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Authors: Laura Caldwell

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BOOK: A Clean Slate
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“I'm okay. You?”

“Crazy over here. Some starlet got arrested for shoplifting a pack of gum, and I'm trying to convince the LAPD to release her name. Meanwhile Mella, that Swedish fashion model—you know her?”

She made it sound as if I might have had martinis with Mella last night. “Vaguely,” I said.

“Well, she's gained a few pounds, so I need a quote from the restaurant near her apartment.”

I listened to some more Hollywood gossip, wondering how my mom could do it. She used to produce news segments on political corruption, double murders and Middle
East violence, and now here she was, digging up info on Mella's calorie count.

“So how's Ben?” my mom said in a swift topic shift, and I wondered, frantically, if I'd told her anything about our breakup. It didn't sound like it. I half wanted to tell her about my memory gap, but I didn't want to give her any more worries. I honestly didn't know if she could handle it, and it had been so long since I'd confided in her. And I was fine, wasn't I? Better than fine, actually. I'd admit to the breakup, I decided. I couldn't hide that, but I wouldn't mention the memory issues.

“Ben?” I said. “Well, you know we broke up, right?”

“What?”

Okay, she definitely hadn't known that, which either meant that I hadn't spoken to her for a long time or I'd avoided talking to her about that subject. It didn't surprise me, really. Our phone calls since Dee died were so few and so brief.

“What happened?” my mom said.

Great question. “He didn't want to get married.” That was the simplest, most truthful answer I could deduce. I'd given him the dreaded ultimatum, the give-me-a-ring-or-I'll-walk speech, and it'd slapped me right in the face.

“Oh, honey, are you all right?” I could hear that anguished, parental tone in her voice, the one that made me feel warm and taken care of, but it scared me a little, too. I was always worried that she was close to a breakdown after Dee, and even now I wasn't sure what would make her snap.

“I'm fine. I really am. I saw him this weekend, actually, and we had a nice chat.”

“What a little bastard. He probably wanted more time to run his races, right?”

“To be honest, I think he just didn't want me.” Saying that out loud forced the breath from my lungs.

A pause. “Well, do you want to visit me? Maybe you
should leave Chicago for a while, take your mind away from it. You could probably get some time off work, right?”

Shit. Apparently, I hadn't talked to her about work, either. “Um, I got laid off from Bartley Brothers.”

“Oh my God!”

“But it's a good thing, Mom,” I said quickly, making sure to keep my tone light and untroubled. “They gave me a severance package, so I don't need to work for a while.”

“Then you should come out here. Spend some time on the beach, eat lunch on the boardwalk. It would do you good.”

“I'll think about it.”

“You need to keep busy, Kelly. Are you still taking those photography classes?” I could tell she was struggling for a way to help me, one that wouldn't require any intimate revelations, but it dawned on me that she had a very good point.

I reached down and wrote on my list, “Go to school,
today.

7

I
struggled a bit with my new hairstyle, my hands sticky from the pomade that Lino had insisted I use, but I finally shaped it into some semblance of the chunky bob he'd given me. I was able to render a toned-down version of the makeup job, too. Meanwhile, my new camel trousers looked great with a soft black sweater and my old leather jacket, although I still stood in front of the mirror for an inordinate amount of time. My body looked odd to me, smaller and sharper, as if it wasn't my own. As much as I liked my new look, it gave me a flash of that feeling I'd had when I was trying to shove my key into the mailbox Saturday morning.

I finally shut Laney's closet door on my reflection, ready to walk the city, to find out if I had taken any photography classes over the summer or was currently enrolled in one, and if not—sign up for a boatload of them.

I wandered down Wells Street past the amalgamation of
storefronts—an old-fashioned tobacconist, cute but overpriced boutiques, a couple of sex shops—until the beacon of my mother ship called me. It wasn't a Saturday, but what the hell? I ordered a White Chocolate Mocha, anyway. I sat in a plump velvet chair in Starbucks and sipped my coffee, happy to be there, to be paging through the
Tribune,
which I couldn't recall reading in ages. The news hadn't changed much in the time I'd been gone.

“Being gone” was how I'd begun to think of the months I couldn't recall. I pretended, at least to myself, that I'd simply been away on a long trip to somewhere, maybe Nepal or a remote South Pacific island, and now I'd returned with a touch of culture shock. This I've-just-been-on-a-long-vacation kind of mentality made me feel much better, edging me away from my fears about the need for a straitjacket or a fall back into the depression I couldn't remember.

