When things get to be too much, I retreat and come here to regroup. Jacob doesn’t understand. He doesn’t mind the sounds of the city—irritated car horns, the metal reeling of the streetcar. The grinding effort of the bus, exhausting just to hear. These noises get all the way inside my head, rattle around, pile on top of each other. And then I can’t hear my own thoughts.
When that happens, I take off in my ‘94 Toyota Tercel, lightly rusted around the wheel wells. I drive up the highway for a couple of hours and stop at the DQ in Orangeville for a Blizzard or some fries. My parents keep a cottage up north. If I were a man, it would be my cave.
There are neighbours: Edna and Robert, in their early sixties, who are there every summer. They’re friendly—or nosy, depending on your point of view, but I enjoy having them around. They are the type who seems to genuinely care about you even if they don’t know you well. And their cottage is an actual home, a place you could live in all year round. They invite me over for meals or drinks. And every time we have the same conversation.
“Why are you here by yourself?” Edna will ask. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
“A husband,” I’ll say, “but he’s back in the city. He doesn’t like the country. Too quiet.”
“Youth,” Robert will say. “He’ll understand, later.”
Edna will pop over in the middle of the day with a baked thing. Her salt-and-pepper hair is cut in a sleek bob, and she wears elegant clothing made of linen, cotton, or silk. She is the kind of woman I want to be.
Robert is tall, thin, and perpetually distracted. He lets Edna do the talking. He will stare out the window, pace, click on his BlackBerry. I’ve never asked what he does. In this place, somehow, it doesn’t seem relevant.
My Tercel rattles down the dirt road, tired from the journey. I see their porch light through the trees: the sun is setting. They must hear my car’s noisy approach.
I settle into the cottage. I unload the few groceries I’ve picked up, get the bed ready, and text Jacob to let him know I’ve arrived. It is quiet but for the constant ringing in my ears, imprinted there by the harangue of city noise. I curl onto the stiff, nubbly sofa with an old Harlequin that’s been on the bookshelf since I was a little kid. The spine cracks and the stale smell of old yellowed paper reassures me. And after two cups of tea, a swelling scene of simultaneous orgasm, and the passing of hour four, the ringing in my ears subsides just a little.
I crawl into the double bed, springy and lined with floppy elderly pillows. The quietness descends like a thick velvet blanket, voluptuous and total. But as I’m falling asleep, in that usually delicious state between waking and consciousness, I find I’m edged back into the grip of city noise: angry horns, an insistent drill, and the crisp ring of glass shattering.
My period is late. Normally I am very regular. I haven’t told Jacob yet. I have opened my mouth several times over the last two weeks to say it, but each time nothing came out.
Jacob has always wanted to be a father. He’s the guy kids clamour over at large gatherings, because he’ll horse around with them and swing them and toss them into the air, and they’ll scream and cackle and jump up and down and call him Uncle Jakey, even if he is not actually their uncle.
I have always envied people like Jacob. People who fit effortlessly into life’s roles. He is what some call a family man. It is, in part, why I married him. He was made to be married. In life, you must hitch your wagon to those who are going where you want to go.
It wasn’t long after the wedding that he wanted to try for children. “They will be beautiful and smart,” he declared, “and they will be organic, artisanal, and locally sourced.”
I try to picture myself as a mother. I imagine me and Jacob loading two young children into an SUV, with primary-coloured toys and bits of cracker all over the car floor. We head to the farmer’s market on weekend mornings. To the park to barbecue. To swimming lessons, playdates. The images in my mind are sun-dappled and vivid. They are taken from the clean, bright lifestyle blogs I read. Even though our apartment is full of dark things and does not face the sun, I fantasize about starting my own luminous blog to chronicle our happy times, my difficult but ultimately satisfying movement into motherhood, the miraculous development of babies into toddlers into children into teenagers. All the stuff that Jacob would be so good at, and so good at teaching me how to do.
And yet. Here I am, alone at the cottage. And there is a heavy feeling in my abdomen. Real or imagined? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, when I wake in the morning and go pee and there is no blood on the toilet paper, the ringing in my head starts again.
I sit outside, facing the lake. It is a clear morning. I listen for the sounds of Edna and Robert on the property next to me, but hear nothing, and their car is not parked out front. Perhaps they’ve gone into town early. It is Saturday and the local market sells out quickly. Cityfolk’s demand for its farm-fresh eggs and rustic boules is fierce.
Last year, Edna and I took a walk along the shore as the sun went down, and I told her that Jacob wanted children.
“You will make wonderful parents,” Edna said confidently. “It is a very special thing, to be a parent. It makes your heart bigger, although it can break your heart too. Either way, it’s worth it.”
A bigger heart? Who wouldn’t want that? Edna and Robert were parents three times over. I had never met their children, but it was easy to see that they’d built a loving community out of their own flesh and blood and spirit. It was a scent that perfumed everything they did. And her confidence in us—did that mean that I, too, was capable of it?
I walk through the thin wall of trees that separates our properties, and up the stairs to their veranda. But my knock is met only with silence. I turn to leave, and hear a crunch underfoot. Thin glass shards cling to the bottom of my sandal. The light bulb over the front door is shattered.
I walk the twenty minutes to the beach down the road. It’s still early and there aren’t many people here yet. I leave my cheap flip-flops on the shore and walk into the cool shallows. My steps become slow motion and my feet sink into the wet, pillowing sand. When I come to rest, a school of tiny minnows dart around my calves and peck lightly at my skin.
My abdomen feels heavy and thick, and a deep low pain clenches inside. I don’t want to stand anymore; I want to curl up. I return to the beach to sit on my portable beach chair and read a self-help book entitled Loving the Skin You’re In, which I’d picked up at the Chapters in Orangeville on the way. Certain self-help books are like candy: sweet and satisfying at the time, but afterward you feel empty and sick. Yet I still go to them. This particular book is full of motivational paragraphs that encourage you to embrace yourself, wholeheartedly, without shame. To become the person you already are. I agree, in principle. But what if you don’t know who you are? Or, more worrisome: what if there is no discrete you at all? I have often sensed myself to be not a differentiated self, but a shifting weave of emotion and thought. Unstable, without an intrinsic form. I am one thing one minute, and completely something else the next. A shape-shifter.
I return to the cottage in late afternoon, feeling like an oven-warmed piece of bread, I hope to find one of Edna’s notes, written on cheerful yellow notepaper, tucked in the screen-door frame, inviting me over for dinner. But there’s nothing, and their car is still gone. Maybe they’ve driven back to the city?
As the sun goes down, I think about calling Jacob.
“Hey, babe,” he will say in his easygoing voice, “are you enjoying it up there?” And I will tell him yes, I am. And then he’ll ask if I feel better, and I’ll say yes, I do, and then we’ll talk about what he got up to with his friends last night (beer) and then I’ll hang up. So, thus having gone through the motions of the conversation in my head already, I don’t bother to call.
I swallow a painkiller and after fifteen minutes the tightness in my abdomen lessens. The rest of the night is spent playing Angry Birds on my iPad with the radio on. Without Edna and Robert across the way, I feel lonely. Could I have been wrong when I saw the lights on last night? Maybe they were never here. I just imagined seeing the porch light the night before. It must have been a boat or the lantern of someone passing along the water line.
Sleep places its heavy hands on my shoulders. As I approach the far reaches of my consciousness, the sounds of the city crowd in again—but this time closer, almost as if they’re at my doorstep: a clanging hammer, a baby crying, the harsh sound of glass smashing.
The next morning, I wake and stumble to the bathroom with an urgent need to pee. Red liquid blooms in the toilet bowl. I burst outside moments later, gasping, and find the light bulb over my door has been smashed, leaving tiny glass shards, brilliant and glittering, all over the ground.
Julia Chan lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in subTerrain; on café napkins in Toronto, Leeds, and Brisbane, made by Brisbane publisher Tiny Owl Workshop; and in The Rusty Toque. She was recently featured at the Emerging Writers Reading Series, curated by Jess Taylor. As a screenwriter, her short film In Shadow (directed by Shirley Cheechoo) screened at the Sundance Film Festival, among others. Julia is currently working on her first book, which she recently workshopped at the Humber School for Writers. She logs bits of her unconscious at aplacestrange.tumblr.com.
Zoey knew more about the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than all her peers combined. She'd read The Female Quixote six times, Evelina twice as many and Pride and Prejudice a whopping eighteen. Why hadn't these idiots asked her how to dress?
