Rumpus Exclusive: “Dirty Little Secrets”

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His eyes rested on the naked Barbie with matted red hair and a blue ribbon tied around its neck that she’d dumped on the table in front of him. “I need to know it’s not you.” Shaking hands spread the other objects out and closer to him. “I need to know it’s not you.” There was a torn-out pornographic picture of a redhead in bondage, a bottle cap that read, “A Prost to Extenuating Circumstances,” a broken paintbrush, some false eyelashes, and a nail that looked like a smaller version of a railway spike.

“The first package was a flower—a black lily. I thought it was from you,” she laughed nervously through tears as she searched the pub. “I thought you were being sweet.”

“I’ve never left you any flowers.”

She hadn’t looked at him, not once since he’d arrived, and he made a quick glance around the pub so familiar to them. The table they first sat at, by the window, facing the street, with the Armitage stop hanging over it in full view. The table by the side door where they’d written their list of rules and then spent weeks breaking most of them. Another lunch, another beer, at the counter where they chatted with the one waitress who always seemed to be there, she was there now, busy behind the bar, taking orders from those more interested in the Cubs game than the disturbing mementos Emily had spread before him.

He was thankful to be in the corner, hidden by the lack of light, thankful the music and television sounds covered their conversation and her tears, but he knew she’d picked Kincade’s because of its ease of access to a quick train escape and that the number of people meant she’d be safe if he was, in fact, a creep.

“Then there were things like,” she picked up a brooch and a ring, “random pieces of jewelry, a plastic snake, some rotten fruit, hair clips—”

“I haven’t left any of these things. I’ve never left you anything.” Trying to comfort her, he placed his hand on hers, but she reacted as if it burned and pulled her hand into her sleeve. “Emily.”

“I need a drink. Can we order a drink? I need…” She covered her face with her hands, and her crying increased to silent sobs.

Donovan excused himself and made his way to the bar. He didn’t want to look back and draw attention to what was happening, but the waitress was already looking over his shoulder with suspicion. “Is she okay?”

He had to check for himself. “I think it will be fine. She’s having a bad day.”

She placed a stout on the bar. “I was just getting ready to take this to her. Tell her it’s on me.”

“Thank you.” He smiled, thankful she hadn’t come over, thankful she hadn’t seen the chaos of items spread out, or the suspicion of his guilt. “If we could get a couple waters and two club sandwiches, that would be good.” She put the order in and said she’d bring the water, but he didn’t want her at the table, “Could I also grab a beer?” He needed time to clear it off. “I can come back for the water.”

Beers in hand, he turned back toward the table. Emily looked a mess of sleeplessness and lacked whatever she did that made her skin bright under all her freckles.

“Here you go. Food’s on the way.”

Still, she hadn’t looked at him. She drank half her pint while he returned to the bar and was crying all over again when he got back.

“Let’s get these things off the table.”

His hands moved to touch them, but fear and her words stopped him. “They stole my paintings.”

“Who did?”

“I don’t know.” It was a defeated shrug. “They didn’t take all of them.” Her hands rubbed her face like they could calm her tears, “but they took the most important ones,” then touched her chest, “to me, the ones that mattered to me.

“When did this happen?” Whatever instinct drew his hand toward her again also made her pull out of reach. “Emily, please—”

“It was that Friday,” her hands slid between her and her seat, “after the bus.” The tears had stopped, but she still avoided looking at him. “They broke in through my back door and took them from my studio. I’d been with you all day, so it couldn’t have been you—”

“Why would it have been me, Emily?”

“They were paintings of you.” The words combined with her eyes finally landing on his face made the hair on his neck stand on end. “They were all the paintings of you.”

Sitting with fists pressed to his lips, he stared across the table at her and tried to determine what he was feeling. “Can we get all this stuff off the table?”

Her face crumpled and was once again buried behind hands. “I need to know none of this was you.”

“This wasn’t me,” he said, motioning to the items on the table. “The paintings weren’t me.” He leaned in closer. “I don’t know what else you want me to say.”

“They killed Jack.”

“What?”

“Jack, they killed him—”

“Who’s Jack? Jesus, Emily, what’s going on?”

She looked frantically around the pub. “My cat,” shaking hands wiped her face. “He’s not actually my cat but…” Head, wagging, “It’s not important. I mean, Jack is important but…” Her words and motions were all over the place.

“Emily—”

“I need to know it wasn’t you.”

“It wasn’t me. Why would you ever think it was me?”

“You were watching me!”

“You watch people all the time. That doesn’t mean you go around killing cats.”

They let the comment rest between them.

“I’m afraid, Donovan.”

