Echoes

Baker’s Pick
Jennifer Hurley


Piled up
Photo Credit: naraekim0801

Tina repeated her mother’s mistake, only at a younger age. She was fifteen when she got pregnant with John’s baby. He gave her money for an abortion, money he must have borrowed or stolen. When Tina came back to school two days later, she told Robin, Melissa, and Yolanda—her best, her only friends—that she’d had an ovarian cyst removed. She couldn’t tell them the truth. Unlike Tina, they were real Catholics, obedient, believing.

After the abortion she broke up with John. She told him they were too different; probably he thought it was because he was white. He put his hands over his face. She was thinking how beautiful his hands were, admiring his long, pale fingers, when she realized he was crying. A terrible chill passed over her. She wanted to take everything back, to beg him to forgive her. But that was the whole problem with John, the thing she could not accept: he made her needy. Days when he didn’t call her she became panicked, hopeless, short-tempered—the way her mother was when a man was getting ready to leave her. A long time ago, when she was a little girl, maybe seven years old, she overheard her parents having sex in the one-room apartment, her mother saying, “Te quiero, te quiero,” her voice frantic. Shortly afterwards her father left. He had not been seen from again.

Two years later, Tina was pregnant again, the fault of a torn condom. The father, Balzac, was Mexican but dyed his shoulder-length hair blond and talked like a surfer. He played bass in a punk band that held gigs in people’s garages. Tina had sat on countless washing machines listening to him play. She was proud of how Robin, Melissa, and Yolanda cheered after his solos. And she loved Balzac’s family. They made a competition of insulting each other in colorful ways, and they were always laughing. They did not condemn her for being pregnant, as her mother had. In fact, Balzac’s grandmother offered to pay their rent on an apartment. She crocheted blankets and a pair of tiny yellow socks for the baby.

A month after Tina dropped out of school and moved in with Balzac, she finally called her friends and asked them to come see her. She thought she would surprise them with the news that she was pregnant. She wanted to show them how her belly button had popped out. It turned out to be bad idea. Robin began to cry, and Melissa berated her for ruining her life. Yolanda was quiet, searching Tina’s face with her soulful, mascaraed brown eyes.

Tina didn’t care anymore what they thought. She hated high school with its rallies and tests. She was sick of heating up a can of spinach for her dinner while her mother was out on dates. She wanted to show her mother how a family ought to be run. In their new apartment, she and Balzac hosted dinner parties for his family, frying tempura-battered vegetables in a stockpot or stewing black beans in beer. Balzac was a vegetarian. After the baby was born, they went to the Hare Krishna temple on Sunday mornings and ate as much of the free buffet as they could stand. It got so that the smell of turmeric instantly killed Tina’s appetite.

Balzac would carry the baby on his shoulders or tied to his belly with a swath of fabric. He prepared the baby’s food in an ancient blender from overripe produce in the sale bin. At night he kissed Tina and then the baby, gently, on the tops of their heads. Often Tina would think that she loved Balzac, but then an image of John would pass through her mind, refuting the notion. In the neighborhood where Balzac’s grandmother had found them the apartment, there was no chance of running into John, but still she looked for him. It was a loud, angry place to live. At all hours of the night ambulance sirens sent the baby into fits. It was Balzac’s idea to name her Afrika, and sometimes Tina wondered if she were screaming to protest the name.

 

Tina and Balzac argued about the baby. Balzac was suspicious of electronics, including baby monitors, which meant that one of them, usually Tina, had to sleep in a chair next to the baby’s crib. He was philosophically opposed to plastic, including packaged diapers and pacifiers and televisions—all of the things that would’ve made Tina’s life bearable. When Balzac found out that Tina had fed the baby corporate baby food from a jar, he launched into one of his tirades, shouting that the manufacturers of baby food also made weapons. Was she just ignorant, or apathetic? Tina put her hands over her ears and said nothing.

One afternoon, when she was so tired she thought she was losing her mind, Tina put Afrika into her stroller and walked the seven blocks to the dollar store, where she spent $16 buying all the plastic crap she could find: bottles and pacifiers, a rainbow of plastic keys on a plastic chain, a squishy foam football, and a miniature doll with a bright smear of mauve paint across her plastic lips. Back at the apartment, she spread everything out on a blanket and sat in the middle of it, holding Afrika to her chest, waiting for Balzac to come home. Either he would laugh, or he wouldn’t. Staring at the doll’s obscene purple mouth, Tina predicted which way it would go, and she was right.

