Susan Shepherd | Fiction

It was late in the fall of my freshman year in college when I met Lila. We were in our dorm common room. She’d been bent over her book for hours, her pen scratching the paperback as she scribbled notes. She didn’t acknowledge my presence, though we were alone and it was the middle of the night. I was curious, snatching glances at her between physics equations. I had seen her around campus and she always looked so free, the opposite of how I felt as I skulked from class to dorm to dinner.

Finally she straightened her back with a stretch and looked at me as if she knew I’d been waiting for her to speak. “Would you ever consider wearing some underwear for me?”

She got up, carrying A Farewell to Arms with her finger as a place-mark, and came to sit. The couch smelled of stale fried food. She looked at me with her large brown eyes and weirdly long lashes. “I’m starting a business.” Her mouth looked like a heart. “Men will pay me a lot of money. It’s a popular fetish.” She had an overbite and large top front teeth. One of them was a slightly grey cap that only made her more appealing.

“Really?” I pulled my jacket further across my lap. The heat in our dorm cut out at nine o’clock. “Who would have known?”

“Exactly. One night, a guy at my club in the Combat Zone asked me if I smell my panties to know if they’re dirty. I said yes, even though I don’t. I still owe tuition and I thought underwear would be a quick way to get it. So now I have this business.”

I closed my textbook. “I always smell mine. I don’t own a hamper so how else would I know if I’ve worn them?”

She laughed a lovely peal, and put her hand over her mouth, a habit, I later learned, she used to cover that tooth.

“I put ads in the Boston Phoenix. ‘Worn by college co-eds.’ That’d be us. I’ve already got more responses than I can keep up with myself. I’ll buy the underwear. Some lacy shit. And I’ll pay you, of course.”

“Sure, I can do that. It will save me doing so much laundry.”


Shortly before I went to college, my little sister Bella was killed while riding her bicycle. It was Florida dusk and it was likely hard to see her. The man who hit her didn’t stop, he left her there, her body mangled with her bike on the road. She was about to turn fifteen. Whatever happened to Bella, if she had a soul that left her or if she didn’t, also, in some way, happened to me. I felt that I left my body and I didn’t know how to reunite myself.

We had a funeral, which I remember almost nothing about, but I do remember that the next day the four of us took Bella’s ashes to the jetty at the inlet. She loved the water. We had walked there recently, Jack and Bella and I, to take a swim near the rocks, and had seen manatees. Bella had swum far out to them while Jack and I stayed closer to shore, calling to her to be careful, it was far, was she sure they were manatees? When she swam back she’d described how the baby had floated right next to the mother, afraid of this human swimming nearby, so she’d left them alone. But her face was shiny with wonder. She had always loved animals more than people, we all knew that. We dropped the clumps of Bella’s body and bones into the water where the manatees had been, and walked home slowly on the beach, no one speaking.

For my remaining time at home, my parents and Jack and I each retreated into our individual dark corners, as far from each other and anyone else as we could. We’d hear my father’s drunken crying and raging jags from downstairs, which kept the rest of us sequestered in our bedrooms. My mother dug in her garden all day, dry eyed. None of us said a word, especially not Bella’s name. Once I overheard my mother say “Anyone. But. That. Child.” Rocking back and forth as she shoved her spade into the earth punctuating each word.

On Bella’s birthday, several weeks after she died, Jack, who was twelve, came in my room and asked me what I was going to do with her present. We had shopped together and I’d bought her a fancy jump rope from Brookstone. She was an athlete, a gymnast. He held out a small box with a pair of earrings with gold flowers and a little pearl in the middle. “Do you want these, Piper?” He was small for his age. He looked so lost. I turned away, left him standing there. I couldn’t even hug him.

One of those days, I went into my parents’ room looking for something in my mother’s bureau; I didn’t know what. Stashed with her jewelry I found a small plastic bag holding the delicate gold necklace my sister always wore. I slid it into my palm. It was coated with crusty red powder, which I found interesting and odd. And then I realized what it was.

