The next morning, I was slugging extra bold coffee when the doorbell rang. I dragged ass to the door. Embeth stood on the front stoop, still in the black silk skirt she’d worn to my party the night before.
“Are you okay?” I asked, holding the door open for her.
We were both part of the lit crowd but neither of us took it seriously. Embeth was a doctoral student in the same department where I was an adjunct. We crossed paths at readings. Once in a while we went out for drinks at one of the hipster bars around Cambridge.
Nothing about her indicated to me that something was wrong. Seriously wrong.
That’s why I introduced Embeth to Stephan at my party. No big deal, right? He was thirty years older than her and three inches shorter, an awkward dork. He rented a room from Paul, my favorite cousin and the divorced father of five who took in other recently divorced men to help pay the mortgage on his huge house in the ‘burbs.
So I couldn’t believe it when Embeth disappeared at midnight with geeky Stephan.
Still waiting for an answer, I poured her a cup of Colombian and led her out to the back patio. Overhead, a cardinal swooped past, then settled in a flowering dogwood tree.
“Did you have fun last night?” I asked.
She sipped her coffee and stared at me, her eyes inscrutable. “I liked him. He was sweet. But where he lived was too crowded. All those lonely men?” She made a face. “I couldn’t relax enough to, well, you know.”
I didn’t. I was always that relaxed. But I nodded, passed her a plate of leftover pot brownies. She shook her head. Her hair hadn’t been brushed, but it caught the sunlight in a way that made it look like burnished maple.
“I need someone I can trust. To help me,” she said. “I’ve got a problem at my place. Stephan and I, well, we couldn’t sleep together there either.”
I didn’t know what to say. What did she mean? What was wrong with her apartment? Whatever it was, she looked distraught. And sheepish. Ashamed of something.
“Can you come over?” she asked, chewing on her index finger.
I shrugged. Why not? I was curious. After I changed into a sweatshirt and a pair of baggy shorts, she drove us across town.
Embeth lived in a mundane brick duplex, tucked in a tight network of student housing. As I followed her up the sidewalk, she said, “Promise me this will be kept confidential.”
“If you have a dead body in there, count me out,” I joked.
“I wish it were that simple,” she said with a grimace.
For some reason, this gave me a chill.
She unlocked the front door, then turned to me. Her eyes were skittish. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
I smiled my encouragement. How bad could it be?
Very bad, as it turned out. She’d built her own bomb shelter, and it was threatening to blow her up.
At first glance, Embeth’s apartment seemed nice. Clean, neat, minimalist. Fruit in a wooden bowl. A print by Escher on the wall. I didn’t see the problem.
She tipped her head toward a closed door. “It’s the bedroom. I can’t even sleep in there anymore. I have to sleep out here, on the couch.”
As I followed her to the bedroom door, I pictured Stephan’s naked body splayed across her bone white sheets. His head thrown back in the ecstasy of a sex overdose. What had she done, fucked him to death?
“Don’t think I’m a freak,” she said. “Once I got in too deep, there was no going back.”
Now I was imagining a fetish palace. Young girls tied to bunk beds, part of a sex trafficking ring. Fur-lined handcuffs, leather whips, and a live web feed.
I held my breath when Embeth opened the door, my heart lurching. Then I stood there for a moment, the wind escaping me in a whoosh. What the hell?
Floor to ceiling, the room was covered. Splashed everywhere you looked.
Messy piles stretched to every corner. Hardbacks. Paperbacks. Textbooks. Wine encyclopedias. Car repair manuals. Rimbaud. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Jackie Collins.
“Library books,” Embeth told me in a hushed voice. “Overdue library books. I’m banned from most of the libraries in the area. That’s why I’m in the doctoral program. So I can use the university library. Until they ban me too.”
The room smelled like my grandmother’s attic. Musty. Aging. Sad. I sneezed.
She shut the door.
Returning all those books would be a daunting process, but it could be done. After I agreed to help her, she drove me home.
At work the next day, I received a text from Embeth: Not going to need your help. Thanks for being such a good friend.
A few days later, Paul called. “Nice work hooking up Stephan with that friend of yours. He’s moved out and left me with a room to fill.”
“What? Where did he go?”
“No idea,” my cousin said. “But he sure fell hard for that chick. One of my other tenants said they packed up her car with his shit and drove off.”
Embeth, it turned out, had withdrawn from the doctoral program. She’d vacated her apartment. No forwarding address.
That evening, I sat in my car watching the movers schlep box after box out of Embeth’s old place. Three muscular men in wife-beaters squeezed the load into the back of a van from the women’s shelter on Mass Ave. Made me think about how any action, repeated in the fullness of time, can create its own kind of explosive. And how fragile our shelters really are.
The next day, a for rent sign appeared on the lawn in front of Embeth’s former apartment. I saw it there on my way to the university library for a seminar on Mickey Spillane.