Winter 2012, #18


Cross My Heart

     by K. M. Clark

Playing the boy meant that you had to be on top. We used to practice kissing in 3rd grade, taking turns playing the boy. Lara would put a pillow between our faces so that we never touched, but we still felt each other the same.

Lara had long, bony legs-the kind that knocked knees and left a gap between her thighs. When we were young, she was too skinny, but she had a body that unfolded kindly, growing and shifting in all of the right places.

All the boys liked Lara. In high school, she always had a boyfriend. I liked the stories she told me about them; there were flowers, and love letters, and riding around in cars. She was always in love, then, not in love, then in love again.

Lara liked to give advice. She liked to tell me what blue jeans to buy and the best treatment for acne, “It’s Noxema. I know. It’s cheap, but it’s been around for like, hundreds of years, and works. In like 10 years, you won’t get zits anymore, your skin is going to get really dry and scaly and if you don’t want to look like an old hag, you’re going to need something more expensive. And I don’t mean Oil of Olay either. My dad told me that stuff is shit.”

Lara’s father was a famous plastic surgeon in the city. Most people loved him and Lara said he did the best work in the state: “I am probably going to have him do work on me some day,” she told me. She looked in the mirror and pulled her shirt close to her breasts, then she laughed, “Do you think that would be weird?”

In high school, Lara’s grandmother took her to Europe. She sent me a card from Paris and listed all of the places she had seen, the food she ate, and wrote about a French boy she had fallen in love with. When she came home, she brought me one of those long cigarette holders that women used in old movies. Sometimes I still pretend I am smoking with it, when no one is around.

Lara moved to New York to become a Broadway actress. She liked the clothes in New York and went to a lot of parties, “Everyone is just different here, Stevie. You know? Like they are all doing things. Everyone wants to be somebody. And everyone knows somebody important.” Once she sent a postcard that said, “A Big Hello From the Big Apple.” It had a picture of all the tall buildings and the sun setting. On the back she had written a few short lines-“Stevie! Hello, how are you? I am wonderful. Everything is fantastic. Hugs, Lara.”

Then one day, there were no more calls. Then, no more postcards.
I read about the murder in the paper: Leading Surgeon Shot Dead in Office. Lara’s father got shot by a patient with a history of depression and a disease that made her see herself different than she was. The police said she shot him because he refused to perform surgery. Lara said he was always dealing with crazy women, “They really are nuts. Like a couple surgeries will make them different people or something. My dad only does it to help people. He likes helping people who really need it.”

On Tuesday, his obituary was on the front page. On Wednesday, the paper published another article about the investigation.  On Thursday, Lara called, “Stevie? I know we haven’t talked in a while. I am really sorry about that, but I have been so busy, I am sure you understand.” I told her that I had heard and that I was sorry and that I could come over if she wanted, when she said, “That’s unnecessary. You know it’s crazy here, with all the cops and reporters. How are you, anyway? I can’t believe you still have the same number. It’s good though. I really needed to get a hold of you because, I do have one favor.” Before she started talking again, she started crying.  I wondered if Lara sounded the same when she cried on stage. I wondered if, to her, it felt the same.

“The reason I am calling you is because, I don’t really know who else to ask. The thing is, my mother heard somewhere our house could get robbed during the funeral. Have you heard of this? Where they find the address in the obituary and rob the house while everyone is away? My father was very well-known and their house was all over the news. I know it sounds crazy, but I read about and, it’s like, a real thing. Anyway, it would mean so much to my family if you could do us this favor. Could you watch his house for us this Friday? While we are at the funeral?”

Lara tried to sound cheery, “There will be wine and lots of food and you can help yourself to anything. It will only be for a couple hours. Murphy will be there. Remember Murphy? He’s old now and will probably just be sleeping on the floor the whole time. Not much fun, I know, but at least you’ll have company. I know this is sort of out of the blue. The truth is, everyone else we know will be at the funeral, and it’s been so long, I didn’t think you would go anyway.” 

No one was surprised when she got her first part on Broadway, and then her second, and then her third. And when she was in the local newspaper, everyone said, “She always had something, didn’t she?” Once, I ran into Lara’s mother at the grocery store who ran in baby steps, inching towards me in high heels and asked, “So what are you up to these days, Stevie?” Before I could answer, her eyes lit up, lashes thick with mascara, and she got excited, “Can you believe it? Lara is living her dream! New York. The stage! I just can’t believe it. And so young! Can you imagine living your dreams so young?” I agreed with her and said that no, I could not imagine.

