The second note arrived a few weeks after Halloween. It was waiting on the carpet when Tom came downstairs to get the morning paper, the note thrown in through the mail slot. Marie was upstairs in the bathroom putting on her makeup before work; she had recently started a job as a surgical scheduler at Pitt. Tom was in his fourth year of graduate school in the Department of Biomedical Informatics.
You look good in skirts.
“Thank you,” Tom said out loud. The paper was still cold, as if it had been just delivered. Tom looked out the living room window. The neighbor’s one-eared cat sat on Tom and Marie’s porch swing. It hadn’t snowed yet but the news programs were predicting a few early season flakes that afternoon. The sky was gray with a layer of clouds.
They had only moved into the house in July. Things hadn’t been great between him and Marie for awhile. When a friend’s realtor called Tom last spring to say she had found a pretty good house for a graduate student’s budget, Tom had been thinking of breaking up with Marie, but he stalled.
The house was in a quiet, residential neighborhood. Marie liked the old windows in the dining room, the ones Tom knew they’d need to strip and rehang in order to use properly. In back was a small grassy yard and a chain link fence, and a deep pocketed old cherry tree. Imagining home ownership was a distraction for Tom—a distraction from the pressures of grad school and the emotional distance between him and Marie. He’d even felt momentarily inspired.
“There’s the tomato garden,” he’d said when they looked out the back window, deciding about the house.
“Where?” Marie asked.
“At the back. With all the sunshine.” He pointed to the corner where a pile of angled cinder blocks jabbed the air, uneven and unsettled. He liked the idea of growing something.
The dishwasher broke their first night in the house, after Marie had loaded all their plates and utensils. She had wanted to run them through a cycle before arranging them on the shelves. It was a half-size dishwasher that didn’t open all the way because the kitchen was so narrow. When they’d walked through the house with their realtor, no one had thought to try opening it. Now they were stuck with it. When Marie pressed “on,” the motor mashed and ground, and the setting lights turned off.
“Tom!” She slapped the countertop and kicked the appliance. “It worked during the inspection. Curse this house!” she cried.
“Just leave it,” Tom said, exhausted already. “We’ll call a plumber in the morning.”
They were outsiders on their street; Tom assumed he was the only academic and neither of them had grown up in Pittsburgh. Instead of standing out, however, Tom felt more like they were invisible. No one ever acknowledged them. Until Marie’s secret admirer left the first note, and now here was the second.
He thought about someone watching Marie’s legs. They were lean, one of her best features. When Tom and Marie first met, she’d worn a short skirt, the kind that wrapped around and tied at the waist. Mutual friends had introduced them outside the Boston New England Aquarium. The steady breezes from the harbor flapped at Marie’s skirt revealing her upper thigh again and again while she used her hands to keep her hair from her face. Tom had almost kissed her that first afternoon by the curved glass exhibit of weedy seadragons, the yellow glow of the marine lights making him feel they were on another planet, illuminating Marie’s bare legs. He’d never told her that.
Tom’s phone buzzed in his back pocket. Georgia. When r u coming? Tom leaned into the cold living room window. The cat on the porch swing turned his head to look at him. He’d told Georgia he would help her move some furniture before they went into the office that morning. Georgia lived by herself, close to the university on Neville St. His phone buzzed again. I made us coffee.
“Marie,” he called, a circle of condensation appearing on the glass in front of his face. A school bus barreled recklessly by, the blur of yellow cutting through the overcast hang. The note had warmed in his fingers. “Hey, Marie! You look good in skirts!” He could hear the floorboards creak above his head.
“What?” Marie called down from the bathroom. “Tom? It’s too cold for skirts.”
When the first note arrived, they’d argued over who it was for. Marie had called Tom from home; on Thursdays he held evening office hours. The note, she’d said breathlessly, was written on a torn piece of yellow paper, in big loops and open circles for dots over the i’s.
“Middle school girl handwriting,” she said. Her own voice was less girlish, with a faint lisp.