But it did not end as she thought it would, with a grandiose fight. Instead, she and Balzac continued to live together, interacting only when they had to. After a while Tina realized that Balzac was detaching from the baby. He no longer kissed her on the head goodnight or carried her in a sling around his neck. Tina could accept that Balzac slept on the very edge of the bed, so as not to accidentally touch her while he slept, but to watch him ignore Afrika—this was unbearable. She asked him to go, and he did, leaving her the apartment and enough money for two months’ rent. She telephoned Balzac’s grandmother with the intention of telling her everything, but Nana didn’t want to listen. She was angry about something, Tina couldn’t figure out what. A few weeks later, she sent Tina a threatening letter written in flowing cursive in which she said she’d hired a lawyer to fight for custody of Afrika. This was the same woman who’d called Tina her “sweet potato.” Tina read and reread the letter, clutching the sides with sweaty fingers.

When Tina thought about someone trying to take Afrika away, her jaw clenched with rage. She would not let anyone take her baby, even if it meant going on WIC and food stamps, as her own mother had done. She found a job as a hotel cocktail waitress, where she wore a bikini top made of coconuts and endured the indifferent lust of businessmen.

The custody battle cost thousands of dollars, which Tina paid with credit cards. Every few months she found a new card offering a no-interest balance transfer. She couldn’t understand why these companies were offering her more and more false money to spend, but it was there, and she spent it. She had heard about people declaring bankruptcy and cleaning the slate on all their old debts. When Melissa found out about the credit cards, she yelled at Tina, calling her naïve, while Robin calmly mentioned that she could’ve convinced her uncle to do the legal work for free. Yolanda started to cry and told everyone to stop talking.

Tina broke off contact with her friends after that. They were going to the local college and had boyfriends and uncomplicated lives. They would never let her be better than she had been. They would never accept that Tina and Afrika were fine. Tina now had a job as a receptionist at a company that installed home heating systems. Afrika was in first grade. She had beautiful tanned legs that looked too long for her body. The grandmother had developed emphysema and wasn’t angry anymore. But Balzac had become eccentric in new ways. He cut his hair, started wearing sweat-stained suits with bow ties, and carried a diminutive Bible in his breast pocket. When she dropped Afrika off at his apartment for visits, he gazed at Tina through the screen door as though he were meeting eyes with the devil. Once, long ago, he’d made a prank call to get Tina out of school, picked her up on a bicycle, and pedaled out to the bay, where they stole someone’s canoe for the afternoon. Trying to get inside they rolled the canoe several times, laughing so hard that they could barely get their balance to try again. Tina thought about that day a lot. It made her feel happy until she snapped back into the present.

 

Alejandro came along just as the bill collectors were beginning to harass her. He loaned her money before she could work up the nerve to ask for it. He was one of the heating system salesmen, a handsome, compact man whose dark skin looked striking against his clean white shirts. He was a traditional Catholic who went to church twice a week and was against premarital sex for women. On their third date he told Tina he forgave her for having gotten pregnant with Afrika. He was so earnest that Tina was amused rather than offended. He was different from Balzac in every way. His apartment, a small condo overlooking an office park, was tidy to the point of being barren. Weekends when Afrika stayed with Balzac, Tina lay all morning in Alejandro’s bed, inhaling the lemony fragrance of his sheets, feeling relaxed and giddy. Alejandro looked directly into her eyes and said that he wanted to save the sex for after they were married. Tina’s heart fluttered with nervous hope. She prayed, for the first time since she could remember, that she would manage not to screw things up.

It was important for Alejandro to marry in the Catholic church, so Tina had to finish the confirmation classes that she’d abandoned and make confessions to a priest. Kneeling in the confessional, which smelled of mold and furniture polish, her mind went blank. What were her sins? Was it a sin, the sex she’d had with John? Probably so, although it felt like a lie to say so. The sex with Balzac had been too unsatisfying to be a sin. The abortion—that was a monstrous sin, too unforgivable to confess. What ended up coming out of her mouth was strange. She said to the priest that she had abandoned her mother, and her eyes filled with tears. The priest mumbled some things she didn’t understand and assigned her seven Ave Marias. Out in the fresh air, Tina felt an acute sensation of relief, as it she’d unburdened herself, even though what she said wasn’t true—she hadn’t really abandoned her mother. Her mother had screamed at her, called her a puta, and Tina had moved out. After that, neither had contacted the other. Her mother had not even seen Afrika, but that was her own choice.

Alejandro had two wedding gifts for her: a pair of two-carat diamond earrings, to match her engagement ring, and a new house in the suburbs of Rancho Bernardo. The ceilings were so high that she was startled by the echo of her own voice. Sunlight blazed through the French doors, making her eyes water. Tina had always lived in dark places, the windows covered to protect against thieves or dreary views. Now she felt like she was coming out of cave onto a bright plain without shade.