I took my cup and continued strolling along Wells, then up Lincoln Avenue, and finally west on Fullerton, window-shopping here and there, sometimes poking my head in a store. Finally, after about thirty minutes of walking that left me feeling vibrant and healthy (although I suppose it could have been the caffeine), I reached the patches of brick buildings and green lawns that signaled the university. As usual, I felt like the oldest person on the premises as I made my way to the registrar's office, but it bugged me less today, since I was feeling rather saucy in my new outfit.

The registrar's office was a cramped little room with stacks of paper everywhere, making it look as if they hadn't discovered computers yet. The harried woman behind the counter did manage to unearth a keyboard from the mound of documents on her desk, and she confirmed what I had feared: I hadn't taken any classes since last spring. Actually, I supposed this shouldn't have disappointed me, since I wouldn't have remembered the classes even if I had taken them, but still the news raised the image of me in that strange
apartment all by myself, an image I'd been trying to avoid with my vacation mentality.

I was flipping through the course guide, looking for classes that might allow late entry, when I heard my name being called. I turned and saw Rita Denny, a professor who I'd taken a few classes with already. A statuesque black woman, she always seemed confident and pulled together.

“Where have you been?” Professor Denny said.

“I took a break, but I'm ready to get back into a few classes if anyone will let me start late.”

“Well, let's see.” She took the notes from my hand and began reading over them. “Do you have any of mine here?”

I pointed to the seminar on portrait photography, which Professor Denny was conducting.

“Of course you can take it, but have you thought about an internship instead?” She glanced at me, and I must have worn a blank expression, because she laughed.

“It's just that I take classes for fun, not for a degree,” I said, “so I didn't think any internships would apply to me.”

“You might be surprised. You could probably learn more with an internship than you could in school this semester. Go to the placement office, and they'll show you the listings.”

I thanked her and headed over to the placement office, fairly bouncing on the toes of my new camel boots. Maybe the Art Institute would need an intern, someone fresh, someone with vision to capture a new exhibit. Maybe the ambassador of France had turned to the university to help document his tour of America.

The realities were not so interesting. Most of the jobs were posted by companies looking for cheap labor to photograph and catalog merchandise, another by an insurance agency seeking someone to shoot brochure photos.

I stepped outside the office and decided to call a few of them anyway, just to learn a little more. Ten minutes later, I dropped my cell phone back into my purse and sagged
against the wall. Despite Professor Denny's assurances, the fact that I wasn't a degree candidate had eliminated me from each position I called about, and one was already filled.

I dragged myself back into the placement office and paged through the rest of the listings, scribbling a few notes, although most positions looked as unpromising as those I'd already called.

Finally, I came to the last listing, which, according to the date, had been posted there for at least six months. I couldn't imagine why, since it sounded like the best one of the lot.

 

“Established photographer seeks assistant for work with commercial campaigns, magazine shoots and artistic portraits. Call 555-6754.”

 

It was short and sweet, but it had my attention. I used my cell phone again and was surprised when a man answered immediately with a slightly belligerent, “Yeah?”

“I'm calling about the assistant job?” I hated how my own voice came out meek and questioning. I hadn't applied for a job in almost a decade, and making these calls was foreign to me.

“Yeah. Okay,” the man said, and this time I could tell he had a British accent. “What's your name then?”

“Kelly McGraw.”

For whatever reason, this drew a chuckle from him. “Kelly, Kelly, Kelly. Bet you're Irish then?”

“Half.” Was this standard questioning for a photography internship? Did heritage and nationality count somehow?

“Well, Kelly Kelly. I'm called Cole. Want to come round to my flat tonight then? Say seven o'clock?”

“Uh…” Was this supposed to be a date or an interview?

“Oh, now don't be scared, Kelly Kelly. I just don't have time to talk at the moment, and I'll still be working tonight. There'll be others here. You'll see.”

“Well, I guess so,” I said, thinking that I'd make Laney come with me. Safety in numbers.

“Lie down on the washer!” Cole shouted away from the phone. “No.
Over
it, please. There you go. Now, Kelly, where were we?”

