’s homepage for a frothy distraction. She clicked on: “Jenny Blaine Opens Up about Her New Reality Series.” Jenny Blaine was a washed up nineties “it-girl.” More famously, she was the ex-wife of multi-Oscar nominee and purported raging alcoholic Danny Milo. Despite their acrimonious divorce, rumors of a reconciliation had recently circulated. In her interview, Jenny denied it, asserting both had “turned over a new chapter.” Having experienced the destructiveness caused by a loved one’s addiction, she wanted to show Jenny her support. Jenny seemed genuinely sweet, even if not the brightest star.

     LuisaViloria: “She sounds like she’s doing great. Don’t look back, Jenny! Danny chose to self-destruct. Don’t let him take you with him.”

     After she posted her comment, she skimmed the others. So many were offensive, she had to wonder if everyone was this nasty in their heads. Otherwise, this space was a magnet for disturbed minds, which begged the question, what was she doing here? Before she finished reading, she received a reply.

     LeatherJacket:“I don’t agree. Isn’t it possible love can save you? I mean, if you love someone, aren’t they worth fighting for?”

#

     Luisa noticed Pablo from her first session group at North Brunswick Psychiatric. It was impossible not to. He was as handsome as a movie star, with dark, penetrating eyes and delicate features. He spoke a lot, but he didn’t say much about himself. He mostly expressed his appreciation to the therapists. “My self-esteem feels really improved now.” “I think your relaxation techniques are working.”

     Luisa never contributed herself, much to the dismay of her doctor. As he chastised her during their weekly session, she caught him jotting down troubling words on his pad: “Autistic? Asperger’s? Schizoid personality disorder?” Of course, they weren’t any more upsetting than the words which already defined her, “suicidal,” “junkie’s child,” “sexual abuse survivor,” “mental patient.” She was disturbed by the implication they had on the length of her stay. She despised it here. A daily cocktail of pills made her constantly woozy, and without books to read, or her own TV, the days passed agonizingly slow.

     To hasten her release, back to school, back to mom, back anywhere outside, she resolved to participate. It wasn’t easy. Just like during class, she couldn’t seem to think fast enough. Others would make their points before she decided on the right word to begin with. An opportunity arrived during a special session with a visiting therapist, no doubt on loan from a more free-thinking nuthouse.

     “Write down your thoughts, express your anger and fears, pinpoint the source of your pain. Afterwards, we’ll all listen and see if we can conquer your problems together," she declared. Luisa knew no one could fix what was wrong with her. If at nineteen she couldn’t carry on a simple conversation, she was broken for good. Nonetheless, she realized this was her chance.

     “Hector: he’s the source of my pain. True, mom was an on again, off again junkie. We lived in a slum. You could say I was a bean without much light to grow by. But Hector plucked me from the soil. He crushed me in his palm. He tossed aside the shell that remained, still alive yet incapable of living. He gave me nightmares each night. He didn’t take them back when he left. A mugger stabbed me in the heart. A doctor sawed off my arms. Monsters chased me faster than I could run. A dead baby…”

     “Enough!” The therapist interrupted. Luisa looked around. Everyone was enthralled. She didn’t see the problem.

     “Haven’t we learned blaming others is counter-productive? Dennis, how about you?” She moved onto the next patient. Luisa almost burst into tears. While she was numb to these “experts’” idiocy by now, she may have just added days, even weeks, to her stay. Yet, something kept her cheeks dry. It was Pablo’s expression. No one had ever looked at her with such admiration.

#

     “Ça va?” Julien asked. She must have had a vexed look on her face. She minimized the webpage, habit from the days when she had a boss who would care.

     “Très bien.” She smiled. Julien was wearing his coat. She glanced at the time on the screen. It was already past five. As she left the building, she saw Nicole light up a Vogue. Her mouth salivated. She had quit several months ago, finally tired of Cédric pestering her. Ironically, she had stopped for the same reason she had started: a cute guy.

