MELINDA LEIGH

Kayleigh M. Merritt

 

           I find myself outside her apartment for the second time this afternoon. She lives on the first floor of a two-family home. From the outside, the house, painted beige with cranberry trim, looks like it is falling apart. The storm door must have once been white, but is orange-rusted and grey from dirt and, no doubt, the exhaust of passing cars. The paint of the house and trim is chipping, and the walls of the porch are cracked and full of holes. The porch itself feels sturdy, though. I give a little bounce and am satisfied that nothing makes a sound or seems to move.

           My left middle finger is stretched, poised to push the doorbell, but I drop my hand and instead look at the thin strip of masking tape with her name that she has placed above the bell. The tape, which wasn’t placed on straight, has been there long enough that the cream color has darkened to a dirty yellow, and the corners are peeling back from the wood. I want to grab one of those corners and pull, but I don’t.

           Her name is written in all capital letters, in Sharpie: MELINDA LEIGH.

           “Melinda Leigh.” I speak the name out loud and find that her first name rolls into her last with languid ease. I say the names slowly, “Melinda. . . Leigh,” but the effect is still there. “Melinda Leigh, Melinda Leigh, Melindaleigh.” Her name stops being her name and becomes a whimsical word, and I like the way that word sways through my mouth and makes my tongue dance.

           I wonder what Bob’s last name is and if she’ll take it when they marry.

           Bob. I’m here because I want to tell her that I think she’s making a mistake marrying Bob. She has too much personality to marry a Bob and live the life that marriage to a Bob implies. I see her with a man named Antonio, with thick black hair and a Florentine accent, or maybe a photographer named Nikolai whose career was in fashion but whose excitement lay in exotic travel. I want to tell her that she deserves a man who’ll complement her intelligence, her beauty, and her brightness. Bob is not that man, but I still find myself hesitating before the doorbell.

           I’m just wasting my time again. As compensation, I give in and tug the tape from the doorframe and stuff Melinda Leigh’s name into my purse. I wonder if I should try one more time to ring the doorbell, but my feet are already turning away from the door and carrying me down the brick steps. Now is not the time.

s

           The first time we met had been at Barney’s Café. I had served her a large caramel macchiato with skim milk, whipped cream and extra caramel. I had been swirling the extra caramel onto the whipped cream and wondering what nutritional value the customer thought would be saved by asking for skim milk, when she had leaned across the pick-up counter and told me not to be shy with the caramel. “I hate the taste of anything coffee-related,” she had said with a sigh, “but today I need the boost.”

           When she grinned at me, a wave of her hair spilled from behind her ear. In the sunlight streaming through the café’s floor-to-ceiling windows, her hair looked to be the same deep red as wet fall leaves. She tucked the strand back in, and I became fascinated by her complexion. She had several freckle-like birthmarks on her face. But, unlike freckles, her marks were not chaotic and splattered across her skin like paint to a Pollack canvas. No, her birthmarks were few—I counted six—and deliberate. I imagined her as a doll sitting with her eyes closed, no breath of life yet in her, while her designer took a round brush, dipped it into mocha-colored paint, and one-by-one placed the dots across her pink forehead, chin, and cheekbones.

           She looked at me expectantly, and I realized I was still holding her drink. I placed a lid over the paper cup, pleased that the fluffy white of the whipped cream was almost entirely hidden beneath the sticky brown of the caramel. As I handed the drink over, I glanced at the name the cashier had written in black block letters when she had taken the order. “Here you go, Melinda. Extra, extra caramel.”

           Melinda took her drink, blew into the steam that spiraled from the small opening, and took a sip. Then she smiled, eyed up my name tag, and said “Grazie, Darcy!”

