Me and the past never really saw eye to eye, so when I occasionally ran into someone I used to know, I immediately flipped through my mental Rolodex for an excuse to chuck at them before continuing on my merry way. It worked like a charm every single time, that is until I bumped into Tatum.
It had been at least seventeen years since I last laid eyes on her and the years had been very kind to this woman, in fact, she hadn’t appeared to age a day. She was still that slender mocha-skinned Honduran with a disarming smile but the updated version rocked a nose piercing and shoulder-length dreads in lieu of a bob cut. I couldn’t believe that I was actually pleased to see her, and during the moment of reciting the usual social pleasantries by rote, all the negative history between us had been replaced with heart-warming nostalgia.
Her smile never wavered when she mentioned her life hadn’t turned out quite the way she planned. When we were together, she was studying to be a lawyer. Now, she worked as a marketing senior manager for a cosmetics firm, was the mother of two, a girl and a boy, nine and thirteen years old respectively, who were fathered by a deadbeat boyfriend who ditched both the wedding and his kids in one fell swoop.
Time had no meaning as we stood there conversing on the sidewalk and for the first time in quite a while, I honestly enjoyed exchanging words with a person who wasn’t a character trapped within the confines of my overactive writer’s imagination. But all good things, as they say—so, we exchanged numbers, promised each other we would call, and went our separate ways.
And on my way home, the strangest nagging notion crept up from the back of my mind: had we been able to work things out all those many years ago, her life might have turned out differently. Better. Then came the guilt, as if my absence was somehow responsible for the direction her life had taken. And on the tail of the guilt came the shame for not being a better boyfriend to her and a better person in general.
I promptly deleted her number from my phone because neither she nor I needed to be reminded of what might have been.
Less than a week later, once I had time to regret deleting her phone number, she called with an invitation to have lunch and meet her children. I wasn’t keen on the latter, but against my better judgment I wanted to see her again, so I agreed.
We met at a faux Italian restaurant, a fast-food chain done up in dime-store décor to give the eatery a stereotypical taste of Italy, and I had to admit that I didn’t mind her kids all that much. They were a bit unruly but what children weren’t at those ages? Although I felt a little awkward being interrogated by her brood, it was nice being in Tatum’s company again. I experienced a level of comfort that oddly felt like home.
That was until her daughter, Stacie, asked, “Did you and Mommy have s-e-x?” as if spelling the word somehow made the question safe to ask.
Confirmed bachelor that I was, I wasn’t comfortable chatting with a nine-year-old about sex. Having no idea what the proper protocol was, I turned to Tatum and with a look, asked, Did we have s-e-x, Mommy?
Without batting an eye, Tatum answered, “Yes, we had sex.”
Was that how it was done nowadays? Was it the norm for ex-boyfriends to be brought to lunch with the kiddies to openly discuss their sexual history? I was still reeling from that exchange when her son, Lee, chimed in, “You could be our Dad!”
The old one-two punch. These kids worked me over like a speedbag. They laughed at my embarrassment and I tried to play it off, but it unnerved me on a deeper level. The rest of the conversation was downhill after that in terms of my personal comfort. We got on well enough, the four of us, better than expected, and when we said our goodbyes after lunch, I was hit with another weird sensation—jealousy. Because her children weren’t our children and at her family dinner table, there was no place setting for me. It only lasted an instant but long enough for it to have registered.
I tried to put things into perspective, tried to remember why our relationship ended in the first place. It wasn’t a build-up of all the minor things, the petty annoyances that masked the underlying truth that people sometimes simply grew apart. It was the Santeria. I told her I didn’t believe in magic, voodoo, and things of that nature and it was true, but the other truth was that it scared a part of me that I didn’t want to acknowledge.
If Tatum actually practiced rituals, she did a great job of keeping it to herself, her mother, on the other hand, was very open and vocal about the matter. That woman hated me the moment she clapped eyes on me, no rhyme, no reason, just pure unadulterated hatred. For some reason, I hadn’t measured up to her exacting standards of what constituted a proper boyfriend for her daughter and she never bothered hiding that fact. She visited our apartment constantly and when she left, I would find things hidden around the house, under the bed, in the refrigerator. Santeria objects everywhere.