“The address to your studio,” I said, while at the same time saying a silent prayer that he wasn't some kind of pornographer.

“Right, right. Got a pen?”

 

After I left the university, there was little to do. In one day, I'd watched TV, had my Starbucks, read the paper, taken a walk and followed up on my photography interests. And now I had an interview—something that hadn't even seemed possible this morning. What else was there?

Then it dawned on me. I needed to get ready for the interview. I should probably bring my own camera and portfolio. And that thought brought the reality I'd been hiding from—I'd have to go back to that apartment on Lake Shore Drive.
My
apartment. There was nothing stopping me except my fear that spending time there could somehow boomerang me to the depressed state Laney had told me about. At the same time, a little interest tickled at the back of my mind, because maybe if I went back to the apartment I could figure out
why
I couldn't remember.

I hopped into a cab, and in less than fifteen entirely too short minutes I was in the circular drive. The building was tall and imposing as I got out and gazed up at it, the huge gray blocks cold and aloof. The same doorman who'd been there when Laney brought me on Saturday was at the front desk inside.

“Miss McGraw,” he said, dipping his head at me.

What was his name? What was his name?

“Afternoon,” I said. Then I hesitated a second, feeling as if I had to be granted access to the building.
Keep walking.

The doorman crinkled his eyebrows together, but I man
aged to get my feet moving again. I walked down the hallway, knowing his eyes were on my back, wondering if he would shout at any second and accuse me of breaking into someone else's apartment, because it felt very much like I was trespassing. I forced myself to take careful footsteps, until I reached the double doors that led to the anteroom and the elevators. As I pulled them open, I glanced back, and sure enough, the doorman was still watching me. I gave him what I hoped was a nonchalant grin before I ducked through the door.

Once upstairs and standing in front of apartment 1204, I hesitated as I held the key to the slot. Keys hadn't worked so well for me lately. What if this key was wrong, too? What if I'd somehow forgotten again? What if I didn't live here anymore? But no, that couldn't be right. The doorman had recognized me, after all. I shook my head and before I could freak myself out any further, pushed the gold key forward. It fit perfectly, turning the lock with a smooth click.

8

W
alking around my apartment, tiptoeing really, reminded me of the way Dee and I used to prowl through the newsroom offices when my mother took us to work. As a single mom, she was often unprepared when a baby-sitter quit or we didn't have school on a given day, and lacking any other options, she'd schlep us to the station with her, bringing along a bag of toys and books. She worked in the newsroom, a massive, busy place with ringing phones and running people, a place that fascinated Dee and me. But the newsroom wasn't for kids, Sylvie would say. And so she'd find an unused office—one normally occupied by a station executive or newscaster who was out of town—tell us not to touch anything, and leave us there for the next eight hours.

Our books and Barbies would occupy us no more than a few hours, then the temptation to prowl and pry would overtake us. We'd peek through drawers, study photographs and
read letters, looking for “clues” about the person whose office we were desecrating.

Now I was opening drawers in my
own
apartment, reading crumpled receipts from the garbage and peering cautiously into closets. The apartment itself was still so foreign and devoid of character. And yet so many things I came across, things I'd owned before my birthday, were fiercely familiar, like the Waterman pen given to me by Attila the Han, which I found next to the phone, or my favorite red T-shirt crumpled at the side of the bed. The whole snooping-on-myself experience brought back that house-of-cards feeling, rendering me nervous and nauseous and slightly claustrophobic.

It occurred to me that the claustrophobia might be partially due to the closed drapes and the dust hanging in the air, and so I decided to tidy the place. I threw the drapes open, letting in the bright fall sun, then dusted, vacuumed and scrubbed the apartment clean. Along the way, I came across nothing particularly alarming. No cryptic notes or receipts for odd purchases. The apartment seemed more like a way station, a place where a human being had merely subsisted for a few months. One of the most disheartening realizations was that there were no new outfits in the closets or drawers. No new clothes for five months!

I went searching for my date book, something I used to carry with me at all times. Unlike the rest of the analysts at Bartley Brothers, I'd never used a Palm Pilot or other electronic calendar. I liked turning the pages of my date book and seeing my weeks spread out before me, reading the notes on what I'd done in the past, looking through the upcoming appointments to remind me what shape my future would take.