I wanted to help Lara because she needed me. I followed the familiar path, through the neighborhood and cut through the old bike trail where we had hid in the summers and built forts in the woods. When I reached the driveway, the cars lined up in the cul-de-sac marked with tiny flags. It was nearly 90 degrees and everyone wore black, some had hats, and the men wore dark suits and ties.

I wore black too.

Everything looked the same, the beige house, the bricks stacked high around the entryway, the wide porch and the swinging bench where we used to drink lemonade and talk in the summer. I stood back, watching her family and friends filing from the home and into their cars.

Lara stepped out onto the porch and I could hear her soft voice above the chatter. She held a woman’s hands in her own and said, “It means so much for you to be here. You meant so much to him.” She was wearing a fitted black dress with short sleeves that hugged her tiny arms, her long blond hair pinned back with bobby pins around her face. She looked thinner, and her cheeks bowed.  Lara’s hand gestures were always wide and overdone, commanding, but graceful.

The way she moved and talked and smiled, you wouldn’t think she had to go to a funeral. Lara was onstage, taking up space, moving fluidly between guests, stopping, hugging, talking, smiling, then again, a hug, kiss on the cheek, smile, then, she moved on quickly. Everyone followed her with their eyes. She was exiting the front porch, leading with her long legs, when from the ground, behind the railing, I touched her arm. Pausing, without recognition, she slowly rounded the corner of the steps, looked me up and down, then said, “Stevie. It’s you!” She lifted my hands and put them around her neck, then smiled, “I almost didn’t recognize you, it’s been so long. You’re here! Thank God, my mother was freaking out.”

Quickly, she pressed her lips to my cheek, then grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the front door, “We are running a little late, so I am just going to show you where everything is. Come on, this way.” I hadn’t been to Lara’s house for years, but I remembered it in detail: the wide, sprawling entryway with high ceilings, the deep hallways trimmed with exotic mirrors and lights, and the chandelier made of crystal that hung above the dining room table. In the back, the glass windows that opened up towards the pool and gazebo. There were expensive paintings and sculptures and an elaborate birdcage with two cockatoos that hung in the kitchen. I followed her and placed myself in scenes: sitting at her counter eating grilled cheese, watching movies on the foldout couch, building forts in the living room, and sliding down the hallway stairs in our sleeping bags.
In the kitchen, cabinets and drawers were left open. Where the space was once immaculate, the countertops were covered with prepared food, grocery cut vegetables, croissants, donuts, casseroles, chips, crackers and cheeses. Half-empty wine bottles were lined up next to small plastic cups. There were vases filled with flowers, mail was piled up next to the phone and bags of trash lining hallway to the garage.

Lara spoke, “Sorry about the mess. It has been crazy. So many people. Okay, so you can see, we have a lot of food, and there is plenty, so please help yourself. The wine is there,” she gestured, “We also have a liquor cabinet.” She opened the glass cabinets behind her to display the bottles of whiskey, gin, and vodka. Then she asked, “I don’t remember what you drink, but I am sure we have it somewhere.”

I had never had a drink with Lara.

“To be honest, I could use something right now.” She turned around, “Is anyone looking? I probably shouldn’t be taking shots before my own father’s funeral, but this whole situation is unbearable. You can imagine.” She took a bottle of vodka and poured a shot, taking it down quickly. Her face twisted and she shook her head, “Actually, no, you probably can’t. I mean, really, everything was fine. I was in New York. I am in the middle of this show. I think everything is perfect, and then...” She didn’t look at me, but I watched her face softened and her eyes settle out on the lawn. She looked up at the sky, “It’s so goddam hot, not a cloud… at least it won’t be one of those rainy funerals you see in the movies.”

She glanced at me quickly and said, “I know this is like almost too much to handle. You probably don’t even want to be involved.” I told her I would be there for whatever she needed, when she blurted, “Then there is my mother. She is an absolute mess. I am not even sure I should leave her like this. Who will take care of her?” Lara took another shot then sighed, “Do you remember my dog, Murphy? Of course you do.” I followed her through a short, narrow hallway that opened up to a dining area and the back porch. In the yard, Murphy slowly lifted his neck and head, stood and tried to move slowly towards the house before he was yanked into a seated position by the rope, still wagging his tail.

“Remember, Murphy, my father’s golden retriever?  He is very friendly, too friendly sometimes. I stay away from him because his stupid fur gets on everything. And, look, we’re both wearing black, so you know what I mean. You don’t have to touch him.”

I followed her back through the house and to the driveway. She shook the deadbolt and said, “Just make sure this is locked, okay? My mom really does think the place will get robbed, even though I told her she’s crazy.”

