"For Max" by LuElla Putnam

Luella Putnam

Luella Putnam

In May 2008, LuElla Putnam received an MA in English from a joint program between the Citadel and the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She now lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and is enrolled in the PhD program in Literature at Oklahoma State University.

For Max

You look happy in the picture where you're kissing my boyfriend. I can only see the profile of your face, since you're lips are pressed so firmly on his cheek. Your eyes show it, though—well, the one visible one at least. Your eye is crinkled on the edge, so it looks like you caught him right in the middle of a fit of laughter you suppressed just long enough to lean in for that kiss.

He always told me hated women with short hair. I guess he was lying about that. That last comment. It was catty, wasn't it? Alright, I'm not saying your hair is bad. It's frosted, which is cute, you know, in some circles. In a lot of circles, I'm sure . . . like the ones with butch wrestling women who hang out in blue leotards and jazzercise together. God, I should erase that, shouldn't I? This isn't the foot I meant to start off on. I'm sorry.

On the back of the picture, you wrote, “For Drew, my luscious honey bunny. With all my love, Vicki M.” I found it in his wallet five days ago. He'd borrowed my debit card to buy some gas the day before. I went to take my card back, and there it was. Your picture behind my card. My card is blue, and my name is printed on it in white. Olivia H. Faber. Some of the lettering is fading, so the “H” and the “b” match the blue background. I've closed my eyes and opened them real quickly while staring at the card a few times, and I don't think there's a problem in making out my name on there. It definitely doesn't look anything like Drew Blakely.

Or “Honey Bunny.”

Or “Vicki M.”

What does the “M” stand for? I've checked in the phonebook, and there are three listings for Victoria under last names starting with “M.” Well, two really. One is just under the letter “V.” That's “V. Manning.” Then, there's “Victoria Metz.” And “Victoria Mayweather.” There are sixteen Faber's in the phonebook. None of them list the name Olivia, and none of them are my relatives.

V. Manning and Victoria Mayweather both have addresses listed next to them.

How did you two meet? Drew and I met at the pet store. Dr. Dolittle's in Carlyle. I went there to pick up food for my lovebird, Max. I've had Max for three years. I've been with Drew for nearly two.

“I've always thought girls with birds were a little weird.” That was the first thing Drew said to me. I was picking out a new toy for Max then, trying to decide if he'd rather have a dangling feather or a bigger swing.

“Maybe I'm a little weird, then,” I replied, flicking a green swing to gauge how it would fit in Max's cage. “And maybe you shouldn't hang out at in bird aisles, if the girls there are so weird.”

“I'm sorry. I just . . . it was the first thing that came in my head. I have bird issues.” He laughed. “I'm trying to find parakeet food for my mom . . . And, yeah, she's weird.” I decided on the swing. I also decided that I liked Drew's candor, and his bed hair.

V. Manning lives in an apartment complex surrounded by well-manicured trees. There are trees lining the entranceway, and there are trees that stand in boxed, army like formations in front of the three buildings that comprise the complex. V. lives on the third floor of building two, so you can just barely make out her window through the tops of the trees. Hers is the only apartment on the third floor. V. has a star in her window that you can see if you go and stand on the other side of the trees, near the building. It's beige and has a light in it. I think it may be made out of paper mache'. I've seen the star three or four times now. Maybe seven.

I figured out on Wednesday night that V. isn't you. I found the note Monday. V. finally turned off her star and came out of her house. It was around 9:00. I think she's in college; she looks young. She was wearing a white halter top, and she has orange, tanning bed skin. She was on her cell phone, laughing about some guy named George and how “adorable” he is. From what I can tell, she owes over $3,000.00 in credit card debt. I checked her trash. Mainly, it was filled with bills, condoms, and old pizza boxes.

Drew moved in two weeks after we met at the pet store. He brought with him a cactus, a toothbrush, two pairs of jeans, a pair of sneakers, five t-shirts, deodorant, and his janitor uniform. He told me then he only had one uniform, but I'm wondering now if there's another one at your house. Sometimes, the one here has a stain on the right knee and sometimes that stain mysteriously disappears. I never noticed it before your picture, but I see everything now. It's strange. I always thought I was the sort of person who noticed everything before. I pride myself on being observant, on remembering things.

