Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Chase and the Interloper

It was beauty and anonymity that drew me there and away from the limelight, at least in part. And it was that which also sent me elsewhere. My life has been a mixed bag of easy accolades, tough anxiety, moments of fear and a hint or two of love. How might it ever be different, I wondered? How could it be worse if I returned to Huntington?

Right then it was another yellow day, a conflagration of blinding blue with sunlight, the sort that requires sunglasses to even peer between curtains at the sharp-edged world. I had grabbed the purple frames as the lenses are biggest, and after I had enough of a look fell back into bed, glasses and all, and let my eyelids close again. I had nothing of consequence to do until mid-afternoon. Then, another Skype meeting. Out of sight did not mean out of work, not entirely.

******

My bedroom is a sanctuary. The rest of the condo is trite and bland, the usual around here, and is rendered tolerable as I close my door and turn on one low-wattage lamp at bedside. No one comes in without my permission, not even my mother whose condo it is. I rent it from her –I won’t stay here for free–so she is rid of the prickling worry about lax or disreputable tenants. (Not that she trusts me with so much as a drain snake; not that I would use it–there is the maintenance guy five doors down.) And it has given me freedom to travel or hide out; it is not known as my home address. (That is Lisbon, a house last inhabited a short time a year ago. Or Tuscany, a small villa cared for and lived in by my brother, for now.)

But she owes this and more to me, she says. She’s the one who got me into the game. I was only a child, barely five for my first commercial. Now all this time has passed and I am grown and worn out already. She knows what it’s taken from me, she believes, but she also sees several pay offs. I’m not interested in what she sees, anymore. I’m trying, though, to feel more loving; we are better than before I came here.

I open my eyes to…nighttime. I painted these walls a dense dark blue; she calls it navy-black, I call it faux night sky. I prefer being on the terrace when the sun winks out but once my door closes, it stays shut until dawn if at all possible. I do not like daytime much now. I do not care for sunshine. I loathe being caught out there, unprotected, wholly seen, my narrow-jawed face with its chestnut-eyes and a grand tawny maned head all bared to society’s scrutiny. I did that already, over and over. It led to years of lost equilibrium. Of success-driven misery.

For years I was a child model and grew up in the profession. Did I even get to establish “equilibrium”? “Mariah Z, Mariah Z!” they yelled at every turn. By age 21 I’d had more than enough. One might accurately surmise I’ve not gotten over the blare of lights, paparazzi taking chase, my face and body splashed across billboards, my actions front and center on commercials, bit parts in movies leading to…what?

So: I do not easily or often sally forth into public places. It feels like a nearly forbidden land now. Even when I travel I take a red eye flight, wear grey or beige bulky items, a floppy hat I change each trip–they allow me to be almost unseen. An invisible woman, what a coup.

These days I don’t have to work, so I’m on a break until age 25. That gives me three more years if I’m careful of my outgo. (There’s little worth wanting, anymore–cash is like a handful of litter in my purse.) I do have a cat that has needs and wants, if minimal, and a friend or two I still trust and for whom I like to buy small surprise gifts, nothing overt. There’s nothing like money to cure you of money, no matter what people brag. At least, for me. Only my mother understands this, and that is for other reasons. She was born into it and so it little interests her as topic or focus. Fame is more to her liking, or fame via her daughter–me–without the huge hidden costs.

I know, people think I’m crazy to turn my back on it, to be so blase at this age–that I must have snorted too much cocaine or drunk too much tequila. Sure, I did enough of that and too young. But there’s nothing better than to step into the wings when the applause comes at you like an unholy din– and then just slip away. For me, the shadow of hiding was a magnetic force that turned my life to this direction. I got away–I just said no no no— and didn’t go back. I may never.

