The Two Lindas
By Meredith Sue Willis
Winner of the Chaffin Journal Fiction Award 2001
Chilly and damp, I huddled at the corner of Second Avenue and Tenth Street trying to get signatures on a petition demanding that the United States arm the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dampness gave the wind a nasty edge, and I have always hated drawing attention to myself in public places. I teach my classes in a circle, whether the section has ten or fifty students. Even when I was a student activist, I tried to stay out of the vanguard. Once I went on a picket line at a Met Foods store that was selling nonunion grapes, and - as if to prove my point that getting noticed is dangerous - an obese but quick woman grabbed the placard sign I was wearing and ripped it off my neck. I still have a scar from the rope burn.
My roommate at the time, Linda McTeal, was fascinated by that scar. She wanted to touch it. She wished it had been her body that had been scarred.
I was not thinking of Linda that day as I stood on the corner with my clipboard. I was thinking how one more name would make two dozen, and then I would go home and have tea. For my final signature, I chose a well-dressed woman walking toward me with a sleek haircut and a little girl. I set myself in a position to intersect her path, then felt the quiver of recognition. The woman in the uptown outfit was Linda McTeal. I last saw her face on television almost twenty years ago as she was being led into a courthouse for trial. Today, her coat, pumps, and opaque stockings were all the same dark magenta color, as was the velvet collar of the little girl's picture-perfect princess coat. I was wearing a bulky denim jacket. I had gray in my hair and spots on my glasses.
I stepped in her way. "Linda?"
Her face pressed in close. "Linda?" she said. "Is that you, Linda?"
We had been an amazing, amusing coincidence: Two Lindas, same friends, same apartment, same politics, me scaled slightly larger, but enough alike to be repeatedly mistaken for each other.
"My god," she said. "Linda! Where have you been?"
"Here. I never left."
"You've been in New York all along? I can't believe it." She extended her arms and embraced me with a brief, precise, decisiveness. Like her haircut. I held myself stiff around my clipboard. "Melly, look!" she said. "This is Aunt Linda. This is Mommy's oldest friend."
What chutzpah, I thought. Aunt Linda indeed. We had been so closely identified that they arrested me when she tried to blow up the approach ramp to the bridge half an hour too soon for the governor's limousine. One day we were discussing whether a pacifist could support national liberation armies, and the next day, she moved into what she called an action-oriented communal living situation. Just strapped on her combat boots and left me shocked and bereft, especially when Bedrosian followed her.
Linda said to the little girl, "Look, Melly-Liss, baby, Aunt Linda has a petition. Aunt Linda is still doing political work. What's it about?"
"The Balkans," I said, "but it's too late to do any good. I waited too long. You would have taken a position when it might have made a difference. You always knew."
She shrugged. "I pretended. Having a child has made me realize how ignorant I am about most of the practical things in life."
The little girl was wonderful: grave, intense, face turning to each speaker in turn. I said, "She's very lovely."
"She's my little double!" Linda dipped down and gave the child the same enthusiastic but somehow formal hug she had given me. "This is so amazing, you know. You're the same as you always were."
"You mean I still part my hair in the middle and wear denim? You've had a complete makeover."
She laughed. "Several times. But you were the one who took clothes seriously. I just found the shortest cut to looking whatever part: revolutionary, corporate success. This outfit is Public Relations." She opened her hands to show off her identity. "Conservative but subtly creative."
She was smiling at me, giving me permission to be amused. I said, "You look untouched by time."
"My hair's been gray for years. I went gray in prison, and then I was out on the Coast, and after a while I figured out how you have to look to make a living doing PR."
The little girl had stopped rotating her face. She chose to watch me.
I said, "I have a daughter too."
"May I play with her, please?"
"She's grown up, honey. She's twenty."
"Twenty!" said Linda. "Twenty! Lissa is three. Melisandre is her actual name. I call her Melly, Lissa, Melly-Liss. Even Sandra sometimes. Melly, my sweetheart, Aunt Linda is someone Mama knew incredibly long ago."
"We're both named Linda," I told her.
The little girl said, "I have a Melly and a Sandra."
"She makes up friends. I did it, too. When you're an only child, you do that. Did you?"
"I wasn't an only."
"That's right! You had a sister!"
