She was twelve when her father spoke to her, for the first time, as if she were an adult. “When you meet someone and fall in love, don’t let him go, no matter what the circumstance.” They were wandering through the park on a clear, cool, early-November afternoon, the brown leaves crackling under their shoes. He loomed over her as they walked; he was an exceedingly tall man, way over six feet.
The following day, he hung himself in the guest bathroom. Because he was so tall, it was perplexing to the police how he managed to do this in such a small space. The conclusion was that he must’ve bent his legs or touched his chest with his knees as he breathed his final breath.
Like a missile crashing into her heart, Beth Moorhouse could barely move, and when she did it seemed to be in slow motion. Her mother Claire, red-haired, fair-skinned and slightly freckled like Beth, wasn’t nearly as distraught as her daughter would have imagined. “Your father was very troubled,” she said. “A very troubled man. He had problems you didn’t know about.”
“Do you mean his moods?”
“Yes, that was part of it. Those gray periods grabbed him by the throat. I had a feeling it would end this way, though not in the guest bathroom.”
“Where did you think it would end?” Beth asked.
“The master bedroom,” she replied matter-of-factly. “He loved that room with all those framed diplomas and art deco furniture. There was nothing he enjoyed more than lounging in bed with a good book and a bottle of bourbon. If he’d been able to, he would have lived in that room. Instead, he died down the hall.”
The day of the funeral was an extraordinarily windy one. People held onto their hats and coats as if the garments would fly off their bodies in a strong gust. Beth recognized everyone except a dark-haired woman in a black felt fedora. “Who’s that woman in the man’s hat?” Beth whispered to her mother.
“I don’t really know,” Claire responded curtly, though Beth didn’t believe her.
There was something striking and hypnotic about this woman. Beth wanted to study her, but she knew that would be out of place. She wanted to ask her how she knew her father, but the woman’s fedora flew off her head and when she ran to retrieve it, she disappeared.
Beth wouldn’t see the mystery lady again for nine years.
“Be grateful you had a father for half your childhood,” Claire later told her daughter. “I only had mine for five years and I barely remember him. I wouldn’t even recognize his voice, though I think it was squeaky.” But that didn’t console Beth; she wanted her father for ten, twelve, twenty, thirty more years.
The day after the funeral, Claire began sorting through her husband’s clothing and possessions. Beth, aghast, shouted, “He’s not even cold yet and you’re clearing out his closet? How can you be so heartless?”
“I’m being practical,” Claire explained. “Charities need clothing, and your father had excellent taste. He owned more than a dozen dark blue suits, all designer.”
“I can hardly wait to see a homeless man in one of those suits,” Beth remarked.
“It’s supposed to be a brutal winter, you know. Why don’t we go shopping for a new coat for you tomorrow? Maybe forest green. You’ll match the tree.”
“Keen idea. With my pumpkin colored hair, I’ll be the human equivalent of Christmas and Thanksgiving.” Beth’s life, her security and serenity, was permanently imperiled by her father’s suicide. Not only did she miss him deeply, she wondered if she inherited his mental illness. Every morning, she sat up in bed and analyzed her emotional state. When suicide wasn’t even a dim attraction, she breathed a gigantic sigh of relief as if she’d just received news that a lump on her breast was benign. But something was deeply perplexing. In an inexplicable way, she hoped to share her father’s illness. She would’ve been grateful to feel suicidal even though she was relieved she didn’t. Nothing was harder for her to understand than this.
The years passed, life continued, but nothing was as joyful as it would’ve been if her father had been there to share it with her. On several occasions she thought she saw the mysterious dark-haired woman – shopping in a department store, strolling down a crowded street – but it turned out to be someone else. She wondered what her father felt for this woman in the felt hat, if they’d been confidants, lovers, soul mates.
When she was a junior in college, Beth met Jonathan Lamp and fell instantly, slobberingly in love. Like her father, he was tall, dark blond, and brooding. With psychology as his major, he was constantly analyzing situations, making judgments and drawing conclusions. To Beth he was a timeless young god with a golden future, and she came to breathe him; she was nourished by him as if he were a full course meal. Beth realized she had a severe case of Jonathan, and whenever he would cancel a date she would be devastated, though she tried her best to conceal the deep disappointment, afraid he would analyze it to death. Her death. She wished there’d been a drug to alleviate the pain.