The cat -Sari- and me. We like to rest and muse on things or sleep. Sit by the deserted pool at midnight, or I sometimes swim a little but quietly as it is against the rules. Read by candlelight on the terrace–Sari listens as I read poetry aloud, yawns, licks my hands, purrs when I stay still. It’s not a bad life, now. I’ve grown accustomed to the rhythms of leisure, punctuated with nightmares that still wake me up too much, and I lie there and stare at my kindly night ceiling. Oh, the catwalk, the photographers’ studios, the constant travel, weather not stopping one thing even if you’re out there in the wild and half nude. The television cameras and directors shouting. And always random people touching my hair, skin, clothes taken off and put on, repositioning parts and pieces, my standing there rigid as they fix this, that, one more thing.

You stop being your own person. You stop seeing your body as yours. Your life hollows out; you are so many movable parts. A mannequin.

Now my living is separate from that life, or far more than ever before. Nothing can take this ease from me without my saying so, anymore.

******

I’m not agoraphobic. I use the facilities to swim; I work out daily. I go to the library, if only in evening. I shop at small shops for necessities when it isn’t busy. I take weekend trips with my best friends, usually to a country inn or we go camping. I take a flight to somewhere equally out of the way–not touristy. But there is room for variation. Or to fail to accurately calculate, depending on the outcome.

I, for example, love the huge wooded park two blocks away. Since I don’t go there at night, I visit Huntington Nature Park’s 125 acres once every month and walk it’s two winding miles of trails. It’s quite heavenly.

Since Mom’s condo is at the edge of suburbia (I used to live in New York York, people worked or played all day, all night), most adults work for a living so are not around in daytime all week. There are a few joggers zooming about. Mothers with strollers or, after school, groups of older kids on bikes or skateboards until they’re told to get out of the way. Older people with hands tucked into crooks of arms. Dogs let out with all ages and stations of people, and they cheer me, those furry critters who sniff my leg–cat! cat!- or lick my hands but say little that matters to me. Now and then a lone man or woman rambles about, sits on a bench. Some take lunch hour there so I avoid that time–those workers tend to watch people more closely as they eat, like it’s entertainment when they aren’t using their cell phones. I know; I have done the same.

So I go and relax among the others. It’s good to see people outdoors enjoying the greenery. I’m moving along, hiding in loose sweatpants and a hoodie despite knowing I, Mariah Z (Zentner), am not remotely on their minds. Not there–not out of context, for sure. A habit, trying for a sloppy incognito to blend in. And my over-sized sunglasses help. Plus, they are barriers to UV rays since becoming more nocturnal.

Today is like other days as I arrive. Sparsely populated trails but not lonely. Butterflies, bees, dragonflies. Dogs going for tossed sticks or to relieve themselves on every bush; toddlers toddling; a woman reading under a ginkgo tree. Then the densely wooded area and my feet pick up speed. I am not a runner but I walk fast as I note ferns, shadowy designs and wildflowers; birds fluttering and singing, squirrels chittering and racing about.

I shake it out, the knots and questions that can keep me captive when indoors: will I be a wastrel or a contributor to something good? Will I go back to Lisbon soon or much later? What about Sari’s aging–she is 10 already–how long do I get to keep her? My sneakered feet move smoothly over hardened dirt side trails, arms swinging, breath pulsing in small exhalations of effort as I speed up. Oxygen courses though my blood, I breathe better, my parts move in better concert and I am getting happy. Time ceases to have meaning as endorphins increase and carry me beyond myself. I can go on like this much longer than the park allows, on into the night if only I had the nerve.

There’s a flash to the left of my head, a red movement between trees. My heart rate jumps a bit as I search thickening trees and heavy brush but keep moving. Nothing much, a creature taking a short cut. But there–is that something? Maybe a person? Rusty colored jacket or shirt. Female or male? Why are they off-trail? Or is that a smaller trail I forgot about? I hear rustling of bushes and leaves from the same direction. I see a fork in my path, take a right. I feel it on my neck, in my gut–that sudden sensation, a primitive warning. My gait increases. I may consider running. I hear the thing moving closer but cannot place what it is yet. Coyote? Cougars, there are cougars around here, I think. But not smack in the suburbs, right?