On nights when she couldn’t sleep, Tina would wander through the house. She’d drink a little tequila with lime, peer into Afrika’s bedroom and watch her sleep, and then go back to her own bedroom and watch Alejandro sleep, his face scrunched up like a little boy’s—in sleep looking more like a child than Afrika, who was now eight. Finally she went into the kitchen and peered inside the refrigerator, impressed each time by the clean, cold, orderly containers of food. Even now, Tina came into her own kitchen half-expecting to see her mother at the stove, making tortilla de papa, as she sometimes did late at night after coming home from dancing. She and Tina ate it straight out of the cast-iron skillet, sharing a fork, her mother still wearing a slinky skirt and traces of red lipstick. One night Tina started to make a tortilla herself, at midnight, but she changed her mind after cracking two eggs, worried that she might wake Alejandro and Afrika if she tried to clean up afterwards.

Life in the suburbs was almost too perfect. There were block parties and potlucks and parades, and when Tina became pregnant, women in the neighborhood walked around the manmade lake with her in the evenings and offered to go with her to Lamaze class if Alejandro didn’t want to. Of course he did want to. His parenting books were flagged with colored tabs and had notes penciled in the margins. He would never make baby food in a blender or carry a baby in a sling, but he was concerned with buying the right toys that would encourage proper intellectual development. He confessed to Tina that his own father had been distant, something he was determined not to replicate.

When she was six months pregnant, Tina got a phone call from Robin. She had heard Tina was married and had tracked her down online. Her friends gave her a baby shower. They bought her gifts wrapped in pretty paper that she couldn’t bear to throw away. Yolanda had brought a roll of toilet paper and they all had to guess how much it would take to wrap around Tina’s big belly. They were all married now, all happy with their adult lives, and none of them could remember why they had lost touch.

The baby was a girl, and Tina named her Henrietta. She was a serious little Buddha baby. Tina thought that this was how Alejandro must have been as a baby. Every day Tina noticed something new about Henrietta, some gesture or sound, and she was eager for Alejandro to come home so she could tell him about it. On the weekends, they would rent kid movies and sprawl out on the enormous orange sectional in front of the gas fireplace. Alejandro would make real popcorn, in a pot with oil, and a margarita for Tina. Afrika would dote over Henrietta, massaging her feet and carefully combing her wisps of hair with a pink plastic brush. During these moments Tina often thought about her mother. She wished her mother could see her in this new, luxurious life. It took some of the pleasure out of it—that her mother wasn’t around to regret not being the one to offer all this to Tina.

It was around Henrietta’s second birthday that Tina started feeling restless. Henrietta would be playing outside in the sandbox Alejandro had built for her, and Tina would wander through the house, trying to think of what to do. The other mothers on the block liked to push their strollers through Target, browsing the clearance racks, but Henrietta hated to be in a stroller—she hated to be anywhere except outside. Tina tried sitting outside with her, reading a magazine, but she couldn’t concentrate. She did her Pilates video every day, and prepared meals, and tidied up the house. With the completion of each of these chores she felt worse. When she felt really bad, she would leave Henrietta with the next-door neighbor and pick up Afrika early from school. She took Afrika for an ice cream, even though the girl was already too chubby. She had lost the gorgeous long legs that Tina had loved so much. Afrika didn’t care that she was overweight, or that she was falling behind from missing so many classes. She was always up for new adventures, she was always loud and cheerful, and she made Tina feel better.

 

One afternoon Tina showed up at Afrika’s school, but the secretary refused to call her out of class. She was taking an important test, the woman said, peering at Tina over the top of her gold-rimmed spectacles.

“It’s a family emergency. I need to see her,” Tina said.

The woman lowered her voice. “Every week it’s an emergency, Mrs. Hernandez. Just let the child alone.”

Tina’s face burned with rage and humiliation. She started yell, as her mother would’ve done, but the words caught in her throat. The woman gave her one last glare and turned back to her computer.

In the street she had a wave of vertigo. It was a hot day, the perfect day to take Afrika for an Icee in the park. But instead she was alone, her day was ruined, and she was so dizzy that she worried she might not make it to her car. She was passing a bus stop when the bus pulled up. The doors opened, emitting a blast of air-conditioned air, such delicious cool air that Tina found herself mounting the steps, rummaging in her purse for some change. She collapsed into a seat, tilting her head back to get the full effect of the cool air. She didn’t know where the bus was even going. She did not take buses anymore, but she remembered them. She remembered being on a bus as a small child with her mother—the heat, the stench of fish coming from the pink plastic bags carried by Chinese ladies, the unpleasant vibration beneath her feet. Tina used to close her eyes against all of it, hoping that when she opened them next, they would’ve reached their stop. Probably her mother still took buses everywhere—she could never keep a car running for long.

Tina almost expected to see her mother on the bus. She scanned the women’s faces. It had been almost nine years since she had seen her mother, and maybe she wouldn’t even recognize her face.

“Tina,” said a voice.

She looked up, startled, her heart racing. It was not her mother. It was some man she didn’t recognize, but who seemed to know her.

“It’s John,” the man said.

All the times she had imagined encountering John, it had never been on a bus. It had never been when she was hot and sweaty and feeling ill. She brushed her hair back from her face, worrying about whether her lipstick had rubbed off, whether her lips were chapped. He was looking right at her face, and it was making her blush.

