Claudia Moves Out
Georgie shuffles through the house, hating every wall, every window, every tile, every everything. He hates it. Everywhere he turns he sees Claudia. Here she strung him up; there she burned him with cigarette butts. Over in the chair she cut him. In the bathroom she drowned him. On the porch, she humiliated him, time and again.
Numb now, Georgie wonders how he ever thought he was bored with Claudia. With her, life was a torturous show, a jagged-toothed adventure. Without her, he is back to making thermoses of 10-shot espresso. It does nothing for him--doesn’t give him jitters or clear his head, doesn’t jumpstart him in any way. It’s Claudia fault. Without her, nothing jumpstarts him anymore. He wants her back.
His days are endless, ceaseless. If he had the nerve, he’d end it all. Instead, he pounds coffee, smokes, does his laundry now and then, and goes shopping.
(Parenthetical Pet Peeve) Public laundromats that leave your clothes still wet after two hours of drying time.
Georgie roams the aisles of the grocery store, searching for Margaret or the perfect snack food or a two-for-one sale on cigarettes. Nothing comes of his endless searching, but Georgie—the eternal optimist—thinks maybe tomorrow or the day after, he’ll walk these aisles and there in Aisle 7 will be Margaret buying the perfect snack, and she’ll smile at him and tell him the store is having that two-for-one sale on cigarettes, and he better hurry before someone else buys out the entire supply.
It could happen. Georgie knows what people say—that truth is stranger than fiction, so he wanders the aisles, waiting for tomorrow to come, for Margaret to show, for his cigarettes to go on sale. He wanders for so long--nearly 31/2 hours—that the clerks and cashiers begin to notice him, and begin following close behind him.
Maybe I should have changed, Georgie thinks. Maybe wearing my robe to the store wasn’t such a great idea. It makes him noticeable, and Georgie doesn’t want to be noticeable.
“Can I help you?”
Georgie looks around, alarmed to discover that a tall, stooped man, in a crisp white shirt, red vest, and gabardine pants, was talking to him. He looks like a store manager, Georgie thinks, wondering if a store manager has any kind of legal authority.
“Excuse me,” the man says again, “but are you looking for something in particular?”
The man knows Georgie’s not looking for anything in particular, and Georgie knows the man—the manager--knows that Georgie knows. And still the man persists in asking. People are a mystery to Georgie. He stares into the man’s face, and for the briefest of seconds, the man’s face seems to melt, to morph into Claudia’s, and Georgie begins to panic; he can feel the breath catch in his throat, the sweat drip down his face.
“Sir,” the man asks, “Are you all right? Do you need help?”
What is it with strangers always asking if he needs help and Claudia—that bitch, that whore--never once asking? What is love if not offering help? Claudia never loved him.
“Sir,” the man repeats.
Georgie blinks, deciding he’s had an epiphany although he’s not absolutely sure what an epiphany is.
“No,” he tells the man in the vest. “I don’t need help. Just tell me, is it true your cigarettes are on sale this lovely day?”
Five short minutes later, a stocky, young woman wearing a blood-spattered apron holds Georgie by one arm and the man in the vest holds the other, as together they usher him out the door. The door whooshes shut behind him, catching Georgie by the tail end of his robe, making him think--for a second—that the store wanted him back, that it truly did value its customers.
But no, not even the store wants him, and Georgie trudges home, empty-handed, where he finds the message light on blinking, winking. A mile a minute. A mile a minute, it’s blinking. He presses the message button, recoils in horror at the sound of Claudia’s voice echoing in the empty house.
“Hey Georgie Porgie,” she purrs. “I was just thinking about you. I was at this lecture? And it was sooo boring, all I could think of was getting back home, back to my snookums. My Georgie Porgie Pumpkin Eater.”
Georgie wants her voice out of his head. He blinks, wondering if the torture was all in his mind and if really Claudia is still his--all his--and she really hadn’t moved out and they really hadn’t broken up and that she really is just at some sort of conference, and everything is as it was, as it should have been all along. Maybe.
(The man can dream, can’t he?)
Georgie doesn’t want to dream. He shakes his head, clearing his thoughts, realizing the message is old, from way back when. The real message plays:
“Hi Georgie,” Claudia once again purrs. “Just wanted to check in. See what’s going on. See how you’ve been doing. What you’ve got planned for the holidays.”
