She sits, drawing in the sand under a salty breeze. A gull, silhouetted by the dawn, shrieks a summons: "The time has come." The tossing waves echo the years pillaged by who she once was. They are her battle cry — Charge! She dives into the current of her own bloodstream to plunder the riches of her heart, never again to be buried, just an X on some secret map. (123 West Ave. Find me.)
Calvin Cline — not to be confused with Klein — turns the large maple leaf over in his hand. The topside is a typical autumn rust. The strange message is on the underside, handwritten in fine-point silver glitter. Intrigue roils through his body like adrenaline. He looks around the downtown avenue, uncertain of what he expects to see, but the street is empty.
“What took you so long?” says his girlfriend, Carla, as she answers her door. She turns to hunch over a vanity. “We have to be there in twenty minutes.” Her displeasure drips from the last two words. She looks like a million bucks, and he feels under-dressed.
“Check out this leaf,” says Calvin. “Someone wrote a message on it.”
Carla fusses with her mascara. She looks at the tube and huffs, then tosses it into a wastebasket. “Expired.” She turns to Calvin and flutters her lashes. “Are the clumps very noticeable?”
Calvin is holding up the leaf, but she ignores it. It registers on some vague emotional ledger that this is typical of her — this indifference. But it won’t be the hill he dies on today. “You look great,” he says.
She offers a wan smile, then looks him up and down. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
He regards his attire of khakis and turtleneck with a blazer. “Not dressy enough?”
“It’ll have to do.” The knife twists in his self-consciousness. “We’re late.”
The address on West Avenue is a storefront with a hand-painted sign that reads, Mandy’s. The interior lights are off. He checks the address on the maple leaf once more.
Calvin had retrieved the leaf after walking Carla home from the fundraiser at her father’s oceanside residence the night before. He’d been as under-dressed as he’d feared at the semi-formal soirée. “You’d think someone with a name like Calvin Cline would know how to dress properly,” she’d hissed, after scuttling him into a corner. Back at her apartment, she’d slammed her bedroom door in his face, signaling the end of their evening.
“Good morning,” says a voice beside him.
There is a fortyish woman smiling at him, and his peripheral vision collapses. Embers of her auburn hair dance in the midmorning sun, above the molten chocolate pools of her eyes. The tassel hem of her cardigan sweeps from one shoulder down to her faded jeans. Her peachy-coral mouth is drawn up in a smirk as she watches his observations.
Calvin swallows, and can only wave a hello.
“Here for the exhibit?” says the woman, fiddling with a key ring. “I’m not actually open for another half hour, but you can come on in.” She pulls the door open and flicks on the lights. “Sally Steadman is a local treasure — I just love her work.”
Calvin follows close behind as she enters. Her knee-high boots click on the tile with each confident stride, with powerful-looking legs, jutting from her shapely ….
She turns, and it is obvious she’d noticed where his gaze had just been. His face grows hot.
She winks and moves towards a wall of paintings, “Steadman’s so gifted with her use of energy. I mean, look at these brush-strokes.” She touches a ridge in a swirling abstract painting. “True genius. You can feel her anguish.”
Calvin watches the woman’s admiration. He’s never been much of an aficionado, but through her enthusiasm, he can see the piece’s beauty. He follows close by as she steps through the collection. “They’re beautiful,” he says.
“So what brings you in today?” she says, touching his arm. Calvin’s heart rate ratchets up a notch.
“Right,” he says, reaching into the large pocket of his college hoodie. “I found a leaf with your address on it. Did you write this?”
The woman’s face brightens. “I can’t believe someone actually found one!” Her wide eyes ensnare him. “I put these all over town. Where’d you find it?”
He tells her, but leaves out that it was in front of Carla’s apartment. He feels a twinge of guilt when he realizes he doesn’t want this woman to know he has a girlfriend.
Her pupils dilate when she says, “You might think this is crazy, but I … no, I shouldn’t say.” She turns away and blushes.
“Please, go ahead.”
Her nervous laugh echoes in the gallery. “Well,” she says, “I promised myself that the first person who came in here with one of my leaves, I would ask out on a date.”
“Oh!” Calvin’s heart threatens to climb out of his throat. “Wow.”
She shrugs. “I told you it was crazy.”
“I’m the first person to come in with a leaf, so ….” He can hardly believe what he just implied. He’s never been unfaithful before. But the contrast between this woman and Carla makes him question every romantic decision he’s ever made.
“Are you saying you want me to ask you out on a date?”
“Now, now. That’s putting all the pressure on me. It’s your promise to keep.”
She covers her beaming smile with her hand and bounces on the balls of her feet, then blurts out, “Willyougooutwithmesometime?” Then she puts her hands over her eyes.
Calvin takes a deep breath and says, “I would love to.”
And there it is. For all intents and purposes, his relationship with Carla just ended. Now someone just needs to break it to Carla. He wonders if she’ll even be upset.
The woman glows. “Really?”
“Really. But I don’t even know your name.” He extends his hand. “Calvin.”
Her warm fingers clasp his. “Call me Mandy.” He wonders if she feels the same electricity.