     She nearly asked, “Avez-vous une cigarette?” which she could also say in Spanish and Italian in case Nicole forgot French today. She resisted the temptation. She had spent eleven years ruing the day she first let Pablo get her hooked.

#

     “You have to eat in the common area.” Pablo said.

     She was so startled to see him standing there that she dropped her sandwich. She wondered how long he had been watching her eat. He had shut the door behind him, she noted. She silently debated whether or not to scream. The dimpled smile he flashed spared him being tackled by a dozen orderlies. She picked up what was left of her sandwich. She placed it on the tray atop her bed.

     “No, I don’t," she said, brushing the crumbs away with her foot.

     “Not technically, but it’s one of the things they monitor, how well you interact with others. If they see you eating with friends, playing games, cheering on Judge Judy when she tears into the yokels, it’ll convince them you’re ready for the outside. It’s not enough just to open your mouth during group.” He seemed to grasp her situation completely. It was a bit jarring. She felt like he was the first sane person she met since being admitted, the doctors included.

     “Group didn’t go well today," he muttered.

     “Don’t pay attention to her. She’s a retard. I liked what you wrote. I was really moved. The same thing happened to me, not the junkie stuff, the other stuff," he divulged. Most would find his nonchalance bizarre, even suspicious. She believed him. She understood his cool came from having been through hell. She didn’t know what to say. “Sorry,” didn’t seem quite appropriate if they both shared the same wretched story.

     “Don’t write so well next time. It intimidates them. And say how helpful what they said the last time was. Let them think their bullshit works. If you make them feel good about themselves, they’ll like you, and they’ll want to believe you’re cured," he said. She laughed, though she knew he was serious. It was funny because it was true.

     “Oh, and you’ve got to start smoking.” He pulled his sleeve up his arm. The unexpected gesture alarmed her. She scooted against the wall. Snatching her pillow, she held it up as a shield.

     “Jeez, I’m just showing you I smoke. It’s a nicotine patch, see?” he said. She nodded. He dropped his sleeve.

     “How’ll that help me?” she asked, lowering her pillow.

     “It won’t. It won’t hurt either. Half the doctors smoke. Must be the stress from dealing with us mental cases. If you smoke, you get a cigarette break at seven. Idiotic policy, but you might as well take advantage of it. Don’t you want to go outside, even for just ten minutes?”

     “I don’t have cigarettes.”

     “No problem. These morons give ‘em out for free. I should get going before the orderly comes back for your tray. Besides, I think Mel Gibson’s on Rosie.” He opened the door a crack. He peeked out to make sure the coast was clear. Before slipping out, he threw her a wink which left her blushing for hours.

#

     After seeing her usual bus drive away, it was fifteen minutes before another pulled up.

     “Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?” The driver asked.

     “Très bien.” She mumbled, dropping the fare into the slot. She caught him share a bemused look with the passenger behind her. The French were sticklers for social etiquette. She should have asked the driver how his day was going, commented on the weather, learned his name and remembered it next time. It was why the buses were so slow. They lingered forever at each stop.

     “You have to try.” Cédric told her, when he witnessed scenes like this. It took time. If she didn’t make the effort, she wouldn’t improve. She felt like she was nineteen again, learning the rudiments, the appropriate greetings, how to introduce herself to strangers. Each time she failed, she felt that same familiar frustration and shame.

     She didn’t want to be in that situation again, so far behind everyone else. She thought she was done struggling. Yet, as she caught her reflection in the window, she looked very much like her old self, a misfit, alienated from the world. There was only one person she had felt connected to. When she remembered him, she wasn’t alone anymore.

#

     Getting cigarette privileges was easy. She told her doctor that she was a closet smoker. She hadn’t mentioned it before for fear of her mother finding out. He warned her she needed to quit, but agreed now wasn’t the best time. As he stood to escort her from his office, she made out the square outline of a pack in his lab coat pocket. It heartened her that Pablo was right about the doctors smoking. It meant he wasn’t crazy, so she shouldn’t worry about being in love with him.

