At first, Teresa was flattered when Kyle Murphy’s Facebook messages started to arrive—little red badges on her phone leading her deeper, into side conversations the rest of social media was not privy to.
When Facebook had first taken off beyond the college crowd, several of her former classmates reached out to her like long-lost family. Some of the women had different names, married names, and she had to enlarge their pictures to remember their younger selves. The faces who sat beside her in trig and sang alto with her in choir. After graduation, she’d been quick to escape, content never to see any of them again. But now, from her life three thousand miles away, she could feel fondness toward these people she hadn’t seen in nearly thirty years.
Her former classmates’ exclamation points and emojis when they saw her profile photo proved that she looked better now than she did in high school. In the sea of mid-forties faces, she had become a knock-out with her glossy, mahogany bob and white, white teeth—fixes achieved through money and studied practice. But even back when her thighs were thick, her features doughy, and her long brown hair dry and brittle, Kyle Murphy had thought she was beautiful.
She could still conjure the first time she let him touch her breasts. Panting against each other in the alley behind the movie theatre after the show. James Bond, if she recalled. She’d been wearing denim culottes and the baby blue short-sleeved Henley that was her favorite back then. When he pushed up her shirt, hand slipped beneath her bra, her mouth opened with a groan.
She’d been the one to send the friend request to Kyle, not the other way around. His face had popped up in her “People You May Know” list. She’d squinted at his profile photo. He looked the same—dark hair, mustache, glasses. In the photo he held two young sons on his lap, an arm crooked around the middle of each. Leaning into their father, they looked about four and six years old. Later, when she was replaying her interactions with Kyle, she would realize that even at the time she’d friended him, the photo was outdated, taken when he still had the right to see his boys. And she would understand that she’d read so much into that single photo: believing that those two smiling boys meant Kyle’s life had turned out much like hers—contented—with no lingering neediness.
When she sent him the friend request, she wondered if he remembered the day she dumped him. They were 15. She’d walked the few blocks to his house in her carefully chosen outfit—a white tank top and pale Chemin de Fer jeans with their hallmark button-up, suggestive fly.
All through June and July, she’d been stoking a little fire of courage to break it off. She had to do it before they entered high school so he would know he had no claim on her, wouldn’t try to talk to her when they saw each other in the hallways. Despite her resolve that she no longer wanted his face with its downy mustache anywhere near her own face—didn’t want to feel the weight of him on top of her during the afternoons when his parents were at work, and even though she definitely no longer wanted to reach into his underwear, her fingers working the velvet skin at the tip of his penis and the firm veiny shaft below—she squirmed at the thought of doing anything that would make him angry. She wanted to keep him wanting her.
She’d exited her big apartment complex pocked with balconies (room for one deck chair) and populated by divorced dads, yuppies, and the occasional single mom like hers. Her sandals slapped the sidewalk as she passed the gas station and the mini-mart on the corner to cross the big boulevard that separated the apartments from the single-family homes of their Los Angeles suburb a mile from the beach, palm trees poking up and salt-laden air cool but sticky.
She eyed the terracotta roofs of the Spanish style mini villas with their fuchsia bougainvillea vines and the aqua pools she knew were hidden behind the well-maintained fences. As she walked along, she heard the occasional splash to prove it. These were the houses of her classmates.
When he opened the door, smiling at the sight of her, he probably thought this would be like any of their other summer afternoons: a swim in his pool followed by fooling around. Had he noticed that she smiled but didn’t meet his eyes, as she scooted past him into the kitchen before he could reach out and grab hold of her?
Standing by the refrigerator, she turned to face him. She registered, not for the first time, that he was only slightly taller than she was. From the start their bodies had fit neatly together like jigsaw pieces: his square shoulders a few inches higher than her collarbones, his long torso with narrow hips level with her pelvis, her ass within easy reach of his hands.
When she finally looked him in the eye, she fought to hold her best empathetic expression. The pain she was about to inflict wasn’t funny, yet she kept feeling the corners of her mouth threaten to smile. Pressed to reveal what she really wanted—to be free of any obligation to him—she felt she might come apart, pee on the floor or release the nervous laugh bubbling just behind her tonsils.
