(Fiction) As If To Swallow Me

Bistro Indigenes was packed with the dinner crowd. Male and female servers scurried about in neat black aprons and matching bandannas. By the time I got there, Amber was already waiting, which embarrassed me a little and I apologized profusely. I repeated how I hadn’t showered and I wasn’t dressed nearly as nice as her. I lifted the strap of my work bag, still slung over my shoulder, in apology. She was in a dress—fancy casual I guess you’d call it—and she was wearing more makeup than I’d seen on her before. She looked really nice. But she seemed uncomfortable. She told me it wasn’t a big deal, quickly adding that she wasn’t sure if I’d made reservations, so she had put our name down. The hostess told her there was no guarantee we’d even get in before closing. The place was hopping.

“Shit.” I’d been so preoccupied, that possibility hadn’t even occurred to me.

“Should we go somewhere else?” she asked. It was pretty clear she wanted to. She kept looking around with a kind of exaggerated curiosity, as if everything were more interesting than it was, the way you might scan a party for your ex while trying not to make it obvious.

Someone touched my shoulder lightly and I turned. It was the chef’s assistant, or whatever she was. Milan. She was all class, just like before, in khaki pants and a white-and-rainbow wrap. She looked like an Eastern European model, something straight out of a magazine. The cut crystal still dangled from the long chain around her neck. It reflected the light in an odd way. Half of it was tiny rainbows. The other half was dim, as if catching an invisible shadow.

“Dr. Alexander,” she said. “How nice to see you again. We’ve been holding your table.”

“My table?”

“I’m so sorry,” she told Amber. “I didn’t realize you were with the doctor’s party.”

The waiting booth in the foyer was full of hungry hipsters who’d been standing forever. They eyed us resentfully.

Dr. Massey turned to me wearing a bemused smile. “Well, well, Dr. Alexander,” she mocked.

Milan spoke to the host, a thickly mustachioed Salvadoran man with pomaded hair who glanced at us and nodded before leading us to a table with a good view of the open kitchen. In the center was a large stone-block hearth. A fire raged. It seemed much bigger than it needed to be. Like someone had trapped a devil inside.

We ordered wine, and when the waiter left, there was another awkward silence.

“So . . .” She leaned over the table. “I have a confession. I’m so embarrassed.”

I swallowed. I scanned her hand for a wedding ring. Just as empty as before. I still wore mine. I moved it to my lap.

“I don’t even know your first name,” she said, red-faced. “Your real one, I mean.”

I laughed. Three times we’d met, plus a bunch of text conversations between. I guess it never came up.

“Uchewe.” I spelled it for her and explained how white folks down south always wanted to call me “You-Chew.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“My brother tried calling me Che, you know, like the revolutionary, but it never took. He tried calling me lots of names, actually.”

“Why’s that?”

“I guess because I called him Bug and it stuck and he wanted to get me back.”

“Did something happen with him?” she asked. “Sorry.” She covered her mouth again like it was filthy. “Is that okay to ask? It’s just, you mentioned him once before, and both times you looked . . . I dunno. Away, I guess.”

I hadn’t realized. “No, it’s okay. He died. That’s all. When I was young.”

“I’m so sorry. How old were you?”

“Fourteen. It’s actually funny you bring it up. I’ve been thinking about him today. Don’t know if you heard. The boy died.”

“Are you kidding?” Her eyes got big. “The whole city knows. It’s all over the news. They’ve been flashing those dimples at every commercial break. ‘Unknown killer claims the life of a seven-year-old boy. Latest at 11.’ I’m surprised no one’s tried to interview you.”

“Naw, the police have the case now. I only met him once, but it hit me—Well, I guess I thought . . . I dunno.”

“That you could save him? You can’t save people. Believe me.” She made a face, like she was an expert and I had no idea. She washed it away with a quick drink from her glass. “They’ll take everything from you if you let them,” she added a moment later. “If that’s why you do it, you’re gonna get burned out. Really fast.”

There was an edge to her then that I hadn’t noticed before. Almost cynical.

“So why do you do it?”

Before she could answer, menus came. A pair of well-dressed servers placed them gently in front of us. They were fancy. Really fancy. Leather-bound and heavy. And there were no prices, as if that kind of thing didn’t matter to the people who ate there.

I leaned over the table. “You really don’t have to pay, you know.”

She held up her menu so it covered all but her eyes, which scanned the room. “So nice, right? I don’t know what it says about me, but I’ve never been to a place like this. Thanks for suggesting it.”