As soon as Will opened the doors to the “Grand Hall” – aka, the goddamned cafeteria – the screech of off-tune violins filled the air and the stench of sweating bodies hit her. She stood in place, thunderstruck. Lace, bonnets, grandma prints – this was all wrong! Where were the silks, the colours? Where were the elegant up-does, the fashionable coats and hats she'd read about? Her classmates looked like they'd been dragged through dirt before coming here! Was she the only one who read?
“After you, my Lady,” said Will, bending into a bow. Her gaze flicked to the knee-length socks he wore. Will's hair was cow-licked and his ruffly collar went all the way to his chin. He didn't look like Mr. Darcy or Lord Orville; he looked like a sausage in a casing. To think he'd gazed at her strangely when he'd picked her up that evening. She'd copied Keira Knightly's dress right down to the stitching!
“I wish we could've rented a hall,” she whispered as they advanced into the caf. Orange wax paper was taped over the ceiling lights to mimic firelight, but it just made the dancers look weird and shadowy. And the dance itself – well, she shouldn't be surprised they'd gotten that wrong, too. The guys and girls weren't even touching! Some girls she knew from History class wrinkled their noses at her.
“Such a merry gathering!” said Will, looking delighted by this poor excuse of a theme. She hadn't known he could do accents. “Would you care for refreshment?”
“Aye, matey, bring me a grog,” she answered with a wink. Will had mistaken pirate for regency talk yesterday and she'd promised to never let him live it down – but it didn't look like he remembered, because he just shot her a raised eyebrow and hurried away.
Weird. If she hadn't known better, she could've sworn he was embarrassed to be seen with her.
Shaking the thought, Zoey scanned the hall for people she knew. She was the only one in emerald green; the other girls wore white and cream and boring crap like ribbons. Even Paula – Paula, who just last week had come to church with her breasts hanging out. Now she looked like she'd escaped from a convent. Zoey waved at her, but she turned and pretended not to see.
“Can you fathom such attire on a young lady?” someone whispered, glaring at Zoey.
Zoey glanced down at herself to make sure she hadn't spilled anything. Were they jealous that her dress was more realistic than theirs? Well, it didn't matter; she couldn't let them ruin her fun. She made her way to the dance floor, determined to show off the moves she'd spent hours learning from YouTube videos. She couldn't spot her Mr. Darcy, but Justin was alright-looking and standing alone by the buffet table. She marched up to him.
He turned around and gasped as his eyes fell on her bust-line. This corset had pushed her breasts up pretty high, she had to admit. “Want to dance?” she asked. “It's okay if you don't know the moves. I'll lead.”
“Heavens, Madam,” he said, backing away. “Upon my word, I am wholly unused to this level of forwardness from a lady. Pray, grant me leave to rejoin my company.”
And like Will, he bolted. Zoey only took a few dazed steps toward the buffet table before a short, chubby teen with a cane intercepted her.
“My Lady.” Kyle gave her a sleazy grin, totally unlike the shy boy she knew. “I do not believe I have had the pleasure of making your acquaintance. Would you honour me with your hand?”
Zoey had never feared saying 'no' – in fact, her bluntness had made guys cry in the past – but something about this atmosphere stifled her impending rejection and she found herself answering, “Sure.”
Kyle led Louisa – for Zoey was her middle name, and really quite a vulgar one, she'd always thought – to the cafeteria's make-do dance floor, weaving between lace-and-muslin-clad bodies. The off-tune student orchestra suddenly dwindled to silence and they turned to the front of the caf where Principal Duval was clinking her glass with a spoon. “Ladies and gentlemen, quadrille! The lovely couples on the floor shall take this round.”
Louisa felt a surge of excitement. Now this was more like it! It would be just like Elizabeth and Darcy danced at the Netherfield Ball. She finally spotted her Darcy, senior Howard Glanville, on the dance floor and prepared a most charming line with which to engage him when their turn came to be paired. They'd sashay between dancers, holding each other's gazes, longing for their next brief interaction...
The nasal drone of oboes started the quadrille, and the couples bowed to one another. Louisa curtseyed to Kyle, growing conscious of how tight her high-waisted bodice really was, and wondering if she'd be able to execute the appropriate turns in it. As the strings joined in, the group linked hands and began moving in a circle. Louisa watched her feet, trying to remember she had to kick out her hem every time she stepped.
Before she knew it she was handed off to Kyle, spun, handed off to the next pimple-faced 'gentleman,' spun again, and so forth until she thought she'd be ill. So focused was she on the difficult steps that she barely noticed being tossed to Glanville before rebounding ungraciously back to Kyle. Passed like a ping-pong ball between gentlemen!
Soon she was gasping from fatigue, the air so thick with candle smoke it burned her throat. And good gracious, the smell of these brutes! Certainly they shouldn't have neglected to bathe for such an occasion?
This is frightfully disagreeable! No witty banter, no graceful twirling, just steps and sweat and rules! she lamented to herself, as the dancers accrued into a circle again. Imagine the offence to propriety if I simply sat down, placed my head betwixt my knees, and let these fops trip over me left and right! The power of it was invigorating. If she so desired, she could put a stick between the gears of this coordinated machine.
The song's finale ground the machine to a halt before she could gather her courage. Lightheaded, Louisa curtseyed to Sir Kyle and allowed herself to be conducted to a chair. She found herself tugging at her ruffled sleeves and, deeming this conduct unworthy of a lady of her calibre, folded her gloved hands in her lap.
How foolish do these sheep appear, thought she, with the utmost vexation, prancing round the ballroom in their identically drab attire, each indistinguishable from the next.
Who did they think they were to rebuke her for her gown? Was green not the colour Keira Knightley wore to portray Elizabeth Bennett? Let them suffer this, thought Lady Louisa, grasping her dinner knife off the table and fashioning a slit in the hem of her gown, all the way to her calf. Indeed, now she believed she'd scandalize the ladies effectively.
Barely a moment's reprieve from dancing had Lady Louisa been afforded before the honoured Lord Glanville approached her table. Louisa, greatly fearing his Lordship's intent was to give censure for her discourteous manner of dress, and dreading the ill opinion of one so esteemed in her eyes, tripped away to the toilet, seeking to avoid further humiliation. Why, her cream-coloured gown even sported emerald buttons; a style at once unsuited to the fashion and disagreeable to the ladies of lower birth, for whom such expressions of wealth were beyond reach. O, what madness had driven her to disregard all decency?
A sudden roar like that of a beast made Louisa's heart beat out of her chest, and she turned, surprised and terrified to find the source of the noise a most peculiar-looking machine. So great was her distress that she would fain have run from the room –
Wait a minute. She turned again.
An automatic hand-drier? That was what had nearly given her a heart attack?
Shaking, Zoey leaned over the sink, cupped water in her hands and splashed it over her face. What the hell was wrong with her? It might only be a high school cafeteria, but for a moment everything had felt so real. Like she was actually in a period novel, only with...gross smells and stuff, and no romance whatsoever.
She wiped her face on the embroidered towel, then studied herself in the mirror. Her curls lay piled atop her head, contrasting nicely with her green dress. Frowning, she yanked the pins from her hair and let it tumble down her back. The whole period thing wasn't fun anymore. Frankly, it was getting a little scary.
Time to bring back modernity.
Leaving the washroom, Zoey crossed the darkened hall and waited for the footmen – no, not footmen, just Brad and Sam in stupid costumes – to let her back into the caf. The doors creaked inward and the smell of flame and candle wax struck her, though she could've sworn that orange glow wasn't real firelight. This dim lighting made the caf seem larger than she remembered it, and a few of those pillars looked like they might be winding staircases leading to a second floor – but such things didn't exist in school cafeterias, so Zoey gave it no more thought. Her heart began pounding again, though she didn't know why.
In her haste she strut right through a group of chatting girls, spilling champagne all over them. They shouldn't be drinking, anyways. Gasps followed in her wake but she didn't care, she was done with this game. The men – boys? – in the orchestra followed her with their eyes as she elbowed her way between Josephina Andrews and Cole Bennett, taking the latter's arm.
“Mr. Bennett,” she said in her snootiest accent. “Care to ditch this crowd?”
Cole blinked. “My apologies, Miss, but...do I know you?”
“How scandalously rude!” said Josephina.