When I found it in the top drawer of my nightstand, it was all but empty for the last five months. There were none of the usual notations such as, “Drinks with Laney, 9:00,” or “Work out, 5:30.” Instead, I saw only one appointment listed over and over—“Ellen Geiger, 2:00.” It appeared that
I went to see her every Monday and Thursday at the same time. So Laney had been right. I'd been keeping my psychiatrist in business.

I looked at my watch. It was four o'clock on Monday afternoon. Was I supposed to have been at Ellen's office a few hours ago?

I left the bedroom and went back to the kitchen. The answering machine next to the fridge was blinking. When I hit the button, the voice that rang out of the machine was Laney's. She was just checking on me, she said. She hoped I would get out today and get some fresh air. The automated woman who came on at the end of the message told me that Laney had left the message Saturday morning, probably right about the time I was in Lincoln Park, trying to pick up my nonexistent dry cleaning.

No one else had called me the rest of the weekend, which struck me as sad. I used to be one of those people who had too many messages—from Ben, Laney, Jess, friends from work, Dee, my mom. I used to get irritated by the number of calls I had to return, trying to squeeze them in on my cell phone as I hurried about town.

There was one more call on the machine, though. It had been left today, and as I expected, it was from Ellen Geiger.

“Kelly,” she said in a soothing voice, “you were scheduled for two o'clock as usual, and it's two-thirty now. Please call me and let me know you're all right.”

She did sound a little worried, which made me feel guilty, so I picked up the phone and hit the speed dial for her number.

I could picture Ellen's elegant office from the few times I'd been there last winter. I could see her perfect ash-blond hair pulled away from her face by a headband, her hands holding a thick ink pen, gently jotting a few notes as I talked. She was perfectly nice, and I'm sure perfectly competent,
but after a few sessions I didn't see how paying her more than a hundred dollars an hour would help me get over Dee's death. I wasn't in denial about it; I was just heartbroken and angry.

But if I stopped seeing her after my sister died, what had made me go back this summer?

As Ellen answered, I sat on one of the bar stools in the kitchen.

“Oh, Kelly,” she said. “Is everything okay?”

“Great.” I swiveled back and forth on the stool, wondering if I should explain the weekend, my whole memory loss. The problem was that I didn't remember seeing her twice a week for the last few months, so the thought of confiding in her felt somewhat awkward.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said, and I remembered that murmur she uttered when she was thinking, that frequent “Mmm-hmming.” “What happened with this afternoon?” she said. “Why didn't you show up?”

“Well…I forgot my appointment.” There. That was true enough.

“You forgot?”

“Right.”

“Mmm-hmm. Do you want to reschedule for tomorrow?”

“No. And I won't need to come in Thursday, either.” I opened my date book on the counter and crossed out Thursday's appointment.

“Excuse me?”

“Actually, I don't think I need to see you for a while.” I felt as if I was breaking up with her and should try to let her down easy. “I appreciate all your help.”

“Mmm-hmm. Kelly, are you having suicidal thoughts?”

“What?” I stood up from the stool.

“Are you having thoughts about suicide?”

“No! Why would you ask that?”

“Well, you've been depressed, as you know, for some
time, and now you call me, sounding like you're putting your affairs in order, so to speak.”

I laughed. I really did. It struck me as ludicrous and funny. “Ellen, look. I can promise you that I've never had a suicidal thought in my life.” I stopped for a moment, wondering if that was true. Had I had any inklings over the last five months? No, no matter how depressed I'd gotten, I knew, somewhere down deep, that I would never think of taking my own life. “The thing is,” I continued, “I've had a bit of a memory loss, but I feel fantastic. I really do, and so I don't think I need to see you anymore.”

“Mmm-hmm. What do you mean by memory loss?”

How could I explain in a short and easy fashion? I gave her a brief rundown of my weekend, ending with how wonderful I was feeling, and reasserting again that I didn't need to see her.

“I have to insist that you come for at least one more session. Amnesia is nothing to be taken lightly, and it can be the cause of other psychological or physical damage. What about tomorrow? I can fit you in at the end of the day. Say seven-thirty?”

I was about to protest. I didn't want to spend money on therapy, when for all practical purposes I was feeling better than ever. And despite the tentative snooping I'd done around my own apartment that day, I was truly scared to remember the months I'd lost. Wouldn't those memories bounce me back to that depression? It was as if I was finally standing on solid ground, but could sense an abyss only a few footfalls away.