“Stop looking at me,” she said.

“OK,” he said. He sat down beside her and stared at the ridged, rubber floor of the bus.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“I must have scared you,” he said.

He was thinner than before, his fingers longer and paler than she had remembered. His hairline was receding. He was wearing jeans and a red track jacket and boots. The top of his right boot was peeling away from the sole. He was such a pitiful sight that Tina wanted to hug him, to tell him everything would be fine.

“It’s so strange that I would see you,” he said. “Just this morning I was just thinking about that night with the kittens. Do you remember those kittens we found in the tire?”

She nodded, then covered her mouth with her hand and began to sob.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” he said.

“I must look terrible,” she said.

“You look just like yourself,” he answered, and held her small brown hand between his two long, pale ones.

 

Five months later Tina got a divorce from Alejandro, gave up Henrietta, and moved into the house where John used to live with his parents before they died. Tina snuck onto the school grounds and found Afrika at recess, and told her they were leaving. Afrika did not need to be convinced. It was a great adventure for a girl of ten—a meeting conducted in whispers, a suitcase stuffed with messy piles of clothes, a new house, ice cream whenever she wanted. She was getting very fat, but Tina could not deny her anything.

She expected Alejandro to fight her for Afrika, simply out of spite, but he didn’t. He was not anything like she’d expected. When she told him she was sleeping with John, he was silent for a few moments and then began brainstorming solutions. His voice shaking, he told her he understood, he forgave her, he was sorry for not realizing how much she was suffering. Obviously she was bored being a stay-at-home mom—maybe she would be happier with a job.

“Teeny, we’ll get past this,” he said.

“But there’s nothing to get past. This isn’t the past,” Tina said. She’d been so afraid to tell him—afraid of what wrath might be buried beneath his calmness—but now she felt embarrassed for him. She could not bear to look at his eyes, which were so full of pleading. Eventually he accepted the divorce, but he refused to say a word against her.

Her friends, on the other hand, were livid. Robin and Melissa defriended her on Facebook and would not return her calls. Robin went to the trouble of writing out a letter by hand, three pages of insults and accusations. Tina kept thinking she would write back and try to explain herself, but she couldn’t counter any of what Robin had said. She was a cheater, a slut, a selfish bitch, a demon, a pathetic excuse for a mother. She had abandoned her baby girl and her husband, who had rescued her when she was broke and alone. She was an embarrassment to her gender, to Mexicans all over the world, to humanity.

But she had John. She loved him desperately. His eyes, a foggy gray-blue, could see into her. When they made love she clutched at his shoulders and kissed him all over his neck and face.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” he said, but of course, she worried.

Her mother heard about the scandal through Yolanda, and she could not resist the temptation to come by and see what a mess Tina had made of her life.

She stood in the doorway of John’s parents’ house. Tina could see her critical eye taking in the plastic flower arrangements, the faded floral-print draperies, the sagging sofa.

“Don’t just stand there. Come inside,” Tina said.

“I can hardly see you, it’s so dark in here. You look like a shadow.”

Without greeting Tina, she strode over to the draperies and pulled them open. When Tina smelled her mother’s perfume, her body prickled with goosebumps and tears stung the corners of her eyes. It wasn’t fair, her mother wearing that same perfume, which smelled of Tina’s childhood.

“That’s better. You just needed more light.” Her mother stood in the middle of the room facing Tina, sunlight illuminating the sleeves of her red blouse. She was thinner now, and her clothes were nicer. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a way Tina had never seen before. She was not at all the same mother that Tina had been conjuring in her head all of these years—she was a lovely, fascinating stranger. It made Tina ache, how little she knew her own mother. And then a chilling thought occurred to her: that Henrietta would look at Tina someday and feel the same thing.

She could not permit herself to think of Henrietta. “Do you want to meet Afrika?” Tina asked her mother.

“Later. Let’s sit.”

They sat down on the sofa, sinking deep into the cushions, the same cushions on which Tina and John had created an almost-baby a million years ago.

“Tell me about you,” her mother said.

Tina couldn’t think of what to say. All the events of the past ten years were like a giant tangled knot in her head. To find even one end of the thread felt impossible. She said, “Too much has happened. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

Mija, just start talking,” her mother said.

pencil

Jennifer Hurley’s fiction has previously appeared in Tidal Basin Review, Front Porch, The Mississippi Review, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Natural Bridge, Brain Harvest, Slow Trains, and of course, Toasted Cheese. Website: Jen-Hurley.com Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu

Michelle

Fiction
Jennifer Hurley


Don't Talk
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

When her father finally died, after months of deterioration that was excruciating to witness, Michelle realized she no longer had significant ties to anyone. Her younger brother, her only living relative aside from a long-lost aunt, had left San Diego nine months ago in an RV to “go east” with his band. He sent one postcard, of some railroad tracks in West Virginia, and had not been heard from since. He had not even known that their father was sick.