Zoey leaned into him a little, making sure he had a view down her bustline. That would snap him out of it. “C'mon, seriously, want to get some fresh air?”
But Cole detached his arm from her grip, then straightened his jacket as if to imply she'd ruffled both it and his patience. “Leave us at once, coquette. You offend my lady.”
It was all Zoey could do not to scream, or cry, or both. “This isn't funny anymore!” she yelled, and the violins faltered. Gathering her skirts, she ran as quickly as she could up the stairs that shouldn't have been there and onto a second-floor balcony. Wind rushed through her free hair and clung her dress to her body. She leaned against the railing, looking out into the night.
To find a very Georgian England spread out before her.
Shock charged every cell of Zoey's body as if she stood inside a brass bell someone had struck. She clutched the railing with white-knuckled hands. No matter how much she blinked, she couldn't shake the illusions of terraced townhomes and horse-drawn carriages rolling down cobblestone streets. No. Hell no. Was this bullshit contagious?
You're dreaming, she told herself.
“Awake, my deluded peers,” cried she, in a great passion, “awake from this visionary fancy, and exert yourself to surmount the evils with which it threatens you!”
Louisa – Zoey, damn it! – screamed and clamped her hands over her mouth. What the hell was visionary fancy? The students nearest the balcony gave her odd looks. Zoey uncovered her mouth. She tried her voice again. “This isn't real, guys! You're freakin' scaring me now! Stop it!”
“Fore George, I do reckon this creature is intoxicated,” a young man whispered to his date.
Zoey set her jaw. “Fine! I'll prove it to you. I'll prove none of this is real.” And, tears burning in her eyes, she hiked up her skirt and started clambering over the rail.
Screams and gasps ensued. But there was no stair, no second floor, and no balcony in the school cafeteria, and Zoey knew she wouldn't get hurt. How could she? The fall would only wake her from this nightmare.
Pushing off the rail, she launched herself into the night.
Lady Louisa landed in a heap of perplexity and shock upon the cobblestones, ignorant as to how she had come to be in such a deplorable condition.
“Good grief!” exclaimed Lord Glanville, who at that moment had been handing a lady into a coach, but upon sighting Louisa flew to her side with the utmost concern. “Has your Ladyship suffered any injuries?”
“Injuries, Sir!” said Louisa, colouring and accepting Lord Glanville's extended hand. “Only to my vanity, that your Lordship should find me in so dismal a state.”
Glanville helped Louisa to her feet and in a most genteel manner offered his handkerchief for the dirt staining her gown. Louisa could scarce forbear lamenting that it was spoilt; she'd favoured it over all her others for its modest cream-coloured silk and high neckline of lace.
“My lady! Your arm! It's bleeding!”
Louisa examined both arms, and finding them quite free of injury, said, with no little degree of confusion, “Whatever do you mean?”
“Indeed, Madam, you are hurt,” proclaimed another fellow, who had drawn up to observe the commotion.
A grievous pain then began in Louisa's left arm, and to her great surprise and terror, suddenly she saw it was covered in blood.
Glanville took her round the waist as she swooned. “However did this accident occur?” cried he.
“I...I do believe somebody pushed me.”
“Pushed, do you say? Villainous fellow!”
Louisa, still suffering from lightheadedness, looked up at the empty balcony and wondered what offence she could have given this mysterious aggressor to merit such ill-usage.
Miss Paula Woodhouse, hearing an uproar on the street below the second-floor balcony, and desirous to know its origins, fain would have joined the observers had they not been packed so tightly around the scene as to block her view.
“Pray, someone do tell me what the fuss is,” begged she, but in the general chaos none heeded her pleas.
“Louisa went home, that's all,” came a voice behind her. Paula spun and was faced with a young woman of the most provoking dress: emerald green was her gown, and with a tear travelling all the way to her thigh! Paula could scarce do more than stare with open mouth at the exotic creature. The offender gave a wry smile and glided into the crowd, disappearing.
Later that evening, still awe-struck by the stranger's boldness, Paula stole to the powder room with a steak knife and began cutting at her own gown's hem.
Raluca Balasa graduated from the University of Toronto, where she majored in English and minored in Cinema Studies. One of her short stories won an Honourable Mention in the second quarter of the 2014 Writers of the Future contest. Currently, she is an assistant for a literary agency in Toronto. Her favourite living things are birds.
Alexandra Balasa graduated this year from the University of Toronto with a double major in English and Psychology. She wrote and blogged for the university's first and only speculative fiction journal. She is an avid reader and writer of science fiction and fantasy, and loves stories with psychological bents as well as complex, Sandersonian magic systems. When she isn't writing, Alexandra is contemplating existentialism, expanding her rock collection, and watching documentaries about space.
Her suitcase top fell with a thump. She wished it held a definitive snap, but there wasn’t much to do with zippered suitcases.
“Woah, woah, Hannah, stop. Why?”
She wrenched the zipper around the lid, forcefully tugging at the zipper pull.
“I just… I think I’m tired.”
“Tired? Tired of what? Of us?”
Hannah looked up at Cole, wondering how truthful she should be. She sighed. “Tired of the Meghan and Cole show.”
Cole snapped his head around in shock, confusion visible on his face.
“It’s not like that.”
“It’s a little.” Hannah paused. “It’s a lot. And I’m tired of it.”
“So you’re, what? Going home?” Anger strained his voice. “How? I’m not driving you.”
“I’m not asking you to.” She bent over her suitcase, unable to look at him. “Shane is picking me up. And it’s not like you’ll notice me gone.” She darted a look at him.
“Shane is driving two hours just to come get you? That’s ridiculous. Why- why would he do that?”
Because he understands. Hannah looked away, turning back to her suitcase. “Because he can, I guess.”
Laughter could be heard outside, loud, boisterous voices followed by their owners as the rest of the group entered the cabin. “Guys?” James called out from the kitchen. “We’re going swimming, if you want to join.”
“In a minute!” Cole turned back to Hannah, pulling a bathing suit from the floor and handing it to her.
“Come on, Hannah. It’s three more days. Call Shane back, come to the beach with us.”
Hannah grabbed the swimsuit from him. A vivid image of Cole and Meghan, bathing suit clad, lounging in the water, danced in front of her. She winced at the picture, one too vivid from events this past week. She shoved the suit in her bag, shrugging. “No… no, I’m going home. I’m sorry, Cole.” Hurt strained his face when she looked up. He shook his head in disappointment.
“Whatever, Hannah. Have a good summer.” And he left. She jumped when she heard the cabin door slam.
Hannah turned back to her suitcase, neatly folding everything in. The cabin was oddly quiet with everyone now at the beach. This weekend had promised her so much hope, until reality struck them. Her hands rhythmically packed in almost slow motion, each line of folded clothes perfect.
She wasn’t sure what she had expected from this weekend. Something from Cole. Something more than the flirting she’d experience all summer. Something more on that kiss at the outdoor pool. Something fantastic, maybe.
Not this. In all the years she’d known him, in everything she’d been through with him, she hadn’t expected this.
Hannah let her head sink between her arms. She wanted to scream. Idiot! She was so dumb for thinking anything would happen between them. She was so stupid for getting her hopes up. Of course there wasn’t anything between them, why would there be?
But Meghan. It had to be Meghan. That bright, bubbly, bobblehead of a girl who could barely keep track of her left hand, let alone a group of small children, that’s who he took his fancy to?
This was supposed to be their last hurrah, their weekend at James’ cottage away from the city, away from real life. It was their weekend of no responsibilities before they all parted ways again, and she’d ruined it.
Or he’d ruined it.
Or Meghan had ruined it.
Or she’d ruined it.
Shit, well, someone had ruined it.
The cabin was still, making Hannah feel restless. She could hear shrieks of laughter coming from the beach down the hill. She checked her phone again, but had no new messages from Shane. Hannah sighed and fidgeted in her seat. There was no way she could be here when Cole came back, but it’s not like she could ask Shane to get here quicker.
Or could she?
A graphic image of a horrific car crash spread down the highway flashed in Hannah’s mind. She shuddered and put her phone down. No.
She couldn’t help but be bitter about the whole thing. Visions, ideas, fantasies danced in her head all summer, and they all came crashing down this weekend with the work of one little brunette. And she did, she really liked Meghan, but the excessiveness of her and Cole made Hannah’s blood boil like the shrew she was.
There was flirting, definite flirting.
She was sure of it, her friends were, and she thought he was too with that kiss.