Despite my fear of that abyss, though, I was more and more curious about
why
I couldn't remember, about what had caused this whole strange episode in my life. Maybe Ellen could shed some light on that.

I opened my date book again and flipped to tomorrow's date, then wrote in, “Ellen Geiger, 7:30.”

 

I met Laney for drinks near her office in the Loop, and we joined the masses of people looking for alcoholic sustenance before their train rides home. We found a tall, high table in a corner of a bar, and I ordered a beer, but barely sipped it since I wanted to be fresh for my interview. I hadn't been on an interview since the one for Bartley Brothers eight years ago, right after college graduation. I wasn't sure what to expect. I had my Nikon in my camera bag with me, along with a small portfolio of my stuff, and I'd flipped through my multitude of photography magazines, which I'd located in my apartment. What else to do, I wasn't sure, and “Cole,” whoever he was, hadn't been much more explicit.

“I have to tell you that I'm jealous,” Laney said, after she listened to what I'd done with my day. She took a sip of her margarita and cocked her head at me.

“Why would you be jealous?”

“Well, maybe not jealous—that's too harsh—but envious.”

“Still confused over here.”

She sighed. “You've got a whole new lease on life, and you're following a dream by interviewing for this assistant job.”

I played with my beer bottle, thinking about that for a second. “I don't know if this Cole guy could ever fulfill a dream for me. Sounds a bit wacko.”

“That's not the point. You're trying to break into a profession that you're passionate about.”

“What about you? You've already broken into your profession and you love your job.”

“No, I don't.”

“Sure you do! You're always telling everyone how much you love it. You always say—”

“Kell,” she said, cutting me off. “When I say that, I'm talking in relative terms.”

“What do you mean?”

“I like my job enough. I like the people I'm working with, and I consider myself lucky to have a gig like that, but I don't
love
it.”

“Really?” For some reason, this disappointed me.

“Did you love your job at Bartley?”

I was quiet.

“See,” Laney said. “You didn't love it, either. You were kicking ass and taking names, and you said you wanted to be partner and all that, but you never loved it.”

“This is so depressing. Do we know anyone who loves their job?”

We were both quiet now, taking sips of our drinks, struggling to come up with someone,
anyone,
who adored what they did.

“I know!” I said, pointing at Laney. “You're passionate about music. You love that, and you're taking guitar lessons.”

Laney scoffed. “That's hardly the same thing.”

“It is, too. Instead of thinking about the fact that you'd love to play guitar, you're actually learning how to do it.”

“But it's not my job. I mean I wish it was, I'd love to be in a band, but that will never happen.”

“One step at a time, right? Maybe you will be someday. Maybe Gear will ask you to join them.”

“Never. That's the problem with the guys I date. They invite me backstage and to the studio, but only as arm candy.”

“Gear seemed nice.”

“He is. He's nicer than the rest, but…” Her voice died away.

“But what?”

“He's got his band and his buddies. He really doesn't need me for much except—sex, I guess.”

“Hey, at least you have someone.” I thought of the load
of Ben's belongings—the grubby flannel pajamas he loved, his financial books and the sunglasses he'd spent $200 on—that I'd stuffed in a Hefty bag and thrown down the garbage chute that afternoon.

“Well, you could have
someone,
you know,” Laney said. “You could date someone just to date, instead of thinking where it might lead. You could have a fling for once, instead of being a serial monogamist.”

“Don't start, Lane.”

“I'm just speaking the truth.”

“It's entirely possible that I might have a fling,” I said.

Laney guffawed.

“Seriously. I'm a different person than I was a few days ago. I might have a one-night stand tonight.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“Maybe this Cole guy. Maybe I'll sleep with him.”

I wasn't sure why I was protesting so much, except that sometimes I found myself woefully embarrassed about the fact that I'd never picked up a guy and slept with him. It wasn't as if I was living at the turn of the century. Everyone I knew had had a few one-night stands—at least—so why not me? It wasn't for lack of opportunity—the bar scene was filled with men looking for action. But Laney was right. I had those set plans in my head about getting married and having a kid by a certain age. I was always looking to see if a guy could take me somewhere, if he might be something special. On the other hand, Ben certainly hadn't turned out all that special. Maybe a fling was exactly what I needed.

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