     She had gotten crushes on boys before. She daydreamed of kissing them, marrying them, bearing their children. The one time a boy she liked actually approached her, having caught her gaze in the cafeteria, she scurried to the ladies’ room like a mouse to the nearest hole. Her encounter with Pablo was the most intimate she’d ever had with a boy.

     As she waited at the nurse’s station that evening, she was so nervous she thought she would vomit. What if he didn’t show? What if it was all a mean trick? Who was to say he hadn’t swiped his roommate’s nicotine patch? She had almost convinced herself to return to her room when he turned down the corridor. A beaming smile spread across his face.

     “Trading the psych ward for the cancer ward with the rest of us?” he said. She giggled. Ellen, the kindest nurse, overheard him.

     “You be nice to her,” Ellen said.

     “I swear, if I’m anything but nice, you can give me the...” Bringing his index fingers to his temples, he jolted his head back repeatedly, lolling his tongue.

     “Stop before someone sees you!” Ellen said, stifling her laughter. She grabbed a key from the desk and exited the station.

     “When we get out, go left to the parking lot. There’s a bench there under the rates sign that’s usually empty," he whispered.

     “Okay," she said.

     “Awesome.” His eyes sparkled at her.

     “Here you are.” Ellen returned with her arms full of the coats and jackets. She distributed them out to the patients. When Pablo put his jacket on, he looked just like Marlon Brando as the biker gang leader in The Wild One.

#

     She was so lost in thought that she missed her stop. Walking back from the next, she stopped at a farmer’s stand and picked up vegetables for dinner. She could whip up a quick ratatouille when Cédric arrived. Typically, she read for most of the evening. If Cédric returned not too late, they might watch French TV or a pirated American movie while snuggling on the couch. Often, however, Cédric would get back close to midnight. He would find her asleep, her book on the floor beside her. She never complained. He would wake her so tenderly, then make an omelette for them, seeing how groggy she was.

     They created a life together. It was a good one. So, what lured her to her laptop instead of her bookmarked novel? She couldn’t turn her back on Pablo, even after how it had ended. It didn’t matter if he was in his right mind. She most definitely wasn’t in hers. As a test, she chose a random article and typed a mundane comment no one else would take notice of.

     LuisaViloria: “Great casting. His performance in Williamsburg blew me away.”

     As she waited, she reflected back on the cigarettes she and Pablo shared on the parking lot bench. They never talked about anything serious, even the obvious subject of how they ended up in a psychiatric facility. He named the bands he was into, regretting he didn’t have his Discman to play for her. She described her favorite novels, promising to lend them to him one day. They discussed the TV shows they missed and the movies they loved.

     LeatherJacket: “Totally agree, though I worry about him going mainstream. Aren’t you afraid he’ll get stuck in, like, the Hawkman franchise and never do anything interesting again?”

     They had quickly grown comfortable enough to tease each other. They had running jokes about her mumbling and his not knowing Spanish. She better learn to speak up. There weren’t any mics around to pin to her collar. There weren’t even collars. She was in the right place, because she was talking to herself. If his mother wanted him to assimilate, she should have named him Brian. “Tonto” meant “intuitive.” “Loco” meant “singular.”

     LuisaViloria: “Let’s not get sanctimonious. Earning a decent paycheck doesn’t mean you’ve compromised your artistic integrity. Look at Robert Downey Jr., Christian Bale, Brad Pitt.”

     LeatherJacket: “Johnny Depp?”

     LuisaViloria: “Touché.”

     Something between them changed, or deepened. She felt longing emanate from him when he got close to light her cigarette. The way he stroked his chin, or slanted his mouth to the side after a joke would strike her oddly, triggering an ache in her breast. For a minute, she wouldn’t be able to speak. Her heart sank each time Ellen called, “Time’s up!” Inside, it wasn’t like this. He was always playing cards, making wisecracks at the TV, or smooth-talking the remote into his hands. He was like the big man on campus, except in the loony bin. She couldn’t say a few words to him without someone intruding.