But it was one kiss, it didn’t mean anything. God knows she had kissed enough people for it to not mean anything anymore.
Was she being insane? Did she really have the right to leave a weekend of friends because of an… overreaction? Was it an overreaction? No! She had every right to be pissed! There was something between them, or there was, and she shouldn’t have to watch him and Meghan practically fornicate in front of her.
He’d liked her at one point. At the beginning of the summer. He just wasn’t… or she wasn’t… something got fucked up and here they were. And she was leaving and he was with Meghan. Hannah thoughts back to that kiss so long ago.
They had decided to go night swimming. Mainly because it was against the rules of the city pool they worked at and they had to sign a contract as lifeguards to not do it, but obviously if they were signing something legal against it, it had to be done. They were only halfway through their summer contract, but with the amount of whiny kids and pissed off parents they had to deal with, the escape was necessary. So they climbed that pool fence, tossing beers and towels and flip-flops over and stripping down to their underwear and then jumping in.
Thank god she wore her nice bra that night.
There were four of them bobbing in the water, Hannah, Cole, Shane, and Emily. There was a stillness to the water, seemingly undisrupted by their swimming forms. With no light but the street light outside the fence leaving them in a darkness that hid the pool, Hannah felt almost weightless in the unheated community pool. And they treaded water, the satisfying moment of breaking that one rule swiftly leaving as the cold night air settled on them. The four of them scrambled out of the dinky pool and rushed around the cement deck, surrounded by only hushed whispers and the sharp break of laughter, Cole grabbing Hannah’s towel and wrapping it around her scantily clad form.
Her boobs did look great in this bra.
There was stillness there, his hands resting on slightly upon her shoulders. Maybe it was the darkness or the cold night air, but suddenly words felt heavy and couldn’t tread her tongue. The world melted away and she looked at him quizzically. And then his lips were on hers. There was no segue, no pause, she didn’t even register he was kissing her, only that his lips were suddenly on hers and she wasn’t wearing a towel anymore and Shane and Emily were probably watching but she didn’t care and her boobs looked great anyway so let them stare.
Then the moment passed and the world came alive again. Emily and Shane sat on the edge of the pool beside the slide, their calves settled in the water. Hannah glanced at Cole and darted her eyes away, but she caught a glint in the corner of his as he smiled and she lightly touched her lips and blushed.
Then he turned to join Shane and Emily at the edge of the pool and Hannah turned to the picnic bench behind her, wondering where the fuck were her pants?
It felt real.
That thought bounced around her head.
It felt real. He must have felt something then, or at some point, there must have been…
She wanted to talk about it, that moment in the water. She tried to bring it up, but everything she thought of was clumsy or awkward or passive aggressive. And as time wore on and he didn’t bring it up, the moment felt less real and more a piece of imagination and she left it in the back of her mind as summer wore on.
But when they lit the campfire the first night up here and she saw him sneak off into the woods and saw Meghan was missing from the group around the fire, and their giggles and teasing and playing became more pronounced over the weekend and she saw them claim a bedroom in the cabin to themselves and Hannah realized oh with a sinking feeling why he’d chose not to bring it up. She felt like she might throw up and she slipped off to that one corner of the cabin where her phone got service, calling the one person who had seen everything and understood.
“Shane? I need you to do me a favour.”
And here she sat. She listened to the laughter emanating from the beach and she sat at the dining room table suitcase to her left and cell phone in the corner to her right.
She checked her phone again, the clock reading 4:05 pm. It would be at least fifty minutes before Shane would make it up here.
She could hear her friends down at the beach enjoying the last of the summer sun and her brow furrowed. Asshole. Hell, she had fifty minutes to waste and she was going to use it. She grabbed a stray towel from the porch and walked off to the growing voices and stray splashes.
Five pairs of eyes looked up at her questioningly as she made her way down to the dock, but Hannah met Cole’s only. He paused, hands resting on Meghan’s bikini clad body. He’d probably told the rest of the group she was leaving, but she wondered if he’d said why.
“Hey Hannah!” Peter shouted from the water. “You coming in?”
Hannah tore her eyes from Cole’s, grinning. “Hell yeah.”
“You don’t have a suit.” She heard Cole say. “She doesn’t- She doesn’t have a suit.”
Hannah tugged at the bottom of her shirt, pulling it over her head. “I don’t need one.” She met Emily’s eye as Emily snorted with laughter. Her black floral bra stood out against her pale skin. Peter and James whistled as she sprinted down the dock and she heard Emily loudly whoop before she hit the water.
Popping up beside Meghan and Cole, Hannah pushed her hair back and smirked.
“Almost Déjà vu, eh?”
She turned back to her friends before she could hear his reply.
Tamsin hails from somewhere in Canada, though she's moved around
enough that she's not sure where. She currently studies English and
Creative Writing at Dalhousie University, and spends her days reading,
writing, and fearing the void that is post-grad life. Her most popular
piece of writing is a rhyming love note she put in a boy's locker in the
sixth grade. It was also her first public reading.
The kid was really a no one, bouncing up and down in his boat across the frothy waves, traversing the wake of a luxury liner, and then swiftly guiding himself to the rocky shoreline of Huckleberry Island, where it seemed as though the party had been going on for years without him. Jake could barely make out the rippling Hammond organ of Booker T & the M.G.’s Green Onions playing nearby. As one hand rose across his sweaty brow he noticed the jaunty shadows of all the Shining Ones, all of them dancing inside the bakehouse as an efflorescent glow bleed silently out the window blinds, cutting across the bare darkness like sunbeams. Quickly, Jake tied the boat to an ashen tree trunk littering the shore. His heart began to quicken. He stood there in his Nordstrom’s suit looking like a patchwork knee-deep in seawater right there on the pebble beach. He knew that he had been banned from going to the party by her father—one of those maniacal dudes that made all boys feel invisible. Yet he found himself there anyway.
As he started to walk along the beach he smiled at the thought of her.
Now Georgia Benjamin was no ordinary girl. No. She was the type of girl who had the right mix of everything. Smart. Well read. Had passport stamps of most of Europe; Jake had even talked her into volunteering one summer to help the less fortunate in Ethiopia, and she loved it. This was a girl who had to stop for every stricken critter and turtle along the roadside. She liked Modern Art like her mother, Katherine, did, especially Kandinsky and Rothko. And there was this heartened look that came to her face whenever she got afraid and her lips started to purse together—the kind of look that made Jake Brunelli want to spend the rest of his life with her. They had met in Providence while attending Brown University together. He was there on scholarship. Her family had been going there long before the revolution.
As his feet sloshed through sink hole after sink hole along the pebble beach he managed to think that maybe somehow her family still might want to foster him in. Jake’s father, Alejandro Brunelli, had been a sort of folk hero to him; an Italian-Argentinean who literally had to carry his infant son on his back across the Patagonian Andes to escape the military junta of 1976 Argentina. His mother, Nadine, gave wine-soaked bread to family infants, risking her life as she hid them in the cutouts of old furniture, the political killings and disappearances becoming a nightly ritual. Alejandro and Nadine may have only been servants after they immigrated to the U.S., but his parents had helped everyone they ever encountered. Jake couldn’t fathom why anyone at the top of the heap, someone like a Lionel Benjamin, wouldn’t want to lend a hand to help someone else out of the wiles of the swamp. It certainly seemed like the Christian thing to do.
Soon he stood there in front of the old bakehouse of the Squantum Club, painted a farty fort-brown like a lodge no one was supposed to see. A beautiful primer of lobster and mussels steaming nearby wafted through the cool night air.
As he breathed in this beautiful aroma his heart began to quicken again. He could hear all the earsplitting guests conversing wildly inside. It was then that he pulled out the ring to check on it again. Twenty-two years old was quite young to be getting married, especially for 1998. People got married at forty now. And he knew it. But he knew life was short and happiness could be fleeting. You could be dead. Or he could be dead. Or Georgia could be dead in the blink of an eye. Even that annoying guido at the jewelry store earlier that afternoon—buying his Johnston girlfriend that chunky bracelet with her name tattooed in diamonds—he could be dead tomorrow too. Jake had lost both parents to cancer within months of each other. His father, Alejandro, had been dead only six months now. It was still so fresh in his memory that he found himself still talking to his dad whenever he got lonely. He realized that there was no special envoy dismissing one person in life while saving another; no omniscient God in a smoky backroom, drinking Jim Beam and smoking Camels, pulling on strings for jigs—this person stays, this person goes! But as he stared at that ring he held in his hand he did think he could somehow quell the tsunami of pain he always felt trying to rise up somewhere deep down inside him.