“What’s that mean?” he asked. A mostly empty pizza box lay on the floor by Tom’s desk, and the office smelled of limp green peppers and grilled onions.
“It means, it looks like how you write in middle school. If you’re a girl. All balloon-like and cutesy.” Marie had paused. Tom could hear the news radio playing in the background at home. “It means, it’s not some creep waiting in the shadows with a knife.”
Tom wondered, if it was a girl, wouldn’t the note be for him?
You have nice hair.
He studied his own hair in the reflection of the data on his monitor. Georgia had told him he’d look good with it shaved close to his scalp, but he couldn’t decide. He’d always liked his floppy curls, even though his hair had started thinning with grad school. When he’d told Marie one afternoon that he was thinking of shaving it, she started sneezing and couldn’t stop. She left the room to get a tissue and didn’t seem to remember they’d been talking about him when she returned.
“Why? Why write that to someone? You have nice hair.”
“It’s for me. Must be,” Marie said through the phone. Her hair was blond and feathered down the sides, retro. No one had feathered hair anymore, except Marie.
Tom took a bite of cold pizza and had to talk with his mouth full. “You just said it was written by a girl. The note’s for me,” he said. Marie chirped. That was exactly what bothered Tom. She always acted like he was a secondary character. His phone buzzed against his ear. Hey u, the text read. Hemmingway’s after office hours?
“Well,” Marie said. She had called him from the landline in the kitchen. “These tiles give me a headache.” The kitchen walls were covered in glossy floor-to-ceiling tiles the color of Pepto-Bismol. “Let’s paint over them, can’t we?”
Tom thought about grabbing a beer with Georgia. Marie would be in bed before he got home, anyway. He drummed his fingers on the desk. “They’re ceramic. I told you.” Tom’s grad student office was poured concrete, light gray. Like sandpaper, and no windows. “We’d need a primer. Paint them each individually. Not worth it.”
“I think the pink may be bad for my health,” Marie said.
“Hey,” said Tom, doodling in his notebook. “I might have to stay late to help a student. I’ll see you in the morning.”
In November, Marie invited some friends from her new office for dinner, a belated housewarming party. Tom’s officemates came, too, a few of the older ones with spouses. It was unseasonably warm, so Tom grilled chicken out back, and Marie had made vinegar coleslaw and cornbread and they served chilled bottles of beer. Marie’s closest friend from work, Lily, brought brownies, and Justine, Marie and Lily’s supervisor, served iced tea from the pink kitchen until she broke out in hives from holding the cold pitcher in her bare hands. The sweet and smoky smell of the barbecue made the inside of the house feel like a camping trip, and the discussions were quick to get sloppy, too loud for the size of the party.
While Tom passed around the plate of chicken, Marie confessed to the secret admirer.
“Tom thought the notes were for him,” Marie said, tearing a piece of blackened skin from a chicken breast and eating it with her fingers. Tom held the plate while Justine’s husband served himself two thighs.
“Not both notes,” Tom said. “Just the first one. The second one talked about skirts, and— Well, I only wear my skirts at home.” He gave a little curtsy in his khakis.
“So what did the notes say?” Justine asked. Justine had a nasally voice that was both friendly and condescending. She had already sunken deeply into the vacuous Goodwill couch Tom had had since college; her legs were crossed, her knees on the same plane as her shoulders. Her husband balanced on the arm of the couch with his full plate.
“Mmm,” Marie said, sipping at her beer. She wore a jumpsuit that looked almost like an apron on top, and a tight white t-shirt underneath. Her signature beaded earrings dangled low. When they had dressed for the party, Tom thought Marie’s outfit looked dowdy, but now, with the barbecue smells and cigarette smoke and heat from the guests, Tom was turned on looking at her. One of the straps was caught at the edge of Marie’s shoulder, like it was about to slip off.
“The first note said I had nice hair,” Marie said with her lisp.
“Well, that’s obvious,” Lily said. “Tom, you thought that one was for you?”
Tom blushed slightly but turned the attention into a joke. He fluffed his curls. “Wouldn’t you?”