The funeral was well attended, probably the best argument Michelle had encountered for belonging to a church. In the chapel, photographs of her father were projected on an overhead screen. He was a boy standing on a desolate farm in Indiana, a young man posing stiffly in Dress Blues, and suddenly he was older, heavier, wearing outdated glasses and sweatshirts imprinted with the names of college basketball teams. In each picture he had the same somber, knowing expression, as if he were already aware that people would view these photographs after his death.

The reception, held in the church hall’s cafeteria, was crowded and energetic, the doors propped open to let in the spring air. Someone had arranged for cupcakes topped with jimmies, a favorite of her father’s. Michelle sat in a metal folding chair and took messy bites of cupcake, not caring that she was getting frosting on her chin and nose, and on the only dress she owned, a floral-print rayon with buttons down the front. Friends of her father’s kept stopping at her table to accost her with hugs and tears. They called her Shelly, which had never been her name.

She went to Pacific Beach after the funeral with some friends and got drunk at a bar, still wearing the stained dress. Before going out she’d sloppily applied some makeup over her face, which was broken out from all the stress, and in the bar mirrors her face looked too pale, almost ghostly. One of her friends was going to buy a Vespa and there were arguments over which color was better, powder blue or racing green. She should’ve been grateful for how normal her friends were acting, but instead she despised them. She had told them not to come to the funeral and they’d agreed too readily. They were friends of convenience, she saw now, who worked together at a coffee shop by the beach. They all wore jeans and flip-flops and hooded sweatshirts with surfing logos, though only the guys actually surfed. Michelle had quit the coffee shop when her father was diagnosed with cancer. Everyone assumed she’d come back now that he was dead.

The next week she spent at her father’s house, sleeping at odd hours and sorting through his possessions. She sold his furniture on Craigslist, making almost three thousand dollars. Once the bed was gone—she gave it away as a freebie, tossed in with the dresser—she slept on the floor, using a stack of her father’s sweaters as a pillow. In the end, all that was left of her father was a tote bag of things Michelle decided to keep. These included a Marine cap, some photos, and his bank ledger with its tidy rows of penciled numbers, which he’d shown her once during a fruitless lesson on finances. She tried to throw away his stupid leather shoes from the Philippines with the elevated heels, the ones he wore to church to make himself look taller, but those ended up in her bag as well.

It was midnight, but she couldn’t sleep. She poured some bourbon into a paper cup—part of her plan to drink up the remains of her father’s liquor cabinet—and turned on her laptop. By three a.m. she’d had three cups of bourbon and filled out an online Petition for Change of Name in the State of California. She was surprised that there was no place on the form for her to explain her reasons. She’d wanted to explain how much she’d hated being “Michelle Mc” in school, to distinguish herself from the other Michelle M. She didn’t know if this qualified as a reason, were she asked to present her case in front of a judge.

It turned out that the judge didn’t have the slightest interest in her reasons. He stamped the appropriate forms, she paid a fee, and it was done. Her name was now Audrey McCarthy. She got a new license at the DMV and a new credit card. She liked to imagine the life Audrey had lived up to now: crisp button-down shirts, perfect skin, an East-coast college. Michelle had gone to community college for a few semesters, earning As in every course she took. When she realized she’d be almost thirty before she could earn even an A.A., she stopped going. She wondered if she’d be able to transfer those credits to her new name. It would probably require too much paperwork, if it were possible at all.

Her father’s lawyer came through with an astonishing check, filled out in her old name, for $58,542, and promised more when the house sold. The other half would go to her brother, if he ever turned up. It was a shock that her father had so much money—he’d worn the same pair of khakis for nearly ten years. Michelle didn’t know what to do with the check. She’d already decided to close out her bank account and move somewhere else, although she didn’t yet know where. The lawyer advised her to cash it into traveler’s checks. Even though the checks were supposedly replaceable, she worried that she would lose them. She started carrying them in a wad stuffed inside her bra, noticeable beneath her hoodie, but only if someone were looking. The truth was that not many men bothered looking at Michelle. She didn’t think she was unattractive—on certain days she looked in the mirror and judged herself as pretty—but for whatever reason she was invisible to strangers. It was common for people, both men and women, to bump into her on a relatively unpopulated street, and then look surprised to see someone standing there.

After an afternoon of sitting on a beach and staring into the ocean, Michelle decided she would go to Boston. It was far enough away, but she would still be near water. She would be free of vulgar salmon-pink buildings like the one she lived in now. She bought a plane ticket online, charging it to her new credit card stamped with her new name.