I arrived on campus three days too early, a mistake, I realized, when the startled admissions officer told me my room wasn’t ready. New carpet was being installed in my dorm where the roof had leaked over the summer and mold had bloomed and spread like a disease. So I snuck into the stacks in the library and slept there, comforted by the wafting smell of old books.

My dorm-mate, when I met her, was odd and unfriendly. She seemed older than the other girls, was muscular and thick, and was constantly doing sit ups on the pristine rug. Sometimes I’d forget my key and I’d stand outside knocking. She’d go still, not answer, nor let me in. I’d have to trudge all the way to the housing office. At night I curled into myself in the cave of my bottom bunk, while the strange girl snored above me. The pay phone out in the hallway afforded no privacy so I rarely called home, which was the place I most wanted and most didn’t want to be.

Once I met Lila I clung on to her. She was a girl invariably up to something— organizing poetry slams or marshaling teams for dart tournaments at the pub. Or we’d take the subway into Boston and go to the Rathskeller to play pinball. She was a genius, knew just when to jam the machine with her hip, always had every bell going off, every light flashing. We had wildly different backgrounds, which we analyzed late at night while avoiding homework. My mother was a teacher, my father a failing architect. Lila’s mother was institutionalized after she had chased Lila and her sister out of the house with a knife and left them to sleep alone on the street, huddled together for warmth against a concrete building. Her father had been out of her life for a long time. Her adored grandfather, the only person she felt had ever loved her, died when she was six, an operation botched by a sloppy surgeon.

Lila had asked the state to award her custody of herself—she was seventeen. She had gone to court to argue her case before a judge. No one would have said no to her. She had skipped a grade and the people around her could see how smart she was; the state gave her the monthly check that would have gone to foster care. Her younger sister wasn’t so lucky. She’d been placed in multiple homes. When Lila and I met, her sister was in the care of a husband and wife who where both having sex with her. She told Lila she was happy there and they were nice to her, so Lila needed to stay away and leave her alone. She was fierce.

By the time we were friends, Lila was putting herself through college with the money from the state and the extra she got dancing at the Caribe Lounge. I don’t think she liked men very much, but I could tell the job gave her power over those guys who wanted something from her. She always came back from the club energized. By the time we were sophomores we were roommates and slowly our relationship and her energy helped me climb out of my black hole. She didn’t want anything from me. Except my friendship, my love.

Lila and I ran the arts journal together and at one point published an underground newspaper called the Subterranean Bulge. A faculty advisor said we couldn’t include a story in the journal because it had a graphic sex scene. We were outraged, and filled our new paper with writing they never would have allowed, wrote a piqued editorial that we were being censored, and broke into the dean’s office in the middle of the night to Xerox hundreds of copies. By the next morning, we had distributed them all over campus.

After graduation we found a basement apartment together in a house on Beacon Hill. Lila started writing and got a part-time job as an editor of one of Boston’s gay newspapers. I sent off a pitch for a nature column to the big city paper. To my huge surprise they were interested and I started publishing pieces. I especially loved writing about the hidden life of plants; Darwin’s books, Fertilization of Orchids, and Insectivorous Plants, which I read in a botany class, had always been particular favorites. I would find new research to expand on any topic that caught my fancy: the nightly activity of house mice; mating among fireflies; the unbelievable lives of parasites that controlled their hosts like zombies. One of my articles was about echolocation in sharks. And that’s when the editor of a children’s magazine got in touch with me. He asked if I would write a reworked version for their fourth issue. He was offering a thousand dollars, which I badly needed. I was starting to feel no longer like a ghost, like I was re-emerging.

The editor wanted to meet in person. I didn’t want to go. His office was at his house in Marblehead, our appointment at ten. I needed to get up early to take the train. Lila was still asleep. She’d worked the night before, so her clothes were strewn all over the floor. I got dressed quietly and stirred instant coffee into a cup. I only had one suit, black; I had worn it to Bella’s funeral. I didn’t know why this guy wanted to meet with me. To my relief, I’d never had to meet the editor of my column at the paper. It was writing, and that was the thing with writing, the anonymity. I sat on the train, fretting.