The menu wasn’t prix fixe, but it wasn’t quite a la carte either. It was whatever Étranger wanted it to be, and it changed with his mind. That night we had our choice of four set meals, one for each of the seasons, wine and dessert included. I ordered Spring and was brought an appetizer of “cud-grass soup with boiled tripe.” I ordered it because it sounded intriguingly distasteful, but the tripe was thinly stripped and tender, almost like the noodles in my grandma’s chicken noodle soup, and the vegetable stock was salty and clear and pleasantly bitter with an aftertaste of jasmine and wild herbs. It actually tasted like I was lazing about in a sunlit field watching the clouds roll by. The accompanying entree was roasted hummingbirds, eight of them, glazed with sweet nectar and served on a bed of leafy greens and stuffed zucchini flowers. It was delicious.

Amber ordered Summer. Her appetizer was a shaved-ice curry that tasted way better than it had any reason to, with a texture sort of like iced coffee. It was creamy and cold and earthy and a little bit sweet, and the spice clung to our lips, which both of us licked two or three times after each bite.

“Wow,” she said, shifting in her seat, the spice warming her face like a tropical sun.

We shared each other’s dishes and mostly talked about the food, which was exotic enough to make easy conversation. Every dish was a novelty, unlike anything either of us had had before.

“How you holding up?” she asked finally in a lull between courses. She’d been dancing around the subject, waiting for a moment of comfort. By then we were both on our second glass of wine, although technically I hadn’t finished my first. She had. Buttery whites aren’t really my thing and this one made its way to her side of the table pretty quick.

She sloughed off my noncommittal reply. “Tell me about the case then, if you don’t want to talk about you.”

“It’s not that. I just don’t know what to say. How am I holding up? I dunno. If I say ‘not good,’ it makes it seem like I’m in real trouble. If I say ‘not bad,’ it makes it seem like everything’s great.”

“Do you overthink everything like this?”

“Ha. Yeah. Usually.”

“I suppose it’s good for your job, being a scientist and all.”

I put my napkin on the table. “The whole truth?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

I thought for a moment. I thought about my stint in Africa, about the bodies there, how they had looked after a week in the sun, how the whole experience was totally different, how the international team I’d belonged to didn’t get much support from the local government, but how they stayed out of our way all the same. They knew that without us, and the money that came with, they’d have a problem they couldn’t hope to contain. So we did whatever needed to be done. Everyone on the ground was active, dedicated, smart. I felt like the dumbest guy there and loved it. So much to learn. And when we were ultimately successful, I had a sense of worth and accomplishment like I’d never felt before. I’d been a part of something bigger than myself. We’d taken direct action. We’d saved lives. We don’t get enough opportunities like that in life.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we’d just found five dead bodies in a basement, and just because they were born on a different continent, there was some question as to whether their deaths would even be investigated. The mood in Africa had been electric. At the Chinese grocer, I felt like I was walking into the DMV. Everybody was waiting for someone in some other part of the big machine. When the case inevitably hit the news, instead of buckling down and doing what they should’ve done from the start, everyone overreacted, like it was a complete surprise.

I wanted to tell Amber all that. I wanted to tell her more people would die. I wanted to tell her about the ring around the city, and The Rat King, and the shiny steel padlock in the basement of an otherwise abandoned school, about the bone labyrinth and the eerie symbols I found there and under the grocer’s. But I didn’t. As I opened my mouth, I was saved by dessert, which appeared in front of us as if from nowhere.

“How’d you even get on this case?” she asked, poking at a sort of julep parfait. “You never told me.”

I nodded in recollection. She’d asked at one of our earlier meetings. I said it was a story and I’d have to tell her sometime. I never had.

“I wasn’t ducking the question. It’s just boring work stuff.”

“So give me the short version.”

“Well. Believe it or not, I was working on this program the department runs with the sex worker population.”

“Prostitutes? Really?”

“Yeah, and related activities.”

“What’s related to prostitution?”

“Strippers. Porn stars. Burlesque shows.”

Burlesque?

“Hey, man.” I held up my hands. “It’s a thing.”

She was taking tiny sips of her wine, which was almost gone, to make it last longer.

“You want another?” I asked, nodding to the glass.

“I probably shouldn’t.”

I took a drink of my own.

“So what were you doing with those prostitutes?”

I smiled and thought for a moment how to explain it. “Okay, so there’s two parts to the survey. There’s a stratified area probability sample where we break the city into grids and then sample some percent of the grids in each borough.”

“What do you mean grid?”

“A standardized city block, basically. Once a block gets selected, we do a survey in that grid. We talk to everyone we can about, for example, whether they’ve ever bought or sold sex. If so, how often, how much did they pay, did they use protection. All that.”

“And people answer these questions honestly?”

“Everybody always asks that, but you’d be surprised. We actually have a way of testing for honesty, too. We ask multiple questions that get at the same thing in different ways and we space them out so that it’s hard for people to hide when they’re lying. Every response gets a congruence score. Responses with low internal congruence have a higher chance of containing falsehoods and are either weighted down or discarded entirely. And the instrument itself, the survey questionnaire, is tested first—calibrated, we say, against verifiable data, so we’re confident it’s working as expected.”

