The Opposite of Everyone: A Novel

BOOK: The Opposite of Everyone: A Novel
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DEDICATION

With gratitude for good teachers. Here are some of mine:

Ruth Ann Replogle

Dr. Yolanda Reed

Chuck Preston

Astrid Santana

Dr. David Gushee

 

EPIGRAPH

Heartily know,

When half-gods go,

The gods arrive.


R
ALPH
W
ALDO
E
MERSON,
“Give All to Love”

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,

but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,

a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should consider—

lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.


W
ILLIAM
S
TAFFORD,

“A Ritual to Read to Each Other”

 

CHAPTER 1

I
was born blue.

If my mother hadn’t pushed me out quick as a cat, I would have been born dead and even bluer; her cord was wrapped tight around my neck. She looked at my little blue lips, my blue toes and baby fingers, and she named me after Kali. Kali Jai.

My mother was in the middle of a six-month stint in juvie for shoplifting and possession when I was born. She had thirty-six hours with me in the hospital before the state took her to finish out her sentence. My grandparents—stiff, unhappy couple that they were—got temporary custody.

Kai told them my name, but my prune-mouthed gramma filled out the paperwork. Gramma would later claim to have misheard, saying,
What I put on that birth certificate sounds like whatever that was you said, but in American.
My mother didn’t know until she was released back into her parents’ custody. By then, everyone in town was calling me Paula Jane.

You were originally named for the mother goddess who brings hope and springtime,
Kai told me often, when I was growing up. My lullabies were praise hymns—“Kali, Jai Kalika!”—sung in my mother’s smoky alto, and Kali starred in many of my bedtime tales. I’d fall asleep imagining a goddess made of sun and flowers, gold and green, and beautiful.

When I was five, I found a picture of Kali in one of my mother’s sketchbooks. Kai was drawing a series of gods in colored pencil. I recognized some of them as characters from her stories. Hard to miss Ganesha, a big-bellied fellow with an elephant’s head, dancing with his trunk curled high. And I knew Hanuman, the monkey god, leaping over the ocean with a bouquet of mountains in his hands. Then I saw my own name. Kali.

“Hope and springtime” was jet blue and savage, her skin a stark contrast to the burning city serving as her backdrop. She waved silver scimitars and torches in her many arms, standing barefoot on a dead man’s chest. Her skirt was made of human heads and hands, and her flame-red tongue was impossibly long, unfurled to swing between her naked breasts. My mother found me staring at this image, my fingers tracing the familiar letters of my own name beneath it.

Am I bad?
I asked her.

No, baby, no. Of course not.
She sat down on the floor beside me and pulled me into her lap, sketchbook and all.
You can’t think of Kali in such a Western way.
She spoke with all the authority vested in her by her flea-market prayer beads and her lotus-flower tramp stamp. She explained that in the Eastern Hemisphere—a half of the world that she had neither seen nor deeply studied—
Kali
meant “change.”

Kali destroys only to renew, to restore justice. Kali brings fresh starts,
she said. She leaned her head down over me to whisper. Her hair was long and dark, and it fell around us in a tent, smelling like campfire smoke and orange peel.
Your name literally means “Hail to the Mother,” over in India.

But I was born in Alabama. My mother invoked Kali on the black and bloody soil of the American South, and she didn’t get renewal, hope, or springtime. She got me.

And wouldn’t she be proud of me right now, if she were here? And if she were speaking to me. I was parked in front of Zach Birdwine’s house in the East Atlanta Village, stalking him, determined to force a fresh start of some kind or another. I was better at the burning part, quite frankly. I certainly wasn’t here to crawl up in his lap and ask him, sweetly,
Am I bad?

It wasn’t the kind of question I asked anymore; I was a divorce lawyer, and as such, I knew to never ask the question if I didn’t want the answer. Granted, this answer was changeable, depending on who told my story. Most clients would protest that I was the epitome of goodness, thank you, while their exes wouldn’t answer with anything printable. My friends and business partners liked me fine, but my own mother had changed her answer long ago.

To be fair, the first time I asked her, I had yet to ruin her life.

And Birdwine? When he quit me at the end of August, he’d made it plain that I was worse than bad. I was evil and he was all three monkeys. He had a paw on each ear and each eye and two clapped over his mouth. Maybe more than two over the mouth; he said he couldn’t talk to me.

I hadn’t seen that as a problem. Birdwine and I weren’t the kind who went around having swampy feelings, much less yammering about them. If he needed to talk, well, wasn’t that what AA was for? He’d known I wasn’t anybody’s priestess or therapist years before we rolled into the same bed. But one day he decided—almost randomly, it seemed to me—that he was done with me.