           She walked away then, and I watched her until she was out the door. She was dressed in dark skinny jeans and a belted heather grey wrap sweater tied in a bow at her waist. Her ankle boots, a dark, brown leather, clicked softly across the tiles. I was taken aback by the sheer amount of buoyancy she radiated with each of her light steps. If asked I wouldn’t have considered her a skinny girl, but she looked healthy, and the way her waist pulled in and her chest and hips rounded out gave her a pleasant shape.  A pumpkin-colored canvas messenger bag bounced off those hips and I imagined her as a student at the town’s state university, studying an unusual form of painting, or poetry, or musical theory. Maybe theatre.

s

           Carver isn’t a big place, and most people that can be found here are students, employees, or visitors of the university. In fact, I’d be comfortable placing a bet that nine out of ten people downtown, and ten out of ten people who come into Barney’s, belong in some way or have some kind of business to do with the university. I moved here a couple of years ago when I started my Masters in Film Studies. My apartment is just off the main campus drive, so I can walk to work, and there are always people around. Even when you have a hard time making friends, it’s hard to get lonely.

           Honestly, though, without the institution, everything else here would have shriveled up and died out a long time ago. Because of this, I’m not surprised when on my way into Barney’s one morning—it must have been a week or so after we met—I see Melinda disembark from a campus shuttle and start walking in my direction. I wave as we pass, but she must not see me because she doesn’t wave back.

           I try not to let the incident bother me too much, but when I get into work an awkward feeling has built a nest in my stomach. I’ve never been very good at interacting with new people; I feel that I bother them. I start to worry that maybe Melinda did see me and hadn’t waved back because with that small gesture I had bothered her. As I dwell on the moment, the eggs from that nest in my stomach start to hatch, and with each one I feel new levels of confusion, then sadness, then anger.

           “Hey, you okay?” asks one of my coworkers. She’s new; I forget her name and don’t care enough to look at her and read the silver metal plate attached at her chest.

           I feel a warmth in my neck and my cheeks. I shrug.

           “Yeah, fine. I just need a break. I think someone asked for this,” I say and hand her the mug of coffee I’ve been holding. I take off my apron and head for the ladies’ room. Behind me I hear her say to someone, “I’m really sorry about that; I’ll get you another cup.”

           Customers often complain that we don’t have a multi-stall restroom, but I like that there’s only one toilet for each gender. I can have a room to myself, and as long as I slide the latch no one’s going to barge in and ask why I have my forehead planted against the cool of the mirror. I close my eyes and keep my head there until someone knocks.

            “In a minute,” I call. I flush the toilet and wash my hands, just for good measure, to make it seem like I really needed to be in here. My boss wonders, sometimes, where I go off to. That’s how he puts it: “Where do you go off to, Darcy?”

           When I walk out of the bathroom and back towards the counter, Melinda is standing at the pick-up counter waiting for my nameless coworker to bring her her order. She sees me walk up and smiles in recognition. All of the chirping birds in my stomach quiet themselves, and I think that maybe I was wrong, maybe she really was just too distracted to see me. I decide not to mention it; I don’t want her to be mad.

           “Hey, extra caramel! Melinda, right?” I do what I can to keep my voice light and upbeat. At least with her I don’t have to keep reminding myself to smile.

           She laughs, “Yes, but today I’m just a green tea.”

           “No sugar-boost today?”

           “No, no. I’d been up all night studying for my first exam and was afraid I’d fall asleep during the undergrad course I teach.”

           “Oh, what are you studying?”

           “Marine biology. I used to want to work as a marine mammalogist, you know, with whales and dolphins and such.” I nodded, and she continued, “But with more and more oceans and wetlands being compromised, I’ve decided I’d really like to become a part of the conservation efforts.”

           She smiles at me and rolls her eyes. “Sorry, I’m babbling. I do that.”

           “No, that’s great,” I tell her, impressed that she’s willing to dedicate her life to a selfless cause. Does she have any flaws at all? The only one I can conjure up is her ordering a sugar- and calorie-loaded drink with skim milk, but she’s fixed that with her green tea. And even so, I find her anti-coffee, pro-sugar reasoning endearing.

           Nameless interrupts us to hand Melinda her cup.

           “Merci beaucoup!” she exclaims, then turns to leave. I stop her.

           “Why do you do that?” I ask.

           “Do what?”