“Then there was one about my legs. That I looked good in skirts.”
Tom’s phone buzzed, and he put the serving plate down on the coffee table and started to walk into the kitchen to see what Georgia had texted.
“There’ve been quite a few, actually,” he heard Marie say.
Tom spoke before thinking. “More than two?”
Marie addressed their guests, not Tom. “I’d say there’ve been five or six, since the middle of October. Sometimes I get them two days in a row, and sometimes there’s more than a week between. Not knowing when to expect them makes it more exciting.”
Tom’s phone buzzed a second time.
Five or six notes?
“I’m embarrassed to say it,” said Tom’s officemate, Kevin. “I once wrote a girl an anonymous note in college. She was in my freshman writing class, one of those requirements for incoming students. Our section was called, Kafka, Hesse, and Mann, or something like that. We read a bunch of 20th century German books and wrote essays about them. Anyway, she was African American, and my high school had been all white, right? I grew up in a small town in Indiana. I didn’t know what to say to her, but she was so smart, always talking about symbolism and irony.”
“So you sent her a secret note?” Lily asked.
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “Just like your note, Marie. I told her I liked her hair and that I wished I was brave enough to ask her out.”
“So what happened?” asked Marie.
Kevin straightened out his legs. He was sitting on the floor against their bookcase. He held a beer in his lap. Tom and Marie only had one floor lamp in the living room, so it was pretty dim.
“Nothing happened. I never told her the note was from me. I never overheard her talking to anyone about it. That was the only class we ever had together, and I didn’t really see her much after that semester. It was a big school.”
“A girl in my hometown was kidnapped when I was growing up,” Justine’s husband said. “The police found all kinds of notes written to her, stashed in her dresser drawer. Creepy notes. They never found the girl.”
Justine spoke up. “Marie, you have to be careful!”
“You’ve had five or six notes?” Tom asked.
“I’m not worried,” Marie told Justine. “These notes are written by a girl, I’m sure of it. She couldn’t be older than high school.” She looked at Justine’s husband. “It’s not some mass murderer.” She turned around to Tom. “There’ve been a few more. I forgot to show you some of them.”
Tom put his hands in his pockets, felt his phone and remembered the incoming texts. He stepped back in the living room, picked up the serving plate and took it into the kitchen to refill with more chicken. He checked his phone.
Is the party a total bore?
Want to meet up on Sunday to go over the analysis section?
Lily came in behind him, carrying some empty plates. Tom put his phone back in his pocket.
“I’ve got total house envy,” Lily said. She stacked the plates in the sink. “We love Marie. Work is so much more fun now.” She grabbed a few pieces of paper towel. “Too early to bring out the brownies?” she asked.
Tom wondered what the other notes said. And why Marie hadn’t shown him.
“Brownies sound great,” he said. He wiped his hands on his pants. “Can you ask Marie to see who needs another beer?”
“The pink in here is crazy,” Lily said before she went back to the living room. “Who would think to put these up everywhere?”
When Tom walked back in with the extra chicken, he watched Marie getting up from the floor, laughing. She gathered an empty beer bottle from one of her colleagues and held it to her chest. She never wore a bra at home, and Tom wondered which of the men that night were thinking of her bare breasts under that fitted white shirt and the apron-like jumper.
After they bought the house, it felt like every evening and every weekend over the summer was spent pulling carpet or scraping paint. One hot morning before Labor Day they fought about the clogged laundry drain, and Marie told Tom she felt like she was carrying the weight of the home projects.
“I need to get out of this house,” she’d said.
The houses in their neighborhood stood side-by-side, solid brick homes fronted with well-groomed strips of gardens. Early on, Tom had thought next summer he could focus on the landscaping, add small gardens around their house, but for now, the indoor projects felt never-ending. Some of their neighbors grew banana peppers and basil plants in front along the artificial turf walkways of their properties, the gardens on full display from the sidewalk and road. One front lawn was covered in foil pinwheels, American flags, and a squat hummingbird feeder that dripped sugar-thickened water. They had never met the person who lived in that house. They hadn’t met many of their neighbors, yet.