Claudia’s voice rises at the end of every sentence, or rather at the end of every word. Why has he never noticed before? Where has he been? And still Claudia’s voice echoes in his head.
“I know how absent I’ve been,” she says, “and how rough it’s been, but Georgie, look at it from my perspective. It’s just I needed to put 100% into my own family. You understand, don’t you, Georgie? Don’t you?”
Georgie reels. Who is this Claudia? This self-assured family woman, this woman Georgie’s never met. Then . . . Then he remembers: Claudia was pregnant. She had the baby and raised it with her lesbian lover.
His baby. His sperm-child.
But then, yet another real message plays, and Georgie realizes that . . .
(Don’t think about that.)
That Georgie, the one with the baby, must have been a different Georgie, that Claudia a different Claudia. As far as this Georgie is concerned—the real Georgie--none of that ever happened.
And so Georgie—the real Georgie--listens to the real message from Margaret, the real Margaret. The only Margaret.
“Hey, Georgie, it’s me,” she says quietly, sounding a little scared. “I just wanted to check in with you, see if you got in touch with your nanny yet. I think it’s really important. I care about you a lot, you know . . . It’s just . . . Well, anyway. Just go see her. That’s all.”
A pause for a moment. Nothing but silence. Dead silence. Then a fast goodbye and a click.
Georgie has not heard at all from Claudia. Only Margaret. Margaret, who says she cares for him. Margaret, who wants him to get better. Claudia never wanted him to get better. Claudia just wanted to hurt him . . . make him worse. She was happy to take his money and warp him into a twisted fuck. Georgie forgets that he’s the one who asked her to, that he wanted to be sick, that healthy was just too hard, too dull. He forgets all that. He just thinks, with relief, of the possibility of that happy dream couple they could have been, if only he had applied himself.
Georgie digs frantically through his closet until he finds the jeans with that slip of paper in them with the nanny’s address on it. He unfolds the paper, stares at the address in amazement. The house is close. Practically in his neighborhood.
What kind of sick fuck moves into the same neighborhood where his old nanny used to torture him? Then again, his parents bought him the house. Georgie looks out the door at the front lawn for a long moment then jogs sluggishly down the steps and across the grass.
Georgie climbs out of the town car; Ben shuts the door gently behind him as he takes his first steps. The house is a two-story, gray frame house with faded blue shutters that hang crookedly aside windows that are nearly opaque from years of accumulated grime and urban air. The small, front yard is practically a jungle, overgrown and out of control, salt grass brushes Georgie’s knees and the hydrangea and pyracantha tower over his head. Dead ivy hangs limp and withered from the porch railing, and climbing honeysuckle peaks from the gutter. The sound of bees buzzing and leaves decomposing fill Georgie’s ears, as he walks the overgrown path to the front porch.
He sees her, furiously rocking in a bentwood rocker and glaring at him.
“So you found me, finally?” she asks. Her voice is coarse as if she’s spent her life smoking unfiltered Camels, and wisps of her cottony white hair blow around her face.
“Wha-what?” Georgie stammers, wondering how she knew, how she could have recognized him after these years.
“Through all that mess in my front yard,” she says, pointing a skinny arm at the front lawn, and Georgie realizes he was wrong. She doesn’t recognize him. She couldn’t.
Still, he finds himself asking, “Do you remember me?”
He peers at her through the dark shadows of honeysuckle trees and dead vines. How could his nanny, that woman who had such power over him as a child, had made him tremble with terror, had pinched him, tormented him, swung him from his dick, how could she have become this scrawny, pathetic old woman? Was it the ultimate justice that she, who had once towered over him, now struggles to get to her feet out of that old, creaking chair, or just a cruel twist of fate?
Georgie briefly wonders what fate has in store for him, after all that he has done.
“Remember you?” the woman cackles again, harsh ancient air escaping from her lungs. “Who in this God damn world would bother to remember a pudgy little vermin like you?”
Georgie trembles, his foot pausing in mid-air on the first step.
“Aw, ‘course I remember you, Georgie Gust,” the woman cackles again. “I never forget a pretty face.”
Georgie shudders, as he tries to remember what he’s doing here. Is he supposed to confront this old woman? Beat her? Torment her--now that she’s the weak one? Or beg her . . . for what? Forgiveness?
He looks at her again, as malevolent as Claudia but in a rocking chair. Maybe she’s not so weak, after all. Age isn’t everything.