I don’t want to bolt, I don’t want to hearken to the alarm of adrenaline but I am soon, indeed, running, my long legs covering ground fast. This is so old, fear rising up from the past yet worse, but I am used to having to hide, avoid fingers grasping, cameras flashing. Worn down by faceless crowds, vultures who just want more more thing from me. Yet this is something else. I count with my every footfall, one to twenty, and again. Calm down, I tell myself. It can’t be something bad, not here, I’m on a suburban park pathway, no one here cares what I do, must breathe, breathe, slow down, easy now. But the flash of rust is seen again as I turn my head to the left. Someone is running alongside me in the trees, and I see a medium build, a male. He glances at me. My feet pound the path harder.

Is there no one around there? What of the mothers with kids? Should I yell, scream? All my breath is used with this foreign racing onward, much faster than I thought possible. It must be a real predator, I realize, and suddenly my body shoots forward, my mind goes blank. My hood falls from my head, my glasses fly off as I jerk my head to look back but dappled afternoon light hits me, my eyes half-blind. I follow instinct, legs galloping.

And so we go, my lithe body a small advantage over the pursuer’s heavier form, my strength from years of dance and exercise a bonus, my fear the fuel used to move faster, fast enough to outdistance him just enough. He moves out of the woods and onto the path behind me. Please let there be an opening in the trees soon–and which trail leads back? I know this park but his footsteps are pounding the earth, a merciless sound getting louder. I start to pant, my mouth is so dry, chest tightening, burning. Sweat saturates the t-shirt under my hoodie.

In the distance, there appears to be a shape moving my way, or it has now stopped, but I can see hazy light behind an oncoming walker or whatever it is, a bright veil of dusty sunlight that may indicate a possible thinning of trees. I am not thinking, only seeing and taking it in. Not a big person, a kid is walking toward me, I can barely make out dark hair and cut off blue jeans.

I want to shout, “Leave, run! Get help!” but speech isn’t possible, only two legs running, hands bunched near waist as my arms close in to streamline as I hit a dead run, my voluminous, heavy hair flying. My heart wants me to take a break–but I must not stop.

There she is, only a teenager?–she steps off the path to my left and watches closely. I try to throw an alarming sound at her as I near. She bends over for something as I keep running– see me terrified, I telegraph her–my legs aching but feet behind me never break rhythm, either. She is standing up, this kid, something now in her hands, she steps toward me, then half-jogs until she comes up close, closer, closer and yells at me–“Hey! Chasing you?”– as I pass her and my eyes say yesyes! now scared for us both, but I can see in her strong hands a huge branch and just keep on.

“Mariah Z! “she yells at me, “I got you!”

And then a leaden thud behind me, a harsh masculine crying out, loud swearing. I just stop, finally, breath grating my throat. She is smacking him with the stick as he lies prone and then puts hands up, and she’s on her phone as I rush to her.

I look at him. I wipe my face, all my bones and sinew trembling. He is not someone I know. He does not have a camera slung over his chest. Pale-faced with two red spots at his cheeks, his dark t-shirt with “Mike’s Auto Glass” printed in black, a Detroit Tigers baseball cap askew so his balding head is apparent–he looks close to middle aged, is exhausted by the pursuit. And angry.

“You’re not…uh, Haley! What the hell–you’ve got her hair, I swear! Who are you, anyway?”

“What’re you talking about? Who are you?” asks the teen, then points to me. “You’re a predator and you’re messing with a famous person, Mariah Z, did you know that? Lie still ’til the cops come and shut up!”

She called in an emergency request, then put her booted foot atop his chest and held the branch aloft, right over him. I kept a foot on his ankles, then introduced myself.

“Right, Mariah Z. And you weren’t looking for any Haley, buddy. You were stalking me a good mile.”

“She’s got that right, I saw you creeping around earlier so I cut through on another path, remember that? Now here we are so stay down, you perv!”

She held out a square palm to me, which I shook, glad to have human contact for once. “I’m Terra Bonhiver, a die hard fan of yours! You really live around here? We all thought you’d disappeared.”