She recited words she would later repeat to other lovers, words she would receive as well. “It’s better this way” and “You know it’s been different for a while” and “You’re such a special person.” Even as she said these flat, stupid words, her imminent relief at shedding him hovered in the air between them. He listened, shaking his head and fiddling with the water dispenser in the refrigerator door. Each time she said, “I’m sorry,” he hit the dispenser so the spray shot into the tray below. A blast of rebuttal.
Then he looked her straight in the eye, “But you love me,” he said in his deep baritone, outsized for his teenaged body. She was embarrassed that she’d ever said that to him, whispered it into his neck after he’d said it to her. Even at the cruel age of 15, she was ashamed that she believed she was better than he was. She had no intention of settling for Kyle Murphy. Hugging him goodbye, she held her hips back and away like she did when she hugged her mother.
Her high school classmates’ social feeds fascinated her. No matter that they were as curated as hers were. What people chose to reveal seemed to decode the enigmas they’d been in high school. The tall Virginia Woolf lookalike, quiet in her Peter Pan collared shirts and long, middle-parted hair. Now she was a flamboyant, tattooed lesbian laughing as she walked down her nuptials aisle in a top hat festooned with flowers. The blond surfer whom everyone had a crush on but who dated no one, son of a doctor. He’d moved away to rural Oregon to be a paramedic and finally found his match, marrying at 40. The homely genius whose neck-to-hairline blushes had always been painful to witness was now teaching literature at Princeton.
Teresa had scrolled with interest through this woman’s photos of her recent trip to Paris, pausing to study the smiling face in stylish glasses sitting in a café with her daughter and husband. Even though Teresa would not have befriended this girl in high school, she felt a kinship with her now—recognizing the chrysalis they’d shared back then.
Unhappy in her teenage skin and circumstances, Teresa had let very few of her classmates ever know her. But now, confident in who she’d become, she no longer wanted to hide. She loved her job as a producer for a local television station and felt at home in the world she’d created for herself. She was proud of her good-looking husband and kids—the family she’d always wanted—and their small but lovely house in a leafy Philadelphia suburb.
She found it strange, though, when her old and new lives nudged up against one another like two sitcoms airing a shared episode, merging their casts.
“Who’s Chelsea Avery?” her daughter, Jess, asked one afternoon. Jess was home from college for the winter break and the two of them were stretched out under a blanket at opposite ends of the couch, their gray-muzzled lab beside them.
“I went to high school with her. Why?”
Jess was scrolling through her phone. “Oh. I thought she was an aunt or something, so I accepted her friend request a while ago. She comments on everything I post.”
“Yeah, she’s like that. She means well,” Teresa said. She pictured Chelsea, the overly friendly former cheerleader worried about her own daughter’s imminent move to college. Teresa could see how Jess might confuse her with a distant relative. Teresa herself had accepted friend requests from people she initially thought were from one sphere of her life only to realize later that they were from another: a parent at her kids’ school who’d turn out to be one of her husband’s work colleagues or someone from her gym.
With a few of her old classmates, like Chelsea, Teresa carried on private exchanges that went deeper than what was revealed in Facebook feeds, gaining a closeness they’d never had in high school. The soccer player turned boutique owner, who’d weathered her brother’s suicide; the class president now a lawyer, who’d had repeated miscarriages; the valedictorian who became a therapist and was transitioning from man to woman.
For her part, Teresa revealed the eating disorder and prescription drug addiction she’d kicked. Her relief at being clean and sober.
Comfortable in this newfound camaraderie with her classmates, she didn’t think it odd when Kyle first reached out for a private conversation. His Facebook message caught her just as she’d pressed the crosswalk button in front of her office building. Around 2:00 every afternoon, the Starbucks baristas across the street saw her at the crosswalk and started her latte. Espresso and Facebook were her twin indulgences—a break before the afternoon push to confirm the next day’s guests on the lifestyle show she produced.
She usually whisked her frothy latte back to her desk but after a few back-and-forths with Kyle, she perched on one of the high stools facing the street. She tapped out her responses as if playing a piece of music, sticking to the high notes, airily skipping along the university years, jobs, geographic moves, marital status, children, mutual friends still in contact. She forgot all about work. When he wrote about his sons, she pictured the little dark-haired boys she’d seen in the photo. He mentioned loving to watch their Little League games. She noted that he was vague about his job. Said he’d started a solar panel business but had an issue with his partner. No, he didn’t really talk to his sister anymore. He was divorced.