“You said you would snake out the drain,” Marie said. She had her hair in a high ponytail and was sweating a bit around her hairline. The tips of her chunky bangs stuck to her forehead. Tom looked at Marie but thought about a text he’d gotten that morning from a new graduate student in his department, Georgia. She had asked Tom if he had time to meet for coffee. She wanted to know more about what to expect from the program, wondered if he might help her adjust to the rigors of graduate school. New students had arrived the week before. Georgia was the only woman in the group of first years, and had a raised mole the size of a dime by her temple. Her text had caught Tom by surprise.
“Don’t make these projects about me, Tom. About me whining to you about getting your share of the work done,” Marie said while they walked. Two boys in bathing suits raced by standing on their bike pedals. Both had towels draped across their shoulders. It was crazy hot. “I’m busy, too, you know,” Marie said. “Looking for a new job. Not killing myself with boredom at the Cog Sci lab.” The baseball game played loudly through a neighbor’s open windows. “I thought the house would make the difference for us.” It was the first time Marie had mentioned problems in their relationship. Tom had thought he was the only one who had been unhappy.
Marie slapped her shorts. They turned up a city staircase, overgrown with wisteria vines. Probably, buying the house together was a mistake.
Huh, huh, huh.
The throaty chop of a lion’s roar carried through the tangled vines and up the cement staircase. The sound enveloped Tom slowly, in a circle, like smoke from a campfire wrapping its wispy tails around his legs, his waist, his torso and neck. The deep, primitive cough filled him, then tore away, stripping him down to muscle and bone. Where were they? He wondered, briefly, if Marie had been stolen, but there she was, frozen next to him.
The silence following the roar beat in his ears. A rank stench drained from under Tom’s arms, almost choking his airway. He pinched his nose, stayed like that. The roar didn’t repeat itself.
It was several long moments before they acknowledged each other. Marie touched Tom’s hand with the side of her finger. Then she pulled her finger back.
“It’s the zoo,” she said. “We can hear the zoo from here.”
Tom couldn’t fall asleep that night. His body felt too light: empty and restless. The nearness of the lion’s roar splattered his vulnerability down the city stairs, across their street, and against the walls of their house. He wished he knew if Marie felt like he did. Afraid she might float away without being tethered to someone.
It got cold quickly after the housewarming party, and their radiators clanked loudly, forcing hot water through old lead pipes. Marie was in the kitchen waxing her legs when Tom heard the mail slot open and close. He ran to the door, not caring to check out the window this time.
“Marie!” he called. “Your secret admirer strikes again.”
“Bring it back here.”
The kitchen smelled like metallic heat baking into something gamey: warm and grass-like, and, up close, sharp. Stinging. Marie, at the stove, folded leathery wax into melted pockets of tacky liquid, her tarnished spoon making squishy sucking sounds as she pulled it through the hot brown wax. Tom stood in the kitchen doorway with his head ducked, watching Marie. She put her foot against the unlatched dishwasher door, which was slightly ajar, and began to spread the sticky wax in long strips from her ankle to her knee.
“Go ahead and read it,” she said. Marie wore one of Tom’s t-shirts like a nightgown. Tom didn’t know anyone else who waxed at home. It was an unbelievably intimate thing to do. He still didn’t know what the other notes had said.
“It’s hard to be noticed in this world.”
Marie stopped spreading and held the metal spoon over her leg. A teardrop of wax gathered at the end, and stretched long and thin before separating and falling to the kitchen floor. She frowned.
“That’s not so admire-y,” Marie said.
Tom followed the length of her outstretched leg. He scratched his elbow. “Hard to be noticed if you’re leaving anonymous notes, I’d say.”
Marie bent deeper in her knee. She lifted a narrow bit of hardened wax off the skin by her ankle with her fingertips. Once there was enough to grab tightly to, she used both hands to rip the longer run from her leg. She exhaled roughly but didn’t wince. Quietly, she said, “There’s something sexy in confiding in a stranger, though.” She considered for a moment longer. “Yes, I think.”