After four months of dating exclusively, Jonathan suddenly seemed distant and preoccupied. A man with a secret. He worked up the courage to tell Beth it was time to go their separate ways. Before long, he admitted that someone else was in the picture, a political science major named Priscilla Light. “She’s Light and I’m Lamp,” he explained. “It’s destiny.”
“I’ll change my name to Bulb!” Beth suggested with desperation. “Or Shade. Beth Bulb doesn’t sound so bad. Do you like Beth Shade better? Please Jonathan, reconsider this. We love each other.”
“Loved,” he said. “Past tense.” He seemed taller than ever, as if he could barely fit in Beth’s dorm room. A creature created in a laboratory. “You’ve become needy, and since I’m the one you need, I feel like I’m suffocating, gasping for breath. I’m sure you’ll meet someone else. You’re a very pretty girl with all that red hair.” Her thick mane was often unmanageable, and she wondered if that was the real reason for the breakup: hair upheaval. “What kind of hair does Light have?”
“Dark,” he said. “Shoulder length. Shiny. What difference does it make? It’s also very soft. Don’t lose hope, Beth. Hope can drain like blood from a wound.”
The words of her deceased father danced in Beth’s head. When you meet someone and fall in love, don’t let him go, no matter what the circumstance. “I can’t let you go,” Beth implored. She felt light-headed, as if her brain had disappeared and her head was hollow.
“Consider this: do you love me or the idea of me? I think you love the idea of me. And it’s a lousy idea.”
“No,” Beth assured him. “I love you, the person, not the idea. If it were my idea, you’d be a little shorter and less analytical.”
Jonathan flashed her a sad smile, lips together, no teeth. “Chin up,” he said. With that, he walked out of Beth’s life. Spending the next two days in the darkness of her dorm room, lights out, shades drawn, crying and sipping various concoctions made with tequila, she felt doomed to experiencing the disintegration of her very existence.
For a short time, Beth considered eliminating Priscilla Light. But killing seemed out of her range; she didn’t know if she could pull it off, so she gave up on that scenario. Still, she was obsessed with getting the love of her young life back.
It was easy to locate Priscilla Light; she was extremely active in the political science department. Beth studied the student from afar like she was a subject in one of her classes. Her hair, jet black and shoulder-length, bounced when she walked. She always seemed to dress in some shade of blue – baby blue, cobalt blue, cornflower, royal, cerulean, midnight, steel, teal, Tiffany, turquoise or Yale. Her olive skin was flawless, her chocolate eyes sparkled and she was chopstick thin. Like a warrior heading into battle, Beth marched to the nearest salon (one mile north of campus), called Hair & Now. The stylist cut and colored her hair so that it would be identical to Priscilla’s. It didn’t bounce in quite the same way, but it was close enough. Then she headed to the tanning salon a few doors down and purchased five sessions. She topped the day off by shopping for a new wardrobe, all shades of blue. Most important of all, she went on a crash diet and lost eleven pounds in twelve days.
Beth’s startling appearance stunned her friends, but all agreed the radical new look gave her a less wholesome, more adult and exotic demeanor. With her more intriguing new mien, the young men on campus took notice, and several asked her out. She refused every single one (except the exceedingly hot and dimpled Kevin Hecht).
Waiting for the right time to reveal herself to Jonathan, she decided to bump into him right after his class in schizoaffective disorders. In one of her new blue outfits, she leaned against the beige wall in the hallway. When the class ended, the students dispersed. Jonathan quickly walked down the hallway without noticing Beth. She scurried to catch up, and then walked past him so that he’d see her from behind. “Priscilla!” he shouted. That’s when Beth stopped and turned around.
“It’s Beth, Jonathan. Not Priscilla.”
Speechless, Jonathan stared as if seeing the ghost of a former girlfriend. Then he stuttered. Then he managed to put a few words together. “You look so different.”
“I consulted a stylist. Do you like the new me?” she inquired.
“Uh, yes,” he said, bewildered. “I do.”
“Thank you,” she said. Then she strolled away, feeling his eyes still on her as if they were glued.
It took Jonathan an hour and a half to call Beth on her cell. “I’m still in shock about the new look,” he told her. “Can you have dinner with me tonight?”
Within 24 hours, Prissy Light was ancient history. Apparently, things weren’t as rosy as they’d been in the beginning. Beth and Jonathan continued where they left off: studying together, reading under the campus trees, enjoying day trips on Sundays and then making Freudian love in her dorm room. (He convinced her, as Freud believed, that the sexual drive was the primary motivational force of the homosapien.)