I’m sorry, she said, understanding then why there was no photo of Kyle’s wife.
Your husband is a lucky man was the last thing in the Messenger bubble as Teresa drained her latte and headed back to her office.
The next afternoon, when she fired up Facebook as the elevator descended, she noticed that Kyle had commented on several of her posts. On her announcement about attending an upcoming Los Angeles conference: Better get some sun block for those white legs.
On her daughter’s picture from a formal dance: Whoa, she looks like the cover of a romance novel. Those were the days.
The sudden intimacy of his comments made Teresa exhale, annoyed. She thought of her colleagues and neighbors reading along. By the time she’d collected her latte, she had begun scrolling and tapping her phone screen, removing Kyle’s words.
A few days later, her mother tagged her in a photo from a high school trip to Washington, D.C.: Now there is the real Teresa, Kyle wrote under the grainy pic of a soft-featured girl squinting beneath Farah Fawcett flipped bangs. Then Hi, Joan to her mother, as if the three of them were having an exclusive exchange. Teresa felt herself blush. Beneath her silk blouse, a trickle of perspiration rolled from one armpit down her ribcage as she bent over her phone, huddled by the revolving door of her office building. She couldn’t delete fast enough. Who was he to say this was the real her? This girl she pitied, this girl she’d saved from herself. What the fuck did he know?
Walking their black lab that night, her husband Gabe asked, “Who’s Kyle Murphy?” Sometimes they teased each other about Facebook friends who showed a little too much interest. The woman who’d been Gabe’s high school teacher, typing a comment late one night, So damn handsome. Probably after too much wine.
Gabe wasn’t really jealous of Kyle, but he had noticed the peck, peck, pecking of even Kyle’s more innocuous comments—the ones she’d let stand.
“We dated in junior high. He was weird.” She didn’t tell her husband about the private messaging she’d done with Kyle, knowing it was she who had opened the door to him again.
She always teetered on the way to characterize her teen self with Gabe. Would her husband admire her as much if he knew she’d been the girl no one but Kyle Murphy had wanted? She and Gabe had weathered addiction together, meeting early in rehab. Surely that was worse than him discovering just how unremarkable high school boys had found her.
They turned a corner, pausing by the brick elementary school their kids had attended—their aging dog’s favorite pee spot. As the lab half-lifted a leg, Teresa said, “When I broke up with him, he showed up at my door, trying to get me to change my mind. When that didn’t work he called my mom, asking her to talk me out of it.” Kyle had wanted her mother to conspire with him in what he’d said “was best for Teresa.”
As they moved down the sidewalk, the dog’s tags jingling, Gabe shook his head. “Huh, what did your mom do?”
“You know my mom. She felt sorry for him.” Teen boys were like strays in her mother’s opinion. They needed to be fed and patted on the head. No doubt she’d mothered him the way she did the young doctors in the office she managed. She had not taken up Kyle’s cause, but Teresa suspected her mother, who’d been quite popular in high school, appreciated the way Kyle had singled her daughter out. That they’d bonded in their belief that Teresa was an overlooked gem.
“Give him time,” her mother had said. “He’ll get over it.”
And he seemed to. By senior year, Kyle was walking the school hallways with a blond, almost-cute, freshman—their arms slung low around one another’s waists, each with a hand tucked into the other’s back pocket.
The day before Teresa was set to fly to Los Angeles for her conference, hammering away at the last of her deadlines, she dashed across the street, grabbed her latte and posted, L.A., here I come. It wasn’t until the next morning, gliding along in an Uber to the airport that she noticed a friend’s comment, In & Out Burger is a must! Right below that, Kyle had commented: The trick at In & Out is to order off the secret menu and get the fries animal style. Teresa imagined his deep voice saying animal style and it sounded vaguely sexual. She remembered the time her period had stained his underwear after they’d rubbed against each other while making out.
Below his fries comment he’d added: You can handle it. Teresa pressed her thumb to the three little dots on her original post and made it all disappear.
When she landed at LAX and switched her phone from airplane mode, a message from Kyle was waiting for her. Did you unfriend me?
The theme of the conference was the representation of women in the media. On the second night, the special keynote was Geena Davis talking about equality for women in film. The speech was open to the public but Teresa’s work on the host organization’s board entitled her to attend the VIP reception prior to the main event. By the time she was ushered into the auditorium for the speech, most of the audience was seated. As she chatted with the woman next to her, she felt a tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, a young woman pointed above.
