The following excerpt from Once Removed: Stories by Colette Sartor is reprinted with permission from The University of Georgia Press:
That voice. Gravelly, loud, insistent. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” yelled over and over outside Mila’s building, six-thirty sharp, mornings and evenings. God knew who it was, maybe one of the homeless guys who slept in the storefronts up on Pico and searched the dumpsters of shabby, Spanish-style multiplexes like hers. His hair was probably scraggly, his palms grimy, with long, crooked lifelines that helped him survive the streets of a city as sprawling and anonymous as Los Angeles. Maybe Mila’s own lifelines would lend her the same resilience, more even, assuming Peter didn’t find her. Although she wasn’t really worried. He would never hurt her, not physically. Even the accident that had sent her into hiding had been her fault, not his.
Pillows couldn’t block out the shouting, not even earplugs. In her old life she would have praised a student for projecting his voice with such conviction. One particularly loud morning she kicked off her covers and sat up. A revelation, to no longer feel sore. Only some stiffness in her neck remained from the car crash over a month ago. That and the rough hideousness of her voice. She got up to dress. Around the corner was a twenty-four-hour café with seats in back, far from the windows, one reason she’d rented this apartment last month, along with its hardwood floors and first-floor location near the building’s rear exit to the alley. She kept her car there for a quick escape, just in case.
When she stepped into the hallway, Rune, the building’s young manager, stood in the opposite doorway. Rune stretched and smiled at Mila. “He woke you up too, huh, Mary?” she said.
Mary Gordon, not Mila Genaro, was the name on Mila’s lease. Rune didn’t believe in credit or reference checks. She went on gut, she said. She kept her door open whenever she was home, sometimes late into the night, to encourage tenants to stop by. The other tenants ignored Mila whenever she hurried by, her face averted. According to the doctor, she should be “engaging in regular vocal activities,” but she still avoided speaking whenever possible. She hated the way she sounded. Besides, why make friends? She might need to move on a moment’s notice. But Rune, with her rust-colored hair and round, plain plate of a face that belied her fluty speaking voice—a coloratura, maybe, or a flowing lyric—possessed a determined cheer that was difficult to avoid.
Mila locked her door. “He seemed louder today,” she said. Her voice sounded scratchy, low. Awful.
Rune yawned and retied her bathrobe. “It’s just Harvey. He lives a few buildings down. He dresses like he’s homeless, but he’s just strange.”
Rune’s little boy stepped out from behind her. He had his mother’s rust-colored hair, but his large eyes were fringed with extravagant lashes and his skin looked milky and flawless in the hallway’s dim lights. He held a docile kitten face-forward in his arms, its back legs dangling.
His mother stroked his head. “Fender found a kitten in the alley by your parking spot. Paw-Paw, he named her, all by himself.”
Fender held out the kitten for Mila to pet.
Rune startled, her chin jerking. “Look at that. Usually he’s so shy.”
“Allergies. I shouldn’t touch,” Mila lied.
The child stared at her. She’d never heard him speak. Sometimes she wondered what he sounded like, whether his voice was high and sweet like his mother’s or grating like the shouter’s, or something else altogether. Still, his silence was appealing. She craved silence lately. Before, she had spent her days inundated by sound, the swoop of her students’ vocalizing, Peter’s blaring baritone lecturing, lecturing, lecturing as they ate breakfast or dinner, dressed for work, undressed for bed, or, on bad days (there were a lot, near the end), yelling, berating, belittling. Silence had been a luxury. Now, she lolled in it, found herself protective of it.
Her cellphone rang. She pulled it from her jacket pocket: the caller ID was blocked. Not even her parents had this number, though she’d gotten it using their New Jersey address so it wouldn’t have an LA area code and give away her current location. But Peter could be resourceful, especially if he thought he’d been robbed of the last word.
Mila forced herself to smile at Rune. “Has anyone been asking about me?”
“If someone does, could you say I don’t live here?”
Rune considered her, then nodded. “Tenants deserve privacy.”
“Thanks.” Mila waved at Fender. “Cute cat.” She trotted down the hallway, out of the building.
* * *
Her hair was different—a pixie-short chestnut cap instead of her long, tawny mane—and she dressed in baggy shirts and nondescript jeans, tinted-lensed glasses shielding her green eyes. She made a point of slouching and walking slowly, not clipping along at her usual impatient pace, with her posture impeccably straight and ready to support her voice, project it to the rafters. But if anyone who knew her really looked, she was still herself. Except for the voice. That was different. Completely, irreparably different.
Of course the call was from Peter. She listened to his message at the café. “Hey, sweetheart,” he said, as if no time had passed, as if she hadn’t moved out last month while he was away overnight with the debate team. He taught history at the same New Jersey Catholic school where she’d taught music. They’d met there, had planned to marry in the chapel.
Maybe he was here already. It would be just like him to take time off and track her down. “After all I’ve been through,” she could imagine him telling their principal, a grandmotherly type who would embrace whatever sob story Peter concocted to explain Mila’s sudden resignation and disappearance. She listened to his message again. He could find her if he tried. This must be what women felt like after escaping men who beat them daily: relief tempered by constant anxiety. But that wasn’t her and Peter. She wasn’t afraid of him, not really. The accident had just woken her up. It had taken something away but given her something too: the realization that she should start over. She was barely thirty. It wasn’t too late. He would leave her alone eventually, once he understood. Once she made him understand. She should call him back, convince him she needed to cut herself off from him to move on.