           “Say ‘Thank you’ in a different language each time.”

           “Oh!” she giggles, and I can’t help but think that her answer doesn’t really matter. “I just do it as a reminder to myself. There are all these things I want to learn, but don’t have time right now, you know? Languages top my list.”

           “Oh,” I say, and I let her leave. I can’t think of anything to say that’s as perfect an answer.

s

           Melinda comes in to Barney’s every Tuesday and Thursday, always around three p.m., and gets a hot drink to go. I make sure that I’m the one in charge of her order, just in case she wants extra of something. (Not all of the employees here really give extra milk or whipped cream or caramel, they just pretend to.) I like talking to Melinda and I’m surprised at how comfortable we both are with each other. At first we stick to small talk, and she tells me a lot about the classes she’s taking and the one she’s teaching. Eventually she mentions her boyfriend, Bob, who works at a bar and sounds dull, but I don’t say so. I describe my thesis—a discussion of the role of family in contemporary cinema—but don’t mention the difficulties I’ve been having with it. I’m delighted when she says, “That sounds really interesting.”

           On a Thursday in late-October, she walks in, places her order, and chats while I make her drink. I tell her to hold on, I have a surprise.

           From behind the counter, I pull out a thin, green book with a watercolor illustration of the Colosseum on the cover. I hand over Italian in 10 Minutes a Day. A look I’m not familiar with flickers over Melinda’s face and disappears so fast that I’m not sure it was really ever there. She’s staring at the book as though she can’t quite comprehend what a book is. I explain, “See? You can start to learn—everyone can spare ten minutes a day, right?”

           I watch her take in what I’ve said, and then she’s conscious again and beaming at me. “Thank you, Darcy. That was really sweet of you to think of me.”

           Melinda takes her book and her drink and leaves.

           I don’t stop grinning all day, or all the next day, or all weekend. In truth, I don’t think I stop grinning until Melinda comes in the following Tuesday and stands quietly by my counter. I don’t think she placed an order, so she must be waiting for me. She looks tired; her hair is tied up into a messy bun, her cheeks are lacking their rosy color, and her eyeliner is smudged. She doesn’t say hello.

           “You’re not yourself today,” I say. She doesn’t reply, so I go for a different approach. “The weather is really bad, huh? Rain all week.”

           Melinda looks at me. “Yes, lots of rain.”

           “We might get snow, too.”

           “Oh?” she asks, and looks toward the other barista.

           “Want anything?” I ask, trying to draw her back.

           “Bob and I had a fight,” she states.

           I don’t let the excitement show on my face. Instead, I plaster on what I hope is a look of sympathy and encourage her to go on. She gushes, “He wanted to discuss the wedding. I said I don’t have time for wedding plans right now, that I need to focus on my degree. And he just blew up and said that if I didn’t have time to plan the wedding maybe it’s because I don’t want the wedding. But that’s not it. You get it, don’t you, Darcy?”

           I know I should say something about the argument, but I want to ask her why she doesn’t wear an engagement ring if she’s engaged. I didn’t know she was engaged.

           “He’s been mad that I haven’t been spending time with him,” she continues, “and I shouldn’t have gotten mad the way I did last night, but when he accused me of not wanting the wedding I just blew up, and all of the stress I’ve been feeling about classes and work and everything just came out, and I didn’t mean for it to be at him, you know?”

           I can’t figure out why she is making excuses for Bob’s behavior. He had no right to blow up at her the way he did—she’s so busy all the time trying to get herself through classes and meeting with her students to help them get through their classes. And all he’s doing is running a stupid bar. He probably doesn’t even understand the kind of time and effort someone like Melinda has to set aside, or the kinds of sacrifices she has to make to achieve her goals. I feel the anger rising in me, and I want to tell her that Bob is full of shit, but all I can manage is, “Yeah.”

           “I think we’ll be okay, though,” she says to herself, not to me, and I want to shake her. She’s so nice that she doesn’t even understand when someone doesn’t deserve how nice she is, and how beautiful she is, and how smart. “He knows I’m just under a lot of pressure right now.”

