The first two weeks were clockwork, mostly spent getting adjusted to the city, walking through the streets, stopping in at interesting looking bars and restaurants trying to find some work.
Eventually she did find a job, at a new-age cuisine restaurant where the manager seemed decently tolerable, despite having way too big of an ego for his position, but then this was something she was beginning to notice in most of the foreigners who lived there.
In fact, she was beginning to wonder if she had made the right decision to move, when the first call swiftly removed all other cares and concerns from her mind.
“Marla?” the voice came questioning. “Where have you been? You sound so different.”
“Sir? I think you have the wrong number.” Checks the number.
“Well, I’m sorry but no one of that name lives here. Yes I’m sure. I think I would know if someone was living in my apartment. That’s alright. Goodbye.
“Marla? she thought to herself. The guy sounded old, and not many people name their kids Marla these days. Poor guy’s probably confused. Must be hell getting old. Then again, the place did come furnished, she thought, and it does give off a bit of that Grandma feel, what with all the doilies under the lamps. Somebody was living here not too long ago, and chances are that person was long-gone from her twenties.
When Carrie moved in she was beyond aghast at the furnishings of her small 1+1, almost gagging at the mildewy smell of the old yellow and orange carpet and the red plastic kitchen furniture, but she had told herself before she moved that she was going have to get used to some new things, and she supposed that horrible interior design would not be the most difficult cultural hurdle she would face.
She did however, really like the kitchen, which was ugly but amazingly well-equipped with every sort of pot, pan and utensil that a person could want, and since she loved to cook, she decided to take the place. Well, the creepy Finnish guy at her hostel helped speed things along as well.
There was also, in one corner, a huge pile of books, all in English to her surprise, and they apparently came with the place, according to the hand gestures of her landlord. She began reading them as soon as she moved in, taking them out into the city with her and hugging them tight to her chest as if they were some sort of familiar shield against all the strangeness in front of her eyes.
They were mostly books she was supposed to read in school for one class or the other; Lord Jim, The Golden Bowl, some Faulkner, some Joyce, as well as a few Austens, a writer she hated but ended up reading a bit of anyway.
About a week after the wrong number call that clung to the shadowy corners of her mind, she was about two-thirds into a book by some Irish guy she had never heard of but really enjoyed. She was sitting in one of the comfy but hideous chairs reading so deeply that she jumped a bit when the phone rang.
“Marla?” asked the coarse voice, sounding to her a bit like a mix between Wilford Brimley and Charlton Heston, but not frightening. It reminded her of the pillowy comfort of family and the security of one older and wiser, but this was a stranger quickly becoming too strange.
“Look mister, I told you that no one named Marla lives here. I’m going to have to ask you to stop calling.” She said this with a bit of trepidation that her wishes would be granted. This was the only person who had called her since she had moved in three weeks ago.
“Do you like the Flann O’Brien book?” Here she softened a bit, but the bizarre nature of the conversation kept her mainly stiff.
“Well,” she offered, “I am reading it in fact, and I think it might be one of the best books I’ve ever read. But anyway, that’s beside the point. I’m not Marla and no one of that name lives here. I’m sorry” she said and started to hang up, but the man’s voice held the receiver to her ear for just a bit longer.
“Go get your diary from the drawer under the brandy glass that we bought in that antique shop. That should jolt your memory. Bye Marla.”
“I told you I’m not…”. Dead. Her eyes floated across the room to where the comically oversized brandy glass sat atop one of the doilies on one of the end tables. With all the knick-knacks and other crap this lady had accumulated, whoever she was, Carrie found herself wondering if this was indeed the brandy glass the old man had spoken of.
She walked over to the table and reached her hand towards the handle of the drawer, and as she did so, looked down and noticed that her hand was trembling violently, so badly that she had to grab it firmly with her other hand. A tight, hot feeling started up in her chest, and the hairs on her forearm were standing at attention.
“This is screwed,” she thought, and went and sat down on the comfy/ugly chair and started back reading. She had only been in the city for three weeks and already she was the target of some freaky old pervert.
“Just my luck,” she murmured as her eyes scanned the page, recording absolutely nothing. “He didn’t sound like a pervert, though.” Carrie’s willpower lasted about a day and a half. The next night she was back at the end table, slightly hesitant but determined.