No. Convincing him wasn’t her job anymore.
Days of picking up the phone, dialing, hanging up. Finally, one evening while curled on her Goodwill couch, she let herself call back. One call. Just one.
“I can’t find the Cuisinart,” he said without waiting for her hello. Her new number was probably already paired with her picture on his cell. “You used it last, right? Where’d you put it?”
“Try the pantry behind the soda.”
Like that, she was answering to him again.
There was rustling in the background, as if he was searching shelves. “I’m making pizzelle for the fall festival,” he said. “It’s easier with the Cuisinart. Which is supposed to go back in the same place every time.” Creeping in, that lecturing tone, which usually arrested her with its authority. He had twelve years on her, he reminded her often, twelve years of knowing more about how life worked. Like you know anything, like you know how to do anything. “I’m sure I’ll find it,” he said, brighter, friendlier, as if he sensed her clenching. “But I’m used to you helping.”
“You’re a good cook. You can do it alone.”
“I’d rather do it with you.”
The silence stretched out, demanding to be filled. Soon he’d say something: This is your solution, to hide like a baby? or maybe I never thought you’d be such a quitter. She picked at a tear in the couch. Her own words began to bubble up: I’m sorry, forgive me, I’ll come home. But he was counting on her guilt. “I’m hanging up now,” she said.
“Don’t. Not yet. You sound great, like yourself. Maybe I can visit wherever you are. Knowing you, it’s someplace warm, right? Or you could stop all this bullshit and come home.”
Outside, the yelling started in the distance, approaching rapidly: “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” She walked to the living room window, but the street was barely visible beyond the neighboring building. The strength in that voice, the certainty. Her hoarseness was permanent. Tiny hairline fractures in her larynx had healed improperly. She had waited to see a doctor a few days, which proved to be too many. She was fine, she kept telling herself. Just a little accident. She’d rear-ended someone while arguing with Peter and the steering wheel had caught her in the throat.
“Fuck you! Fuck you!” Louder, more insistent.
“Mila, what’s going on? Is someone threatening you? I knew it, you’re in trouble—”
“You’re wrong. I don’t sound anything like myself,” she said and hung up.
* * *
Sometimes the urge to sing still hit, usually in the shower, hot water cascading over her, blocking out thought and sound. She always stopped herself before she got past a low hum.
She needed something to do. The disability checks plus her savings would sustain her while she figured out how to earn money. Teaching wasn’t an option. It was too taxing to stand in front of an auditorium talking in a loud, overenunciated voice so that even the rowdiest kids paid attention. In choral singing, blend and focus mattered more than natural ability, she told her students. They would excel if they worked hard and followed her instructions. Sometimes she turned sideways to demonstrate how to fill the lungs, even the lowest regions, even the tips above the clavicles, how she could puff out her abdomen to double its size, then slowly release the air to create a steady stream of notes. Singing, like anything else, was about constant striving, to strengthen, to deepen, to make each tone more pure and lucid. She was demanding, a perfectionist, but she got results. Over the years her choirs had won championship after championship. She was useless now, without a voice.
Her fault. Hers alone.
The library around the corner was looking for volunteers. Her teaching background would help, the head librarian said when she accepted Mila’s application. The kids who hung around after school occasionally needed managing. Mila found shelving books relaxing, shushing children a refreshing change. She hardly ever had to talk.
Except to Fender. Whenever she stepped out of her apartment, there he was: standing in his doorway, hiding beneath the stairs, in the vestibule by her mailbox. The kitten was always hanging from his arms. Fender never spoke, even when she said hello and gave what felt like a big, fake smile. He and the cat just stared, as if they were waiting for her to slip up and reveal her secret.
She nearly tripped over him one day while taking out the trash. It was early, before F-Man’s morning round. Fender was crouched down peering under her door when she opened it. She shrieked, then clutched her throat. The cat sat nearby, its tail swishing.
“You startled me,” she said. Across the hall, the open door revealed Fender and Rune’s cluttered living room. Where was Rune anyway? “Are you spying on me?” Mila asked Fender.
He sat and leaned against the wall. Beside him the kitten yawned and stretched out its spindly front legs. Mila had never seen it out of the boy’s grasp. The orange starburst shape on its chest was matted from where Fender’s arms rubbed. The boy gathered it into his lap, the cat once again a fluid, boneless mass. Mila held up the garbage bag like a shield.
“Let’s find your mom,” she said.
“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!”
Close, like he was out front, waiting for her. She jerked around toward the sound. The cat shot out of Fender’s lap and through Mila’s partly open door.
“Dammit,” she yelled. She stepped inside and looked around. The cat had disappeared.
Colette Sartor’s linked short story collection Once Removed (UGA Press) won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately and is an executive director of the CineStory Foundation, a mentoring organization for emerging TV writers and screenwriters. Her writing has appeared in Carve magazine, Slice magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Kenyon Review Online, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Among other awards, she has been granted a Glenna Luschei Award, a Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, and a Truman Capote fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she completed her MFA.
Music by Catlofe