Tom touched his ear. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Marie use the word sexy. He fingered the smooth pink tile to his left. He’d asked Georgia to stop texting him. After he knew Marie was hiding things from him. Georgia had told him, no problem; of course. She said she hadn’t meant to be inappropriate.
“Do you still hate this color?” Tom asked Marie. “I was looking online at how to paint over ceramic. It’s not easy, but I think I can do it. If you want me to.”
Marie spread another strip of wax on her leg. She tapped it to see if it had hardened enough to pull. Her bangs had fallen in her face and Tom couldn’t see her expression. He wondered if the notes turned her on the same way they turned him on.
“I do hate it,” she said. “But it’s part of this house.”
It snowed the next day. The neighbor’s cat left paw prints across their back lawn.
“Tom, here’s another note,” Marie called from the living room when she got home from work. Tom rushed down the stairs. Marie stood in the open door, still wearing her hat and scarf, her mittens tossed on the couch. She looked up, breathless again. “This one’s a photo, actually.” She turned the photo over.
“Is there a note?” Tom asked. He had worked from home that day, racing against a submission deadline. He hadn’t had time to shower.
“I said it’s a photo this time. No note.”
Marie’s hair stuck up in waves around her neck and over the back of her woven coat. The tip of her nose was pink from the winter cold, and Tom came to stand behind her, looking over her shoulder. Her wool hat was musty-smelling and damp.
They studied the photo: a Polaroid of a fleshy thigh, and the angled bottom half of a green and gray plaid skirt, a Catholic school uniform. The white underwear pulled over a fleshy bottom didn’t show in the photograph, but Tom could see it, nevertheless. It trembled on the edges of the photo like a promise under Marie’s fingers.
“There’s our girl,” Tom said, clearing his throat. He lifted the photo from Marie and turned it upside down. “I thought maybe the skirt would fall up,” he joked.
“I was right,” Marie said excitedly. “I was right. It is a school girl.”
Tom put his arms around Marie, but she stood in her place, holding the photo.
“That party was fun,” he said, pulling her closer. “I think we should have another one. Maybe a new year’s party.”
Marie looked into his face, softened into his embrace. “Tom, I love that idea. We’ll plan it together.” After a moment, she went upstairs to change from her work clothes.
Tom made pork chops in the cast iron pan for dinner. He had to open the back door to vent the smell of meat and oil. The yard was blanketed in snow, and the kitchen got cold. The radiator clanked and groaned. Tom ran the faucet over a handful of cherry tomatoes, gently closing his fingers around the fruits to shake off the excess water over the sink. He dried his hands and waited for the meat to cook.
Tom put the photo on the fridge under a magnet that advertised a water heating company in New Jersey, near the Princeton campus where Marie had done her undergrad degree. He looked at the photo while holding onto the fridge door handle. The pink tiles marched across the kitchen walls in his periphery in regulated lines from the ceiling to the floor.
Tom pictured Marie in front of the full-length mirror in their bedroom. There was a tear in the side seam of her nylon bra, and the fabric stretched around an oval of revealed flesh under her arm. She turned her shoulders to look at her backside, twisting tightly at her waist, then removed her bra. She wore black underwear, nothing like the kind he imagined the secret admirer to wear. Just below the swell of her bottom was a marbled rise of scar tissue, where she had been kicked by a soccer cleat in high school. He thought about rubbing his fingers in tiny circles over the scar, asking her to tell him the story behind it.
Tom added the cherry tomatoes to the hot pan, and they split down their middles, the delicate skin tearing in jagged lines and revealing an almost colorless pink flesh underneath. As he agitated the ingredients with a wooden spoon, the yellow seeds oozed out of the tomatoes and began caramelizing in the meat fat.
Milena Nigam is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She was a finalist in Cutthroat Journal’s Rick DeMarinis 2014 short story contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in YARN, Slice, The Fourth River, Lunch Ticket, Full Grown People, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs and has recently completed a collection of short stories.