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THE FIRST NOTE
MUCH LATER WHAT SUSANNAH WILL remember about that morning is the rain, that warm May rain, how it felt on her bare arms when she ran, how it matted her long ginger hair to her head, how it smelled like freshly cut grass, how it sounded falling in sheets off the roof of the empty house.
Outside of the rain, the morning was quite ordinary. A Tuesday, the spring of 2014. Her husband, Max, was in Chicago giving a talk at the Art Institute. Freddy, her son, overslept slightly and then scarfed down three bowls of cereal before running out the door with his backpack on and his skateboard under his arm, barely stopping to say goodbye before stepping out into the rain. Susannah was left with the whole day as big and as empty as a lake in front of her.
She made herself a cappuccino with the Nespresso machine that she and Max had recently bought and that they were in love with. They wondered how they had lived without it. It was like being a barista without any of the fuss or the mess. After, she sat on the screened-in back porch and sipped her coffee and watched the rain. The large green backyard was lined with peonies about to bloom, so beautiful, she thought, and Susannah looked at them and then back into the house, to the wide rooms with the polished wood floors, and she sighed pleasantly, and not for the first time, as if remembering the whirlwind of good fortune that had led the three of them to this grand old house on a hill above Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont, nine months before.
Sometimes life changes in an instant, doesn’t it? One minute she’s a single mom, and then she meets an amazing man who literally rocks her world, and then his career, surprising both of them, takes off like a red-hot rocket. It felt like yesterday that she was introducing him to her boss at the gallery, and within months Max’s handsome mug is on the cover of all the important art magazines. The challenge was that he didn’t really make anything—the heart of his work was his ability to talk—so there was no obvious way to monetize it. The irony was that now you could become an art-world star and not sell paintings for millions of dollars. It was less about what you made than who you were.
Max gave a TED Talk that went viral. No one had ever talked about art this way before. He was in demand to give it everywhere. Shortly thereafter, a number of universities called with luxurious job offers. Vermont was the obvious choice. Kansas sounded dreadful (Who wants to live in Kansas? Max wondered) and so did the offer from the university in Atlanta, with all the imagined heat and the lack of seasons. But the clincher was when in the small galley kitchen in their apartment in the Village, Max said, “Here’s the best part, Susannah, look at this.”
He pulled out his phone and showed her the picture of this house. It was stunning, the kind of house she never imagined she would live in.
“They give us this house,” he said.
“Give it to us?”
“Well, give is a strong word. But it’s a three-year appointment and it’s ours during that time.”
Susannah shrieked, a real one, shrieked and hugged him hard, hugged him for his charm and talent, for how much people gravitated to him and wanted to see whatever he wanted to happen to happen, how he could will things into being, but she also hugged him because three years sounded beautifully long, long enough to get Freddy out of the city through high school. The thought of him no longer vanishing into Union Square Park with a skateboard and a hacky sack, and into the vast city where the lines between childhood and adulthood were often blurred, was almost enough to make Susannah giddy.
She stood and moved off the porch and into the wide-open living room and then into the kitchen, where she left her coffee mug in the sink next to the cereal bowl still full of milk that Freddy had deposited there hours ago.
It was time for her run. She always had this brief moment before she went when she had to will herself and imagine doing it, her legs churning as she propelled herself down the hill. Susannah didn’t believe those who said they loved to run, though she believed it when they said that they loved how running made them feel after it was over.
As always, she had to remind herself that the run was not a choice for her. Years ago during an episode, a therapist had said, “I have lots of tricks to help you, Susannah, but nothing will help you as much as vigorous exercise. You need to do it every day.”
Once outside, she loved the rain. She stood for a minute just looking at the quiet neighborhood, the neighborhood in repose, like a beautiful woman sleeping, everyone at work, rows and rows of stately Victorians on a flat stretch of hill, the lake blurry with mist below. She let the rain just fall on her, warm and soft, sweet-smelling rain, and when her hair was soaked and her bare arms were wet, she went.
In New York, Susannah would run along the crowded walkway next to the Hudson, and she always kept her focus on the river, the rise of the chop and the tugboats and barges moving along it. This was her strategy for ignoring the eyes on her, the men who shamelessly stared at the rise and fall of her tits and the curve of her ass under her black tights.