“Yeah, well, I was uh . . .” Georgie clears his throat. “It’s just that I wanted to see how you’ve been.”
“Fine and dandy,” she says, gesturing at the decay that surrounds her. “Livin’ the dream.”
Georgie walks up the steps, sits down uneasily on the empty rocker next to her. She grins at him, showing a mouth missing a myriad of teeth.
“Yeah,” Georgie says, falling easily into the casual drawl of her speech. “Just thinkin’ about the old days, you know. Used to have a lot of fun back then.”
His throat threatens to constrict and choke him on the word “fun,” but he gets it out anyway.
She smiles at him, a slight question in her eyes.
“Yeah, you used to spend hours and hours here,” she says finally. “Sometimes it was hard to get you to go home.”
“Yeah?” Georgie feels something twist in the pit of his stomach, like he is going to blow chunks. “Yeah?” he says again.
She nods sagely then stares at him from the corner of one eye as she chomps slowly on her gums.
“That’s not what I remember,” he spits out finally.
A wary look crosses her face.
Georgie continues, “What I remember is that you used to torture me.”
She shakes her head vehemently back and forth, but he knows that she is lying.
“What I remember,” he says, “is hating every minute here. I was miserable because of you.”
The skinny old woman is still shaking her head--no no no.
Georgie is relentless. “You ruined everything for me,” he screams at her. “Ev-everything. Every re-relationship I’ve ever had is ruined because of the w-way you . . .”
Then Georgie does something he rarely does, something he has not done since boarding school.
He bursts into tears.
In that vast nothingness, that horrible numbness deep inside me, there is a churning and gnashing, ripping out my insides, crushing my bones. My rib cage.
Everything shatters and falls apart. Everything gurgles up the back of my throat, drips from my mouth. Everything.
(Ben, is that you?)
Silence. Absolute dead silence.
As Georgie grows quiet, he feels a hard, bony hand resting on his knee. He remembers that hand, how it pinched and twisted at his balls, performed unspeakable acts on him.
The woman speaks--her voice seems young, now, almost human: “I’m sorry,” she says.
“It was horrible,” she says.
“Unspeakable,” she whispers.
(But there are things that must be spoken . . . isn’t that right, Ben?
“But it wasn’t all like that, you know,” the woman says. Her eyes plead with him, like Claudia’s. “What about your friend Marie? You two . . . You were like boyfriend and girlfriend when you were kids. So sweet to each other.”
The woman’s face breaks into a smile. Georgie can see that she’s remembering better days. Sunny afternoons. Two kids in crisp, clean clothing running circles on the lawn, chasing after one another.
Georgie shakes his head, clearing his mind of the memory. “I don’t remember that,” he whispers. “Until last year, I didn’t even remember you.”
She grins wide. “Well, that’s a blessing, isn’t it?”
Georgie steps inside her rickety front door, feeling immediately ill at ease. The doorframe is crooked from years of warping from a sinking foundation; the floor rolls away beneath his feet, slightly downhill. It is dark and cool inside. Georgie waits a moment for his eyes to adjust._
“You see ‘em?” the nanny’s voice calls from the front porch. “They’re right in there on the wall.”
Georgie blinks and swivels around. An old sofa and sagging armchair rise out of the darkness, draped with gravity-warped afghan blankets and doilies, whose holes stretch like grinning mouths, their bottom lips drawn ever-closer to the floor.
Then he sees them. The pictures.
They line the wall beside the front door. Black-and-white, sepia toned--almost all of Georgie--so many of him that it goes beyond the nostalgic and slightly creepy to almost gruesome and nearly unbelievable.
(Do you believe it, Ben?
It’s like Georgie was the only kid she ever babysat, or that he was the only one worth remembering.
And then there is the girl she mentioned--Marie. The wall is filled with pictures of her and Georgie posing in the bright sunlight, playing childish games. In one, he is lacing up her shoelaces. In another, she is riding him like a pony. The pictures flash in front of him, alternating between photo and memory . . . memory and photo.
He remembers her—the first Claudia. She stood before him in Keds and frilly pink dresses, stamping imperiously and ordering him about. Her moods were like storms across the ocean--quickly flashing in moments of terrifying manipulation, subsiding quickly once her wishes had been appeased.
He had been her slave—the first Georgie. Georgie Porgie, she’d called him. Before her, his name had been . . .
(Don’t think about that, Georgie.
