There’s Rachel again, making faces outside my window. “Hey Matty, you Italian Stallion,” she laughs. “Are you gonna let me in or what?” When I shake my head, she pouts, and I turn away. I look back, and she is gone.

    She comes to my window almost every night, fingers tapping on the glass. Click click click. Let me in. She is always laughing. Matty, you stud, open the window. It is dark but her eyes are blue and bright as lanterns. I want to tell her to stop doing this, it can’t be good. But somehow I can’t bring myself to say it. I’d hate for her to go. If she goes now, she’ll never make it back again. I’m certain of that.

She graduated in a white gown with her arms full of irises, me on her right and Bobby on her left. We had the same last name, all three of us, which was unexceptional only in that our shared name was Russo. There were four other Russos in our graduating class at Rutgers, all full-blooded Italians. We met during registration fall of freshman year, under the violent lights of a damp, custard-colored classroom.

    Rachel was not beautiful. But she smelled like someone beautiful; sweat like wet grass and firewood, reminding you of summer camp, of sitting by the lake at night with your arm around some girl. She was fresh, bohemian—part of the earth and the natural state of things. After I came to know her, it seemed I could not remember a time in my life when Rachel had not been there somewhere—she was the girl at the checkout; she was the dentist’s assistant; she was the woman I passed in the street. She was part of every memory, always in the background, telling me, I’m here, Matty.

    She often wore leggings and bright patterned dresses. She’d throw her arms around my elbow and rest her pink face on my shoulder. “You’re a cutie, but I’m glad we’ll never date. I like you too much.”

    She laughed when she said this, but senior year at Rutgers she asked Bobby out for coffee and they began to date exclusively. I suspect she’d been in love with him from the start. He had tragic Bob Dylan eyes and a jaw heavy as wood. But with his thick black hair he was more handsome than she was pretty, and I could tell she felt fortunate to be with him—chosen, almost—like the oboist asked to prom by the quarterback.

    Rachel was slender, not even five feet tall. Sometimes she got little spots of acne on her forehead. From her mother she’d inherited a thin, humpbacked beak of a nose. But she also had eyes the color of smoke, haunting a gray-blue, and long hair so blonde it was white. She flaunted a petite, interesting kind of pretty, like the starlet’s spunky best friend, a Frenchy or Marty or someone like that. In films, these kind of girls are absolutely necessary, but only for comparison. They are meant to make the better looking ones even more stunning. Usually no one cares much about the Martys and the Frenchys; if it weren’t for the Sandys, we wouldn’t know them at all.

    I don’t know why Bobby decided to date her. He’d been with plenty of girls over the years. Perhaps being with Rachel was just easier—she was sweet, and comfortable, and she loved him. They laughed together.

    But who knows? I’m not going to say that’s all there was to it. I like to think that some part of him recognized the same thing about Rachel that I did—although he couldn’t put his finger on it—something neither of us would ever find again.    

    After graduation we rented a U-Haul and moved west to L.A., where Bobby and I rented a ground-floor apartment off of San Fernando Road, and Rachel moved into her cousin’s house three blocks away. The building where Bobby and I lived was shabby and small, located at an intersection. At night the headlights of left-turning cars fluttered across our living room like fairies. Rachel desperately wanted to live with us. The possibility of cohabitation—of graduating into a “grown-up” relationship with Bobby—thrilled her. But Bobby never asked, and she never pursued the issue.

    Rachel found a job in a bakery that made mostly wedding cakes, but its counters were always full of chocolates stacked in large glass jars sealed with cork. Rachel took orders and gave out cake samples in paper cups. Bobby and I worked nights as wait staff in the pizzeria next door, and before our shift we would come into the bakery to see Rachel and talk about that day’s auditions. We both fantasized about being in the movies, and Rachel would listen patiently as we reenacted every detail of the casting—what shoes we wore; how we said, Please, Marie, don’t go; the director’s expressions. While we talked, she sneaked us candy out of the glass jars.