She wore earphones so no one would try to speak to her. Even in Vermont she wore the earphones, phone hooked to her waist, but here they didn’t stare so blatantly.
Her route took her out of the neighborhood and then down the main street to the lakefront, and along that great expanse of water, the row of bluish mountains on the other side.
Then back the way she came, the last leg the hardest, straight uphill, her muscles straining, and she could taste that cigarette she would reward herself with on her return. She only smoked a couple every day, but she looked forward to them with the reverence of a religious ritual. It was a small indulgence, Susannah liked to tell herself, and given the air up here, no different from being a nonsmoker in the city. Or so someone had once told her and she had latched on to it like gospel.
Coming back up her street, she slowed. She was breathing hard. Two houses before hers, as she always did, she started to walk, her hands on her hips, shaking her legs out in front of her.
The rain picked up even more and it felt great. Finally stopping in front of her house, Susannah lifted her face to it, letting the rain hit her forehead, her cheeks, her mouth, practically drinking all that rain.
In that moment she noticed the note. It was taped to the front door. At first Susannah didn’t think that it was anything at all—this was a neighborhood where people left notes, so unlike New York. Usually someone announcing a yard sale or a block party, or just that everyone—meaning all the couples of the same age group who lived in the “hood,” as they called it—was getting together on this or that porch for drinks after the kids fell asleep.
Susannah stretched. She reached above her head, then bent down and touched her toes, liking the feel of her hamstrings as they strained. Standing back erect, she moved to the house, up the porch, and, almost as an afterthought, grabbed the note off the door.
Inside the house, Susannah opened it, and there, written in blocky black letters on thick cardstock paper, she read:
I KNOW WHO YOU ARE
She stopped and read it again. Her heart, elevated already from the run, began to race. A feeling of dread swept over her, a feeling that she recognized from long ago. Suddenly she was afraid that her motor, as she called it, would start to run and the panic would rise faster than a tide within her, and this would be the time she wouldn’t be able to beat it back.
Susannah looked back to the door, then to the windows on either side of it. She went to the door and locked it. Then she turned around and started to shout into her own house, like someone walking through the woods might do so as to not startle a bear.
“Hello,” Susannah yelled. “The police are on their way.”
But the house greeted her with silence. A silence she didn’t trust.
Susannah ran around and locked all the doors—the door to the back porch, the sliding ones that lead out to the back patio, and even the latch to the basement. It was so different here from in New York. In Vermont, after the first week, they had stopped locking their doors, except at night and out of habit. Their small garden apartment in Manhattan had no less than six locks; it was like opening a vault. Metal grates were on the windows. Anyone off the street could try to break in, but good luck.
She raced through the house, running up the wide wooden staircase with its big landing before it curved right and up to the hallway and the bedrooms. She shouted as she went, having no idea what to expect but wanting to know the place was empty. For a minute, Susannah wanted to feel safe.
In the bedroom she shared with Max, she opened the closet, looked into the bathroom, nervously peeled away the shower curtain, half expecting someone to jump out at her while she movie-screamed in the person’s face.
She went into Freddy’s room, cluttered and full of graphic novels in stacks like magazines and the crazy disarray that said in bright orange neon that a fifteen-year-old lived here: his clothes and crap in piles everywhere. She peered into his closet, too.
Susannah accepted that she was alone. Downstairs in the kitchen, she found her pack of American Spirit cigarettes and the lighter in their hiding spot in the high cabinet above the fridge.
She looked outside to the blue rain falling steadily, and instead of going out under the eaves—her usual spot—she told herself, Fuck it, and turned the crank on the two windows above the sink to open them, and with her hands shaking, she lit a cigarette, hoping the smell would be gone by the time Freddy returned home.
Susannah smoked furtively, the way mental patients do. Pulling hard and fast with the cigarette between pursed lips. The smoke swirled up above her face in thin plumes and she waved at it, a futile attempt to brush it away, to make it disappear.
Inside, though, she was starting to roil, and she had to remind herself that the anxiety was what she thought of as a white bear, and it was okay to have white bears. It was okay to think of the white bear, even when you were not supposed to. The white bear can only bite if you try to ignore its existence. Men fear death, she told herself, while women fear something far worse: losing their minds.
And fear, when you got right down to it, was the most natural thing in the world.
Copyright © 2019 by Thomas Christopher Greene