“I totally didn’t realize it was that complicated.”

I realized I was getting defensive. “Yeah, it’s really rigorous, not like a marketing survey or whatever. Point is, people love talking about themselves. The johns, maybe not so much, but the pros do. An average day for them is all about the customer, and a lot of them don’t have the best home life.”

“That’s sad.”

“So, if you can get them to open up, they’ll talk your ear off. They’ll tell you all this stuff you don’t need, like the first guy they blew and the sick shit all their ex-boyfriends wanted them to do. But then, it helps that it’s all anonymous. We don’t take names. They can give us a fake one, it doesn’t matter. We don’t save anything identifying.

“Anyway, that’s one part. Along with the field survey, we also do one of the prison population on the theory that if we can establish the relationship between the prison population, which is known, and the wider city, which is unknown, then we can get excellent stats on, for example, the number of sex workers in the city, or the prevalence of HIV and how it’s moving, or whatever.”

“That’s really smart.” She’d finished her wine.

“Well, unfortunately I can’t take credit for it. They’ve been doing it for a while.”

“Why are you always making excuses for how smart you are?”

“Am I?”

“Sorry, I interrupted. Please continue.”

“Um. Yeah, so the problem is . . . the parts of the city you’re most interested in are also the parts that are too dangerous to go into with a whole team and everything. We already gotta do everything with pen and paper because if you use any kind of handheld device, some percent of your interviewers will get robbed. And that’s not even in the really bad parts of town. Certain grid squares get flagged, either based on crime stats or interviewer feedback, and instead of doing a survey there, if one of those blocks gets randomly selected, we try to do some spot interviews, just to get something rather than nothing, and then pick again.”

“So what you’re saying is you volunteered.”

I smiled. “It was my first week. I got the right color skin. Plus, I grew up in a place like that. They needed someone to get it done. So, yeah. I volunteered. I thought it would be a good way to make a quick splash. You can’t go in with any kind of credentials, though, or they’ll just think you’re a cop. Most of these folks either don’t know or don’t care about the alphabet soup of agencies. You flash an ID card of any kind and you’re just another authority figure they got no reason to talk to. Some of the churches do good work, but building those relationships takes—” I stopped. I remembered she worked in community health. “You know what I mean.”

“So what’d you do?”

“Left my wallet at home and went with a giant bag of suckers.”

She laughed out loud. “Suckers?

“Yeah, you know those little round suckers that come in giant bags of 100 or whatever? It’s a great conversation starter. Everybody likes to pick out their favorite flavor. A lot of these girls don’t have regular meals either. And a sucker is something they can have in their mouths that doesn’t exactly turn the clientele away, if you know what I mean.”

“See? Very clever, Doctor.”

“There’s this concept in survey methods called reciprocity, where if you do something for people, they’re more likely to do something for you. It’s the reason charities always send those free preprinted address labels in the mail. Because they know they’ll get more responses if they send you something first. By the second night, though, it was kind of a joke. Girls were seeking me out. Pimps were, too. I got told to mind my own business a few times and had to turn around and walk the other way.”

“Dangerous.”

“Eh, not as much as you might think. Pimps are a different breed. Not like dealers. Anyway, the last night, I was out pretty late. I was basically just hanging around looking for girls I hadn’t already talked to when these kids came up and said this woman Cheri was sick and would I take a look. Cheri Cardenas. They didn’t know who I was, just that I was going around talking about health and stuff. I didn’t know what the hell I could do. But it sounded serious and I didn’t have my phone with me. I’d left it at home with my wallet. So I figured I oughta at least see what was going on. As soon as I did, I told the boys to run to a convenience store down the street and call 911.”

I stopped and she waited.

“And?”

“She was dead. To be honest, I hadn’t remembered talking to her until I saw the apartment. She was so emaciated, I didn’t recognize her face. But I remembered talking to a girl with a heavy Brooklyn Latina accent. She wasn’t working. She was sick and staying at her grandmother’s. Grandma was apparently stuck in some horrible nursing home. I tried to get the name from her, but she wouldn’t say. Like she was scared.”

“What happened?”

“Same as everybody else. She was in bed. Her grandma’s bed. You could just tell it had been an old lady’s apartment. There was crap everywhere. Old crap. Not stuff a young woman would have, even a hoarder. Stacks of country lifestyle magazines with, like, a million Catholic saint candles lying around. The poor girl looked like she’d shriveled. All her hair had fallen out. Half of it was on the pillow. I guess maybe it was because I’d seen it up close, seen her and how awful it was. No one else acted like it was a big deal. Bad drugs or something. But there’s not that many things that can do that to a person, especially not that fast.”

“So you put out your health alert.”

“Ha. You make it sound easy, like I just filled out a form or whatever.”

“I’m sure you put up a big fight.”