The reason I have a lovebird is simple; they attach themselves to one person. That's why you can't get two of them. If you get one bird, he or she will devote themselves totally to you. If there's another bird in the picture, your bird won't even know you exist. No matter where I go in the house, Max is with me. When I'm walking to the kitchen to grab a snack, he's on my shoulder. When I'm showering, he stands on the metal bar and flutters his wings around, cleaning himself at the same time as me. When I'm asleep, Max is beside me on the pillow. You might want to considering getting a bird, Vicki.

Obviously, I didn't tell Drew about the picture. I shoved my card back in his wallet and went to the bedroom, where he was watching TV. Ultimate Fighting.

I went and stood so that my body was situated halfway in front of the TV. I guess he could see the punches but not the impact. “How was your mom yesterday?” I asked. “You got home so late, and I figured you must've gone to see her after you got done with the office.” As I'm sure you know (God, it pains me to say that,) Drew's mom has Alzheimers. I always assumed his late nights were spent at the nursing home with her and her parakeet. Maybe that's what you assumed, too.

“Olivia, move! MOVE! God, we'll talk later, ok? I just want to zone out. I had a late night” I moved. I collected my thoughts.

“I'm sorry, baby. I'll go get you breakfast. I know you've had a lot on your mind.”

If you saw my debit card, do you know where I live? Where we live? I made him scrambled eggs and sausage.

Victoria Metz did not have an address in the phonebook. However, I found her information online. It's crazy. You can pay $15.00 and find out nearly anything about nearly anyone. Victoria Metz has a child—a boy, 8-years-old. His name is Simon. She's going through a divorce with Simon's father. He's an orthodontist. Dr. Metz is having an affair with Victoria's sister, Carly.

That last part I found out when I went to Dr. Metz's office. I'm 27, and I went in there complaining about an overbite that Drew has always said he thinks is “endearing.” I shared the office with what looked like two ten-year-olds and a thirteen-year-old. Sandy, the receptionist, was more than willing to dish information about her boss. I left before I was scheduled to get x-rayed. I don't have health insurance.

The Metz's live in a brick house in Cedar Ridge, a gated community on the north side of town. I explained that I was babysitting for Simon, and I had a note on Dr. Metz's stationary, explaining that that I should be admitted in. Victoria Metz—it's actually Victoria—not Vicki, like you—was crying in her car when I walked by her house. Her head was on the steering wheel, and I could see her shoulders shaking. I parked by the neighborhood duck pond, since I had decided it would look better to leisurely walk by the Metz's in the daylight rather than to slowly drive by in my car. I stopped and slowly did some stretches when I reached the front of the Metz's house, waiting for Victoria to step out of her Mercedes.

“Mrs. Metz?”

Vicki, did I mention before that lovebirds mate for life? If a lovebird's owner dies, shortly thereafter, it will die as well. Lovebirds perish from their heartbreaks. They can't stand being alone; they can't stand not being part of a couple. When I die, I know Max won't survive long after me. He will commit suicide by starving himself. He will refuse to eat, and he will just waste away, wallowing in his loneliness.

Victoria Metz has short brown hair. It isn't frosted, but it does have highlights. She looks well-maintained, like a TV journalist. Last Wednesday afternoon, she was wearing a tailored blue suit, an expensive-looking silk scarf, and black pumps. She pretended not to hear me when I called her name the first time.

“Mrs. Metz?” I called out again, a bit more persistently.

She turned around, her eyes puffy.

“Mrs. Metz, my name is Olivia. I thought you were having an affair with my boyfriend. I thought so for the bigger part of today. It's not true, though. This may sound odd, but . . . thank you for not having an affair with him.”

Mrs. Metz nodded. “My son is waiting for me inside, Olivia.” She turned around. Her gait walking to the door was immaculate—beautiful, like royalty.

“Tell Simon hi for me.”

Mrs. Metz stopped. She didn't turn back around or look at me again like I had expected her to do.

“I will,” she said, instead. I watched the back of her head fall forward just the slightest bit as she said it. But, then, she raised it again. She remained still, silent. I noticed her flex her calve muscles. The movement was slight, but, somehow, she forced me to admire the perfect curvature of her legs. My eyes became transfixed on her body. She swung her shoulders back, claimed her royal posture again, and walked inside the house, closing the door without making any noise that I could decipher.

I didn't see Simon on Wednesday. I don't know if we'll ever meet.