Her dreams the night before were filled with the same strange image: her hand reaching for the drawer, opening it, and out of it rising a small, multi-faceted crystal, spinning and casting beams of light all around the room, making the apartment somehow vast and endless, ceilings and walls receding into a huge, swallowing darkness.
The beams illuminated objects and faces, but all indistinct and unfamiliar, and then one of the beams would strike Carrie directly in the face, blasting her backwards with incredible speed, and it was then that she woke up. She tried to sweep these thoughts from her mind as her hand shot forward and opened the drawer, with such force that the entire drawer almost came out in her grasp.
The crystal wasn’t there, but the diary sure was, just like old man Withers said. She could tell it was a diary instantly from its appearance; leather-bound and frayed slightly at the corners, certain tanner patches showing where her hands had held it; opened and closed it day after day. She reached down and took it from the drawer, half expecting a shock she was so conditioned from her dream.
The first time she read it she felt guilty, but her feelings of intrusion into the private life of another were not enough to quiet her screaming curiosity. She felt that she had to find out who this woman was, that it held great importance for her, and aside from that the accounts she read within were simply amazing.
Marla turned out to be quite the woman. It seems that she started the diary just days after learning from her doctor that she had a fatal tumour in her pancreas. She was told that she had six months to live, eight tops, and was recommended to go into chemotherapy in an attempt to weaken the cancer to something she might be able to live with. In Marla’s own words “I looked at my doctor, and told him where he could stick his chemotherapy.”
Carrie laughed at this part, imagining a nice old lady in one of those paper-thin green hospital robes, summoning up all available dignity to tell this doctor off. She liked Marla already. According to the journal, Marla told no one of her condition, not even her children or grandchildren (her husband apparently long dead, and not very lively even when he wasn’t), and took off for Prague, determined to make her last however many months as new and exciting as possible.
She had enough pension to live off of comfortably, “which if you grew up in the depression is a very relative term.” This made Carrie laugh too. Her accounts were inspiring, filled with joyous visions of life in the city, a side of the city Carrie had not or could not see.
She wrote of her travels, her amazement at the culture of Slovakia, the vineyards of Slovenia, and many other things that were frankly beginning to bore Carrie a bit. Then she got to the part about Thomas. She knew at once from Marla’s description of him that it was the man on the telephone. The voice she had heard over the line matched exactly with the man in the pages.
Their story was one of unparalleled romance: she shied, he persisted, she worried, he reassured. She definitely had misgivings about getting into a relationship, just after the doctor had issued her death sentence, but she yielded to the feeling of vitality he gave her. Carrie read the diary everywhere she went, and almost got fired from her job for holing up in the bathroom in the back just to get in a few more pages.
She only managed a half-hearted “Ewww” when she got to where they had sex, seeing the man now not as some old man, but as Marla saw him. Her dreams became more strange, filled with images from the diary, her brain a depository for stolen memories.
She saw the scenes in the diary played out in her mind’s eye, and in them she was Marla, being swooned and sweet-talked by Thomas, a man she imagined as old but rugged, vibrant, alive. In the middle of one of her more vivid dreams, Thomas was leaning in at the movie to kiss her, she turning towards him and opening her mouth slighty, when she was awakened by the phone.
“Thomas?” she stammered out before she had time to think, not answering the man’s question.
“Did you find it?”
“Do you remember now?”
“Look, Thomas, I know that what you had with Marla was beautiful, in fact I know all about it. But I’m not her,” she said, her voice tight and forced now because of the coming onslaught of tears. “No matter how much you believe it it’s not going to come true. I have been having weird dreams, but that’s got to be from this, from you… This whole thing is so…”
“Have you finished it yet?”
“No, but I don’t see what…”
“Keep reading,” he practically whispered into the phone as he hung up the receiver. She poured through the pages now, faster than ever, hoping to find some clue of why this man was so obsessed, why he was so sure that she was her. Marla’s writings became more and more hopeful, more vibrant as she described how Thomas filled her with life, how she could feel the tumour losing its deadly strength, and how new she felt.