I stood at the front door, watching Lara move lightly, almost skipping, down the stairs, the path, onto the driveway and into the backseat of the car with her mother and brother, who sat looking straight ahead. I turned the deadbolt and looked through the window, catching my reflection in the glass. Lara’s home was full of mirrors, and glass and other shiny things.

The house was cold with air conditioning, like they were trying to keep all the flowers alive in a big refrigerator. I went through and touched the arrangements of lilies, tulips, the layering of leaves and the dusting of baby’s breath, scattered in vases and pots, lining the stairwell, the mantle, and the kitchen table.

I picked up a stack of cards left on the counter. I opened the first and read a note that ended, “Our deepest sympathies.” The next card was painted with butterflies and inside, “Terribly sorry about your loss.” Next to the cards there were a few frames containing pictures of Lara’s father and their family. They looked contained, happy and safe.

I wondered if she needed him, now that he was gone.
I poured red wine into a small cup and took small steps towards the stairwell, careful not to spill on the Oriental rugs that lined the bright hardwood floors. I held on to the banister and took slow steps towards the second floor, the house still and quiet, except for the wood creaking and the sound of my socks grazing the carpet.

I opened the door to Lara’s room and stepped inside. She left her suitcase on the floor. Her clothes were folded neatly in stacks and organized into different compartments for underwear and shampoo and other things that you would need to make a long trip. I sprayed the perfume. Her bag smelled like the mall.

Except for her suitcase, the room was the same, the pink striped bedspread, the wide mirror with pictures of Lara with friends and boyfriends. Her mother had framed and hung the newspaper articles and pictures of Lara on the stage. Her teeth were always so white, her smile, always resilient, like she could smile at anything, anything at all.

In Lara’s parents’ room, her father’s suits laid in a pile.  I ran my fingers over the cool wool and pulled them together into a neat stack. The room was a mess and the bed was unmade, like the living was left undone. From the window, you could see the pool and gazebo in the backyard. I caught my reflection again before I saw that Murphy was tangled in his leash and panting in the sun.

I pretended I was an actress like Lara, stepping lightly down the steps, my arms held wide and neck and shoulders straight, careful not to spill the wine. Outside, Murphy’s leash was wrapped around the plants that lined a shed. Holding his collar, I unclipped the rope and like a snake, it uncoiled from the branches. He licked the dripping water from my finger tips before I set the bowl in the shade.

I looked at the pool and then around the fenced backyard. I remember the way Lara sprawled on the floating mattresses, tanning her long limbs, her eyes closed while she talked about her plans, “I am going to have a house like this someday, only bigger,” she explained, “And I will have a maid every day, not just once a week.”

I waded down the steps into my knees, then pulled up the dress up over my head and tossed it on the grass, until I was standing alone, naked, except for my underwear. The water was cold, but I sunk slowly, my body warming the water that settled over my chest, then my neck and chin. Before I put my head under, I heard Murphy bark.

The water reached below my nose, and I sunk deeper as I watched a hand reach over the gate, and unlatch it from the outside. A man entered, reached down to pet Murray, opened the door to the shed, and stepped inside. He looked a few years older than me, weathered, his face unshaven. I remembered what Lara said, “Everyone we know will be at the funeral.” Before the man saw me, I swam to the edge of the pool, quickly climbed out and pulled the black sundress back over my head. My body was wet and the cotton dress clung to my body. I stood at the opening of the shed, watching the man digging around in the dark.

Before he looked up, I asked him what he was doing and if I could help him find something. He turned around abruptly, “Holy shit, man!” When he asked who I was, I told him I was a friend of Lara’s and that I was watching the house. He shrugged, then nodded, “I’ll be quick,” he said and kept digging. I squeezed the water from the ends of my hair.

He looked nervous and then said, “I came to grab a couple things,” then held up a fishing pole and then a tackle box, “These are mine. Jack borrowed them from me.” He started moving more hastily and pushed past me, holding the fishing pole and the box under his arm and I stepped back, while he latched the shed door behind him.

I asked him who he was. “It doesn’t matter,” he answered, “And, you don’t need to tell them I came by. I just wanted to grab this without disrupting anything.” His hair was messy and his face dark, like he worked in the sun all day.  He was walking back up towards the gate when I stopped him and asked him his name.

“My name? Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter to you. My name is Rylan. I’m a friend of Jacks.” He looked agitated and started walking up the path and towards the fence, “See ya,” he lifted his hand to wave, but he was still holding the fishing pole. While he struggled with the latch, I asked him if he knew Lara.