Right then Jake cleared his throat, pretended to be Richard Burbage, or at least Russell Crowe, and he rushed headlong into the bakehouse, where all these marvelous sounds bleated back and forth like at a carnival.
Strangely, inside wasn’t what he imagined. At first he didn’t see Georgia at all. And then there was all this bickering. People sat around drinking bourbon and complained about nonsense when there were real problems out there to solve. Other people, sharply dressed men and women, stood around looking beautiful, slender, and tall. He noticed Uriah, Georgia’s baby sister, standing off in a corner right in front of the dark windows that overlooked Narragansett Bay. She was eating Russian Tea cake and drinking a cup of coffee. He was surprised to see that she had cut her long blonde hair short like a boy. Out of nowhere, she raised her coffee cup up toward Jake to get his attention. They all attended Brown together. She was studying literature in hopes of becoming a writer some day. Uriah would often tell anyone who would listen that she was going to be the next female David Foster Wallace. She had actually introduced Jake to her sister. He considered her a good friend.
Walking across the dance floor Jake noticed several people he thought he recognized, but wasn’t too sure about. He was fairly certain the rotund guy to his left, the one making all the jokes with the old women, must have been the flamboyant Mayor of Providence. Next to him he recognized Senator Kennedy from Massachusetts. He was surrounded by ten impresarios all dressed in matching Brooks Brothers suits, each of them with satin blue ties, everyone drinking Gladding Punch—brandy, rum, sugar, Nutmeg, and milk. Over to the right stood a man Jake thought must have been the CEO of General Motors, because the poor sap, balding and paunchy, had a blue patch on his sport coat with a big GM underlined in subtle light-blue. He was canoodling a cute twenty-something as he kept trying to tempt her with a drunken little chimpanzee dressed up as Uncle Sam. Strangely, the chimpanzee had on what looked to be a campaign slogan pinned to his posterior, although Jake couldn’t get close enough to make it out. The rhythms of a small orchestra that had been set up inside the bakehouse played Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, shredding the whole place down.
Jake stood there like a talking cucumber at cattle ranch. He tried to inconspicuously fit in, coughing into his hand, and then walking over to Uriah, trying to stay undercover for as long as he could. It was actually fairly easy, letting the flailing chimpanzee, which was drinking a beer now and moon walking, as these otherwise astute people all stood around in a circle, clapping their hands, egging on their hapless little friend.
Jake spoke to Uriah teasingly as he walked up. “You’re father’s such a fine dancer.” He said this as he looked down at the chimpanzee. “Now please tell me he’s still a towering drunk.”
Uriah leaned in close so nobody else could hear. “Daddy is the kind of drunk who has to stop himself from drinking out of all the half empty glasses. Believe me. I’ve seen it.” Both their eyes scanned the room at all the half empty glasses lying around.
Jake got an odd feeling as he watched her sip on her coffee. He knew she had problems. He partly blamed himself. Nonetheless, she actually seemed taken off guard when he reached over, took a swig of her coffee to see if it was spiked, and then handed it straight back to her.
An annoyed look came to her pretty face.
“Hey?” She leaned in close again. “Look, Jake, I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like that. Now do they?”
He watched as her ears slowly began to turn as red as a raspberry. He stared into those blue eyes of hers now. He felt badly for both her and her sister. Georgia had confided in him many a night about how their father treated them so poorly. He knew for a fact that Lionel would berate them, simply because they hadn’t been born boys. He often called his daughters handmaidens right in front of company. He had read a book once, and he was now a self-proclaimed pragmatist—someone who truly believed in his heart that helping others or the poor would only hurt them in the long run.
Uriah must have noticed the thoughts written on his face, because she touched Jake’s hand very tender as though to distract him. “Father has his own way,” she tried to say.
Jake was about to argue the point when he caught sight of her sister walking in from the loggia outside.
Even after all these years seeing Georgia stopped Jake right in his tracks. He had dated other women before, of course. Nice women too. Even attractive ones. The kind of women a mother wants her son to bring home to her family. One girl could be pithy. And another one kind. Yet another one beautiful. But no girl could be all things; no one accept the wonderful girl from Ruggles Avenue whose gorgeous exterior was only surpassed by the beautiful pastoral that rested so blissfully inside her.
Simply seeing Georgia made him feel alive. Somehow her presence loosened all the darkness caught up inside him. He noticed the faint way she had to smile at all her father’s friends, the same way a baker’s wife might smile pleasantly at pastry in front of company. Her summer tan was gorgeous. And her blonde hair had lightened so much from the sun that it almost matched the sparkling light-gold hues of her sequined dress. Walking in the door of the bakehouse she could have passed for a blonde Cleopatra.
Suddenly, her smile changed to self-doubt as she spied Jake standing over there.
She rushed over to him with her blue eyes looking down as though she was afraid to catch anyone’s eye.
Her hand thrust out and grabbed his wrist quickly. “What are you doing here?” she whispered. “Are you mad?”
Jake thought it was somewhat amusing that he had defied her father yet again. Could a man really tell another man where he could and couldn’t go?
“Have some Russian Tea cake while you’re here!” Uriah told them. She held her plate of cake out to both of them.
At first Georgia nodded like she wasn’t interested.
“Just have a little,” Jake entreated her. She had been looking awfully skinny at Gooseberry Beach the week before.
He took a bite of the cake now. “It’s delicious. Come on. You can feel how good it is on the tips of your lips. Just try some.”
A waning smile came to her face. “Oh, no thanks,” she said. “If you can feel it on your lips, Jake, you know it’s going straight to your hips.” She smacked her hand against one hip as she smiled.
He let out a frustrated breath. “Oh, come on. Live a little. It’s not like you’re going to turn into a pumpkin.” He turned and looked at her sister. “When I take her out to dinner all she eats is salad. I think she’s going to turn into a rabbit.”
“I’d make you get me lobster,” Uriah joked. “What would I turn into?”
He turned, exasperated, and looked at Georgia now. “A girl can get too skinny you know.”
She laughed. “Oh, no she can’t!”
Georgia looked at her baby sister, and they both gave each other a subtle nod like they had done a thousand times before. Georgia nodded back to her. “Alright. Alright. You two are impossible.” She reached over and took a big bite of cake. She nodded approvingly like it was very good. She then turned and looked back at Jake. “Okay. I listened. Now you have to listen. We have to go.”
“We just got here,” he said.
“Yeah, but you’re on daddy’s Enemies List,” Uriah said.
“You’re kidding, right?”
Georgia gave her sister an icy stare now. “Uriah?”
Jake knew not to fight every battle. So he took Georgia’s hand and started to walk out with her, leaving the Squantum Club and bakehouse until a mischievous smile slowly began to form across his face.
Halfway across the room he playfully pulled Georgia back a couple of steps.
He gently pushed her toward the center of the dance floor now, where he got down on one knee.
“No, no, no,” her voice nervously started to appeal to him.
The whole room got quiet.
All of a sudden the little chimpanzee, drunk on Dos Equis and champagne by now, came waddling over with his right-hand drawn out.
He tried to grab the blinding white box that Jake held up to his girlfriend.
“Oh, no, that’s not for you,” he said, gingerly trying to push the little guy back.
Thankfully, the cute brunette came over and took little drunk Uncle Sam back to her table with her and the GM guy.
Suddenly, Georgia’s face stared to turn flush.
Jake kneeled in front of her, holding out his hand, opening up the blinding white jewelry box that he held, so she could see the contents inside.
A stunning diamond ring set in white gold sat atop his palm like on a lily pad. He had worked tirelessly for three years after class and during the summer months to save up enough for that ring. Alejandro and Nadine had left him little after having to pay their hospital bills that racked up to almost a staggering two-hundred-thousand. All he had now was their little bungalow up in North Scituate and an old Austin Healey that hardly ran.
The astute orchestra that was right there suddenly began to play the theme from Jacque Offenbach’s Barcarole.
Jake stood up now, nervously put the engagement ring on Georgia’s ring finger, and looked at her.
“Yes! Yes. Yes,” she shouted in the most excessive spirit of joy and healing he had ever heard. She thrust both arms around him.