Things finally came to a head the day I came home from work early and walked in on a Santeria ritual in progress. Our tiny studio apartment was packed with strangers clad in all white, eyes closed in a trance, and chanting in a language I didn’t understand while they danced to the beat of the drummers positioned in each corner of the room. Tatum must have given her mother a key because she was standing in the center of the room, smoking a cigar and glaring at me as if I was the intruder in my own apartment. Speaking in tongues, the old battleax walked up to me and blew a cloud of disgusting smelling smoke into my face.
Tatum came home to find me lying face down on the floor. I told her what happened and not only had she taken it all in stride but she also took her mother’s side, stating that I had no business interrupting the ritual. I’ve never been an arguer, chiefly because I was no good at it but we had a knock-down-drag-out that day…which ended with me moving out of the apartment that night and never looking back. Depending on how you looked at it, if her mother did cast a spell on me, it actually worked because I was finally out of her daughter’s life.
I kept this firmly in mind when Tatum phoned and invited me around hers for dinner. I accepted the invitation with the intention of cutting ties with her altogether but being gentlemanly about it and doing it in person. And if I was being absolutely honest, it had been a month of Sundays since I had a proper home-cooked meal because no one in their right mind would have called what I did cooking.
Tatum greeted me at the door in an apron dusted with flour and seasonings, the picture-perfect happy homemaker. The kids were in the kitchen and to my astonishment were finishing up washing the dishes. They dried their hands before they ran up and hugged me. I looked into their faces and something seemed off. Their smiles were too wide, teeth too white and there was something unnatural about the intensity in their eyes. And their faces were different, still possessing features reminiscent of Tatum but the rest was somehow…incomplete, like faces in transition. I chalked it up to a writer’s overactive imagination and thought nothing more of it.
Dinner went well. Who knew Tatum could have been such a gracious hostess? The kids made the meal a pleasant experience, as well. They stopped bickering and playing with their food when I asked them to, laughed at my jokes, and listened with rapt attention as I told the story of how I met their mother. Cutting ties with them wasn’t going to be easy.
After dinner, we sat in the living room and Tatum pulled out a photo album and flipped through family pictures of vacations with the deadbeat boyfriend, of her during various stages of her pregnancies, of her and deadbeat holding a newborn Lee, and later with Tatum holding a newborn Stacie while deadbeat lurked somewhere in the background. A life well documented.
She described how difficult things had been. Deadbeat developed a drug habit and came around under the guise of seeing his kids only to beg off some money in order to score and if that hadn’t worked, he stole things to sell. One time when Tatum refused to give him any more money, he had Stacie and Lee removed from her custody by Child Protective Services because of alleged abuse charges. She was nearly in tears as she spoke about the hell she had to go through in order to get her family back together.
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. It was deadbeat, whose Christian name was Oscar, most likely coming around again to score. She spoke with him in hushed tones through the space in the apartment door allowed by the security chain. When his shouts turned to raged kicking on the door, I stepped up behind Tatum so that he could see me.
“Everything all right, Tate?” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder.
It was like pouring gasoline on a fire. Oscar lost his mind to the point where there was no reasoning with him. I did the only thing I could think of doing, I made sure he saw me dialing 911 on my cell. This caused him to weigh his options, and he eventually left but not before making a threat to come back to get his kids and make Tatum pay.
She convinced me not to involve the police but only after Tatum agreed to let me stay the night in case Oscar decided to return. We tried to salvage the rest of the evening for the sake of Stacie and Lee but deadbeat’s presence lingered in the air.
The sofa was made up for me as comfortable as she could manage but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was afraid that Oscar would return and afraid that I wouldn’t be of much use since I wasn’t a violent man. All I could have done was to block his attack while Tatum grabbed the kids and made their way to safety. And if that was what it took, then so be it.
When I started drifting off, as the tension of the evening released its grip, Tatum came to me. Her nightgown slid off her perfect body. Why hadn’t I ever noticed just how perfect she was before? She stood there, naked and beautiful in the moonlight that poured in from the window, and I knew then and there that I would have done anything for her. Smiling, she climbed on top of me and it was paradise.
After we were done, after all the love I was capable of making had been made, after the pillow talk in which things were said that were sweet and emotional and ultimately meaningless, Tatum gathered her nightgown and went back to her bed. I understood her not wanting the children to find her in my arms in the morning, but a small piece of me was disappointed.