     LeatherJacket: “So we agree about something! :)”

     NikkiPucker: “Johnny Depp is still a great actor. The Pirates movies are so underrated! I think they’re better than Star Wars!”

     LeatherJacket: “I’m really praying you’re a troll.”

     On that bench, it was as if she and Pablo were the only two in the world. North Brunswick Psychiatric vanished. Hector never existed. She had never been mistreated or ignored. The past was gone. She daydreamed about their future. Once she graduated, they would move into a one-bedroom in Brooklyn, where rents were affordable. They would marry eventually. While it wouldn’t be important to them, they would get tired of being constantly teased about it. They would put off children as they pursued their careers. She would get pregnant at thirty, not entirely on purpose nor by accident. By then, they would have enough stashed away for a charming brownstone in a good school district.

     LuisaViloria: “Anyone dumb enough to hold that opinion couldn’t spell ‘underrated.’”

     LeatherJacket: “Good catch.”

     Pablo was going to love her forever. He would show her joy, pleasure, wholeness and all the things she must have felt once, but could only remember missing.

     LuisaViloria: “If she (?) isn’t a troll, she’s a psychopath.”

     As soon as she hit post, she regretted the use of that word. She remembered how her fantasies of Pablo, the life they would share, so quickly disintegrated. Coming to her senses, she shut down her laptop. She needed some air. She put her coat back on. She went outside.  

     Heading down Rue de Belfort, she popped into a smoke shop and bought a pack of Marlboros. She smoked two before returning. She was going to shower away the scent, but changed her mind. Smelling it on her might give Cédric a sense of the gravity of the situation. The moment he walked in, he would know something was wrong.

     When Cédric arrived, she was watching an old American classic dubbed in French. She would have been lost had she not seen it already. He approached warily. He peered down at the Styrofoam cup on the coffee table filled with floating cigarette butts.

     “We need to talk.” She spoke before he could, before his “Je t’aime mon amour” sapped her of all indignation.   

     “What is it my love?” As he sat beside her, he clasped her hand resting on the couch. The gesture threw her off guard. She had grown used to thinking of him as the hardline boss without an ounce of compassion.

     “It’s work," she said. He let out a sigh of relief. She didn’t want to break up. She wasn’t having an affair. She wasn’t that crazy, yet.

     “Is it too hard? I’ll give the sales report back to Sylvie. She doesn’t have enough to do. I can’t leave my office without hearing her mouth.”

     “No, it’s easy. So easy, I spend most of my day surfing the internet, sinking into my thoughts. It’s unhealthy. You’re all I have to preoccupy me, and you work so much. You ignore me at the office.” She didn’t mean to shift the blame to him. She saw the anger rise on his face. He let go of her hand.

     “I worked the same hours in Jersey City! I’m very busy! Too busy to socialize with anyone!” he snapped.

     “I know, I know, but in Le Havre I feel so alone. I just need something to keep me going.”

     “What?” His expression turned wounded. It was how he always responded to criticism. After biting back, he collapsed into self-doubt. Only she knew this side of him. His employees would be shocked by how insecure he truly was. She took his hand again.

     “I want to quit and write a novel.” It had been her dream since she was nineteen in Professor Gupta’s class. Maybe she would publish, maybe not. But she needed something to engage her mind that wasn’t The Biz, or Stacy McCall, or LeatherJacket.

     “I didn’t expect that!” he laughed. She pled with her eyes. She knew she would get her way. However he was with his employees, he was the opposite with her.

     “Without a work visa, we’ll have to marry or do a civil partnership," he said.

     “Okay," she said.

     “Okay," he said. She threw her arms around him. After exchanging several soft kisses, they got up. He opened the windows to air out the apartment. She went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. He grabbed a magazine from the counter and sat back down. Just like that, they were possibly engaged. They would work out the details later, this weekend, when they were relaxed and their heads were clearer.