Like everything he had ever wanted was about to come true, he lovingly took her in his arms, and they started to slow dance from station to station around the dance floor, dancing almost effortlessly like a young Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.
… For one brief shining moment inside the Squantum bakehouse everything seemed to give way. They stared lovingly into each other’s eyes like when hard-pressed men, the first immigrants of America, stood on these same dusky shores and watched the cloud cobbled sky almost as though the only thing they needed to know was that somehow tomorrow always held a greater possibility than today.
Lionel Benjamin and his consorts came busting into the bakehouse no holds barred.
The gang of ten had been meeting up at the Mansion House about a land grab they were about to undertake down in Virginia. Lionel had been a great success up to that point. He was even featured on the cover of Time Magazine once. But his success was only in the financial arena. Someone must have tipped him off about Jake. Ironically, it was Jake who saw him first. He watched those obsidian eyes of Lionel staring straight at him. They looked like two blackcurrants plucked out of the face of a scarecrow.
Jake stood his ground, but it was Georgia who began to look timid. She started to tug at his arm like they had to finally leave. It was right in that moment when Jake remembered going to the Cable Car Cinema with her only three weeks back to see The Damned by Luchino Visconti. Both of them had worn these stupid 3D glasses as a joke. He remembered her smile as she turned to him during the middle of the show with a look on her face like she was trying hard to imitate Elton John. He wanted to give the feeling of that tender moment right back to her now.
As they made a dash toward the entrance of the bakehouse they happen to see one of their Brown classmates, Ayla Hoffman, right there.
Ayla stood outside a hallway door completely taken off guard. She was a brunette who was studying medicine. Her nervous hands pulled at her canary colored mini-skirt, trying to get the flimsy thing back up over her shoulders.
“Ahhhhhh, you’ve got to be kidding!” Georgia said exasperated as she realized who it was. Jake could hear the disappointment in her voice.
Out the same door Ayla had just exited from came Dietrich Albert, a longtime acquaintance of Lionel who went around telling everyone that he and his longtime wife, Lila, weren’t really faithful to each other anymore, but that they were still “monogamish.”
Georgia gave her classmate a disappointed look. “Does Tequila just make your dress fall off, Alya?” she asked. Jake tugged at her arm that they had to go.
Outside, they nervously walked around in the dark around little Huckleberry Island. Georgia held onto her high heels as she leaned on Jake every few steps so as not to fall along the shifting pebbles of the beach. He noticed how she kept looking down at her new ring and then down at the empty black footprints they kept leaving behind them.
“You remember the time we had to eat Chinese food using pencils?” she asked. Her normal tenderness slowly started to creep back up into her voice again.
“Oh, yeah,” Jake quipped with a smile. “It’s an adventure every time you come over to eat. That was the same night we had to drink our green tea out of saucers like two pups, because I didn’t have any glasses.”
“I mean who doesn’t have any glasses?”
“Aw, come on. Good times!”
When they got down near the boat on the shore they stopped to look around.
It was quiet sans for the ruckus still going on back up at the bakehouse. All through the sky that evening the heavens was simply bejeweled in stars. To the south of them sat the twinkling lights of the Newport Bridge. To the north stood the brood shoulders of the Providence skyline.
Georgia kept staring over at the bridge to the south of them.
“We can’t keep doing this forever can we?” she asked. She turned and looked at him now.
Jake gently put his hand against the side of her face.
“Look,” he said very tender. “You can’t let someone else can’t run your life for you. It’s ultimately your life.” He turned and looked back up at the bakehouse and then right back around at her. “This is a moment.” He pointed his hand around the beachhead. “When a moment fails you have to move onto the next moment.” He pointed his hand back at himself now. “Georgia, honey. I am the next moment. I can take care of you. We can take care of each other.”
He watched those blue eyes of hers fixate on him. Sometimes she got this frustrated look whenever he tried to fix things the way a man does sometimes. But the look he saw on her face now was something totally different. It frightened him.
“No matter what happens just know that I love you,” she tried to tell him.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
Her hand kept fiddling with her ring.
“There are just so many things you don’t know,” her voice said faintly. “Do you know how lonely it is to be me? Do you know how lonely and hard it is to be a woman nowadays?” Her blue eyes stared at him now. She looked up at the bakehouse and then back down at the loneliness caught on his face. “A woman can never be the weaker sex anymore. We all have to be brilliant all the time. And fast.” She nodded her head. “And beautiful too.”
“But you are.”
“No, I’m not. I’m actually tired is what I am. But every day I’m supposed to be sexy, creative, and energetica cook; a playboy bunny; a mother; a queen; a daughter; sometimes a dyke; other times a quiet thing; sometimes an artist; sometimes an automaton; maybe an angel one day; a moth another; a devil; Joan of Arc; Julia Child, Mother Teresa; and Mary, mother of Jesus. I don’t even know who I’m supposed to be sometimes. I can’t figure this whole thing out. Jake. I know I feel things I shouldn’t feel.”
He reached over and gently took her hand to try and reassure her. “You don’t have to be anyone for me. And you certainly don’t have to be perfect. We’re all allowed to make mistakes you know. That’s who we are as human beings.”
She nodded her head like maybe this wasn’t true. “I don’t think,” she said, “I’m allowed to make mistakes.”
Before her words were cold on her lips the sound of yelling and a dish being broken against the wall back up inside the bakehouse started to echo down the beach.
It was Jake who motioned for them to go back up. “You’re sisters still up there.”
Worry immediately overcame all her other fears. “Okay,” she finally said.
When they walked back into the bakehouse, much to their surprise they saw a drunken Lionel, fallen in a heap in the middle of the dance floor, where all his special guests looked down upon him like feeble ghosts who could do nothing of their own initiative.
Jake noticed a vein that always popped against the side of Lionel’s forehead. It seemed to be throbbing right then.
It only took a second for Lionel to spot him. He pointed for three of his attendants to subdue the alien that somehow found a way into their midst.
“Daddy, please!” Georgia cried out to him. Her sister rushed over and had to hold her back.
Lionel dusted himself off as he slowly stood up.
As Jake struggled with all three gowns he watched Lionel go over and put his hands against the sides of his daughter’s face. He had this look of pity in his eyes as he stared at Georgia. “You’re my eldest,” he said in that raspy baritone of his. “You have to help your father carry the heavy burden of this family. Who else is going to do it?” He said this last part to her almost delicate.
Georgia quickly retreated from his grasp like her father was a snake that had just bit her.
And then it came whispering to her the second she saw the pain emanating from her younger sister’s face. She turned back around and glared at her father. She slapped him right in the face as hard as she could. “How dare you?” she said to him with utter disdain. “We had a deal!” A second later she went running from the room.
Jake had one guy with his arm around his neck now. Another guy tried to lift his left leg up from the front. A third guy, a big Samoan whose body odor was the nastiest funk anyone ever smelled, kept tugging at Jake’s belt, trying to lift him up and move him forward. Jake purposely stepped on the guy’s foot to try and get him off.
As the struggle spilled out to the entryway, Jake was taken off guard when he spotted Georgia inside the open door of the ladies room. She sat there staring at herself in front of the mirror as she sobbed.
Lionel came rushing over.
When he spotted his daughter in the ladies room he almost looked sorry for her.
“What are you looking at?” he said, almost like he was traumatized seeing her like that. He almost looked desperate.
An impenetrable look of sadness came to her face right then. She looked over at her father. This was the man who had raised her. This was the man who had tried to give her everything. But sometimes everything could turn into nothing. She looked over at the three men struggling with Jake now. She turned and looked back at herself in the mirror like she was pathetic. “Nothing,” she whispered softly to herself. “Nothing. Nothing.”
A second later Jake was flung through the air out the front door of the bakehouse, where he found himself deposited on the wet ground right beside Burnside’s old cannon.
He sat there on the moist grass with his hands folded together out in front of him like he had just been thrown out at home plate. For a moment he thought he could somehow remedy the situation. He thought of his father, Alejandro, carrying him high over that mountain range. But as guest after guest came walking out, each one of them looking down pitifully at him, most of them pretending that he wasn’t even there, Jake knew deep down inside that the party was over.
After another moment of sitting there dejected, trying to think about what to do, trying to think about all that had transpired over the years of knowing Georgia, he could only find it within himself to look around in astonishment. As he looked up at the nighttime sky at those same stars that he had looked at earlier with Georgia it seemed so utterly abnormal to try and do things where it hurt everyone yet no one else was helped at all.