    The thing was, Rachel was just about the only person in Hollywood who didn’t want to be an actor. She dreamt all along about moving to New York, becoming a photographer. But she wasn’t perfect; she was afraid. Avoiding a dream isn’t the same thing as succeeding, but it certainly isn’t failing.

So we’d been together four years, Bobby and Rachel and me. But let’s say it started the summer after we moved to Hollywood, when we were driving from L.A. to Anaheim in the brown Ford Bobby had bought from Rachel’s cousin. The way I remember it, Bobby was at the wheel. We were speeding south down Interstate 5 with the windows open. Rachel was snapping photos from the front seat with her Pentax ZX.

    So right there, that’s Rachel in the front next to Bobby, and me in the backseat behind her. She’s got a big hardbound book on her lap, full of black and white portraits of celebrities. That’s because we’re doing this thing we always used to do on road trips to pass the time, taking turns reading to each other. We also took turns choosing the book, and we’d gone through three of the Harry Potter books this way, and one volume of Langston Hughes poems, and after a while it got to be a superstition, like if we didn’t read in the car we’d all be doomed, so that eventually we started reading everywhere, even for a ten-minute drive.

    But on this particular afternoon Rachel pulls out this picture book, and it doesn’t take long for Bobby and I to realize there’s not a single word in that book past the copyright page.

    Bobby leans over. “Fuck, is that what you brought? How are you gonna read from that?”

    “I dunno.” Rachel shrugs. “I liked it. I’ll just make up the story to go with the pictures.”

    I press my face to the window. “Is there a bookstore around here? Bobby, stop when you see a bookstore, will you?”

    “Does it look like there’s a bookstore around here?”

    “Well then just stop on the side. We can leave Rachel there.”

    Rachel reaches behind her and swings her bag at me.

    We all laugh, but neither Bobby nor I want to admit that we are genuinely worried that she has brought catastrophe upon us. Bobby’s hands tighten around the steering wheel. He speeds up.

    “Hey, pull over,” I say. I’m thinking fast, trying to act cool. “I’ve gotta piss.”

    But Bobby only presses the gas harder.

    “Come on, turn off here, what are you doing?”

    Rachel grabs his leg. “Come on, slow down.”

    He looks over at her then, and back at me. Seeing our faces, so serious and afraid, he opens his mouth and begins to howl with laughter. The sounds roll out in waves, like rocks skipping fast over a lake. “Guys, guys,” he says finally, “I’m kidding.” He moves his foot from the gas to the brake. From my seat, I can see his foot searching for the pedal.

    But he’s still looking at Rachel, and suddenly the car in front of us brakes too, fast and hard. Rachel cries out, she grabs the wheel and yanks it toward her, and Bobby flings his hands in the air. Our car spins off the highway, through the guardrail, down the hill, and we are rolling and Rachel is screaming, I can hear her but I can’t do anything but close my eyes and sink into a dream of parachutes and clouds sliding like pucks across the sky.

When I wake up the car is destroyed, and red siren lights spin quietly like pinwheels above my head. Rachel and Bobby are sitting on the grass next to me.

    “Oh, he’s awake!” Rachel reaches out to touch me, but someone else is there and blocks her hand. “Don’t touch,” they say.

    I blink at her.

    “They had to pull apart the car to get you out.” Her eyelids are heavy and black, which means she’s been crying. “But it’s okay now,” she assures me. “You’re okay.” 

    I try to sit up but am forced back down again. “Let me up,” I say. “I feel fine.”

    “They’re gonna take you to the hospital. But you’re fine, so it’s okay. I called my cousin to take Bobby and me home. So we’ll see you soon, all right? Like, a couple hours.”

    Bobby puts his arm around Rachel. “Stay strong, my man. I’ll call your mom for you, okay?”

    “Tell her not to come. If she comes, I’ll never forgive her.” I struggle to sit up. I don’t see why I have to go the hospital, strapped onto a cot like an invalid.