"I still do."
"You had a mother and a sister and a father! I remember! I remember everything! I wanted to be in your family. When I met you, it was like having a secret friend come alive. Aunt Linda and I did everything the same, Lissa. If Aunt Linda got a floppy brimmed hat, Mommy got a floppy brimmed hat. If she went to demonstrations, I went to demonstrations!"
"Funny," I said. "I remember you being the leader."
"The way it worked was, I tried to figure out what you would do, then I would do it first. Don't you remember? I had never even heard of Vietnam when I emerged from the ooze of Indiana to go to college. Nobody believes me now, but I didn't even know there was a war on."
"Everyone was demonstrating-"
"Not me! That's the point. I made up for lost time, of course. I have a tendency to go to extremes."
Again I wondered: Doesn't she remember? Doesn't she have any idea how I feel about her? The gray rain clouds were gathering over the canyon of Second Avenue. I realized I wanted something from her, maybe to see if her surface was as smooth and hard as it appeared. I said, "Listen, Linda, come over to the apartment for tea."
"Sure, right now. The chance may never come again."
"We'd exchange phone numbers-"
"And do lunch. Yeah, right. Come over now."
Her smile faded. "Melly and I were going to spend the day together."
"Quality time?" I was feeling nasty, scraping at her enamel with my thumbnail.
"I suppose it would be an opportunity for me to pick your brains about mothering. Do you want to have an adventure, Melly-Lissa?"
"You have to sign my petition first. I promised myself I'd get two dozen signatures before I quit. Will you?"
"Don't you want to know what it's for?"
She took the clipboard and pen. "You said the Balkans. All those mass graves."
"It favors selling arms to the Bosnians. I went through a lot about this, trying to decide if I was really in favor of arming anyone, even for self-defense- "
"I can't make myself focus on politics anymore. I trust you." She signed. She was like my sister, living for self and family. Who cares? said my sister when my mother and I argued. It's the nineties. They're going to kill each other till they're tired of it, with or without guns from us.
I shoved the clipboard into my bag. "My mother and I had a big fight about this."
"How is your mother?"
"She's fine, except for not speaking to me because of this petition. She's still in the War Resisters League. She's working on her fifty year pin." I pointed at the crosswalk: we had the light. I knew I should ask about Linda's mother. She used to tell appalling stories about her mother's mental illness. Bipolar disorder? Schizophrenia?
Melisandre flattered me by taking my hand as we started to walk. I said, "I still keep Emma's rocking horse. Would you like to ride it?"
"Is it made out of wooden?"
"It's wooden with a mane of silk yarn."
"May I ride it, Mama?"
"Sure, baby," said Linda. We crossed the street, passed the steamy windowed coffee shop with the people inside doing warm things. "Will we get to meet your daughter?"
"No, she's at college."
I was having the strange sensation that the little girl holding my hand was mine, not Linda's. I wanted a little girl again.
Linda said, "You have to tell me everything! Who you married- everything!"
"Emma is Bedrosian's daughter, Linda."
"Oh God. You were pregnant, weren't you?"
Determined that she should remember exactly, I said, "Yes. When you walked out on me, I was pregnant with Bedrosian's kid."
"You knew, and you still got him involved in that nonsense with the mad bombers."
"He wasn't in on the planning. He just came along at the last minute to protect me. I should have thought of you, but I was totally in my own head."
"I was focused on explosives. Those assholes I was with had all these plans and no idea where to get explosives. I was the one who figured out to look it up in the yellow pages under construction supplies. Do you believe that? And then they couldn't figure out how to place them to do any damage. Bedrosian wasn't a part of it at all, not till the end. He was such a gentleman. He tried to take the rap for me. Do you still see him?"
"Sometimes. He lives on a farm upstate. We lived together for a while when he got out of prison, but it didn't work. He got out before you."
"I was in for seven years," she said. "That is so completely over. My speciality, you know, leaving things behind."
We passed a black cat with white feet sleeping in the window of a dark boutique, not open yet. I pointed it out to Melisandre. "If you specialize in throwing things out, then maybe you shouldn't come for tea."
"I never meant to throw you out, Linda. One of my few keepsakes is a photo of us, you and me and Bedrosian."
"He lives with a woman and her kids. He still has a pony tail."