The whine of a siren cut into our conversation and we applied more pressure to the struggling man–who fortunately looked a bit cowed as Terra threatened to whack him again with the unwieldy branch. He was pathetic on the unforgiving dirt.

“I thought I had, too–disappeared…” I said and grimaced, a sharp twinge shooting up the backs of my legs. I felt like I’d crumple, and then I did, tumbling into a clump of ferns, but I had faith things might be okay soon.

******

I was helped up by both officers.

“YOu kay?”

What could I say to that? “Yeah, I guess.”

Terra gave the policeman and policewoman her statement after the man was handcuffed and put in the patrol car. He was wanted for a sexual assault. I could not stop tears of relief but brushed them away when Terra softly began to speak.

She’d been jogging before I had gotten started, it turned out.

“Jogging slowly, enough to say I was running but not sweating it, and I see this man lurking by the side of the trail. You know how you can tell when something is off? He acted like that, gave me the side eye, those looks a couple of times as I came near, and as I passed he trotted a bit behind me. It gave me the creeps so I sped up, did a zigzag through some trees. I know these woods–grew up around here. Cutting through took me to a main path closer to the open park. I was sort of debating what to do, if anything at all.”

The policewoman asked, “What made you go back, if you were worried about this guy? Why didn’t you call in your concerns? We’ll always come out to check on things.”

“Yeah? Just a teenager, Japanese-Hawaiian? Okay, I’ll remember that…” Terra shrugged, turned to me. “Anyway, I saw a friend in the park who said, ‘Did you see who I think I saw?’ I said no, who, and she told me it was Mariah Z, she was very sure. She said she’d been walking around and spotted her going into the woods.”

The police wrote it down. The next question: “What did that mean to you, then? You say you were scared but curious?”

“Listen, Mariah Z here” –she pointed at me–“is a world famous model and trend setter and a feminist, please don’t get me started…but that isn’t your realm, I get it.” She sighed.

The policewoman’s eyebrows rose and fell with a hint of recognition as she looked me over briefly. “And so, then?”

“All I could think of was that Mariah Z was going right into the trap, she was walking right into the woods where the creep was and I had to do something! He might know who she is and try to kidnap her or worse, right? So I went back in after my friend told me where she might be– but instinct, I guess?–I started at this end of the trail. And there she was, running like crazy and that guy right behind her. I grabbed a thick branch and when I came by him, I thrust it in front of his feet, he fell, grabbed me by the legs and pulled me down, was trying to get up and yanked my arm to pull me off the trail. But I had a good hold of the branch, hit him with it a couple of times until he stayed down and got quieter.”

She crossed her arms, smiled shyly at me. I stepped over to her and threw my arm about her shoulders, not about to cry though it could happen. But it was my turn, and Terra and I both sat on a bench. Just recounting it all was enough to send a shiver up my spine that somehow landed in my head. One of my infrequent migraines. I used to get more when flashes went off a dozen or more at once, but here it was, a train coming at me after all that had happened. The policewoman gave us a ride home in her separate car.

“Be very careful,” the policewoman cautioned. “He–and others out there–might know where you live since you are such a public person, Miss Zentner.”

She gave me her card with a number to call if needed. I felt sick to my stomach. Yes, I realized with a start, he may have known me all along.

And all I could think in bed was: Wait til Mom hears this one, she’ll want to move right in. Sari lay at the end of my bed–she knew just what to do when I was in pain– and I tried to sleep it off with the help of a nice white pill.

******

The next week we met at the park. I wore something I thought would be suitable for a famous model, a snazzy jumpsuit, just for Terra–but kept all else low key. I had been so sweaty, felt so terrible before. This time we were meeting less like two strangers and a bit more than acquaintances who had survived a bad thing. We were glad to see one another. She rather awed me, this young woman. Such self respect and presence at her age, she had some real power. I had thought of little else since that day.

Terra came alone as I had requested, and I brought a sealed brown envelope with a photo in it, autograph and all. I’d dropped a smaller envelope in there that had two, one hundred dollar bills. Not that she seemed like she wanted or needed any help; it was only fun money, she could treat herself. A tiny reward.