The station in Lynn was empty. It was a weekday morning and all of the commuters had already hopped trains in the other direction. The bus to Marblehead came quickly and dropped me in the little town, with its brightly painted clapboard sea-themed shops. There was no one around. I walked a mile and a half to his house and started down his long driveway, wondering if he was watching me from one of the windows. I was self-conscious to be arriving by foot. It was a new house with an ornate wooden door and stained glass. I rang the doorbell and could hear the chime echoing somewhere inside. I waited. There wasn’t a sound except a couple of birds calling to each other in the yard. Staring at the door, I rang the bell several more times and then knocked. In spite of the cold day I was sweating. Finally I put my bag down and sat on the stoop. I was nearly in tears, and now the sweat had dried and I was getting cold. Had I gotten the time wrong? The address? On the road I watched a woman walking a golden retriever. Then she turned into the driveway. I stood, picked up my purse, and waited for her to arrive.

“Are you here to see Steve?” she asked. It sounded neither kind nor unkind. “He’s not answering?” She frowned. “I’m Kate, his wife.” The golden pushed up against my leg and left a stain of drool on my stocking. I was grateful to have something other than the woman to look at. She took a house key out from under a clay pot. “Don’t tell anyone about the key.” She said this with a little swagger of feigned secrecy, a slight smile, and then she opened the door, led me inside.

The house was impeccable. Glossy marble floors in the entryway. Minimally furnished. I’d never been in a house before that had interior vistas. She hung her coat in the closet and led me into the kitchen. “Do you want coffee, tea?” I sat on a stool at the counter and asked for tea. “What time was Steve supposed to meet you?” She said the last part with evident annoyance. “You must be freezing.” We both turned toward the sound of a garage door opening. “Well. I guess he’s finally here.”

He came into the kitchen wearing sweats, his hair wet. Kate turned to the stove where the kettle had started a jarring whistle. She flicked off the gas and the sound petered out. He looked at me. “Let’s go up to my office.” I glanced at Kate’s back. Should I wait for the tea? But she stayed silent and gave no sign. I picked up my purse and followed him.

His office was magnificent. One whole wall of glass overlooked the huge back yard. He offered no apology or explanation for his lateness, as if I’d been the one to err. He indicated for me to take a chair and he sat down behind his desk. I guessed he was in his forties. He looked worn but he had the body of a young guy, which he positioned on his chair with all of the confidence of a man in a room with a young woman, to whom he is offering something he knows she wants. 

“Your byline says you’re a recent college graduate. Congratulations. You got off to a huge start.” I didn’t respond. I looked at him, blinking. I’d felt this before, even as a child: I had some kind of strange charisma, and it drew the wrong people to me and made them want something. He shifted his shoulders. When the silence got awkward, he turned his attention to my story, which lay on his desk in front of him.

“I don’t want you to change too much.” His smile was a grimace. “Newspapers are written to a fourth grade level, which is perfect for kids, so the language is right. You mention the megamouth shark. Kids will love that stuff. Expand on that.” He went on like that for awhile. I had taken out a notebook and I was writing it all down. But I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Somehow I could tell this wasn’t going as he had planned. He wasn’t getting the reaction he wanted.

When he finished talking he got up abruptly and came around the desk, planting himself in front of me.  I didn’t stand up. He was so close I’d be right in his face if I did, so I stayed seated looking up at him. Trapped.

“You know I tried to get a piece once in your newspaper. They didn’t take it.” He paused. “You’re not a bad writer.” I braced myself for the ‘but.’ Waited for him to say something else or move away. When I didn’t respond he started asking me questions. About where I was from. What my parents did. What my life plan was. He hardly listened to my answers. Aggressive. All the while planted in front of me, too close, so that I had to keep looking up at him. I kept thinking about his wife downstairs, hoping she’d barge in with my tea. And then I could feel the familiar disconnect from my body coming on. I felt like I was going to pass out. Finally I got up, grabbed my coat off the back of the chair, telling him I was going to miss my bus. “Send me your rewrite,” he called as I was leaving. I don’t know how I got myself to the station. I have no memory of getting home at all.