And then out of nowhere he saw a glimmer of light escape from the bakehouse door as it came bursting wide open again.
His heart began to surge as he saw this almost disembodied hand stick itself out the door, flinging something through the air over toward him.
Ting. Ting. Ting.
The object made a dull metal sound as it bounced midway across the driveway, landing on the wet grass near where he had been deposited.
As his eyes focused on the object, an orb really, he saw a piece of moonlight flicker at it atop the dewy tips of the grass.
Slowly, his hand clinched down over it. He picked it up.
“No,” he said. His voice sounded as though it had been crushed.
It was her ring that he held in his hand.
Jake sat there feeling humiliated. A second later he could feel the cold stain of the wet grass starting to bleed through his underpants now. All that haunting music that had been playing up at the bakehouse started all over again. For a second he thought his heart might burst.
The bakehouse door quietly opened again as this lonely figure started to slowly walk down over to where he sat.
Feeling hope for a second he sat up upon his knees.
But the only thing he saw was the little chimpanzee who was dressed in his red, white, and blue Uncle Same outfit.
In silence they gave each other a sympathetic look. It was almost like they were compadres.
Out of nowhere the little chimp unceremoniously began to wildly beat Jake atop the head.
As his hands went to cover himself the crazy little thing snatched the engagement ring straight out of his hand.
A stunned looking Jake, the pressure mounting inside of him, watched in horror as the little chimpanzee stuck his ugly speckled tongue out at him. He then dance around, smacking himself shamelessly atop the head while he made these hideous monkey sounds. “Eee eee aah aah ooh ooh!” Jake sat there helplessly as passersby after passerby walked along the edge of the dew filled grass, its surface sparkling like a million diamonds, all the departing guests of that night looking over at him like he was some sort of cheap sub-human, simply because he had no invitation, the dissonance of the chimp echoing an even more horrible cacophony all around him through the cool night air: “Eee eee aah aah ooh ooh!”
All of a sudden Jake leaned in close as he could now make out the small campaign slogan that had been pinned to the little chimpanzee’s posterior.
…We’re Not In Kansas Anymore, it read.
He looked around. He could hear the rustling of the wind in all the tall Rhode Island trees.
Jéanpaul Ferro is a novelist, short fiction author, and poet from Scituate, Rhode Island. A 9-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has appeared on National Public Radio, Contemporary American Voices, Tulane Review, Tampa Review, Columbia Review, Emerson Review, Connecticut Review, and Saltsburg Review. He is the author of Essendo Morti – Being Dead (Goldfish Press, 2009), nominated for the 2010 Griffin Prize in Poetry; and Jazz (Honest Publishing, 2011), nominated for both the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and the 2012 Griffin Prize in Poetry. He is represented by the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. Website: www.jeanpaulferro.com * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The fish are supposed to be dead when they get to Davi Kell’s department. All Davi Kell is supposed to do is sort through the frozen stock of heaping sea meat, take it out to thaw and once it has thawed, place it in the display window for purchase.
She’s obviously merely the middle-woman for the job between fishing and catching.
Davi Kell is in the process of rubbing her hands together, shivering from the man-made cold. She isn’t sure if she is more upset that her boyfriend is hiding something or that she has to be up and working so early in the morning while he sleeps.
Davi Kell puts her bare flesh hands into a box, digging out the frozen tilapia. She screams in fright when she feels a sinew-like sensation. She gasps when she sees a fully intact live tilapia, saran wrapped and clambering for air.
Paralyzed by the fear of the slimy texture and the irrational fear that it would bite her (she never wanted to work in this department anyway—why couldn’t she be moved to floral?) Davi Kell summons the courage to dig out her keys, hacking away at the clinging plastic. She glances around the freezer area, wondering if there is the occasional manager looking for her.
Davi Kell grumbles as she takes hold of the scaled flesh. The tilapia looks up at her as if to say something, but then huffs, suffocating. Davi Kell shoves the tilapia into her apron pocket, running outside of the freezer to try to find a dingy cup in the break room. Luckily, the old goat of a cashier isn’t there sipping coffee and rambling about illuminati theories at this time of day. She finds a discarded Big Gulp cup and fills it with water. She places the tilapia in it and continues to work.
Davi Kell spends the rest of her day flustered. She wonders how the tilapia managed to be wrapped up alive—not even skinned or beheaded (shoot she didn’t know the real terms). During the busier parts of her shift she forgets the fish, but thinks back to the problems with her boyfriend, and more particularly her boyfriend and “the female.” Davi Kell wipes the fish counter more aggressively. She was fine for Ted before—fine for him these past five years, but ever since he got his degree and his fancy entry-level yuppie job—all he can talk about is the competitor’s business salesperson.
Quitting time comes, and none too soon. Davi Kell wipes off her blood soaked hands on her apron and walks nonchalantly into the break room, where she starts to unlock her locker. She sees one of the slower cashiers at that instant, middling around about to drink out of the Big Gulp. Davi Kell runs to take the cup out of his hand. “Wait!” He promptly spits out the water only for Davi Kell to find that the tilapia is no longer there.
“What’s wrong with you Davi?”
She doesn’t know what to answer.
The drive home is long. It usually takes only fifteen minutes but with the soundtrack of the day’s events playing through her head, Davi Kell takes back roads. She wonders about the tilapia: how did it get so lucky to survive? Or is it still alive? How would it be to lie suffocating in plastic, amongst your dead friends? She thinks about the shipping process: who catches the fish? Would the fisher have as much of a fleeting connection as she did? Or was she only drawn to the fish because it was just out of place?
She turns into her apartment building. Today is one of the increasing many that she is upset she opted to share an apartment with Ted. She begrudgingly walks up the steps, up to the top of the third floor, turning her key into the slot. There is nothing and no one to greet her. She slams her worn nametag and keys on top of Ted’s makeshift bookcase. She wishes there is a section of the apartment where she could go and think about the tilapia in silence. Thankfully with Ted’s new consultant job, he can afford an apartment with a built in laundry room. She opens the door, turns on the dryer and lets the choppy rocking motion calm her down.
Ted comes in a few hours later. Davi Kell can hear him pacing around the apartment, turning on lights. He doesn’t bother to call her name. It takes him a few more unnecessary paces before he decides to open the laundry door. His tie is already loosened. She looks up at him. He comes over to her. He remains standing, not even slinking to get comfortable. He just stands there, in the shadows.
“Have another lunch meeting with the female?” Davi Kell looks at him square in the eye, not accusing, not pouting, not even with a tear in her eye.
“It was a company meeting.” Ted stood still, he doesn’t reach out to her. The dryer starts slowing down its cycle. He leans over to turn the knob over for her.
“There’s just a lot I am able to learn from her,” Ted asserts. Davi Kell nods. She wonders about the early stages of their relationship, when they didn’t talk about work, and then the new post-honeymoon phase, when he inquired about her work with curiosity and as means of being able to talk. Now, he doesn’t bother.
“Well, I guess being stimulated by things other than demanding customers would lead you to learn new things,” Davi Kell adds.
“Hmm. Maybe.” He starts running his fingers across the t-shirt material. She notices this as she notices all his nervous habits.
“How long do you think a fish can live covered in saran wrap?” Her question doesn’t throw him off, she is always thinking of nonsensical things.
“Probably wouldn’t live to have the saran wrap placed on it. You know,” Ted’s arms started to cross. “They do need water to breathe, sweetheart.”
The sweetheart comes at her out of nowhere. She flinches-it feels like what she imagines her manager’s- long sinew-slicing knives coming down on the fish, taking the heads off. Discarding fins.
Ted seems to notice his mistake. He leans toward her and kisses her. It is clumsy and out of habit as well. They both know as their bodies’ angles slacken, that it is only out of the comfort and familiarity with the other that they are doing this. Their sighs are not of happiness or of meeting desire. His sighs denote that he wished he were with a white-collar girl. Her sighs are of figuring out how to escape this trap of love.
He leaves her on the dryer. Davi Kell refuses to go to sleep in a bed that he bought—her credit didn’t extend that far. She closes her eyes and sees a busy traffic street—with Ted on the other side, two blocks up. She is trying to get to him; anything to get to him, but the people, these seemingly throngs of people, walk hurriedly synchronized, the opposite way. She can see Ted talking to a female in an emerald shift dress, talking to the female about Davi Kell, and the female is laughing. The people around her start to lose shape, they became swirls of color. All she can see is the couple laughing and a life she can’t push through to, no matter how hard she tries.