“I feel that through Thomas’s influence, through his love and his passion, that I could live a thousand lives,” she wrote, and here Carrie cried a little because no man had ever made her feel that way. Then, one day in the park near her apartment, lifted by the love described in that leather volume, she came to the last entry:
“My children called today. I have no idea how they got the number, but I guess I couldn’t hide from them forever. I feel terrible leaving them like that, but I just thought it would be easier that way. ‘You’re dying’ they kept saying, telling me that I’m crazy and that I should be at home in a hospital.
I tried to tell them about Thomas and how much better I’ve been feeling, but they either couldn’t hear me or didn’t want to. They even had my doctor at the phone to tell me if I came back now and started chemo, there might still be a chance. ‘You’re dying’ they kept saying. ‘You’re dying.’
Carrie’s hands were trembling so badly by the time she read these final lines that she dropped the book. She picked it up and clutched it to her chest, and started rocking very gently back and forth, and crying.
“Oh, Thomas, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry about what dear? Did something happen?” Carrie held the phone to her face and didn’t make a sound. Her heart went out to him, but what could she say? Surely he must know that Marla had died, or at least be aware in some way. Or did he actually believe that she really was her? How could he not recognize the difference in their voices?
“Are you alright? Can I come over?” She froze. She knew that she should hang up, call the police, something, but she couldn’t do that to the man she already knew to be so wonderful and caring. They would lock him up in some horrible place where everything is a sterilized white and the food has no taste. She also felt a need to see him, but in what capacity she was unsure. She closed her eyes and decided to take a chance.
“Yes, Thomas. That would be fine.” She sprang from her chair when the door rang. She walked to the door, trembling, unsure of her steps and her mind. She reached for the handle and turned it. Before her, on the stoop, stood a small man, lessened by years, with patchy white hair and loose skin, shifting weight from one foot to the other and slowly and methodically turning his forties style hat in his hands.
He was looking down at his shoes of worn brown leather when she opened the door, and slowly looked up at her with pleading, watery, blue eyes.
“Marla?” he asked, craning his head out a little further as the words came out. Suddenly Carrie was swept with an incredible calm, followed by a feeling of warmth and security she had never known before. To say that she didn’t quite feel herself would be a gross understatement. Tonight was unreal. Tonight would never come again.
She made her choice “Hello Thomas. It’s nice to see you again. Please come in.” He walked gingerly around the apartment, softly fingering objects on the tables, things they had bought together and that Carrie had read about. He would occasionally look up at her and smile in that way old men do when they know they’re being silly. He seemed at a loss.
Carrie flashed her eyes across the room until they met with the record player. “Would you like to dance?” she asked, testing the waters, not knowing what effect her words could have. He looked up at her with a face of unsurpassable gratitude, and nodded that he thought it was a fine idea. She walked over to the record player and grabbed the first record she saw and put it on.
It was an old jazz record and its horns and bass jerked out of the speakers in that old-time warbley way. She confidently walked toward the old man and put her hand in his, and his arm delicately slid around her waist, held her lightly at first as if she was crystal, and then tighter, feeling his steps and moving her sweepingly across the floor.
Carrie was amazed at herself, first to be dancing with a strange old man in her living room, and second to be enjoying it so much. The longer they danced the stronger and more graceful he seemed.
She felt a strong surging feeling starting deep down in the bottom of her throat and well its way up into her mouth, pushing her lips forward with its force. For the first time she looked him directly in his eyes, and they had lost that watery look, but were fierce and bright, their endless blue burning into her.
She fell back a bit from their weight, but he caught her in his arms. They lay in bed still heaving, their naked bodies a mess of entangled limbs, his breath heavy on her face, but she hardly noticing because she wasn’t capable of noticing anything except the rhythm of her breath.
She felt slightly disgusted with herself, as she used to feel at school when she would get too drunk at a bar and end up in bed with a frat guy, wondering what kind of person she had been the night before, but at the same time she still felt strangely close to him. She felt a if she was in a way coming back into herself, and her curiosity returned with her, begging the question. Does he know? Is he totally delusional?
She gathered her courage and spoke. “Thomas?” she asked, lightly dragging her fingernails across his bare chest.
“I’m not Marla you know.”
“I know,” he said, “but sometimes it’s nice to believe.”