“Lara? You mean Jack’s daughter?” he asked. “I know he has a daughter, but I never met her.” I told him that Lara was my best friend and that I was watching the house for the family while they were at the funeral. I asked if he knew about the funeral.

“I did,” he said, like he didn’t want to talk about it. He was still trying to unlatch the hinge with one hand, when I asked if he wanted to stay for a drink.

If I had a house like Lara’s, I would always invite friends for drinks.

“You’re quite the houseguest aren’t you?” he laughed.  He looked at me confused, “A drink, huh? Suppose I could do that. I wasn’t sure where to go today. I was just going to go fishing, but it’s too hot now.” He said again, “I really don’t know where to go today.  I don’t think the fish will be biting anyway.” I asked what kind of drink he liked and he said, “I’ll take a cold one if you’ve got it.”

I knew that meant he wanted a beer.

I ran up the steps into the kitchen and found the bottles of beer in the back of the refrigerator. When I returned, Rylan was sitting on the lawn, resting on one elbow and petting Murphy. His cargo shorts sagged and I could see his boxers and a tan line where his real skin, his whiter skin, began. I handed him the bottle and he popped the lid off with a tool from his pocket.

I sat down next to him, my dress was wet and covered in Murphy’s fur. I tried to wipe it off, remembering that Lara said. We were both quiet until Rylan said, “Watching the home while they are at the funeral, huh?” he looked at me and raised his eyebrows, “There are definitely stranger things.” He held up the beer bottle, “Cheers,” he paused, “To Jack.” His bottle tapped my cup and we took a drink and swallowed at the same time. The wine burned my throat.

When it was quiet again, I asked him why he wasn’t at the funeral. “I wasn’t expecting to go,” he told me. Then he asked, “Why didn’t you go?”

I told him that Lara and I were best friends and that she wanted me to take care of some things here instead. “Didn’t she want you at the funeral with her?” he asked. I told him that some friends are so old, you depend on them, even when they are not around. 

“I guess so. Jack and I were fishing buddies. We met a few years ago when I moved out to the lake. You can get to know a man pretty well out there on a boat. Whether he is patient, forgiving, kind,” he paused, “Mean or aggressive, or deceitful, you know? But Jack, he was good. He was a calm man. Patient. A hell of a fisherman.”  He told me that Jack visited him out on the lake. That he used to make weekend escapes to get away from it all.

“That’s how he met my mom. She was an artist. A sculptor. They both were artists though. Jack liked to work with his hands. He was a surgeon, but he was also a carpenter. A damned good one. You should see the work he did on my mother’s home. Her cabinets, built a new porch, a gazebo, better than this one,” he pointed with the bottle of beer, “He was very talented.” Rylan got quiet and started picking up pebbles and throwing them into the fence. Murphy was watching his hands, waiting for them to give him attention.

“You can really hide out on the lake,” Rylan said. “That’s why Jack liked it. He had his privacy, but still, everyone knew his name. He wasn’t the same man he was in the city. He made a different life.” I told him that Lara had made a different life too, but hers was in a new city.

“I never told you the reason I didn’t go,” Rylan said.  “You never asked why I didn’t to go to the funeral.” I thought that he just didn’t like funerals.

Some people don’t like funerals.

“I wouldn’t be welcome there,” he said, looking out over the pool, which was flat like glass, except for the jets that blew over the surface. “There is a reason,” his face tightened, like a knot in a string. He didn’t say anything and was quiet until I asked him.

“Jack had an affair with my mom.  His wife found out a couple months ago and then the whole family found out.” I thought that maybe Lara didn’t know because she was in New York, maybe she had been away so long. I told him that I have known Lara for years, and she would have told me if she knew.

“The whole family knows, but they aren’t saying anything. They’re calling her a crazy person and trying to keep it all quiet. Calling her a crazy person. A crazy patient. But she wasn’t. She was in love.”

He kept talking, “Jack and I met one night at the tavern and he would come over and take the boat out with me. He and my mom, you know, first they would just talk, you know. Then he would stay late for dinner and drinks. Then he would say he was out fishing with me and I would cover for him. Everyone in the family blames me because Jack was my friend. His family found out and there were threats, and he tried to cut it off, and then, my mom snapped.”

I asked him what he knew about Lara. “Jack talked about her all the time. Said she was a big star. Doing this, doing that. Sounded like a pain in the ass. He was always sending her money and sometimes he complained about her. She was ungrateful. Thought she would have been happier with a simple life.” I asked if he would like a girl like her.

“Don’t think I need a girl like that,” he laughed. I asked him if he had wanted to go to the funeral.