Well, fine. But I wasn’t done with him.

All ye gods and little fishes, stalking Zach Birdwine was dull work, though. I didn’t know how crazy people managed it, squatting in the closet of whatever movie star had caught their fancy, fondling undergarments, sniffing shoes, and waiting, waiting, waiting. I’d been here so long, I’d had to go refill my gas tank to keep the car warm. All apologies to Mother Earth, but I couldn’t properly stalk Birdwine with no heater here in February. Not unless I wanted to turn blue again.

I’d worked on a motion I was drafting until my laptop battery ran down. I’d eaten the tacos I’d gotten from the taquería across the street and all the Tic Tacs I had picked up at the gas station. I’d paid all my bills online via my iPhone, finished the book I was reading, and practically worn out my touch screen playing the sudoku app.

Now I sat stewing, staring back and forth between Birdwine’s junky bungalow and the road, willing his old Ford to come belching down the street. Maybe it already had. Maybe he’d seen my Lexus and kept right on driving. I thought of it as an anonymous kind of car, and in my neighborhood, it was. But here, on this edge of the village, gentrification was a failing work in progress. My car stuck out like a sleek, black thumb, parked between some barista-slash-musician’s little Civic and ancient Mrs. Carpenter’s crumbling heap of Buick.

Still, he had to come home sometime. He lived here, and the second bedroom was his office. So far, he’d ignored two voicemails, three emails, six texts, and a pricey muffin basket with lemon curd and local honey. Now he got me on his doorstep until he either faced me or abandoned his dog and all his worldly belongings.

The funny part was that Birdwine himself could well be sitting in his own car with a sack of tacos and a sudoku puzzle, stalking someone else. He was a private investigator; stakeouts were his bread and butter.

Perhaps the waiting is less onerous when one is being paid for it,
I thought, and then realized that I should be paid, actually. Zach Birdwine was my ex, sure, but I was a stalker-by-proxy, acting on behalf of Daphne Skopes. As soon as I got my laptop charged, I’d log these hours and add them to the huge bill she’d already run up with my partner Nick. He’d looped me in because this case had started rotten and was quickly going rancid.

It had begun when Daphne Skopes came home from a girls’ weekend in Turks and Caicos to find her husband had changed the locks and canceled her credit cards. He’d drained their joint accounts, as well.

To be fair, the other “girl” on the getaway had a Y chromosome, a silky mustache, and a place in Daphne’s bed. Her husband was not feeling reasonable, and his last settlement offer had been the title to her car. Period. No alimony, no part of the retirement accounts, no cash, and neither their house in town nor their Savannah beach house.

Bryan Skopes was trying to starve his wife, who had no real assets, into accepting any bone he cared to throw her. His role was to alternately bluster and look martyred, while his lawyer practiced obfuscation and delay. Between them they had stretched every step of these proceedings past all reason. They had botched discovery, sending partial documents or unreadably poor copies. They had filed endless motions for continuance. They had rescheduled every mediation at the last minute. Nick hadn’t even been able to get his motion for fees before a judge yet. Months had passed, the bill was deep into five figures, and our firm had yet to see a dime.

I’d watched Bryan Skopes puff and rage with gusto, then let his eyes dampen in a wounded but manly fashion. He was fully committed, going for the Oscar, but I didn’t buy his story. When we met, there had been a pulse, a moment when he ran a stealthy gaze over my body. It left a faint patina of some filth, sexual in nature, like a slime against my skin. I kept my face impassive, but inside, I’d started smiling. I’d seen his small, soft rotten patch. His weakness was women, and if I could prove it, the wronged husband act would ricochet and hurt his case. He was crafty as hell, though; Nick’s investigator had produced no evidence of extramarital activities. I needed Birdwine.

My stomach rumbled and I checked my watch. The tacos had been hours ago. If Birdwine was on a case—or if he was on a bender—he could be gone for days. So be it. I could walk down to the mom-n-pop on the corner and get a protein bar. I’d grab a rawhide chew for Birdwine’s big-ass mastiff, too, while I was at it. Looper had a dog door to get in and out, and an automatic feeder dropped his dinner every afternoon, but he’d appreciate the thought. I’d sit here all night, if I had to. I had less than three weeks before the Skopes deposition, and I needed Birdwine on it, ASAP. If only he were speaking to me, I could hire him to find himself for me.