"He would. And you never married someone else? One thing about our generation, we didn't make a fetish of wedding bands, did we? I'm not married to her father, either. He's with a big Italian architectural firm. I was doing their New York publicity when I met him. I use his name on my business cards: Linda Rossi."
"McTeal is too notorious?"
"Hardly. It's amazing how few people remember. This is the United States of Network News. I use his name because, oh, because it's Melly's name, because of the condo. He's only here a few months a year. He has another family in Italy." She described the apartment he had bought and designed for her: a studio with a separate entrance for him, an office for her. Glass brick, imported tiles and fixtures.
We crossed Avenue A and walked along the park I said, "I hope you're not expecting imported tile in the apartment. It's fixed up, but it's still a tenement at heart."
Linda was looking around. Wet black trees, more boutiques, still a few bikers and junkies around, but everything cleaner than when she lived here. She said, "You don't mean you still live in the apartment?"
"I told you, I never left."
"The absolute same apartment where we-"
"Had orgies on the bearskin rug? Cooked spaghetti for the huddled masses? That's it."
"You've lived there all this time?"
"I told you, it's fixed up. Very middle class. No tub in the kitchen, exposed brick."
She dropped back a few steps. Melisandre said, "Melly and Sandra would like to ride too."
I said, "Are they girls like you?"
"Melly is a girl, and Sandra is a teddy. I have a gold fish too. Once Sandra stuck his paw in the water but Melly told me and I pulled it out."
Linda grabbed me by the shoulder. "Rosie's Luncheonette! Not the same old Rosie, is it?"
"Rosie's daughter Rosie. The old Rosie died three or four years ago. They still make the best heroes. I raised Emma on Rosie's heroes."
"I assumed it was gone. I mean, this is New York. They tear it down and rebuild it every two years. Melly!" She dragged her away from me. "Look, Melly! Mama used to get sandwiches in that store." She picked her up in her arms and pressed their cheeks together. Melisandre's legs dangled in front of the window hung with plastic salamis and garlics like vertical blinds.
Four doors farther was the apartment. Linda carried Melisandre the rest of the way. The first floor has window boxes now, but the geraniums froze out. In the vestibule, the mailboxes are as beat-up as ever, name tags never standardized, flyers from Chinese restaurants papering the floor, but we have new wall-to-wall industrial now instead of the strip carpet we used to stumble on. New paint in the stairwell, but the steps still slant to the east.
While I fumbled in my bag for the key, Melisandre said, "Why is it old?"
"The building? Because it has been here so long. This house is older than you, older than me or your Mommy. It tells stories, this building."
"Yeah, well, some of the stories aren't for children. Some are."
I found the key, but kept my fist in the bag a little longer. What was soaking in the sink? What was in the refrigerator? Did I really want Linda McTeal in my home again?
The kitchen is open to the living room. Even when the floor used to be littered with sleeping people - when I would wake hung over and depressed by the disarray - there had always been a miraculous morning light that made me feel like everything might be okay after all. We used to try to start marijuana plants, but they failed for lack of soil. Avocado seeds did better. The little trees would get knocked over at night, and I'd pick them up in the morning.
"Well?" I said. "Does it look bigger or smaller? I never realized how spacious it was till I threw out all your stuff. And all your friends too."
She was frozen with her eyes huge.
I filled the kettle and put it on the stove. Melisandre went to the rocking horse and stopped in front of it. "Oh!" she cried. "Oh!'
"Go ahead, honey," I said. "The horse has been waiting for a little girl."
She embraced its neck.
"Get on, you can ride it. Do you need help?"
She climbed on. Settled herself, lifted her chin, raised her hands out at an angle to hold imaginary reins, and started to rock: brief, precise rocks, using her shoulders and upper body.
Meanwhile, as I put teabags in the pot, Linda circled the table then looped into the living room. She touched my red couch, stepped on the oriental carpet I'd bought with money from my first paycheck at the college. She fingered the sheer curtain. She pointed at the exposed brick wall. "You took down the posters."
"Jimi Hendrix and Che Guevara."
"So? Do you still have posters of Jimi Hendrix on your wall?"
"They hung right there."