#

     Until Cédric, finding love was incomprehensible to her. She could thank Pablo for killing the fantasies she had been prone to since childhood. She went on dates every so often. She slept with a few men, convinced them, if not herself, she enjoyed it. But she accepted she was too damaged for anything to last. The best she could hope for was a brief reprieve from her loneliness. To imagine otherwise would only be setting herself up for heartache, and worse.  

     She grew more practical in other ways too. Following Pablo’s release, she forced herself to speak during group sessions. She ate her meals in the common area. She joined in the card games. When she couldn’t return to school, she worked as a supermarket cashier, using it as a chance to hone her social skills. Life was about getting by. She didn’t expect happiness. She was happy as long as she never ended up back in that miserable place. Even if she stopped believing in dreams, nightmares were all too real.

     Pablo told her on Wednesday, as soon as he knew, that he would be discharged Friday morning. Seeing the anguish on her face, he laughed. Obviously, they weren’t going to stay here forever, though the idea struck her as almost appealing. He asked Ellen for a pen and paper the minute they returned. They giddily exchanged numbers at the nurse’s station. In a few short weeks she would be hanging up upon recognizing his voice. Luckily, he stopped calling before her mother grew suspicious.

     “Our last cigarette," he said on Thursday.

     “For now," she added, smiling. He nodded in agreement.

     “What are your plans when they let you out?” he asked. From the tone of his voice, he seemed to already have something in mind. A date, she imagined. Watching the ritual on TV, the nervous greeting, the dinner out, the exhilarating kiss goodnight, had once filled her with envy. She knew that would never be her, she would always be alone. It made her want to die. Yet, here she was, undeniably in love with Pablo, and she couldn’t bear the thought of not living to kiss him.

     “Finish school.” She couldn’t reveal what she was really thinking.

     “You sure? I’d say it’s a waste of time," he grimaced. Momentarily, she considered dropping out merely because he suggested it. She was so enraptured by him. But surely, they could still date while she attended college. He would be staying with his parents, right in Somerset.

     “I want a good job. I don’t want to be on welfare like my mom.”

     “Those aren’t the only two options," he laughed. She laughed too, though she couldn’t imagine what he was getting at.

     “There’s this farm an hour and a half west of here, close to Allentown: a real, functioning farm, cows, chickens, vegetables. As long as you do your part, you can live there for free. It’s a lot of work, I won’t kid you," he said.

     She looked at him skeptically. She was born and raised in Newark. She had never seen a real, living chicken, let alone slaughtered one. He didn’t strike her as the farmer type either. Still, she found his fantasy cute. She supposed she could humor him by accompanying him. She gave it a week before they admitted defeat and returned to civilization.

     “I’ll have to wait a few months before I go back myself. My parents will be keeping close tabs on me, especially after the last time I snuck back. They thought they were being clever, showing up telling me my brother had leukemia. Sick, right? Zelmon tried to warn me it was a trap, but I love my little brother.”

     Her stomach started to churn. She had never dwelled too much on why he was here. She assumed he was depressed or suicidal like her, nothing her loving devotion couldn’t cure. If he didn’t seem remotely sad, she chalked it up to him being such a good liar. He had everyone here fooled. It turned out she was no exception. She stood.

     “Are you talking about a cult?” she said. He stood, meeting her eyes. She flinched away from him, for the first time in weeks.

     “That’s an ignorant word!” he snapped. Registering her fear, his tone softened. “Cults follow a religion. We worship truth. To discover it means rejecting society’s constraints. Money, possessions, titles, they’re harmful deceptions. We live free, as man is meant to live. I mean, aren’t humans merely another kind of animal?” His voice took on the rhythmic lilt of a preacher. It was obvious he had given this speech before. She wasn’t the first lost soul he tried to recruit. She wondered if she was ever special to him at all.

     “Cast off the shackles of false education. Liberate yourself of the slave name forced upon you at birth. You are so beautiful," his voice cracked. He paused. With ambivalent relief, she perceived his feelings for her were genuine. But they had gotten warped somehow, on their way from his heart to his head.