“Nah. And, Jack wouldn’t care. We weren’t like that. He knows what I think of him. I’ll always remember him the way he was. I really knew him, you know? Not the way that your family knows you. The way you can be when no one is looking or expecting things. When you can be yourself and know that the person you are with doesn’t give a shit about who you were, what you’ve done, because they know what they’ve done. People are not that complicated, but a real person is something you kind of see in a flash. Like, if you watch a stranger eat, you can really see them, but only for a second, you know? Sometimes when you get too close, you forget that. That’s what happened with my mom. She wanted too much. She stopped seeing him for who he was. Maybe she couldn’t see herself anymore either.”

I told Rylan that Lara only asked me to watch the house because everyone else she knew would be at the funeral.  “Maybe she doesn’t know you anymore, but she still trusts you. That is a compliment,” he said. Then, we both agreed it was better we didn’t have to stand in the hot sun wearing black.


Everyone came busting through the front door at once. They were talking about what a lovely service it was, how many friends Lara’s father had and how many people respected him in the community.  People walked past me, as if I had been with them the whole time. “He knew everybody and never hurt anyone. That’s why they loved him so much,” Lara said.

It had been hours since Rylan left. He wanted to come in the house and look at pictures he had never seen. We pulled out old boxes of pictures and I showed him Lara’s room. He went in the office and looked at Lara’s dad’s chair and the certificates hanging on the wall, “He was quite impressive, right? I wish I had a Dad like that.” While we walked through the house, he drank three more beers, getting kind of fidgety, “Thanks for letting me in,” he said, “I always wanted to see what Jack’s other life had been like.” Then it was time to go. I told him I understood and promised to keep quiet.

Lara’s relatives and friends were trickling into the kitchen and making their way to the counter, picking through the food and digging through the fridge, just like Lara and I used to do after school. I asked how she was feeling and if she wanted to talk.

“It’s been a really long day. A long day, you know? I am not sure I have anything left to say.” I wanted her to tell me about the affair, that she was embarrassed, that her father had betrayed her. I wanted her to tell me how long it had been going on and that she was mad at him. I already knew. I wanted her to tell me, to let me back in.

I was a part of it now.

I wanted to keep Rylan’s secret, but I wanted to keep a secret for Lara too. I glanced over and watched her mother pulling Saran wrap from over a casserole, organizing the food on the counter and helping her guests in the kitchen. Then she poured a glass of wine. I asked Lara if her mother had forgiven her father.

Lara’s head tilted and she asked, “What do you mean?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

I wanted her to tell me first.

She asked again, “What are you saying?” I said that I thought maybe his patient wasn’t just a patient. Then, I asked her what would make a woman do that.

Lara smoothed her hair and took me by the hand, “Look, we’ll catch up someday, I promise. Now, I have to clean up this place and try to help my mother. Thanks again for doing this,” she said standing up, as if to walk me out.

When we got to the front door, I paused and asked her again if there was anything she wanted to tell me. She told me to stop being weird and then asked, “Do you know something?” I asked her if there was something she wanted me to know.

She took me to the front porch, and sat with me in the old swing, her hand in mine, as she looked me in the eyes and said, “Stevie, this is important. If you know something, I need you to tell me.” This was the same expression I remembered, when we shared things. I remember how she used to look at me, when she needed me to listen.  I shrugged and said that I would listen if she wanted me to, but that I didn’t know anything.

“Okay, this is the thing... And you have to cross your heart and hope to die you never say anything. Like when we were kids. This is serious,” she said. She told me the story about the affair, and how her mother had suspected it for years, and how the whole family had kept it quiet on account of her father’s reputation. Then one day her mother couldn’t take it anymore, and she threatened to leave. So her father tried to cut it off, and that’s when she went into his office and shot him.

“Look it doesn’t change anything really. It’s still murder. First or second degree, I don’t care, he’s already dead. The important thing is that we don’t tell. This is a family secret. Can you keep a secret for me, Stevie?”

I didn’t tell Lara that I met Rylan, or that he came over. I didn’t tell her that I let Rylan take the fishing pole and the tackle box out of the shed. I didn’t tell her that we went through her family photographs, or that I let Rylan take some of the old pictures of Jack. I also didn’t tell her that I took the perfume from out of her bag.

I didn’t have to tell her, because she told me first.

I told her that I could keep a secret. I told her that I would always be there for her and that if she ever needed me, I was there. Then she told me it was time to leave and that she had to help her mother inside. After she gave me a hug, and brushed her lips on my cheek, she said “But remember what I said Stevie. Cross your heart and hope to die, just like when we were kids.” I agreed. I agreed not to tell anyone. I had always kept Lara’s secrets. We were best friends.