He wanted to touch her. He wanted to continue unwrapping the presence of her. He wanted to hold her and keep her safe. His phone vibrated, and he knew it was an email from Lily. Then Emily’s gold band caught light, and he knew there were things between them that neither wanted to know but should be asked, or told, or handed over. These things needed to be either forgotten or forgiven, but they couldn’t be avoided, not forever, not anymore.

As much as he didn’t want to ask the question, it had to be asked. “What did your husband say?”

Her eyes wiped by her sleeves, “He doesn’t know.”

“What do you mean, he doesn’t know? How can he not know?”

“I haven’t told him.”

“But you’re his wife, it’s his house—” She collapsed onto the table and cried. “Emily.”

Donovan moved his chair closer and rubbed her back without her flinching away or resisting. He felt her skin relax under the bulk of her sweater and brought his head down to hers. “Let me have them pack the food up. You need sleep.”

There was a resurgence of tears. Her voice squeaked, said she couldn’t go home, didn’t want to go home, not right then, not for a while.

Shhh, okay, it’s okay. I’ll be right back.” He returned to the bar and changed their order to-go and then quickly moved to put all her horrifying little tchotchkes back into her bag before their food appeared.

The waitress, who didn’t frequently step out from behind the bar when it was so busy, delivered the food herself and addressed Emily directly. “Are you doing okay? Can I do anything? Call anyone for you?”

It was a slight performed in sisterhood and meant to protect women from men who caused harm. Donovan noticed, and he felt betrayed. He had once protected the waitress from a man much worse than himself. “I’ve got her.”

But she didn’t budge, she waited instead for Emily’s response, which came with a smile that said, Thank you, and words that told half-truths. “I’m sorry, my cat died, and I just feel a little emotional. I’ll be okay.”

He picked up her bag of secrets and tried to make sense of dead cats, stolen paintings, and a husband who wouldn’t notice any of it. “Come on,” he said once the waitress had left, “let’s get you out of here.”

Donovan led her out, and up, and on, and she didn’t object when he guided her off the train at Montrose and down the stairs around the corner to his apartment.

Despite the heat of the day she was wearing a pale gray sweater with long sleeves and jeans. He’d never seen her wear jeans and felt betrayed by their unexpected appearance on her legs and hips. Her hair was down in its normal fashion but untamed and bulked by the humidity of the great lake that stretched its fingers over the city year-round, causing weather systems and circumstances all its own. Emily was not unlike the lake.

He watched her eyes and nose, both red and dripping against her will, continuously being wiped by a tissue in a hand where a gold ring had reclaimed its space upon her left ring finger. Even this broken facet of her appeared perfect and beautiful, something he needed to keep. But she wasn’t something he needed to grab and not let go of; she was there, like a deer, ready to expose her neck to the mountain lion if the mountain lion should be him.

She kicked her Converse off in the entryway and pushed them toward the closet with her foot, mirroring what he normally did with his own shoes.

They were alone, and in his apartment, but not in the way he’d imagined it to be.

“Go ahead and make yourself comfortable.” In the kitchen, he grabbed two plates and two cups and two sets of silverware and knew it wasn’t for show. “I’m going to set you up with some food, and then you can nap, or watch some television, or read a book—I’ve got lots of books, whatever you want.”

It wasn’t how he had imagined, but it was real, and its realness encouraged him to continue speaking while she stood at the counter’s edge looking at the space as if it were new to her.

“Do you see other people?”

Donovan had planted evidence around his apartment to prove her presence, and the thought of her discovering it ignited the tips of his ears. “What do you mean?”

“Other women—do you go on dates, have sex, see other women?”

“Emily.” The conversation wasn’t one he could afford.

“It’s understandable if you do, I just…” she looked back out into the apartment.

“You just what?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just want to know—maybe it’s one of them, maybe you have a jealous lover, maybe there’s someone I don’t know about.”

“You’re the only woman I see,” not necessarily a lie, “the only woman I want to see,” but this was closer to the truth. “There’s no one else.” He wrapped himself around her while she stayed stiff-armed against him. “Only you.” He smelled her head and was thankful for clean sheets and empty trash bins. “I love you, Emily.” It was a relief when her arms slowly rose to slide around him in return.

“Can you just hold me for a while?”

He steered her to the space where his fantasies of her were the most vivid and unencumbered. It wasn’t what he’d imagined, but she was there, lying in his bed. That she cried herself to sleep against him, still fully dressed, didn’t matter.

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Rumpus original art by Kateri Kramer.

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Excerpted from M-Theory by Tiffany Cates. Copyright © 2021 by Tiffany Cates. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Baobab Press.


Tiffany Cates spent five years navigating Chicago’s transit and weather systems before moving to Oregon and earning her MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon State University. Strongly influenced by her degrees in philosophy and psychology, Cates writes around themes of personhood, the distance between self and other, and matters of free will. She is the founding editor of Townsend, a literary journal devoted to long-form fiction writers. More from this author →