“Save this until you get home, okay? I just wanted to thank you now that things have quieted down.”

I admit I watched to see if the phone in her hand was going to sneak up to snap a picture of us on the bench. It didn’t. She looked pleased with my offering, guessing it was a photo.

“Thank you so much!” She beamed at the envelope and me. “So, you’re living in Huntington now?”

I looked out at the woods, offered a half-shrug. “Not really. I took a break to visit my mother who does live here. I took a longer break from the work.”

“Yeah, we haven’t seen you much in the magazines– or anywhere–for a long time. Are you okay, can I ask that?”

Her eyes were softer than I remembered from the week before, when she had seemed so bold, her tough attitude betraying sharper edges. But she was only a kid, fifteen, sixteen at most, with a shy softness that overshadowed, today, the muscle of a young athlete. She was shorter than what I’d thought, and her black hair hung loose and shining.

“I’m okay, just taking a long look at what I do for a living, making changes, maybe. And you? Tell me about yourself.”

“Not so much to say. I’m just starting high school, I love to play soccer and softball, and I like art and also clothes but don’t get dressed up often. I’m not the fashion type, I guess, but I wouldn’t mind being more like that, and really like your fashion stuff, uh, your work.”

“Soccer? I loved it when I was a kid but had to give it up. And anyone can be ‘the fashion type’ if you want to be–it just takes imagination and a little confidence-or you can just like clothes, as you said. You can dress how you like, it won’t make or break you in the end, believe me!”

“I guess so. It surprises me you’re saying that…I mean…”

“I make so much money, I was so well known, I must believe in it entirely, is that it?”

“You still are! People would about die to sit with you like this!”

“Oh, I hope not… Look, Terra, it has been a very decent career–of a sort. I got thrown into it at a young age–looks meant so much to my mother. But it isn’t my choice, exactly. If someone had asked me what I wanted to do when I was twelve or fourteen, what do you think I’d have said?”

“I don’t know…be a movie star? You can do that next!”

“Not at all. I wanted to be a marine biologist. Or a modern dancer. We lived by the ocean then, and I loved it more than anything else–except dancing…and I still want to do something more with my life. Must do more.”

“Wow, I see…To be honest, I hope to get on a pro soccer team. Or get to be an illustrator. Or both.”

“Now that’s what I mean, Terra–doing something good for others, for yourself. Not just look great. You have such a spark, are bold and smart.”

She shuffled her feet, tilted her head at me. For a few minutes we sat looking at everyone walking about, kids playing, saw pretty blue jays and the fussing crows and quick juncos. She liked nature, too. We chatted more about school activities, her own mother, someone who had high hopes for her oldest daughter. I enjoyed her company as time went by and thought, we could almost be sisters, she might be the younger sister I wanted…

But then she raised her hand and waved hard at someone.

“There’s my friend, Ally! Hey, Ally!”

I got up. “Time for me to go, Terra.”

She rose, too, but looked as if I had caught her in a devious act now that her friend started to run up to us. “I know, okay, then. I’m glad you came, I wasn’t sure.”

I took off my shades and gave her a quick hug. “You’re a good person, you know that, Terra? You took a huge risk to help me and I’ll never forget that, or you. I have every faith in you. I suspect you’ll do something great. I might check in with you sometime, see what you’re up to, okay?”

“Mariah Z, that would be unbelievable. Amazing.”

She gave me a wave as I started off with a backward walk. Then I took off with a self-mocking catwalk strut, posing this and that way for her and her friend. I could hear her and the friend clapping and their screeches stopping others who then stared at me.

Then I got out of there, though running in heels was never my forte.

No more adventures for a bit. No more semi-awed smiles. It might be time to go back to Lisbon and find something more interesting to do. To enjoy that certain light skimming the waves. Listen closer to birdsong and keep Sari close to me and well (away from the feathered ones). For who was I to them? And what more might I become other than a smartly smiling or smirking face which looked out at a fast spinning world?

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