“I made my arguments. I think at the end, Dr. Chalmers agreed just to shut me up. But . . .” I raised my glass to Amber before downing the last swallow. “Without her, you and I never would’ve met. You wouldn’t have told me about Alonso, and we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

“What do you think is going on?” she asked, suddenly very serious. “Like, really.”

The question caught me off guard and I paused.

“I think someone is making people sick,” I said solemnly.

“You mean accidentally. Like a company or something.”

I shook my head and washed down the bitter wine with a drink of water. All the ice had melted. The water was tepid and unrefreshing.

“On purpose? Why? What would be the point?”

“I don’t know.”

“So, wait. You think there’s some nut case—”

“No. Nothing like that. I don’t think he gets any enjoyment out of it. Or she. Whatever. Serial killers, you know, they have to be there to witness the suffering of their victims. To inflict it. That’s the whole point. It’s sick, but it’s that very deprivation of their victims’ humanity that drives them to kill.

“Normal people don’t care about the suffering of others. Okay, maybe that’s not fair. They might prefer it not happen, but that’s not the same. People are suffering all over the world tonight. In this city, even. And here we are having a nice dinner.”

Amber got quiet. “I know . . .”

My shoulders dropped. “Not trying to guilt you. I’m just saying, whoever is doing this isn’t getting off on it. They’re not hanging around to watch. A serial killer kills to fill a need, because they feel powerless. I doubt whoever is doing this feels powerless. Not at all. And I doubt they even see these people as people. Not really. They’re just a means to . . .”

I paused as Amber studied my face with her head tilted slightly to one side. “To?”

I shook my head slowly.

“Hm. So, what are you gonna do?”

Her question seemed like a polite way to express skepticism about the whole thing, and I can’t say I blamed her. I immediately felt uncomfortable, not so much at what I’d said but how much. I was being chatty. I was sure I’d bored her with all the work talk, and I realized then that I might’ve had a little too much to drink.

I took back the reins of my mind that instant.

“I dunno . . .” I said, sitting up. “You’re the first person I’ve told. No one would believe me anyway. Which I’m sure was the point of picking the people they did.”

“Well, I believe you.”

I smiled. “Thanks. You might not be the only one, actually.”

That seemed to genuinely interest her. “Oh?” Her head turned the opposite way. “Who else?”

I looked at the restaurant logo on the white napkin that had kept the condensation on my water glass from reaching the tablecloth. Bistro Indigenes.

She noticed something behind me and went for her purse. Seemed like maybe the waiter was coming with the bill. The way she moved, I thought I might have to arm wrestle her even to see it. I at least wanted to know how much I was in her debt. But when the waiter arrived, he explained to us politely that there was no bill. He’d been told that our meal was on the house. Amber looked to me for an explanation, but I had none. She said something about me really knowing how to impress a girl, and we got up to go. She touched my arm to steady herself. I held on as we walked to the front. Outside, I turned my head almost incidentally to the side door, the one Milan had led Ollie and me through the other day. It was open.

Wide open.

But dark.

“So, do you wanna maybe share a cab or something?” she asked. “We could talk on the way. I always hate that quiet cab ride home after a nice evening. Don’t you? It’s so depressing.”

I could feel the open door behind me, like the warmth from a radiator.

I must have waited too long, or maybe it was the look on my face, because she said “Oh my God” and put her face in her hands. “Oh my God,” she repeated. Even her ears were red. “I just thought . . .”

Our eyes met.

“Oh wow.” She walked to the curb. “Wow. It’s been a really long time since I made this big an ass of myself.”

I wanted to object, but she didn’t give me the opportunity.

“It’s just, you know, I met you. And you care. You really do. And you seemed lonely. And I thought, here we are, two lonely people who care.”

I got it. I had gotten it the first day I met her. I got it when she confidently asked to show me around the city. I was safe. Not only was I married, I would be gone at the end of my appointment. Whatever she had planned for herself and her career, I wouldn’t be the guy to muck it up.

Dr. Massey stood on the curb and waited for a taxi. I walked over and put my hand on her shoulder. Not intimate. But not distant either. Friendly. I squeezed.

“I like you, Amber. If I led you on—”

“No,” she said in a way that invited no further comment. She stepped free of my grasp.

I glanced back to the open door. No movement. No nothing. It had been shut and locked before. We weren’t exactly in a bad neighborhood, but there aren’t many places in New York that leave their front doors open, especially at night.

A taxi stopped and she opened the door without making eye contact.

“Your wife is very lucky,” she said, climbing into the car without a glance.

The door shut. The taxi pulled away. I raised my hand in parting, but it was dark and I couldn’t tell if she saw me or not.

My hand dropped.

“She doesn’t think so . . .”

When the car was no longer in sight, I turned to the open door.

It yawned, as if to swallow me.


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