As predicted, Carla hadn’t been too bent out of shape when he’d told her it wasn’t working out. “Whatever, Calvin,” she’d said. “Someday you’ll regret losing me. I could have made you into something special.” It hadn’t been worth arguing that he already felt he was.
Mandy makes him feel special, too. Their first date has brought them from window-shopping on the boardwalk, to strolling in affable conversation along the shore, eating waffle cones. They watch the gulls soar and dive above the rolling Atlantic waves.
“So,” Calvin says, “what inspired that inscription on the leaf?”
Mandy has a far-off look in her eyes. “I was once a trophy wife. A handsome businessman wooed me right into a real dungeon of a marriage. I’m just not cut out for that life, I guess. He wasn’t physically abusive, but emotionally … I was so broken. He made me feel like a treasure. That might work for some, but I want to feel like a person. That excerpt was from the journal I kept during therapy, after I’d escaped.”
Calvin brushes her arm. “I’m glad you were able to get away.”
He thinks about how he might just as easily have ended up being Carla’s trophy husband. He's a handsome young man, after all. Carla had already been sanding off his rough edges so that he wouldn’t snag on the silky fabric of her lifestyle. But people’s rough edges are often their best features. He delights in the idea of fitting Mandy’s odd shapes together with his own, like puzzle pieces.
Mandy entwines her fingers with his and swings their arms. “This is nice,” she says. “I feel really comfortable with you.” Then she squishes her ice cream against his nose and takes off running through the wet sand, laughing with childlike abandon.
Calvin catches up with her and they tumble into the sand. Side by side, they gaze into each other’s eyes, panting. Mandy scoops melted ice cream from Calvin’s nose and places her finger on his tongue. Calvin sucks her fingertip provocatively.
“I think you were meant to find that leaf,” she says.
He moves a lock of her hair from her cheek, and tucks it behind her ear. “I agree.”
Then their mouths collide from the unbearable gravity between them.
A week has passed, and the two have been inseparable. The sky has just begun to brighten in Mandy’s apartment above the gallery. Spooned against her warm back, Calvin watches the gray-gold dawn move across her lustrous hair, and his heart aches with affection.
“Mother!” a voice calls from the stairwell. There is a jangling of keys, and he hears the stairwell door open.
Footsteps approach. “Mother, we’re going to need to … Oh. My. God.”
Calvin and Mandy both raise their heads to the young woman in the bedroom doorway.
“Carla?” Calvin says. He looks at Mandy. “You’re Carla’s mother?”
Mandy blinks. “How do you know Carla?”
“He’s my boyfriend,” Carla says. “Was, rather.”
Mandy sits up, pulling the bedsheet over her bare chest. “Well, this is awkward.”
Carla snorts. “You think?” Then she levels her venom at Calvin. “So this is why you broke it off with me? Wanted some hot geriatric action?”
“I didn’t know she was your mother,” Calvin says. He can feel the words pierce Mandy’s spirit right after they leave his mouth.
“Ew,” Carla says, scrunching up her nose. She walks back down the hall, repeating, “Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew!”
Calvin’s eyes seek out Mandy’s, but she turns away. They dress in silence.
“I think you’d better go,” Mandy whispers.
Calvin’s heart cries out inside his chest, but only he can hear it. He nods.
Carla is in the kitchen, staring daggers at him. As he closes the stairwell door behind him, he hears her again shout, “Ew!”
Mandy has disappeared.
The gallery has been closed all week, and she won’t answer the door or her phone. Calvin wanders the boardwalk, reminiscing. He gets a waffle cone, but it’s tasteless, so he breaks off pieces to feed the gulls.
In despair, he pulls up Carla’s contact page on his phone. For a moment, his thumb hovers over the call button, then he taps.
Carla’s exasperated voice comes over the line after a couple of rings. “Seriously?”
“Look,” he says, “I’m sorry for what happened. But how could I have known she was your mother?”
“She’s old enough to be your mother, Calvin.” Carla makes a gagging noise. “God, doesn’t that even bother you?”
“Please, Carla, I didn’t call to argue. I … I love her.”
There is a clatter and more muted gagging noises. “What do you want, Calvin?”
“I can’t get a hold of her,” he says, throat clenched with emotion. “The gallery is closed, and it doesn’t seem like she’s ever home. Her phone just goes straight to voicemail. Don’t you have some way to reach her?”
The line is silent.
“Yeah, I heard you.” She lets out a dramatic sigh. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but ….”
There is another lengthy pause.
“Ugh! Fine! She’s in a facility upstate, OK? She’s been committed, Calvin.”
“Committed? You mean like in a mental hospital?”
“Riverview Institute. Daddy said she had a breakdown, that day I found you two” — another gag — “in bed. So he had her committed. He’s her conservator, you know.”
“No,” Calvin says, “I didn’t know that.”
Carla sighs. “You should just move on, Calvin. Daddy still has his claws in her. I know you and I didn’t exactly part on the best of terms, but I still don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Calvin’s heart is fully wedged in his throat now. “Thanks, Carla.” Then he disconnects.