A startled real estate agent accepted Michelle’s deposit, paid in hundred-dollar bills, on an apartment with bay windows in the upscale neighborhood of Brookline. She was embarrassed for the agent to see her beat-up plastic suitcase covered with stickers of band logos and a marijuana leaf, so she left it behind a shrub and retrieved it after she was given the keys. The apartment’s faux-lace curtains billowed inside the room when she pushed open the windows. She took them down and threw them inside the closet. She did not want anything interfering with her view outside. It was June and the trees were flowering. Across the street, yellow tulips bloomed in front of a pristine brownstone. A man was carrying a little girl in a red dress up the steps. Michelle could see the red bows at the ends of the girl’s braids. She had not expected Boston to be so sunny and vivid. In her imagination it had been all browns and grays.

The apartment was an empty expanse of freshly waxed wood floors. She would buy a bed and just one table that she would keep clear except for a vase of flowers. Her apartment in San Diego had been cramped and dirty and stuffed with all manner of junk that she had to pay someone to dispose of. Now she was in a clean space, and her head felt clearer. She was no longer thinking every day of the images of her father projected on the chapel screen, and the unphotographed image of him at the end, skeletal and ruined. On her laptop were dozens of photos of her father eating various fried foods at the Del Mar Fair, taken for her photography class at the community college, but she wasn’t planning on looking at them.

She had no idea what kind of work to look for, or what kind she was even qualified for. Audrey would’ve worked in an office, most definitely, wearing a skirt and heels, so Michelle spent the better part of a sunny day in the crush of shoppers at Filene’s Basement, where fashionable women rummaged purposefully through huge bins of purses and panties. She could not understand what they were looking for. But Audrey would not have felt that way. Audrey would know what she wanted, and she’d have the money to buy it. Michelle forced herself to select some business clothes from one of the racks. She waited in line to go into a communal dressing room walled with mirrors. Michelle was astonished to see women with unappealing figures striding around the room half nude. She went to a corner and tried on her clothes as quickly as possible, keeping her gaze on the carpet before remembering that Audrey would not act like that. In a red skirt and blazer, Michelle threw back her shoulders and stared into the mirror.

“Honey, you should go with that,” said a woman with pendulous breasts who was naked except for a pair of parachute pants.

“Really?” Michelle said.

“How much are they asking?” The woman grabbed the price tag on Michelle’s sleeve. “Well, it’s too much, but still. It’s gorgeous on you. You’re so skinny I could just hate you.”

In the mirror Michelle saw that she was blushing. “Yeah, I think I’ll get it,” she said out loud, but the woman already was talking to someone else.

Brenda, a recruiter from the temp agency, was black and heavy-set. She blotted oil from her face with a tissue as she scanned Michelle’s application.

“You type fast. Did you take lessons?”

“No. I just learned by typing, I guess.”

Brenda rubbed her forehead with the tissue and sighed. “I can get you into data entry, which is absolutely as boring as it sounds.”

“Okay,” Michelle said.

“I think you’ll be bored. But at least you don’t need to wear a suit. Just some regular black pants will do. Basically you can wear anything.”

Michelle ran her hands over her skirt, smoothing out the fabric. She asked if there was something she could do that would require her to wear a suit. She had just bought a closetful of suits, she told Brenda with an awkward laugh.

Brenda gave her a strange look. “You want to wear a suit. All rightie. Well, if you had a college degree, I could get you into a nice admin position, somewhere with swank.”

“But I don’t,” Michelle said.

“How about I put down Boston University?” Brenda said, her pen poised over the application.

“Really? Isn’t that—? It’s not true.”

“Audrey, it’s just an admin position. You’re not applying to be God. You want me to put it down or not? You had some college, somewhere, right?”

“Right,” she said.

The following Monday Audrey went to work at a software company as an executive assistant. She got up early and washed her hair and set it in curlers. She put on her red suit, pantyhose, and heels. She had bought some eye makeup at the convenience store, and she looked up a video on YouTube to see how she should apply it.

Audrey was relieved she had lied on the temp application. She saw the homely, middle-aged women who did data entry—they drank coffee all day just to stay awake. Her job was easy, easier in fact than fulfilling people’s complicated whims at the coffee counter. She typed letters, sent faxes, made copies, and scheduled appointments on the phone. The hardest part was mastering the phone system with its flashing lights and colored buttons, each with a particular meaning. A few times she sent calls to the wrong place, and when she apologized to her boss, she heard a weak tone in her voice, a remnant of Michelle. It was important to Audrey not to screw up, not to ever have to apologize for herself. Michelle used to go to work hung over with her unwashed hair in a sloppy ponytail. Audrey only drank green tea during the week and got up early to do her hair while watching the Today show. On the weekends she cleaned her apartment and took long, aimless walks through Boston, sometimes getting lost and panicking until she figured out where she was. In the evenings she went to bars or the movies with people she met at work, but she stayed away from one-on-one conversations. She wasn’t clear enough on the details of Audrey’s upbringing to talk convincingly about it, and she certainly didn’t want to talk about Michelle.