Looking at the pictures, Georgie realizes that this girl, this demanding, tiny, terrible woman, had taught him everything he knows. She was his first girlfriend, his model woman. She taught him how to love—the ups and downs of it, the grim, terrified clutching and the panicked, unreasonable, pushing away. She had taught him that love was pain and suffering . . . that it was better to hate the one you love, better to blame them for all the wretchedness they caused you.
I can do better than that, Georgie realizes suddenly. The fights, the torture—they do not have to happen. They don’t have to be a part of me.
Georgie races from the house, his mind filled with the image of the happy American Dream lover he can be. He and Claudia and his son in his sunny and charming California bungalow, playing happy.
No. Being happy.
“Where you going so fast, puddin’ pie?” the old woman drawls at his retreating back.
“Home,” Georgie hollers, over his shoulder. “Home.”
The woman cackles again, her mouth stretching into that impossible jack-o-lantern grin.
“Wouldn’t be in such a hurry if I was you,” she mutters. Her cackle follows Georgie all the way to the shining black limousine.
He climbs into the waiting limo and tells Ben, “Home, please.”
Georgie is filled with an impossible delirium (just short of insanity). He knows he can be happy and perfect, if he just tries hard enough. He can make his own destiny. His mind rejoices. He can remake his own damn self any damn way he wants.
(Just like those new age books claim, eh Georgie-boy?)
Ben pulls up in front of Georgie’s house, tires screeching to a stop. Georgie leaps out of the car without waiting for Ben to open the door. He has no way of knowing, no reason to hope, but he knows that all his happiness is waiting for him inside. His happy dream future is only just steps away.
When Georgie flings open the door to his American Dream home, he runs headlong into a pitch-black room; thick smoke fills his nostrils, and something rough and scratchy encircles his neck. He is disoriented. Frightened. His fingers clutch at his neck, where he finds a rope--a noose actually, which is tightening around his throat. Georgie’s fear escalates.
“Georgie,” says her voice softly out of the darkness.
It is Claudia, his dream lover, his perfect woman. She will be nice to him if he tells her to be. She said she was tired of torturing him. She said so. He will pay her to be nice if that’s what it takes. Georgie thinks dreamily of his future life as the noose tightens.
“Claudia?” he says.
Can’t she see in his face that he doesn’t want to play this game anymore? The rope is choking off his air supply. Georgie kicks and claws at his neck with his hands. He gurgles, trying to open his larynx to the air. He draws in a hissing stream of oxygen. Not enough. Then Georgie’s mind overcomes his body’s panic. She is not really killing him, after all. It is just one of those games that they are playing. She doesn’t yet know that he is done with the torture game and wants to move on to something more blissful.
Ah, what the hell, Georgie thinks. One more time wouldn’t hurt. For old time’s sake. His gasping, bulbous, red-turned face grimaces that resembles a smile.
“What do you have to smile about?” Claudia demands from the darkness.
There is some movement on the rope as she ties it off. Then she steps into the small pool of light before him.
“What the fuck have you ever had to smile about, you freak?” she says.
Georgie finds his good humor starting to fade, as his face turns purple
“Do you see this?” She gestures to the circles beneath her eyes, her orange freckles.
“You,” she says, “you did this to me. I never used to be this bad.”
A sick, rattling moan escapes Georgie’s lips. Spots dance before his eyes. He has heard all this before. When is she going to untie the rope? Is she going to bury him again, afterward? She stares at him in silence. For a moment, Georgie feels a stab of real fear run through him. Her eyes are haunted. Hollow. He can’t see anything of the Claudia he remembers. Not in her eyes. Not in her face. The Claudia he remembers is gone.
Slowly, she smiles. Her curving lips fill his vision.
“I killed your son,” Claudia whispers.
The words echo in Georgie’s ears as if coming from a great distance.
“You didn’t want him. You didn’t care about him or about me. So I killed him.”
She walks slowly to Georgie. He pulls desperately at the thick rope that rings his neck. He can’t see past the fireworks exploding at the back of his eyes, but he can feel her. She touches his leg with her hand.
“I killed both of us,” she whispers.
She yanks at the rope, cutting it deeper into his neck. She laughs.
“And now,” she says, “I’m killing you.”
Another tremendous pull and Georgie’s world goes black. He can’t hear her breathing. He can’t feel her arms wrapped around him, or the rope around his neck.
He is nothing.
Finally. After all this time, he is nothing.
The best I can, to not create a catastrophe over anything . . .