     “Like me, you’ve been destroyed by this sick world. I’ve wanted so badly, since I first came to your room, to tell you my real name.”

     “Wha-what’s your real name?” she stuttered. She dropped her cigarette. When she glanced down, her hands were shaking. She felt as if she was in a horror movie. Suddenly, Pablo ripped off his mask to reveal the face of a monster.

     “Zulatar.”

     She ran. He grabbed the back of her coat, but she pulled free. By the time she looked back over her shoulder, he had stopped chasing her. He must have thought better of it, lest he jeopardize his release, ruining his plans to rejoin his demented brethren near Allentown. She told Ellen she needed to go back now. She said she had cramps, the only excuse she could think of. Ellen stamped out her cigarette and escorted her herself.

     All evening, all night and all morning, she imagined he would show up in her room. He would explain the cult was a joke and tease her for being so gullible. However, if he actually had come, most likely she would have shrieked. She knew in her gut he was serious. She still loved him, and that only scared her more. It was too tempting to let him take her whole life from her.

#

     Luisa took deep breaths as her PC loaded up. She had laid awake half the night composing the words in her head. She just had to type them out. She should be done before Sylvie returned with her morning cappuccino.

     LeatherJacket: “So what is it? Are you a troll, a psycho, a dude? Or, a perfectly normal woman who happened to have been born with a porn star’s name?”

     NikkiPucker: “I’ve flagged your comments, and am dismayed they haven’t been removed. If you wouldn’t take Johnny Depp’s big sword over Indiana Jones’ wrinkly limp whip, then you’re the psychos.”

     The thread continued. “Frank” called NikkiPucker a dumb bitch for confusing Indiana Jones with Han Solo. “GreysAnatomyFan” accused everyone of being misogynistic. However, there were no more posts from LeatherJacket. She feared he might have lashed out at her for quitting the discussion. The disappointment she felt not to see his moniker only made it clearer that this had to stop.

     She searched for the article on Jenny Blaine. It had already been banished to the archives, yesterday’s news. She thought it strangely fitting that her final words to Pablo end up here, their existence buried, yet everlasting nonetheless. From the moment Pablo left, she tried in vain to forget him. She could ignore her feelings, but the memories, the hurt and the longing stayed with her. Presuming Pablo came across her name several days ago, and thought, why not follow her for a bit, she was giving them both closure. At worst, someone would think she gave way too much thought to Jenny Blaine’s new reality show.

     “Re: LeatherJacket:

     “Love is like a force majeure. It can strike without warning, under any circumstances, defying all logic. Even when it’s ill-advised, we feel at its whim, robbed of our wills. You say love is worth fighting for. Sometimes, we have to fight against it. She’s just started to get her life together. Is there any more delicate a time than a new beginning? It wouldn’t be his intention, but right now, he would bring disaster upon her. If he loves her, he’ll understand she has to let him go. Deep down, he must appreciate how hard it was to stop loving him.”

     She closed the browser. Upon bidding Pablo adieu, she became wistful. Even if she hadn’t seen him in over a decade, it felt like one more remnant of her old life was gone. In a French film, she would smoke a cigarette as she brooded into space. Alas, she was at work, and she was done with cigarettes now too. She opened Excel. When Sylvie returned, they chatted for ten minutes. While they said nothing interesting, it was good for her French. She sent Cédric a covert text during lunch. He replied instantly, “Luv u 2.” In the afternoon, she scribbled down ideas for her novel.

     She didn’t check back for LeatherJacket’s reply. She vowed not to, although she would never learn if LeatherJacket was Pablo, or if he was still wayward, or forgave her. Uncertainty could wreck or comfort you if you let it. It was like love in that regard. She told herself Pablo was out there somewhere doing fine, happy that she was too. One day, he might recognize himself in her words again.

 

 

 

About the Author: Scott Bassis is a young writer eager to establish himself as a serious talent. He has had short stories published in Rainbow Curve, Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and The Missing Slate. He is currently working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.