    As they lift my stretcher into the ambulance, I see Rachel and Bobby bent toward each other, their foreheads touching. They are totally absorbed in each other now. They are absorbed in the beauty of their survival, this new life they have been given together. This second chance.

    “I love you,” she whispers.

    “I love you too,” he says. It is the first time he has ever said this to her, I know. He puts his hand on her cheek.

Bobby keeps his word when my mother checks in that afternoon, and tells her I’m working late at the restaurant. Rachel comes to pick me up in her cousin’s cherry red car, her hair pinned back with bobby pins. When she throws her arms around me she holds the back of my head with her palm. “I knew they wouldn’t find anything wrong with you! Didn’t I tell you?”    

    The floor of the car is littered with cigarette stubs. “Don’t look at them,” Rachel sighs, searching her purse for the keys. “She’s a mess.”

    “I’m glad you’re all right,” I tell her. “We were lucky, weren’t we?”

    “You know, Matty,” she says, “it’s really just like a dream, this whole thing. Just like a dream.” She reaches toward me. For a second I think she’s going to hold my hand. But instead she dips her fingers into the console, where her lipstick is buried under a compact and a pack of tissues. She glances in the mirror as she puts it on. “I can’t believe it even happened. And with Bobby and me, it’s like, I think this has given him a new view on things. He was a mess when we got home this afternoon. He cried, if you can believe it.” She smiles to check for lipstick on her teeth. “He’s taking me out tonight. We’re going to some club.” 

    I try to imagine what I will do tonight, on the night of my own rebirth, while Rachel and Bobby are spinning eights over the dance floor.

    “You’re still in shock, aren’t you?” Rachel says. “I can see it in your face.” Then she really does take my hand. “It’s okay to be scared,” she tells me softly. “I’m here. It’s only me.”

When we arrive at the apartment the sun has gone down. Outside cars pass frantically. Bobby is watching basketball in the living room.

    “Ta da!” Rachel throws open the door. “And so he arrives, The Great Mateo!” She bows down at me.

    Bobby comes over and takes my elbow, clasping my back with his right hand. “Christ, I’m glad you’re okay. What a day.”

    I laugh. “Yeah, I know. Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?”

    “Right, totally right.”

    I can see Rachel out of the corner of my eye, fussing with a hair clip that’s just fallen out. “So,” I say. “I hear you guys are goin’ out tonight?”

    Bobby looks at Rachel. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”

    “Oh,” she says, surprised. “Okay.” He leads her into the kitchen and closes the door.

    Waiting on the sofa, I can see them as clearly as if I were inside that yellow kitchen with them. He is telling her, I know, that he can’t take her out tonight. There’s that audition tomorrow morning, and he’s decided to go. Seize the day, you know? Every minute counts.

    But you promised, she is saying, close to tears. How can you go to an audition? We almost died together.

    Yes, but we didn’t, did we? We lived so that we could go on with our lives. This is a sign. I’m meant to do this. It’s only a matter of time.

    When she doesn’t respond he pulls her closer, moves his hand through her hair. Hey, hey, he tells her. We’ll do it tomorrow night, okay? Same plan. Just tomorrow.

    Tomorrow is too late, she says. It won’t feel the same tomorrow. It’s like magic, this day is magic.

    When they emerge Rachel, holding her bottom lip between her teeth, sees me staring, then smiles and flops down on the couch across from me. Bobby sits down next to her and puts his arm around her. We sit there quietly engrossed in our private thoughts.

    Rachel breaks the silence. “You know,” she says brightly, picking at a thread on the throw pillow. “I think we should buy a puppy.”

    “Jesus, Rachel.” Bobby rolls his eyes. “What does that have to do with anything?”

    She shrugs. “I was thinking about it while I was driving Matty home. We saw somebody walking that lab down the street. Remember, Matty?”

    I put my hands in the air. “Leave me out of this.”

    I’ve offended her, though. “You don’t have to say it like that,” she says. “It could be your dog too. You live here, you’d have to help with it.”

    “But you don’t live here,” Bobby says. “How would we work something like that?”