One night, at a trendy downtown spot, Beth and Jonathan were enjoying their well-done steaks when Beth froze, her fork in midair. Into the restaurant walked a woman in a black fedora. She looked exactly like the woman Beth had seen at her father’s funeral. Alone, the woman was seated at a table not far from the entrance.
“What’s wrong?” Jonathan asked.
“That woman,” Beth whispered nervously, “I know her.”
“The one in the hat?”
“Yes. At least I think it’s her.”
“Do you want to say hello?”
“I have to,” Beth stated as she slowly stood up, eyes fixed on the woman who was taking the hat off her head, allowing her black hair to fall past her delicate shoulders.
With nerve-wracking trepidation, Beth made her way over. “Excuse me,” she said. “I hate to bother you, but I think I recognize you.”
“Oh, I guess you have one of those faces,” she said. “About ten years ago, were you at the funeral of Ray Moorhouse? He was my father.”
The woman, studying Beth’s searching eyes, didn’t look a day older than the way she appeared in Beth’s memory. “My goodness,” she said softly. “Take a seat.”
Beth pulled a chair out from the table and gingerly sat down opposite this woman. “I always wondered…well, I wondered how you knew him.”
“You’re his daughter,” she said with fascination. “I’m Althea. Althea Iris.”
“What a beautiful name. I’m Beth,” she said, extending her hand. Despite their age difference, Beth was strangely attracted to this woman. Something bubbled inside her that had never bubbled before, and it mystified her.
“Have you been looking for me all these years?”
“In a way I have, yes. You see, I don’t think my mother and father loved each other, and I was convinced he was involved with someone else. I imagined clandestine liaisons in secluded cabins, brief rendezvous in romantic hideaways. Then I saw you at the funeral, and I wondered…well, I wondered if you were the love of his life.”
Althea took a sip of ice water. “I was his psychiatrist. I was treating him for a mental disorder. But there was another person, someone your father did love very much.”
“Who?” Beth asked, inching her way to the edge of the chair. “Who was she? Do you know her name?”
Althea shook her head slowly. “I can’t recall his name. I’m sorry.”
Taken aback, Beth hesitated, trying to put the pieces of her father’s puzzle into some sort of recognizable shape. “He was in love with a man?” she asked.
“A man who worked with animals. Unfortunately he died from loss of blood after a shark attack.”
“Shark attack?” Beth asked, stunned.
“Frightening way to go, no? After that, your father didn’t want to live. I, of course, tried to convince him otherwise. And to avoid frivolous beach activities.”
An ethereal waitress in taupe wafted toward the table, interrupting the conversation with a smile and two menus. “My name is Fedora and I’ll be your server.”
“I’m actually sitting at another table,” Beth explained.
“Are you alone, then?” Fedora asked Althea.
“Alone, not lonely,” she responded.
“Wonderful,” Fedora purred. “Very quickly, I’d like to tell you about our specials. We have a sirloin steak served with a jumbo baked potato, and deep-water shark served with green beans almandine.”
“Is there a vegetarian dish?” Althea inquired.
“We have a jumbo baked potato served with green beans almandine.”
“I’ll let you enjoy your meal,” Beth said. “I just felt compelled to speak to you.”
“Take my card,” Althea said, reaching into her large leather purse. “You may have questions later.’ Beth clutched the business card. “The man might have been Black,” Althea recalled. “Or White. A color for a surname. Perhaps Green. Or Indigo. By the way, how did you recognize me after so many years? The eyes? The smile?”
“The hat, mostly.”
“My goodness,” Althea said. “Believe it or not, that hat was a gift from your father. I’d love you to have it, sweetheart, but I can’t part with it. Now go back to your seat and eat. You could stand to put a little meat on those bones.”
Not only did Beth finish her dinner, she ordered two desserts, deliberately trying to add weight to her alarmingly thin body. She decided to let her hair grow in its natural red, and she went back to her original wardrobe that had little to do with blue. Jonathan didn’t seem to mind. In fact, on a star-filled spring night, he proposed.
“I’d love to give you an answer right now, Jonathan,” she said. “But I can’t. I need a little time to make sure I’m not more interested in women than I am in men.”
Jonathan said nothing as he attempted to analyze the severe jolt he felt, strong as a moderate earthquake. Beth closed her eyes and focused on the odd woman in the black fedora, imagining clandestine liaisons in secluded cabins and brief rendezvous in romantic hideaways.