I heard a knuckle-rap on the glass right by my head, and I jumped. I peered out to see Birdwine’s old brown leather bomber jacket and his Levi’s. I hit the button to crack the window. Birdwine was a natural mesomorph, built thick with a big, square head like Looper’s. He was tall, too, so he had to step back and bend down to see me.

I put one hand over my heart. “I didn’t see you coming.”

He shrugged as best he could, bent over. “I’m good at sneaky. It’s in the job description.”

He looked fit and clear-eyed. Wherever he had been all day, it hadn’t been a bar.

“I need to talk to you.”

“You don’t say,” he said, very dry.

“I’m serious, Birdwine. Come on. Ten minutes.”

“Well, I’d invite you in, except I hate you,” he said, but he smiled when he said it. It was his real smile, too, showing me the gap between his two front teeth.

It made me smile back, though I didn’t like the way he brought his hand up to press three fingers against his temple. I’d worked with Birdwine for almost nine years now, and I knew his signs. He’d been in AA for a decade, but it hadn’t taken. Not completely, anyway. Two or three times a year he’d drop down a boozy hole, vanishing for days.

I’d learned early to see a binge coming in his body language, in his speech, in the very air vibrating around him. His disappearing acts had never yet blown a case for me, and if they ever did, it would be on me. I knew his limits. I risked hiring him anyway, because when he was sober? No one could touch him. If there was a speck of dirt, Birdwine could find it, and I believed Bryan Skopes was hiding a whole tillable field of loamy sex-grime.

I said, “Climb in here, then. Promise it won’t take long.”

I rolled up my window and hit the unlock button for the doors. While Birdwine walked around to the passenger side, I tossed my briefcase in the back so he could sit. A blast of winter wind pushed all the heat out of the car, leaving me shivering as Birdwine folded his big body and jammed it in beside me. He started messing with the seat controls, scrolling backward, and his face looked like he was readying himself for a root canal.

I had a file on Skopes tucked in my door’s side pocket, and I passed it over to him. His eyebrows puzzled up. He flipped through a couple of pages before turning to me. He had heavy-lidded eyes, large and very dark, the kind that always looked a little sleepy. Now he slow-blinked them, not quite an eye roll, but it spoke volumes.

“This is about a job?”

“Yes,” I said. “What else?”

He started chuckling then. “I don’t know, Paula. Look at these emails.” He shifted his big body forward and fished his phone out of his back pocket. He tapped the screen and scrolled through his trash folder. “Here we go. This one is titled ‘Birdwine, we have to meet.’ And here is one titled ‘I NEED you to call me.’ ‘Need’ is in all caps, by the way.”

“Oh. I see what you mean,” I said. I hadn’t thought about the context when I’d typed those phrases. I’d written the truth, without thinking how it might read to an ex-lover. “You thought I wanted a relationship postmortem?”

“Yeah. What was I supposed to think?” he said.

Ironic, really. He’d ended it because we “couldn’t talk,” but this week he’d ignored every attempt at contact, thinking I wanted to sit down on floor cushions and light up friendship-scented incense and process our breakup over a cup of organic oolong. This from the guy who played his cards so close that when he’d ditched me, I was caught off guard; I hadn’t known we were officially a couple.

I’d thought we were one-stop shopping. We worked together often, and once, after a bad night, we’d fallen into bed together. I liked the way his big hands caught in my long tumble of shaggy black hair, liked his deep rumble of a voice. He was good, rough trade, with a hairline scar cutting through one eyebrow and a long nose that had been broken more than once. I liked its complicated, crooked path.

Once we started, we kept coming back to it. I was built tall and athletic, but his body was huge—a thick-armed, beastly thing. He could toss me to the bed like I was made of air and ribbons. It was unfamiliar and exciting, to be bent and twisted into shapes, lifted, hurled around. The sex was often my favorite kind, blunt and urgent, but then it could turn languorous, too. We’d stretch time until the sex felt almost sleepy, right up until the end. Then it wasn’t, and we’d tip each other into animal oblivion.

For months, we wore each other out nearly every afternoon. At his place, mostly. He didn’t like my loft. It was all open concept, with a back wall made entirely of windows facing Atlanta’s ever-rising skyline. He was the kind of guy who went right to a corner seat at any restaurant. He couldn’t eat if his back was to the door. My place felt way too exposed, and the only interior walls were around the two bathrooms and the laundry. My cat had the run of it, and that creeped Birdwine out. He didn’t like to look up and see Henry perched on the dresser like a fluffy white ghost, watching us and purring to himself. Birdwine was a dog guy.

BOOK: The Opposite of Everyone: A Novel
6.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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