At Lila’s insistence, I rewrote the piece, and mailed it off to him. For weeks I heard nothing. I sent him a note. No response. I wrote again. Lila helped me write a letter, telling him he owed me a kill fee for all of the time I’d put into the piece. 

And then one night after work Lila came flying into our apartment, yanking off her scarf, telling me I wasn’t going to believe what happened. She had this client at the Caribe, who called himself Mark. But that wasn’t his name. That night she saw his credit card when he’d put it out for an open tab. He was the guy. The editor of the magazine. Steve Barber.

She used all of her power over him, her perfect skin, her blue eyes and long lashes, her gently placed hand on his thigh, her lovely laugh that was just for him, and she’d gotten him talking, had drawn him out, worked the conversation around to publishing, his magazine, the writers. And then he told her about this young writer he was stringing along.

“I’m not going to publish her piece.”

“Why not?” She tapped her glass. “I’m empty here.”

“I don’t like her.”

“Really? Just like that?”

He called for the bartender. “I can’t work with her. She needs to be reined in. She needs to be taught a lesson.”

“She sounds terrible.”

“And she thinks she’s going to get me to pay her. What a joke.”

And when Lila told me this, her eyes shining with fury, whatever thin walls had been holding me upright buckled.  For some reason I still can’t explain, what this guy did broke me.

We drank shots of tequila together lying on her bed and I fell asleep. I woke up a little while later and she was beside me.

 “If I stand up,” I said, “The drunk always comes back.”

She rolled over, her face in front of my face, her hand under her cheek, her dark hair spread on the pillow. “That’s what we used to say about my father. While you were sleeping, I’ve been thinking about this. I’m going to take care of it. This fucker is not going to win.” She rolled over on her back and spread out her arms and legs like a snow angel, looking up at the ceiling. “We are going to take him down. We know how to do this.” Each time she said ‘we’ I winced.

“No, Lila. I’m done.”

But Lila didn’t care what I wanted. Every time she saw him, thereafter, she gathered intel. About his life. She got it all out of him. He seemed happy to be asked, more than happy to talk about himself. And then he told her he was going away. A family vacation. He wouldn’t come to the club for two weeks. Already he was jealous she’d spend too much time with some other customer. He offered her a wad of money to stay away from the club while he was gone, and she leaned in, whispered in his ear, “Oh that’s so hot.” She excused herself to go to the bathroom and called me from the pay phone near the back door. She could barely conceal her triumph telling me the story.

“You need to come to the Caribe.” I could hear the techno beat of Cindy Lauper’s ‘She Bop’ in the background. “Get in a cab right now. Bring your camera.”

I hadn’t left the apartment in weeks. I was so depressed. “I told you, I’m not doing this.”

“No Piper, we have to. You are the worst I’ve ever seen you. And I know you’re not going to get over this until you make him pay.” Lila said. “Trust me.”

But I had no interest in making him pay. I didn’t understand revenge. People do terrible things. The whole world felt reckless and unsafe. Like it was personal, and my family had done something wrong. I had done something to deserve Bella’s death. This thing with this guy was more of that.

But Lila wanted me to stop feeling helpless. And she was the stronger of us. So I went to the club. Huddled in the back of the cab, which reeked of cigarettes, I clutched my little Canon. Nauseated.

I got out of the cab on the corner of Tremont and ducked down the alley where the dancers entered the club. Lila was waiting at the door. She grabbed my coat and pulled me inside. The hallway was over-lit, grungy paint on the walls.

“You okay? You look terrible. Take a picture of him with me. Insurance, in case we need it. But don’t let Danny see you. Keep the camera under your coat. No one is allowed to take pictures in here.” She still had my arm and she led me down the hall.

I was worried I’d get caught, but I got a picture of them together. It was dark I had to use long exposure and keep the aperture open, but I got it. He was nuzzling her neck and she had her hand near his crotch. She was wearing white lace, dressed like a virgin, which for all I knew she might technically have still been. I’d never known her to have sex with a man.