    “We could share him. Like, you get him on weekends. Or something like that. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m here all the time.”

    “Like a divorced couple splitting the kid?” says Bobby.

    “Well, I could move in here,” she suggests.

    Bobby stands up then and kisses her on the forehead. “Let’s talk about this later, okay? I’m gonna go down the street and get us some food.”

    “Don’t worry about him,” I tell her when he’s gone. “He’s just freaked out by what happened. He wants to get back to his normal routine, try to forget the accident, you know? He feels guilty.”

    “I don’t want to forget it,” she says, but won’t look at me. She’s groping around her purse, and goes into the bathroom. I hear her cutting lines on the lid of the toilet bowl. A moment later, though—too quickly—she emerges. She stands in the doorway.

    “Forget it,” she says, and I’m not sure she’s talking to me. “What a fucking waste of my time.”

October: still no puppy, no moving boxes stacked on our living room floor. Rachel, though—to her credit—has changed a great deal since the accident. Her cousin has moved back east, and she’s between roommates. Alone more often now, she is quieter, more thoughtful than she used to be. Though she still drinks once in a while, she has given up drugs and cigarettes. She takes art classes on the weekends and has rediscovered the Catholicism of her childhood. I see her praying in the kitchen on the mornings when she has spent the night here, bent over the counter with the early light drenching her hair. She counts her beads, and her face is pearlized.

    This is Rachel, waiting for Bobby to wake up one morning and tell her how he’s been a fool, how all along she was the answer to his problems. Once, on one of those rare occasions when I go to her house without him, I find a tattered copy of Modern Bride stuffed between her toilet and the bathtub. She wants me to tell Bobby. She is using me as a messenger.

    They’ve been together over a year, it’s only natural; girls inevitably start thinking about wedding bells. But when I return I say, “So, Martha, what’s for dinner?” and pretend I never saw it. I have no intention of informing Bobby. I am certain this discovery will unhinge him. If they split up, Rachel will move back to New Jersey, and this means I will lose her.

    Sometimes when we all get drunk together and Bobby’s at the bar or in the bathroom, I think about saying to her, “Did you ever wonder about going away together, you and me? For good? We could go anywhere, Miami, Bali. Anywhere at all.”

    I feel light as paper, and the music is pounding, her face strobelit. I’m certain she’ll say yes. And then we could just blow away, Rachel and me. I could gather her up and we would float away, easy as pie, out of the purple light of the club, away from the painted faces and the stink of booze and the ice sizzling in our glasses, and into the night.

    But then Bobby returns, and she nuzzles his shoulder gently with her nose. And Bobby turns and looks at her with such tenderness that for a second I can see how it is she loves him. I see how it is that these moments, these pebbles of mutual affection, have grown over time into a castle, a golden palace where she can live and wait for him to return to her.

This is the last day. Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. We have decided to stay in L.A., and are planning a barbecue in Rachel’s backyard.

    Here are Bobby and I, sitting by the pool, the sun ignited. “Fuckin’ beautiful California!” we marvel, every day that week. “November and warm as shit!” But Rachel doesn’t seem as thrilled by the weather, unsettled by the warmth. It is the first Thanksgiving she will have spent this way—among the palm trees instead of the snow; a chipped red picnic table; paper plates for a dining room setting. 

    That night is the first that she doesn’t come over; she’s been cooking all day, and calls Bobby at eight to tell him she’s falling asleep. From my bedroom, I hear the murmurs of their good night.

    Later Bobby and I drink beer together and watch reruns of Home Improvement.

    “Does Rachel seem upset to you?” I ask. The liquid fizzes like mouthwash over my thumb as I undo the tab.

    Bobby purses his lips. “She’s still getting adjusted here. She’ll be fine.”

    “You think we should go over there?”

    “Naw.” He shakes his head. “She’s sleeping.” He pauses. “She’s a cool girl,” he says, as if to assure himself he has done all right with her. “She’s good.”