He plops into the sand while the gulls fight over the remains of his cone. He can almost feel Mandy next to him on the beach, just like that first day. Tears stream down his cheeks as he struggles to reconcile the Mandy he knew, with the woman Carla just described.
Back in his apartment, he showers off the beach sand, then slumps onto his sofa in a towel. On his coffee table, under the latest National Geographic, he notices the corner of another maple leaf. He slides it out and turns it over, where he finds a silver glitter inscription like before:
My dearest Calvin. Don’t believe a word they say. Love, Mandy.
Elation ejects him from the sofa. Things are starting to fall into place. His heart wouldn’t accept the version of Mandy that Carla tried to sell him, and at last his brain agrees. He wrestles into his clothes, grabs his car keys, and dashes out the door.
Close to midnight, he pulls to the side of the road outside Riverview Institute. The entire perimeter of the facility is a three meter brick wall, with one wrought-iron entry gate. Spotlights illuminate the grounds on all sides of the sterile-looking structure. Far more of a prison than a mental hospital.
A delivery van trundles up to the gate and he can hear a crackling radio conversation. He dashes in the moonshadows to the rear of the vehicle and clings to the rear door, just as the gates rumble open. When the vehicle reaches the carport, he slinks behind some shrubs. Workers begin offloading various boxes and bins — one of which contains stacks of folded scrubs.
Calvin pulls a handful of gravel from the landscaping, and chucks it down the driveway, where it clatters against the concrete. As he’d hoped, the workers turn their attention to the noise and move away from the van to investigate.
He rifles through the scrubs for an extra large pair, and then grabs a crate of surgical gloves, before ducking back under cover just as the grumbling workers return. By the time the van chugs away, the scrubs are on over his clothes.
On the side of the edifice, a couple of employees in scrubs are having a smoke. Calvin approaches them, casual as can be, carrying the box of gloves.
“Hey buddy,” he asks one smoker, “mind if I bum one? I left mine at home.”
The employee does a double-take, but shrugs and fishes out a cigarette for him.
He stifles a cough from the acrid smoke. “Thanks. You’re a life saver.”
Soon, the employees swipe their entry badges and head inside. Before the door closes, Calvin wedges his foot in the doorway, waits a moment for the employees to round a corner, then enters, dropping the gloves in the hallway.
“Now what?” he whispers.
He looks both ways down a long hall, and spots an arrow at one end that reads, Residents. His heart is beating out of his chest as he passes by each windowed doorway. Luckily, the facility is deserted for the night shift, and most of the windows are dark.
In a break room, a man stands with his back to Calvin, warming something in a microwave. A white doctor’s coat is draped across a chair back. Calvin tiptoes into the room and swipes it just as the microwave beeps. He tugs it on as he jogs down the hall.
The nurse’s station stands as a bastion between him and the residential wing. Time to put his doctor costume to the test. He strides with feigned confidence past the station and nods to the on-duty nurse. “Evenin’,” he says.
The nurse responds, “Doctor.”
He is a stone’s throw past the desk when the nurse calls out, “Excuse me.”
Calvin freezes and turns, cobbling his shattered nerves into the semblance of a smile.
“You didn’t sign in,” she says, holding up a clipboard.
“Of course,” Calvin says. “How absent-minded of me.” He scribbles the name from his badge onto the log and marks the current time. On the wall beside the nurse is what appears to be a chart of patients’ rooms, but it’s too far away to read.
He gleans the nurse’s name from her badge. “Tracy, would you be a dear and find a cup of water? I’ve got some meds for a patient of mine.”
“Of course, doctor.” The nurse sways to the galley across the room. Calvin dashes behind the desk and scans the log for Mandy’s name. He finds an Amanda Reeves among the names, in room 32. This must be Mandy. There is also a key ring on the desktop, which finds its way into his pocket.
The nurse returns with the water and he bids her goodnight.
Room 32 is dark. There is a faint silhouette of someone on the bed within. He tries various keys until at last the lock clicks open, and he enters.
He touches the shoulder of the patient. “Mandy?”
The patient turns to him with sleepy eyes. “Calvin.” She smiles. “I hoped you’d come.”
“We don’t have much time,” he says, helping her out of bed.
Wearing only baggy pajamas, Mandy clings to his arm as they slink back into the hall. They navigate through a veritable maze, until at last they burst out into the chilly night at the rear of the institute. Inside, an alarm blares.
“What now?” Mandy asks.
A Tahoe screeches to a stop beside them, and the passenger window descends. Carla is at the wheel. “Get in!” she says.
A bewildered Mandy and Calvin jump into the back seat and Carla peels out. The iron gate lies mangled from Carla’s forced entry. She drops the couple at Calvin’s car.
“Daddy’s going to tan my hide for this,” she says, handing Mandy a wad of cash, “but it broke my heart when he locked you up again. You deserve to be happy, Mama.” She holds Mandy’s hand. “Go on now. Go and live your life.”
To Calvin she says, “Take care of my Mama.” She is gone in a cloud of rubber smoke.
Hand-in-hand, they speed towards the interstate and a world of possibilities.