By the time winter came, Audrey had gotten a raise and a promotion, and she was moved from her cubicle into a windowless office with a door. Now she was called a “Project Manager,” which meant that she basically did the same things, only people treated her better.

It was around this time that she was walking up the stairs from the subway platform and caught sight of her brother in the rush-hour crowd. At least it looked like her brother, except that his hair was cut short and he was wearing an expensive-looking overcoat instead of his leather jacket with spikes on the shoulders. In an instant he was gone, and she wasn’t sure if she had seen him at all. Back at her apartment she rummaged through the photos that she’d taken from her father’s house and found one of her brother as a young boy. He was grinning, a plastic machine gun slung over his shoulder. She’d hardly seen her brother in the past few years, so how could he possibly make her feel sad? With shaking hands Audrey started to tear the photograph in half. Just as she began to do it, she changed her mind, but the picture was already wrinkled and marred by her sweaty fingerprints. She quickly buried it beneath the other pictures and put the box away.

Winter in Boston was colder than anything she could’ve imagined. Audrey bought a down coat and a cashmere scarf and a special kind of silky undershirt that was supposed to seal the heat in. Still, she was always cold. The pathetic heater in her apartment churned out only a whisper of heat, which was probably why the place had been priced so low. Audrey bought several space heaters and had them going all the time when she was at home. She came down with a bad cold and realized that there was no one she could call, no one who would go to the store for her and bring back Nyquil and a can of chicken soup. She was about to call Diane, one of Michelle’s friends from the coffee shop in San Diego, before realizing that she hadn’t transferred any of the old numbers to her new phone.

She spent the next day home from work. She ordered a pizza to avoid having to go out, and she ate it in bed, stopping frequently to blow her nose. Her bed was strewn with tissues, and her nose was raw and bleeding. She opened her laptop and began to look at the pictures of her father. In one of them he was pretending to eat a chocolateéclair in one bite, looking at her as if to say, Have you got the picture already? She started to cry, and soon she was heaving with sobs. She used the corner of her bedspread to wipe her face and nose. Eventually she fell asleep, the pizza box still on her bed, leaking oil onto the sheets.

The next time she saw her brother was at a loud, expensive restaurant in Back Bay. It was still winter, which seemed incredibly unjust to Audrey, since she associated March with spring break trips to Ensenada Beach in Mexico. She had gone to the restaurant on a date with Charlie O’Malley, who wore argyle sweaters beneath a gray wool blazer and had a thick Boston accent. He called her McCarthy, which she liked, and he never asked her questions at all. Instead he kept up a stream of banter and ironic commentary. Audrey had never known anyone like this. In San Diego people were not ironic—maybe it was not possible with so much sunshine.

From the bar where she sat with Charlie, Audrey spotted her brother in a mirror. He was sitting at a long table with a group of people who looked like they worked in an office. Everyone at the table was talking and laughing. What could her brother possibly be doing in Boston, working in an office? She’d known him as a barely employed slacker, prone to bursts of energy when he would stay up all night writing songs. Once he spent an entire weekend building a fifteen-foot-tall pyramid of beer bottles that ended up being photographed for an architectural magazine.

“That’s my brother,” Audrey told Charlie, pointing into the mirror. “Don’t turn around.”

Charlie turned around. “Which one?”

“Stop turning. The one in the light blue sweater.”

“You’re telling me that’s your brother? The one in the blue? Jesus, he’s like Steve Buscemi without the good looks. What kind of game are you playing, McCarthy?”

Did they look alike, she and her brother? It was something Audrey had never considered before. She could have gone over to his table, but what if it wasn’t him after all? The man who might have been her brother was engaged in conversation, his elbows on the tablecloth, looking perfectly content with his new life.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Audrey said to Charlie. She turned to face him and brought her glass of wine to her lips.

“Yeah? Like what? What size bra do you wear, McCarthy?”

“I know you’ll never know,” Audrey said.

“Oh, funny girl. We’ll get you more wine and see about that. What do you say to Barolo? We’re having pasta, right?”

Charlie was the sort of person who would order Dom Perignon for the entire table on a dare, laughing and calling out insults to his friends as he signed the bill. Audrey liked his extravagant gestures, the fact that he always ordered way too much food just so that she could sample everything. He was stunned that she’d never had an oyster, never eaten beef carpaccio, never skied, never gone to the Cape. He wanted to introduce her to all of these things.

By the time they were seated at their table, Audrey was nearly drunk. There was a new group of people at the table where her brother had been. Later, as Charlie was devouring a slice of tiramisu, he said, “Was that really your brother, McCarthy?”

“Everyone here is my brother,” Audrey said, waving her fork.

Charlie sighed and rolled his eyes. “You’re wicked sheisty is what you are, friend. Why the hell were you saying that’s your brother?”