    Then we change the subject, and as the moon climbs we’re getting pretty loud and rowdy. But Bobby has more than I do, and before long he’s so drunk he’s doing the Tim Allen har-har-har all around the apartment—and then, bam!, he falls to onto the couch, passed out.

    I take off his shoes and cover him with a blanket. Then I turn off all the lights and creep into my bedroom.

That night I am awakened at midnight by sound of glass shattering in our living room. At first I think it is Bobby, stumbling his way to bed, until I hear a voice I don’t recognize.

    Someone has broken into our apartment, I am sure. Cell phone in hand, I grab the first heavy item I can find—my desk lamp—and sneak into the hallway. If it doesn’t go well, I can still call the police.

    But then I see Bobby, upright on the sofa. In front of him, amid the remnants of our glass coffee table, is Diana, one of the waitresses from the pizzeria. She’s drunk, swaying dangerously, hundreds of tiny glistening shards waiting to break her fall.

    “Bobby!” I shout at him from the doorway. He turns his head toward me slowly, confused, too far gone to understand what is happening.

    Then Diana topples fast. As she collapses I find myself sliding underneath her, arms tight around her waist. She barely touches the ground, although my own knees throb with the pain of a thousand different knives. “Jesus Christ, Bobby! Why didn’t you do something?”

    He is still sitting on the sofa, immobile.

    Diana looks over at me, grinning. “Matt? Is that you? Heeey!”

    Bobby shakes his head hard, like a pony, and blinks. “Sorry…sorry…” he says. “Dude. I’m fucking wasted.”

    Diana moves off me and falls onto the couch next to Bobby.

    “What the hell is going on?” I try to stand. The skin over my calves is shredded, glass jutting like quills from the wounds. A few of them are in deep.

    Diana waves at me to come closer, and when I do she leans toward me. “I walked. Here,” she slurs. “From the bar. At the corner. I came to see. Bobby.” She presses her mouth against my ear. “I have a crush on him,” she whispers, louder than she means to, and laughs hysterically.

    At a different time, in a different place, I might have laughed about it too. Bobby, always the charmer, his peaceful drunken dreams interrupted by a secret admirer hoping for a booty call.

    Maybe I should have helped them. Gotten them water, made them eat pretzels and swallow Tylenol. Called a taxi to take Diana home. But I am dizzy from the pain in my legs, and there is blood on the carpet, and I won’t say I’m not a little jealous. And before I can make up my mind, they are both fast asleep on the sofa, drunk and dreamstruck. Their faces swollen as pumpkins from the alcohol. It is all I can do just to lock the front door, wrap gauze around my legs and crash into my own trembling sleep, leave them passed out there together.

And when Rachel arrives at my window later that night—Matty, can you let me in? The front door is locked—I do not shake my head and tell her to go. I do not put my hand to my forehead as I should and say, “Oh no, Rach, we drank way too much tonight. He’s not in good shape.”

    But instead, when I open my eyes and see her standing on the lawn outside my bedroom, tapping, I stumble over in my boxers and open the window.

    She climbs inside.

    “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I couldn’t sleep, I got lonely, I don’t know why. I tried to call Bobby but he’s not answering his phone. Is he in his room?”

    I shake my head.

    “Where is he?”

    That’s when I open my bedroom door. I hold out my forefinger and I point toward Bobby and Diana, their bodies woven together on the couch.

    Rachel gasps. She stares at them for a long time. Then she turns to me, tears streaming down her face. “How could you not tell me?”

    Her pain startles me. I meant to hurt Bobby, not her. I search, desperately, for the part of me that truly believes she has fallen out of love with him, believes there is still time for her to turn back to me and say, “It should have been you, Matty. From the start it should have been you.” So we can leave this place together.

    But instead, Rachel is weak, sick with the sorrow of what she has lost.

    And before I can explain, she climbs out the window again to disappear into the night.