            “Yeah, well, Bob is obviously a fucking idiot,” I bark.

           She looks startled and goes quiet again. Finally, she says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to vent all of that.”

           “That’s okay,” I tell her. That’s what friends are for.

           I wait, then I ask her, “Melinda, did you order anything? I didn’t get an order—“

           “Oh! No, I didn’t.” Melinda laughs and I notice that even her laugh sounds off today. “How silly of me,” she says, sounding uneasy, “standing here waiting for my phantom drink.”

           Melinda still doesn’t make a move to get in line and order. She’s just looking at me, expecting something. I pull down a large cup and make her a hot chocolate. I walk around the counter to hand the steaming cup to her, something I never do. She’s taken aback but thankful. I look at the clock—I’m stuck here for another five hours, but I ask my manager if I can take a break and tell Melinda that I’ll walk her home.

s

           Melinda stops coming into Barney’s. After a couple of weeks, I start to worry that maybe something is wrong, that perhaps something happened with Bob and she needs my help. I take to looking for her on the streets, on the campus shuttles. Once I try looking for her in the biology building, but I’m not sure at what time she teaches and I miss her. A student directs me to her office, and I leave a note on her door telling her I was there and that I’m worried she hasn’t come into the café. I look her up in the phone directory, but just about everyone these days has a cell phone and no landline. When another week passes, I go back to her office. My first note is gone, so I leave another. I’m really worried now, Melinda. You need to come see me soon.

            Something is wrong, and in the end I decide to go to her apartment and find out what. I visit the house twice without ringing the bell. I’m concerned that when I get there I’ll meet Bob instead of Melinda, and if that happens I’m not sure what to do. The third time I visit, later the same day, I gather up the courage to push the doorbell, and I stand there in the biting November cold, waiting for someone to answer. I push the button again, and keep waiting. The birds in my stomach are awake and chirping again. I know that something is wrong now and I walk back down the front steps.

           Melinda is smart. She keeps a hide-a-key in case of emergencies, but not under the front mat, or in a silly fake rock like a lot of people. Hers is hidden in a groove of the hose reel mounted on the side of the house. That day she had her fight with Bob, she forgot her key and I had to wait for her to get the hidden one out.

            I walk around to the side of the house, and after maneuvering the hose a bit, I pull out two keys. I’m confused because I remember her using only one, but suppose that maybe one is for the back door. I try them both in the front door, and when the door opens, I replace the keys.

           The front door opens up into a dark living room. This is my first time in her apartment. I flick a switch beside the door. The room is spacious, filled with books, ornaments, and candles. To my left is a door to the kitchen, and in front of me another door to what looks like a dining room. I make my way into the kitchen first, turning on lights as I go, and find that the kitchen connects to a bathroom and into the dining room, too, which leads back to the living room, to the bedroom and to a makeshift office. Melinda’s messenger bag hangs limp from a desk chair. No one is home.

           I walk back into the living room, to a faux fireplace on the wall opposite the door. I run my hand over the mantelpiece, looking at the photographs Melinda has arranged there. Two are professional, engagement-style photos of her and Bob with their arms wrapped around each other, looking happy. One is of Melinda with a little girl balanced on her hip, the girl’s chubby finger pointed at the camera. I take in each photo with glee, even those with Bob, enjoying getting to know parts of Melinda’s life that I never knew before.

           When she comes in, I don’t hear her. I’m stroking the silver metal frame of one of the photographs. The photo depicts a much younger Melinda—in her teens, maybe—sandwiched between two people who I guess are her parents. All three are smiling in front of a thatch-roofed house on stilts above the shallow waters of a Caribbean-blue ocean. A palm tree waves from the corner.

           “What the—“ Melinda says, startling me. I smile and turn around to say hello, but my smile fades when I find that Bob is here, too. Melinda shrieks, and I guess that she’s excited to see me after such a long time. I open my arms to her, but she doesn’t come over for a hug. I’m a little upset by this, and by the fact that she looks just fine. Doesn’t she understand how worried I’ve been?