My head swam with a million thoughts, my heart filled with far too many emotions, and that combined with the feeling that something wasn’t right, meant there was no sleep for me tonight. I was so preoccupied that I hadn’t heard it at first. The sound. The jingling of keys.
I went silent, straining my ears—moments passed. It couldn’t have been him with a set of keys. Surely Tatum would have changed the locks. Then it happened again. The sound of a key sliding in a lock. I sat bolt upright on the sofa, eyes scanning the darkness for a weapon. Remote controls, game console controllers, DVDs—the candy dish! It was no gun, but glass and solid enough to damage a skull.
I stared into the dark hallway from the living room entranceway. The sound of the doorknob turning. The door opened a crack and light spilled in from the apartment building hallway. An arm slipped in through the crack. It held something wire-like. A hanger? The tip of the hooked wire scratched at the door until it found purchase. The handle for the security chain. It slid across the groove slowly until the chain fell away.
I should have acted then. I should have rushed the door, slammed his arm in it, put my full weight against the door, held him there and called the police for them to cart him away. But I was held in place by a tense moment that locked inside of me. Instinct had taken over. So had the fear.
The intruder’s silhouette appeared in the doorway before the door clicked shut behind him, plunging the hall back into darkness. Footsteps, slow and deliberate. The floorboards creaked as if they were screaming a warning.
Then I heard a rustling come from the kids’ room. Had they heard the noise? Were they coming to investigate? Something snapped inside me. This bastard wasn’t going to harm the kids!
I charged into the darkness until I collided with the intruder. But as angry and determined as I was, it was no match for his explosive violence. He heaved me into the air and threw me on the floor. The ashtray slipped through my fingers and clattered away out of reach. The intruder proceeded to punch and kick me and I had absolutely no defense, I threw up my arms but they blocked none of his attacks. He wrapped his hands around my throat and I flailed spastically to get him off me as I gasped for the air that had been cut off from me.
I was overcome with fear but my body was overcome with instinct. My limbs simply tried anything they could to free my throat so I could breathe. But the intruder was having none of it. He slammed my head against the floor in a violent demonstration of his control over me as I gasped my last remaining breaths.
Then light flooded the room. Tatum and the children stood at the end of the hall, staring at me. My emotions were mixed. I wanted them to go away, I didn’t want them to see me like this. I wanted them to get to safety, but on the other hand, I wanted them to help me. I didn’t want to die.
But there was something in the way they looked at me, something that told me things weren’t right. And I looked up at the intruder—
Who was no longer there.
And now I understood why they were staring at me. Here I was lying on the floor with my own hands wrapped around my neck. It took some effort for me to loosen my grip. I staggered to my feet and tried to explain how Oscar had come back, how he had a key and he broke in and was going to do something terrible to them, but they didn’t understand.
Who was Oscar? they kept asking and, What’s wrong with Daddy?
When I told them to stop it, that it wasn’t funny anymore, that I wasn’t their father, looks of genuine hurt danced across their faces. I ran into the living room and grabbed the photo album for proof and flipped through the pages of—
Tatum and I on vacation. Me posing with her during various stages of her pregnancy. She and I holding a newborn Lee. Of us holding a newborn Stacie while Lee lurked somewhere in the background.
I had no recollection of having taken these photos, yet they existed.
And I looked at Stacie and Lee and they were different again, now a mixture of Tatum…and I thought I actually saw bits of myself in their faces. The kids asked Tatum what was wrong.
“Daddy just had a nightmare, that’s all,” she explained. “Everything will be all right in the morning, everything back to normal.”
And as Tatum ushered me to the bedroom, she grabbed the pillow off the sofa and something fell onto the floor. It looked like a figure made of folded palm leaves but I couldn’t see it properly because she quickly brushed it under the sofa with her foot.
“What was that?” I asked, my head still swimming in confusion.
“Just one of the kids’ toys,” she replied in a tone so soothing it was almost hypnotic.
Tatum said she would talk to Lee and Stacie about picking up their things, or she asked if perhaps I could do it because she wouldn’t have time since she was staring at a monster of a day at the law firm tomorrow, sitting first chair on a high-profile case.
That’s right, she’s a lawyer, I thought as the fog slowly lifted from my brain. Why did I think she worked in cosmetics? Perhaps she was right, everything would be all right in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Everything would be back to normal.