I waited around for another hour for her to get off work, hung out in the dressing room where the women came and went, putting on makeup, changing costumes. All the women had their thing. A nearsighted vamp wearing red, carefully lined her mouth with lipstick, leaned right up to the mirror and lit one cigarette after another, always two curls of smoke rising from her ashtray. We all sipped her tequila, which she poured from her hidden stash. The drinks the men on the floor bought for them were overpriced and only had a taste of alcohol. That’s how the club made money. When the manager came in, they stowed their glasses and grew silent and then started up their chatter as soon as he left. It was the most fun I’d had in a while. When Lila was done for the night, she came in and looked me over, pleased.

A few days later, we got up early and caught the train out to his house, retracing the route I had taken a month earlier. The key wasn’t under the flower pot. Lila broke a window in the basement and climbed in. She opened the front door for me, grandly, welcoming me into her house. We brought our suitcases up to the master bedroom. The bed was crisply made. In the walk-in closet, Kate’s clothes were hanging in color-coordinated rows on one side, Steve’s suits, sports jackets and shirts on the other. All of the hangers matched. Lila plucked at his luxurious cotton shirts. “It’s all his wife’s money. He told me that.” We wandered around the house, sitting on white couches, looking through kitchen cabinets. We made toast dripping with expensive butter and took it out to the deck. It was a chilly October day. One of those back yards planned from scratch, a house built on a cleared lot. Too many spindly rhododendrons, not like the lovely massive ones around the old houses in Cambridge that look like they’ve been taking their place for a hundred years. There was a sandbox, a wooden climbing structure with swings, a little playhouse painted the same color as the house. He had kids. Young kids. In all of his talking to Lila, he’d left that part out.

That night we pulled silk nightgowns from the wife’s bureau and slept in them. We washed our faces and patted on cream with products we’d never heard of. The next morning sitting in the silent kitchen while Lila slept upstairs I watched a red fox trot through the carpet of yellow leaves in the backyard. That afternoon Lila dragged me to the beach and we scrambled out on boulders to lie in the sun. The wife had labelled dinners in the freezer and we ate lasagna. We threw open the windows to sleep, and could hear the surf. We lived like this for days, making ourselves at home. I was getting used to our inquiline existence. We lived that way, wearing all of the wife’s clothes, eating their food, leaving stuff everywhere, for over a week.

One morning we were lounging in bed eating toast and jelly. She was wearing Steve’s silk pajamas, which still had dry-cleaning tags on them, commenting on articles in the day’s paper, being her brilliant self. I had the duvet pulled up to my chin, and I listened to her voice and the tattering birds and felt the sun on my face as it rose across the sky. And then we heard a car turn into the driveway.

We both jumped up, knocking Lila’s toast off her plate, staining the sheet with raspberry. The room was a disaster. Lila had gone into Boston the night before to dance and her shit was strewn everywhere. I’d been wearing Kate’s expensive workout clothes; we’d been availing ourselves of all the luxuries—gin, those thin crackers that taste like nothing. It was all everywhere. Through the window we could see two women getting out of a small car with a vacuum cleaner and a bucket filled with cleaning supplies.

“Grab everything with your name on it.” Lila was pushing makeup, perfume, subway tokens into her big purse. We flew down the hall to the Steve’s office and closed the door. The women were talking downstairs the vacuum banging on the wooden risers as one of them trudged up to the second floor with it. We opened a closet door and tumbled into the darkness. The woman still downstairs called up loudly, “This place’s been hit by a cyclone. Don’t they know what a dishwasher’s for? You fricking put the dishes in it.” They both laughed and one said, “That is incorrect Brenda. That’s what fricking housekeepers are for.” From the kid’s room down the hall the woman called down to her friend: “Can you imagine us living this way when we were kids?” That set them off laughing again and one of them started a fit of coughing.

Lila huddled against me. “If they find us, run like crazy.” She smelled like stale perfume and smoke. The cleaners got quiet as they mopped or dusted. Then the vacuum cleaner whined towards our closet. We kept utterly still. When the vacuum quit, we heard the woman walk out of the room and down the steps. We waited for the front door to close and listened for the car to start. From the window we watched them drive away.