           “DARCY!” she screams.

           “Sorry to just show up out of the blue,” I say, “but you didn’t answer my notes, and I wanted to surprise you.”

           I congratulate myself for doing so.

           “Melinda, just— I’ll go get the—” Bob is looking at me and I guess he doesn’t like me as much as I don’t like him, which is funny because we’ve never met and I can’t imagine Melinda telling him anything bad about me. I mean, I bought her a book. And I never stormed out on her. Bob leaves a wide berth when walking around me toward the dining room.

           When he’s gone, I ask, “So, are you surprised?”

           “Um, yes, Darcy. I’m very surprised. How, er, did you, um—?” She looks at the door.

           “Oh! I got the spare key out of the hose reel.”

           “How did you know. . .?”

           “You showed me once, remember? When you got locked out.”

           “Darcy, you’ve never been to my house,” she says, “I never showed you anything. I don’t even know if I even told Bob where the keys were hidden when he moved in.”

           “You did!” I laugh. Melinda’s memory is great when it comes to dates and facts, but she must not be great with remembering the little things. “Remember? You had come in to Barney’s after you had that really bad fight with Bob, and I gave you a hot chocolate to cheer you up. I was worried about you, so I walked you home….”

           “Darcy, you did not walk me home that day,” Melinda says, and I notice that she keeps saying my name, and that she’s talking to me like an adult talks to a child who has misbehaved. “You offered, but I said no.”

           The tone bothers me, and I adopt the same voice to try to make her remember. “I did, and you forgot your key and were really upset.” I don’t know why she can’t remember. “I waited while you got the key out.”

           “Oh my god, did you follow me?” She’s screaming again and I’m shaking my head. “Did you, Darcy?!”

           “No! I—“

           “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

           Bob comes running back into the room, frantic and glaring at me. He takes up a guard-like position beside Melinda, with his hand on her back.

           “I called the cops,” he tells her. They both stare at me.

           “Why?” I ask. I keep my eyes on Melinda. I don’t want to look at Bob. I’m worried that they need the police, but also proud of myself—I was right, something is wrong. Everything seems to be okay in the apartment, though, and I wonder if maybe something took place that I’m not aware of—a car break-in on the street that they happened to witness when they were coming in, or maybe they were mugged and rather than go to the station they had decided to come home. That reasoning seems flawed, though; Melinda would go to the police right away.

           Bob is standing closer to Melinda and laces his fingers through hers, petting her hand with his thumb. He clears his throat and his focus changes from me, to Melinda, and then to me again. I still don’t look him in the eye, and expect that Melinda will understand that I don’t want him to answer, I want her to answer. She’s my friend. I don’t like Bob.

           “Because we’ve had a break-in,” he informs me.

           I look around. On one wall there is a plasma television, and below that a stand that holds a DVD player and several gaming systems. There are a few DVDs stacked up, too. My eyes run down the titles: Inception, The Princess Bride, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Break-Up. They’re mostly romcoms, the same ones that I like, and I suppose they’re Melinda’s. But I pause on Groundhog’s Day and decide that must be Bob’s. On either side of the stand are cases of books, and on one case is an iHome with the iPod still in it. I shake my head.

           “But nothing looks missing,” I tell them, and I think of the pearl necklace Melinda often wears but isn’t wearing today, and of the emerald earrings she once told me had belonged to her grandmother. “Did they take your jewelry? I wonder why they would take your jewelry and not bother with all of this stuff.”

           Bob groans and throws up his arms. He starts to say something, but Melinda shushes him and looks at me with her head cocked. “They didn’t take anything, Darcy.”

           She’s still saying my name too much. Her voice is soft and devoid of the cheerful bounce I’ve grown accustomed to. This incident must be difficult for her, and my heart breaks thinking about how frightened she must be—I’m not sure how I would feel at the violation of someone breaking into my home. I want to comfort her somehow, and tell her that everything will be okay, but Bob is so close to her, touching her, and I don’t think he would let me so much as hug her. His possessiveness bothers me, but I remind myself that he’s probably trying to calm her, too.