She gets up and pours some corn flakes. She knows it will make a ton of noise-the crackling of the bag, but she doesn’t care. It is 2:20 in the morning. She trudges on to Ted’s room. She sits on her side of the bed. She sits crunching on the flakes, wondering what happened to the tilapia, and what would have happened if she had brought the tilapia home.
“There was a fish. There was a fish Ted. And it was there in the freezer, its poor,” Ted keeps his eyes closed, he is used to her having anxiety attacks late at night, followed by nightmares of flesh-eating bacteria. “Its poor heart, how can it still beat in cling? Oh Ted I was so afraid but it looked like it could have said something…. Its heart just beat on my hand. I should have brought it home.” Her voice goes in and out of the night air quivering.
“Dabs, sounds like a good lawsuit to me—food contamination, animal cruelty and what not,” Ted sputters as he rolls over in bed.
And that’s when she knows he isn’t listening: he hasn’t called her Dabs since year 3 ¾ .
Davi Kell goes to work the next day. Davi Kell goes through all her pre-service chores such as wiping down the counters with disinfectant, putting up fliers of the specials going on, and rotating the meat in the block. She pushes through all these duties, and although she feels that it was juvenile to think that the fish would somehow magically be back in the freezer, she goes there with a religious-like curiosity.
She opens the freezer door’s compartments and looks for the day-old shipment of tilapia. Davi Kell brought her box cutter with her this time. She slices through frozen bag after frozen bag looking for the fish. Her mind goes numb, as it usually does in the extreme cold. She thinks of 9/11, of planes crashing into tall, tall towers that she had never heard of before in a city she will probably never see. She thinks of Mrs. Pfirman, crying, calling into her phone, checking on her kids, while her sixth grade students, Davi included, sat perplexed watching the television. Davi Kell thinks of the femicide posters she and her mom walked by in the mall one time. The girls’ faces juxtaposed with images of corpses. Her mom had ran her past them, before Davi Kell could look at a girl named Esme, missing and presumed dead. She comes back to her task at hand and feels the knife in her grip. She sliced on, making big Xs in the boxes. Davi Kell continued to think-she thought of the time in 7th grade when most of the girls in her class had bragged about being kissed, but Davi Kell hadn’t at the time. She thought of the Spin the Bottle game that they played and how boys kept calculating the force that would be needed to be to not kiss her. Davi Kell thinks of how she paid her brother’s friend three weeks of allowance to spread a rumor about them making it to second base so that she could finally be in the second-most popular girl group at school.
Davi Kell sits down, exhausted. A box falls, and on its tumble down some bloodied saran wrap flies out with it. She picks up the saran wrap and sees the tilapia.
“I always come back,” the tilapia said. Davi Kell looked at the fish in disbelief.
“You’re stuck.” The tilapia added.
“Pfft, you can say that again. I’m 23, I’ve been at this job seven years. I know nothing and I am nothing—unless it comes to retail. My boyfriend hasn’t proposed because he’s ashamed of me. He’s been seeing this female for a while. He says he met her at work, but I think they were in class together. He doesn’t love me anymore, but he hates change.”
The tilapia’s expression doesn’t seem to waver, but Davi Kell doesn’t take offense. She isn’t sure what all it was capable of.
“Take me and leave work.”
“I don’t thin—”
“Just take me and put me in your car!”
Davi Kell looks around for something to put the tilapia in. She finally decides on placing an ice block in her apron pocket, then wedging the tilapia in. She hurries out to her dilapidated car, past one of the cashiers who was busy reading Cosmo.
The tilapia fits on the console. Davi Kell tried to prop it up in the cup holder. The tilapia’s head glazed over at the clock, its fins grazed Davi Kell’s wrist as she holds onto her stick shift.
“Tell me about your boyfriend.”
Davi Kell keeps driving, her fingers tapping on the steering wheel, her left hand holding what seems like her whole world up.
“There’s not much to tell.”
The tilapia looks at her. Just looks. There is no gaze of urging her to go on, nor is there any sort of gaze to ask for a stop.
“Ted is very charismatic. So charismatic that he could probably woo a nun. We haven’t been happy in forever. He works at this job that has cubicle offices and paid luncheon in-services. There’s this girl in a competing company that thinks he’s a big shot. They’re screwing each other. The more they screw the less he thinks of me—and I don’t mean of my feelings. He doesn’t think highly of me, like I’m just some, trash. ” She fiddled with her blinker, debating whether to turn it to left or now.
Davi Kell takes that to mean literally, and she brakes. However, the tilapia just sighs. Her foot descends onto the gas pedal again. She plays with her blinker again and again, until finally noting that that is what she finds the tilapia thinks of as unbearable.
She turns onto her street.
“I have this notepad app, I keep in my phone. I have a goal: do 200 exhilarating things in 52 weeks. The most exhilarating thing I’ve done is watching Rocko’s Modern Life on Netflix. I haven’t been trying, I know. I could blame work—work is always such a sucker of time, but I know that’s not what’s it. I just—I am frustrated because I’m content—I’m perfectly happy with this life. And the life I grew up wanting, I am definitely not happy with.
Davi Kell parks the car outside of her apartment complex.
Davi Kell turns to the tilapia and looks at it, pondering what to do with the situation. “I’ll be right back,” she says gently, putting her hand out as if to pet its scales, but then retracting it back.
Davi Kell treads on the rocks, past the little black kids exchanging Valentine hearts, past the old Euro-Asian lesbian couple on their porch, past the lurking creeper, staring off his balcony. She hates this place, hates it hate it, because she doesn’t deserve this. But she is content in not deserving more. She can feel the heat come up from what felt like a resurging pit in her stomach. She flings open her apartment door, looking for Ted. It is Saturday after all--normal people usually just sit on their asses on Saturday.
“Ted.” She feels the air escape her throat.
Ted comes out of the kitchen, wearing his ‘non-work’ boxers, ones with Mickey Mouse on them.
“I hate it—I hate this all this”
“What?” Ted asks, scratching his left butt cheek and rubbing his forehead with his other hand.
“I hate this feeling. What happened to me? What happened to you?”
This gets Ted’s attention, and he straightens up.
“Yeah, go ahead and straighten up, trying to get a power stance on me. May I remind you I’m the one who paid your bills all through school—the one that wrote every damn important paper in your life, minus writing your name on the actual degree?”
Davi Kell feels the urge to move and to move fast and repetitiously.
“What happened to your view of me? What happened to mine?” Her head feels jumbled as if a concrete completed jigsaw puzzle was just dropped off a high rise. “I need to show you something. Please.”
“I’m really not—”
“Interested? I don’t give a shit.”
Ted stares at her, concerned.
“Ted, Ted please.” She whimpers.
Ted sighs and tries to locate his shoes. Finding them, Ted slips on his loafers. He follows Davi Kell down the steps, down the rock path and to the parking lot.
At the car, Davi Kell sees the tilapia on the console, bigger, fleshier and healthier looking than ever.
Ted sees it too.
“Dabs, I didn’t know you could fish.” He surveys it through the car window. “It looks so good. When can we eat it?” Ted opens the passenger door, about to grab the tilapia but Davi lays her hand on it. She feels the coldness of its gills.
Davi Kell turns back around to look at Ted. She feels close to fainting. Her hands start tapping against the car. “No.” His lungs are pressed against her back, she can feel them through his body, exhaling, trying to keep his questions aligned.
Davi Kell had memorized his body a certain way: Oxford shirt (cerulean, not blue) three-inch wide tie, hair pushed to the side, slicked back. She had forgotten this body—the mole on the top of his right shoulder, the faint scratch marks he has on his neck from his eczema.
“What is it, Davi?”
She says, “I see you in me.”
Opening up her grip, she notices the tilapia has disappeared.
Hailing from El Paso, TX, Christine Peterson is a college instructor and a dual masters candidate within the education department for Language, Literacy and Culture (reading education specialist) and within the English department: Master of Arts in Fiction Writing: emphasis ethnic and border literature at New Mexico State University. Christine’s passions include bridging the bilingual literacy gap in the southwest, writing prose with religious undertones and helping English as a second language and learning disabled students succeed and love literature as well as become writers themselves. In addition to this, Christine is an editor for Tlaa.