“I can’t do this anymore. We have to go.”

“We have five more days,” she said. “You like it here. This is nice for you. Look at how good you look in that nightgown.” She laughed.

“You can stay if you want. I hate it now.”

I went downstairs to gather together my stuff and when I came back up Lila was sitting in a jumble of Steve’s suits, cutting out the pants’ zippers.

“Stop,” I said, trying to take the scissors from her. “This is too much.”

“He’s despicable,” she said. “If you’re not going to help, go away.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not doing it for me,” I said.

After she’d made a mess of the house, she splurged on a cab home for us, talked manically the whole way. She didn’t seem to notice that I sat huddled away from her and was silent. I kept thinking of Steve’s wife and kids, how horrified they’d be when they got home and found the mess. Realized someone had been in their house. Lila wasn’t phased by it. Her eyes were shining and it scared me.

With the money she made as an editor and writer Lila could afford to stop dancing. She went back to the Caribe one last time. Steve showed up halfway through the night. She was extra flirty, told him how much she’d missed him, asked about his trip. But he was different. On edge, quiet, uneasy. He was still buying her drinks, but he wasn’t smiling, wasn’t holding forth in the usual way. He sat close to her, but didn’t catch her eye. At one point he said something about Marblehead. As if he was making a connection to the club, the break in, but it was too cloudy and unknowable for him to put any of the pieces together.

She gave him her widest smile. “I hear it’s a beautiful town. You live there, don’t you?” She told me she looked him in the eye and held his gaze. Let him know. But he didn’t see her. Telling me the story with every detail relished, she laughed about the advantage of being invisible. “He never once asked me anything about myself. Where I was from, what my real name was, if I had gone to school.” She said she knew a guy like that would never be able to string together a story that allowed a stripper to pull off such a stunt.

When I got a formal rejection from Steve, two handwritten sentences with no payment, I tore it up. And I never told Lila. Over the next few weeks and months, alongside my humiliation, my shame, my anger at her bloomed.

I applied to grad school in landscape architecture. In California. The other end of the country. I acted like it was just part of life, that of course we couldn’t stay in the same place forever. I didn’t let myself feel how much I was losing. And I pretended I didn’t know what it meant to her. How devastated she was by my leaving.

We lived together for eight more months. She kept trying to get us back; I kept retreating further. When I packed up what little I had, Lila sat on my bed and cried.

I didn’t see her again for fifteen years. At the beginning, she tried to stay in touch, but eventually she stopped. I’d gotten married, had a daughter, and I’d built up a landscape design firm. I loved the work, loved the intricacies of plants. Then one warm spring day she showed up at my house. It was a strange coincidence because I had just that morning come across an article of hers in a political journal, really astute—she was as sharp as ever. When I opened the door, Lila stood on my porch, half turned away, looking at my yard. She turned to me and laughed, covered the tooth, and I couldn’t help but let out a happy yelp.

We sat in my back garden drinking cups of mint tea, surrounded by the sweet smell of narcissus. She picked up a puppet my daughter had abandoned on the stone earlier that morning. “You have a child?”

“She’s named after my sister. We call her Ellie.”

That seemed to please her. “I’m glad you had a girl.” We looked at the garden. At one point she told me she sent the picture to Steve’s wife.

“The one I took at the Caribe? With his hand on your thigh?”


I thought about that. “You probably did her a favor.”

We settled back sipping our tea. My garden was a mishmash of varieties I’d audition, before planting them in my designs. A native berry bush was a new favorite, and I’d dug in two more of them that week. It only blooms if you plant a pollinator, which doesn’t itself produce berries. I’d always been interested in pollinators. You just need one somewhere else in the vicinity. It doesn’t have to be close by. The dust fills the air and find its way to other plants and fertilizes them, a silent language of biology that is everywhere, all the time unseen, until it lands in just the right place, or the wrong place, depending on temperature or wind or law of attraction. It’s everywhere, always all around, whispering things to us we don’t hear.