"I ripped them down," I said. "I ripped them down when I found out what you had done. After I spent the night in jail because they thought I was you, I came back, and Bedrosian called and said he was running away with you, and I stripped this place down to nothing. I threw out the mattresses and the bear skin rug, and I threw out the Mateus bottles with candles- I threw it all out, Linda, every bit of it: bong pipes and incense burners and antique fur pieces and roach holders-"
"Okay, okay. I get it." She stopped at the little desk in the corner. "But you kept our golden oak secretary."
We had found it, she and I, at a second hand shop on Twenty-Third Street, propped on a stack of water-damaged Playboy magazines. It cost forty dollars, an enormous amount of money then, but it would have cost much more with all four lithe and graceful antelope legs.
"It's the only thing I saved. I threw out all the rest. Curbside in boxes. The street people had a field day."
"Why did you keep the secretary?"
"It's a good piece of furniture. We only bought it a week before you moved in with the mad bombers. I never understood why you would invest in something like that when you were about to leave."
"I didn't know I was leaving." She came so close, it was as if she were about to kiss me. I could see the perimeter between the too-brown blush on her cheeks and the pinker makeup below it. She had dark hairs on her upper lip. I didn't want her to touch me, but I didn't want to step back, either. "I was floating back then. I changed every day. The only thing that grounded me, the only thing I was good at, was sex."
She and I had done it one time, on the bear skin, when no one else was in the apartment. A lot of kissing and nuzzling. We were high, and I think I wanted to make her mine- wanted to make us all each other's- the way she thought Bedrosian was hers because he was mine.
The kettle started to whistle. I turned away. "All that fucking," I said. "The boys blackmailed us all the time: Don't be uptight, baby. I threw them out too. I just wanted it quiet here. I wanted it quiet for Emma. I wasn't sure about much, but I was sure I didn't want Emma to grow up with that hysterical sex and drugs."
Linda followed me around the kitchen: stove, table, back to the stove. "Linda," she said, "I need help with the baby. I don't know how to do it."
Melisandre was on the horse with a look on her face as if she had rocked into another dimension.
"Sit down and drink your tea." I poured it into little Chinatown cups with no handles. It was weak, but I don't think she noticed. "Listen, if you want the secretary, take it. I've had it for twenty years, you take it for the next twenty."
"I don't want your furniture. Did Bedrosian carve the new leg?"
"Who do you think? He made the rocking horse too. What does Melisandre want? Cookies?"
"She doesn't eat sweets. I know that much: sugar is bad for her." When I snorted, she said, "You think sugar doesn't matter?"
"It matters, but you have to choose your battles. Junk food always wins."
"You see? You see how wise you are? You had a mother to model yourself after."
"It's true! You have your mother and your sister. You talk to Bedrosian. I only have new lives. My pasts- all filed away."
"Everyone's life is filed away."
She shook her head. "For you, it's a metaphor. For me, it's quite literal. My mother is now put away permanently. The last time I called, they told me she probably had Alzheimer's. You wouldn't think you could get Alzheimer's on top of schizophrenia, would you? I have this terror that I'm going to pass down the craziness. Not genetically so much as psychologically. I feel it all around me. I need help with Lissa."
"Who is Lissa?" I said. "You have too many goddam nicknames for her."
"You see! You put your finger right on things. I should cut down on nicknames. How many is okay? Two? One? None? What else should I do? I need help."
"Not from me."
"Listen, Linda, I get an impulse to run away."
I glanced at Melisandre. "Maybe you shouldn't talk in front of her."
"You think I expose her to too much? I need advice. I need a model. She's the first person in my life who I'm stuck with. I want her to have a good childhood with a mother who is with her, physically and psychologically."
She waved her hand. "I don't know how to hold my lives together. Carlo doesn't even know I was an activist. If it ever came up, he'd get turned on and want to make love. But it never comes up because it's filed. Filed and in storage."
"Also in storage that you tried to kill someone?"
"The governor? Oh, Linda, it wasn't some random shit. He deserved to die."
"Deserved to die!"
"Deserved some kind of punishment. For the people he killed at Attica prison. But if it makes you feel better, I wouldn't do it now."
"Because you think it's wrong or because you don't care anymore or because you're in Public Relations and work for people like the governor?"