Teresa’s eyes followed the woman’s finger and the smiles and gestures of people from row to row. Her gaze landed on Kyle several rows above her, his blocky shoulders hunched forward as if they were too wide for his seat. He gave her a salute-like wave, his eyebrows lifting and mouth opening in a surprised “O” as if to say, “What are the odds?” Then he shrugged and gave her a crooked little smile as the lights went down.
For the next 45 minutes, Geena Davis hammered home the injustices of the entertainment industry. Teresa imagined she could feel Kyle staring at the back of her head and neck, his eyes on her bare shoulders and arms in her red sheath dress. She’d posted about the conference weeks ago, but not about the Geena Davis talk. She pictured him bent over a computer looking up the conference schedule, tracking her trip to L.A. as he commented about In & Out.
Based on where he said he lived, he must have driven over two hours to get here. After his message about unfriending, she’d blocked him, which meant he could no longer message her, either. Maybe he’d researched the conference hotel, arrived even earlier than that evening. Perhaps he’d been watching her for the last day and a half. Had he followed her to the event or just shown up and scanned the crowd?
When Geena Davis’s speech ended to applause and cheers, the women on either side of Teresa rose to leave. If she was quick she could move off with them in a clatter of high heels, part of an elegant herd, impervious to odd, annoying admirers, the creeps who wanted but could not have women like them.
But Teresa couldn’t help feeling she owed Kyle something. Shouldn’t she grant him a conversation for his effort? Had he come all this way to ask why she’d unfriended him, blocked him? As unnerved as she was, she was flattered, too. Like a kid who’d grown up and out of poverty eating the cheap foods that had once comforted her, Teresa liked Kyle’s attention.
She edged her way along the velvet seats, taking baby steps in her tight dress, hips close together. She climbed the five rows to where he stood, wearing khaki pants and a thick navy button down. He held a canvas tote bag in both hands so it hung down between his legs. She cocked her head and said, “What are you doing here?”
He lifted the bag slightly. “Oh, I’m a huge Geena Davis fan.”
Teresa squinted at him. “So, you didn’t know I was here?” In her heels, she stood level with him.
He looked past her and pressed on without answering, “Did you know she’s really into archery?” He nodded toward Davis who was talking to admirers one by one, a long line of women forming by the stage. “Even tried out for the Olympic team.”
Maybe it really was all a weird coincidence. Teresa imagined him marking his calendar long ago for the chance to see Geena Davis and talk about archery.
He pulled a manila folder from his tote bag. “I brought these photos of my boys to show her.” Opening the folder, balancing it flat on one palm, he spread out several large pictures of boys shooting arrows at a bullseye. “Although,” he said, “I don’t get to see them too often.”
She glanced up, her hair falling across her face. Tucking it behind one ear, she said, “Oh? Why is that?”
“Remember? I told you. My wife and I are separated.”
“Oh, yes. I’m sorry.” She looked back at the pictures. “That’s got to be hard.”
“And I have to watch their Little League games from the parking lot, now that she has a restraining order.”
One of Teresa’s knees buckled ever so slightly. Kyle’s hand reached for her elbow, steadying her. She’d noted a hint of resentment in the words “restraining order,” yet he’d said it like it was no big deal. She stepped back from him in what she hoped was an imperceptible way.
“You look amazing,” he said suddenly, seeming unable to hold it in any longer. She caught a whiff of his stale but not unpleasant breath as his eyes flicked down her body and up again. Her memory shot to when he’d shown up at her door the first week of high school asking her to take him back. His purpose at the conference reordered again in her mind: the calculations he’d made, his knowing that she’d blocked him, the position of his seat in the auditorium, the props he’d brought.
She held a tight smile, her teeth drying, nodding at everything he said, as they bid their goodbyes. She could feel it coming and then there it was: he leaned in, wrapping one arm around her bare shoulders in a half-embrace. She patted his back quickly before slipping away from his encircling arm.
When she got to the auditorium door, she looked over her shoulder, feeling that he might be just a few steps behind. But there he was joining the line for Geena Davis, getting his photos ready. As Teresa made her escape, she felt a tremor of protectiveness toward Davis. But what harm was he really doing? He just wanted to talk to her about his boys.