The next morning she was gone, her cell phone service discontinued. She left nothing behind but one of Bobby’s t-shirts and a couple of empty journals. Bobby never learned what had happened that night. He walked around for days in a twilit haze, asking me if I’d heard from her. Some days he was furious, offended. Others, he was worried. He said what if something bad had happened to her. I had to tell him, she’s taken all her things with her, obviously she’s just left. He was constantly sweating, glistening. For a flickering moment, he was undone.

    Not long afterward, though, he landed a spot on a television pilot. The pilot was picked up for the season, and he started spending more time at the clubs with the cast members. One day I came home from work and another roommate had moved into my bedroom. That’s when I left.

    The same day Bobby started on the pilot, I got a letter from Rachel in the mail. It was printed on stationery that said Holiday Inn, Santa Fe. Enclosed was a photo of her with her arm around a huge white Samoyed dog. They had the same blue-gray eyes. She looked happy.

    Wrapped around the photo, her note said simply, He’s not mine. I borrowed him for the picture. Miss you. R.

    In this way, she forgave me. Over the next few years she sent me postcards every month or so. Some were sad, others full of hope. She grew up in those cards. But she drifted further away with each one: Savanna, Sicily, Barcelona. She said she found a job working for an American newspaper in Europe, and sometimes she glued her photos to the back of the card instead of a note. Eventually the postcards stopped coming. When there’d been no word for a while, I’ll admit, I was angry with her. I gave up on acting and eventually found a job doing special events in Atlantic City. Over the years I imagined what I’d say to Rachel if I ever saw her again. “So you got too big for your friends, huh? Too important. What did I ever do but love you?”

Then last year I started seeing her outside my window at night. She wouldn’t leave me alone. Matty, she’d say. Let me in. It got so bad I went to the doctor and asked for pills.

    The first night I downed two of them with a glass of water. Five minutes later I was drifting into sleep. But just as I’d crossed over—the voices from my radio faraway and swooning; birds in long Vs gliding on the other side, old friends waving—my cell phone rang. I clutched it hard. A New Jersey number. I figured it was my mother, calling from her sister’s house outside the city.

    But when I answered there was a different voice on the other end of the line, a slight Secaucus twang I hadn’t heard in years.

    “Matt,” she said. “It’s Rachel’s mom.”

    That’s when I knew.

    She said it right off the bat. Just like that. “I thought,” she told me, “you would like to hear it from me.”

    This was how I learned that Rachel was gone.

    It happened in the embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, she said, earlier that week. It happened at 12:45 a.m. my time, when eight simultaneous car bombs were detonated outside the building. She was standing beside one of them. She didn’t suffer. There would be a memorial service. There was no body. They found her bracelet.

    “You were always her favorite,” Rachel’s mother said. “Rachel always told me so.”

    There was so much I wanted to ask her. I had the sense there had always been two Rachels—the first one, the one I knew; and the unborn one, who she later became. I wanted to say, Fae, tell me—had she dyed her hair or started smoking again or gotten married? Did she ever get that stupid puppy?

    I wanted to ask her did she know I had killed her daughter.

    In some ways, until she died, I had always been living with Rachel. I lived in knowing she was out there somewhere, in the possibility of similar routines—eating egg rolls on Thursdays; chewing peppermints after breakfast; jogging under the moon. Did she truly still do these things without me?

    But then the phone fell onto the floor, and my eyes were closing although I fought them, and the pills overtook me. Sometime after that, Rachel’s mom hung up.

    I wanted to tell her, I would have sat there with you. I would have said, Oh, Rachel, it’s like magic, it’s like being reborn. There is nothing scary about it. I would have held your hand, and walked you across the road.

    That night and the next, by the window, I waited for her. I wanted to tell her. But Rachel never came.

Victoria Sprow graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University and is currently working on her M.F.A. in Fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. A U.S. Mitchell Scholar, her stories have been published in The Greensboro Review, Philadelphia Stories, and The Stinging Fly, and she was awarded an Honorable Mention by The Atlantic Monthly in their 2008 Student Writing Contest.

Back to Freight Stories No. 2


Victoria Sprow

Rachel’s Story