"I'm glad I'm not responsible for someone's death, but I don't care very much. It has nothing to do with me. It's over. He's dead now anyhow. But mothering, Linda, mothering goes on and on. I mean, I look at her and I think, she's three, and then she'll be four and five, and then she'll be ten and then she'll get her period. I see all these years marching at me, and I want to get away. I have this idea. Tell me what you think. I'm considering moving to a little town in New England. I love New England. Have you ever been to Stockbridge? Norman Rockwell painted it. He lived there and painted it. Tell me what you think."
She is crazy, I thought, looking at her face. Behind her, rocking, Melisandre had the same face. Even if she'd killed the Governor, it would be over for her. She looked so young, I thought, because she was always at the beginning. "There's no perfect place, Linda. There are happy children in New England and unhappy ones. There are happy children in the city and unhappy ones."
"But some places are better than others, aren't they? Everything isn't equal to everything else. There must be a right place, a place that will make it easier for me to raise her."
"I doubt it. But you don't create connectedness by cutting loose from the connections you have."
She grimaced. "Carlo's apartment- did you ever live in the middle of a minimalist experiment? It's so un-child-friendly that I feel like I should hide her toys. But, Linda, I was thinking- I have no right to ask-"
"I want her to be less crazy than I am. It would be a tremendous help if you would let her visit."
"I don't want to be friends with you, Linda. I brought you over here because I wanted to- I don't know- see your reaction."
She sipped tea. "That's cool."
"You dropped us all-"
"I was in jail."
I had thought she was beautiful and passionate, and all the time she was an empty chamber in a revolver, waiting for someone to pop in the bullet and take off the safety catch. I said, "You decide on the spur of the moment that you want a family for her like you want a suit by a certain designer."
"That's not true. I'm looking for a way to stay. Not to run away. You said I should stay."
"I'm not your advisor! You shouldn't trust my advice, anyhow. I am about as close to hating you as I've ever been to hating anyone."
"I understand. That's cool."
"Will you stop saying that!"
"I trust you, Linda. You can't help who you are. However you feel about me, I trust you. I see it now: that business about New England, it's all image, a bad idea, Christmas card stuff. I'll stay in the city. It's as good as any other place, right? I'll stay if you agree to be in her life. You don't have to see me. All I'm asking is, would you be willing, from time to time-"
"No, don't be stupid! I have a full-time nanny, a treasure. I don't need babysitting for her, I need connections! I just want you, once a month, every other month- as rarely as you choose- I just want you to be- Aunt Linda."
"You fucked up my life. I wasn't damaged in the long run, but at one time you fucked me up very, very badly."
"You don't have to see me. I'll have the nanny bring her to you. I'm only asking for Melissa."
"What's her name?"
"Your daughter! If you'll pick one actual nickname, then I might think about it."
"I always called her different things at different times. I don't know. When she was newborn, she was like this stranger from another planet. I called her names to get used to her. Jungle Jane for the awful groans she made. Then when she started smiling, I called her Little Nose and Chubby Cheekers. When she was teething, she bit everything and I called her Jaws."
"What's her name?"
"What's her nickname?"
"Melly," I said, firmly. "On a trial basis only. I'd be Melly-short-for-Melisandre's Aunt Linda. For a little while. To see how it goes."
This is how it goes: Melisandre comes over once a week to see me. Sometimes I pick her up, usually the Nanny Treasure brings her. I see Linda as rarely as possible.
My daughter Emma loves Melly, and Melly often sleeps over when Emma is home. Emma is also charmed by Linda and doesn't see the craziness. Emma thinks that Linda is a modern woman while I'm something from another era. I tell her that Linda is an empty vessel, shiny outside and in, that reflects the images around her. Emma says at least Linda knows what to reflect. Emma also says I'm jealous because Linda has a good hair stylist.
I say Linda ruined my life.
Emma wants to take Melly to Bedrosian's farm.
Melly, of course, adores us all. She never wants to go to museums or the park. She wants only to come to the apartment. She likes the old T.V. with green faces. She decorates cookies and names the pigeons on the window sill.
Melly calls it her Old Apartment, as if she had once lived here herself.
The Chaffin Journal, Eastern Kentucky University,
Richmond, KY 40475-3102. Winner of the Fiction Award for 2001.