           I’m trying to figure out what I want to say, what will assure Melinda that everything is going to be fine, that we’ll keep her safe, when the doorbell rings. The deep bing-bong of the bell is followed by several loud knocks.

           “Carver PD,” a man shouts. “Please open the door.”

           “It’s unlocked,” Bob yells. He backs away from the front door toward the kitchen and draws Melinda with him to make more room for the two officers—both men—who come into the living room. They’re both tall and dark-haired. One sports a mustache. They look younger than I am, too young to have their jaws set so tight and their mouths turned down in so serious a manner, too young to be toting guns and steel batons. I hope that in a town as quiet as Carver, they never have to use them.

           “We’ve been notified of an intruder?”  The one without a mustache looks to Bob. I wonder how he knew to ask Bob.

           Bob points at me, but I shake my head because I’m not the intruder. One of the cops takes me by the wrist and I shake him off and step away. The cop is saying something to me, but I ignore him. “No, I’m not an intruder. I came here to check on Melinda; she’s my friend. Melinda? Bob—” I finally look at him. I know Bob has misunderstood the situation—he knows that I don’t like him and Melinda together and must be confused about why I’m here. “Tell them I’m not the intruder.”

           When I take a step toward them, I’m knocked to the floor. My arms—first my right, then my left—are wrenched behind my back. The cuffs feel cold against my wrists, then sharp as they’re pushed tighter into my skin. I look to Melinda for help, pleading for her to tell the man with his knee in my back that there’s been some misunderstanding. But she’s looking at me with this strange look that I’ve never seen before. Her eyebrows are drawn in toward one another, creating an ugly crease in the middle of her forehead. Her eyes are wide and are searching mine. I try to work out what she’s looking for, what question she’s trying to ask me, but I can’t, and suddenly I’m lifted from the carpet and she’s not looking at me anymore.

            “Melinda?” I want her to look at me again. “Melinda, you need to tell them that they’re wrong. We’re friends, you and I. You’re my best friend. They’re going to take me away.”

            There’s a tug on my arms and I jump. There’s a man’s voice in my ear saying, “That’s enough now.”

            Melinda has her face buried in the green and black plaid button-down of Bob, and his arms are around her, hugging her to him. His eyes are closed and he’s resting his cheek on the top of her head, while her cheek is pushed so hard against his shirt pocket that I wonder if she thinks she can fit inside there and hide from—from what? Her face looks shiny, as though someone has glazed her cheeks, those beautiful, porcelain, paint-spotted cheeks, and I realize she’s crying. She’s upset, and scared, I think, at what’s happening to me, but she still hasn’t told the officer that he’s wrong, that he needs to let me go, and he’s already trying to lead me out of the room, out of the apartment.

            “Why are you letting them do this?” I screech, and she turns her head enough to glance at me and her face has changed. She’s still crying, but she’s not sad, or scared, or confused. No, she looks at me with anger, an intense fury that is not at Bob for creating this mess, but at me for somehow being a part of it. This understanding knocks the air from me like a blow to the stomach, and I feel acid burn through my abdomen and into my chest. The heat stifles the chirping birds, kills them one by one, then destroys the nest they’ve built within me. I feel dizzy, and then I start to cry, too, because I know now that Melinda’s not going to tell the police officer to remove the handcuffs, that she doesn’t care what will happen to me if she lets them carry me out the door.

           I get tugged again and my purse falls from my shoulder, spills over onto the floor. I see something tumble and flutter out of my reach. I try to grab for it anyway before I remember I’m cuffed, and the officer grabs me harder and shoves me at the door. He’s yelling now, and I’m yelling back, trying to explain that all I want is the bit of yellow that’s fallen from my purse, that all I want is the piece of aged tape staring up at all of us from the carpet, reading: Melinda Leigh.

 


Kayleigh Merritt received her MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. She is a former editor of Soundings East and Barnstorm literary magazines who now teaches professional and advanced writing courses at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She supports herself as a freelance editor and marketing specialist.