Like I said, I made Drew eggs and sausage the morning I found your picture. Before I had finished putting bread in the toaster, his arms were around me. He moved my hair away from my neck, kissed it, and began rubbing my shoulders. Max was jumping around on the kitchen counter. He's learned by now not to go near the stove.

“Olivia, I'm so sorry I yelled, baby. I just had a long night with Mama all last night. She was asking about her brothers and sisters. And she kept thinking we were in Scotland somewhere . . . It's just rough, you know? I know it's hard not being around me all the time like we were before. But, honey, it's just as hard on me . . . harder, really.” Drew pulled me close; my back felt like it was attached to him. “Thanks for being so understanding.” The smell of breakfast mingled with Drew's scent comforted me. I leaned against him and began to cry.

Vicki, do you feel like me, like your life began when you met Drew? Like you can't live without hearing him sing Garth Brooks out of tune when you two are in the car together? Do you feel like your life would be meaningless without debating who should win Survivor every evening over coffee before he goes into work? Is Drew just a crush? Just some guy you sleep with every once in a while? Are you planning a future with him? Are you planning on stealing my future? Or is the only future I desire rightfully yours in the first place? Is it that I'm the other woman, and were you around years before I even met him?

Vicki Mayweather isn't you either. She lives in a trailer park, and she's fifteen-years-old. She's looks to be around 5'4, and I think she weighs at least 200 pounds. Maybe more. She has blond hair. I don't think she could afford to frost it even if she wanted to. Every time I look at her, I can't seem to figure out if she's pregnant or not. I've spoken to her twice, and I haven't yet mustered up the courage to ask her about it.

This Vicki's trailer park is filled with rocks. There are no trees, no bushes, no grass. Just rocks. Big ones. Small ones. She lives on a sea of gray, white, and black with boxed homes situated haphazardly on top of it all.

Tuesday was the first day I met her. That day, I pretended to be advertising for a new pizza place called Luigi's. I told her I was coming around to all of the local families. “We have pizzas for $5.00 a pie—the cheapest in town.” I talked about mozzarella cheese and anchovies. Vicki just stared at me, blew some bubbles with her gum, and told me her parents weren't home. She also mentioned that I wasn't wearing a uniform.

I left. But I came back Thursday. I don't know what it is. Somehow, being near them makes me feel closer to you. Being closer to you makes me feel closer to Drew, like I'm still actively in a relationship—not sucking the last bits out of one that's dying.

“I need a friend.” That's what I told Vicki Mayweather the day I went back, without pizza for an excuse.

I already knew her parents wouldn't be home. Her mom left when she was seven, and her dad worked as a line cook at Waffle House during the day. Yes, I'd asked around about her Tuesday when I'd gone around to her other neighbors.

“You ain't allowed in the house,” Vicki said. “I'll come out, though. There's nothing on TV.”

Vicki was wearing the same yellow t-shirt that she had been two days earlier. It had a big smiley face on it and “HUGS NOT DRUGS” was printed in green across the bottom of it.

“Wanna cigarette?” Vicki asked, as she plopped down on the trailer steps. “I'm guessing you don't work at Luigi's?” she questioned next, eying me suspiciously.

“No.” I sat down next to her, taking the offered cigarette. Her lighter was purple with red hearts stamped on it in diagonal lines. I flicked the lighter, watching the flame spark into existence and glow bright orange. I put the end of my cigarette to the flame and gave Vicki back her lighter. “I'm trying to find this woman 'Vicki M.'” Vicki's pupils dilated.

“Yeah, it's not you. I thought it was you. I'd hoped. I mean . . . I don't know what I would've done had it been you.” The tips of my toes could just reach the rocks from steps in front of Vicki's trailer. I began to draw hearts, like the ones on Vicki's lighter, with the edge of my flip flops in the stones.

“Are you stalking me?”

“No. Yes. I guess.” There was a jagged rock that I could just barely reach with my left foot. It looked as if it had been split open and there was a glint of quartz inside. Fake diamonds. That's what I thought of them as a kid. I wondered how sharp quartz was. I tried to grab the rock with my big toe and drag it toward me. “I'm sorry.”

“Didn't you figure out it wasn't me yesterday? Why are you here again?” I tried to detect some sort of emotion in her voice; I couldn't.

“I told you. I needed a friend.”

“And you thought I'd be your friend? After you've been stalking me?” Vicki put out one cigarette on the steps and lit up another. Ashes were falling on both our legs. I shrugged.