Driving back to her hotel, she kept glancing in the rearview mirror to see if anyone was following. Her fingers trembled when she hit Gabe’s number in her favorites list on her phone.
“He did what?” her husband said. Teresa reassured him that he needn’t worry, even though the unease about what Kyle had done to provoke his wife’s restraining order still lingered in her mind.
In the months after her trip to L.A., Teresa heard no more from Kyle. She assumed he was still on Facebook, interacting with their mutual friends, but because she had blocked him he was invisible to her. As invisible as she believed she and her family were to him. She told her stalker story to her mother and stepmother. She told her women friends, too, but she had never mentioned it to her daughter, who had been away at college when it happened. She realized this when Jess called.
When Teresa’s phone rang she had just come home from work, purse still over her arm, the big Labrador snuffling at her knees, wagging his tail as she walked in. When she saw that it was Jess wanting to Facetime, she fumbled to answer quickly. They usually texted throughout the week, but it was rare for Jess to call.
In a jumpy video, Jess’s green-eyes and heart-shaped face filled Teresa’s phone screen. “Who’s Kyle Murphy?” she asked.
Teresa lowered herself onto the entryway bench, rain boots lined up underneath. “Why?”
As she listened to her daughter, she could see Jess lying on her bed in her dorm room, holding the phone above her, her dark hair splayed against one of the fluffy pink pillows the two of them had bought at Target. Jess said Kyle’s message was like so many from men she didn’t know. “You know—creepy guys twice my age. But he said he was a friend of yours.” Teresa thought about the stranger danger talks elementary school kids get, how predators will say they’re a friend of the parents. “Said he was a dad himself so I didn’t have to worry. Yeah, right.” Jess rolled her eyes. “Said he was cool. Not to get weirded out.”
Teresa clenched her jaw, molars grinding, wishing Jess was there with her instead of so far away. “Tell me you didn’t interact with him.”
“Of course not. I’m not stupid.”
But then Jess got to the worst part.
Think of me like a father, like your godfather, Kyle had written to Jess. “Then he said he had always wondered what kind of mother you would be.”
The very idea of him thinking these things let alone contacting her daughter sickened Teresa, her saliva tasting of metal. Why hadn’t she called him out for being at the conference, reject him and shut him down? How far did he take these imagined intimacies? Who knew what he messaged the blond girl he dated senior year? What about his estranged wife? And Geena Davis?
“So, who is he, Mom? He said he was the first person you ever kissed.”
“I guess that’s true,” Teresa said. She kicked off her shoes and tucked her legs beneath her as the lab finally sighed and settled, curling thick and seal-like on the floor. “I went out with him in junior high.”
She told Jess how Kyle had come to her apartment after the breakup, that first week of high school. She’d heard the doorbell ring and looked through the peephole. His face was covered, but she’d recognized his tan corduroy Levi’s and flannel shirt. She’d swung the door wide and stood slightly behind it.
“He was wearing a gorilla mask,” she said. “Synthetic black fur, like troll doll hair, and thick plastic features with eye holes.”
“You’re kidding.” Jess said. “That’s bizarre.”
“I know. Right? Probably left over from Halloween.” Teresa watched her daughter’s reaction—Jess’s laugh hardened by disgust. Had this happened to Jess, she surely would have closed the door in his face.
Kyle had held a bouquet of flowers, dark hair on his knuckles. He’d pushed the cellophane wrapped white daisies, fern, and baby’s breath toward her. She knew he must have bought them from the corner mini mart on the way over.
She remembered how the mask’s eye holes seemed to enlarge Kyle’s dark brown eyes, his thick eyelashes batting, shyly, grazing the lenses of his glasses as he watched her.
Had he thought the mask would be charming? Funny? Why did he think the gorilla-flowers combination would win her over?
“He didn’t say anything,” she told Jess. “Just held the flowers out until I took them.”
“Ew, I hope you threw them away.”
But of course she hadn’t. After closing the door, she had searched for just the right vase. She’d filled the vase with water, unwrapped her admirer’s bouquet from the cellophane, snipped the elastic that held the bundle tight. She’d carried the flowers to her room and taken time there to arrange them, lifting the stems and using them to stir in the little food packet that would keep the flowers fresh.
Andrea Jarrell’s debut memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, was named one of the Best Books of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, Narrative Magazine, the Washington Post, and other sites, journals, and anthologies.
Cagibi Issue 6