“What'd she do to you? This other Vicki?”

“Nothing. It's not to me at least . . . I don't know. I think I'm trying to find her before she finds me . . . One of us is having an affair with my boyfriend. Is it called an affair if you're not married? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I found her picture in my boyfriend's wallet. She was kissing him.”

I'd gotten the jagged rock close enough to us to pick it up. I leaned over and clasped it in my hands. The ridges tore into my skin. I squeezed it as hard as I could, allowing both hands the experience of the pain. I wanted to make the rock force blood from my palms, to watch the blood trickle downward and spatter into the ashes. Yet I wasn't strong enough even to create a cut.

“I'm going inside. What did you say your name was?” Vicki's voice had risen an octave.

“Olivia.” Vicki stood up. She brushed the ashes off of her legs.

“You can stay out here as long as you want, Olivia.” She opened the door and went inside. “I guess I hope you find her,” she said from behind the screen door. “You should ask your boyfriend about the picture. That's what I'd do.” I swiveled around on Vicki's steps, so I could look up at her. Her hair was covering her eyes.

“Then I'd find the sharpest knife I could.” Vicki grinned and closed the other door on me. I heard her drag a chain across a slider.

I wonder sometimes if Max will be happy if Drew disappears one day. Since he's male, Max has learned to speak; he knows three words. He can say, “Love,” “Mama,” and “Blanket.” I repeated them over and over again, every day, all the time, until he could repeat them back to me. Now, he says them nonstop. It's “mama,” when I walk to the bathroom. “Love” when I walk to the kitchen. “Blanket” when I go to the living room. After he moved in, Drew would repeat the words with me, excited to hear “our” baby's first articulations. I think Drew's tired of hearing them now.

Female lovebirds can't learn to talk. They stay silent their whole lives.

“Olivia, it'll get better. It really will. Stop crying. Stop crying.” Drew took my shoulders in his hands that morning and turned me around, so I would face him. He put his thumb under my left cheek, smearing one of my tears across my face. “Come to bed, baby. Let's just spend the day together.”

We did—wrapped up in flannel sheets. Drew lit my favorite candles, the ones that smell like lavender. He apologized for neglecting me. We watched movies all day. Movies with Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and John Cusack, movies where other women didn't exist, where love was in bloom and where it was new and fresh, like daisies that have yet to be picked. In the afternoon, it rained. That night, before he left to go to the hospital, Drew took my debit card from his wallet and gave it back to me. He kissed me on the forehead and told me he loved me. Then, he left me in bed.

Vicki, yesterday, a girl with frosted hair came and knocked on my door. It was around 3:00 in the afternoon. Drew was at work. I'm sure you knew that. Congratulations, honey bunny. You found me first.

“Olivia, I know you're in there. Your car's outside. It's the green Maxima. He's not with me. He's not with you. Let's just talk, like civilized adults. I'm sure we can figure something out.”

The green dress you were wearing wasn't very flattering, I have to say. I don't think you should wear sleeveless dresses in the future. Take that as constructive criticism, please. And, yes, I pretended not to hear you. I stared at you through the peephole. What were you thinking we could figure out anyway? Maybe you could have Drew on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and we could switch it up on the weekends?

“Olivia, come on, please, just come and talk to me. I have to know what's going on; just come and talk to me.” I liked hearing you beg. I admit it. And I didn't feel bad that you were crying. I doubt you care about my tears either, and, just so you know, I was crying, too.

I watched you leave. You have a blue Civic. The color of the sky on a clear day. And, I know now that you work at CVS. I saw your nametag, pinned quite conspicuously on your chest. Maybe you could find another man, Vicki. It certainly looks like you're trying.

Are you a cashier? A pharmacist?

Drew called. He told me he's going to be a little late coming home tonight.

Did you know there's this game I play with Max that you might find interesting, Vicki? I call it the “Mirror Game.” What you do is you put Max in front of a mirror, and he'll watch himself for a few minutes. Then, he'll fly away, watching to see if the bird he's viewing flies away, too. Max'll glide around in a circle, and come back to the place where he started—again, right in front of the mirror. He'll look at himself and repeat the process. If I let him, he'll do this for hours. He'd do it for days probably, maybe longer, unless finally, I decide to take it upon myself to stop him. Max loves staring at himself, and he loves imagining there's another bird in the room—another one of his own kind. In this game, Max gets to do both.