Audrey laughed, holding the corners of the table. “I don’t know, Malley,” she said, wiping her eyes.

A year later she and Charlie got married at Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church downtown. The soaring gothic arches and stained glass and polished wooden pews made Audrey feel small and nervous. She wore a strapless princess dress with a lace train that followed her up the red-carpeted aisle. The priest, a friend of Charlie’s parents, accepted at her word that she had been raised as a Catholic, even though she wasn’t able to give him her saint’s name. Her story was that she’d lived in San Francisco all her life until college, and her parents had died when she was twenty in a boating accident. She had researched the whole thing online and was prepared for the follow-up questions, but no one bothered to ask her for any more detail. She was almost frustrated by how willingly they believed her story, which sounded absolutely absurd as she recounted it. It was as though they didn’t care much who she was as long as Charlie was happy with her, and he was. He was profligate with his gifts and affection. By the time they were married Audrey had a whole drawer dedicated to the jewelry he’d given her. As Michelle, she had never owned any jewelry at all, aside from a silver and amber ring that her father had once bought her at the fairgrounds. That ring had been lost, when and where she didn’t know.

Apparently she was not expected to work any more, but she told Charlie that she wanted to, and he agreed in a way that implied he was indulging her. By now she was an executive at the software company. Her assistant, a man just out of college, had asked for her diploma so that he could frame it for her new office. He was as excited for her as if he’d been given the job and the glamorous office himself. She kept stalling, saying that she had misplaced it when she moved into Charlie’s place. Part of her wished that someone would discover her lie and interrogate her; the thrill of possibly being caught had made her job more interesting than it really was. Now it seemed possible that even if she confessed what she’d done, no one would care.

She and Charlie spent their honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas. Audrey didn’t understand why it felt so good to be in Mexico again. She had never been further south than Ensenada before, but somehow Mexico felt like home. A person couldn’t grow up in San Diego without learning some Spanish, and Audrey knew enough to order meals and chat with the waiters. Charlie was impressed. In Mexico he looked chubby and sunburnt and out of place. He utterly mangled the word “gracias,” and Audrey felt sorry for him. He was completely transparent, incapable of disguising or moderating his emotions, but he knew nothing about Audrey—about her real life. Occasionally, when she’d had too much to drink, she had an urge to tell him everything. She had no idea, not an inkling, of how he would react. That was the one mystery about Charlie. Would he clasp her into a hug? Would he refuse to look at her, refuse to talk to her? Would he yell accusations? Would he laugh the whole thing off, refusing to believe she was serious? Would he even hear what she was saying? She could not take the chance of finding out.

On the last night of the honeymoon, Charlie drank too much and passed out. Audrey tried to sleep but couldn’t. She slipped on a dress and sandals and went outside. One of the beach cafes was still open, the music blaring. There was a group of young surfer types, the sort of people Michelle used to know, sitting at a table covered in seashells that were being employed in a drinking game. Audrey sat down at a nearby table and ordered a beer. She smiled at the surfers, hoping they would talk to her. After spending the entire day alone on the beach—Charlie had stayed in room, reading a crime novel and keeping out of the sun—she was eager for conversation.

“Where are you from?” one of them called out to her.

Audrey almost said San Diego before she caught herself. “The East Coast. Boston.”

“Cold there this time of year, huh?” said a girl with long, damp blond hair, who resembled Diane from the coffee shop.

“Way too cold. I used to live in San Diego.”

They told her they’d driven from L.A. to Mexico in a Volkswagen van, which had broken down twice and had to be pushed in order to start. They had ditched the van and were planning to buy motorcycles and ride all the way down into South America. The stories of their adventures had Audrey laughing so hard that she was crying.

“Look,” said the blonde in a conspiratorial voice, and Audrey’s heart leapt. For an instant she thought they were going to ask her to go with them to South America. The girl continued: “I know it’s totally lame to ask you this, but do you have twenty dollars? Or fifty? Something you can loan us so we can eat in the morning?”

“Come on, leave her alone,” said one of the men—a boy, really. He was bare-chested, still wearing his swimming shorts.

“I shouldn’t have asked. I interrupted your beer,” said the blonde.

“No, it’s fine.” As Audrey opened her wallet, the votive on the table caught the light of her diamond rings, and suddenly she felt afraid. What if they followed her on her way back to her hotel room? She was a fool for thinking they had genuinely liked her.

“Here.” She placed two twenties in the girl’s hand and got up to leave.

They shouted their thanks as she walked away.

It was not long before Audrey was pregnant, and she was proud of the fact that she continued going to the office, even in her eighth month. One insufferably humid day in August, Audrey was standing on the subway platform when she had a wave of vertigo. The train arrived, but she did not get on. Instead she labored up the stairs to the street. The sun was blinding. Dizzy and nauseous, Audrey walked down the street, taking deep breaths. She had stopped and taken hold of a frail, leafless city tree when she saw her brother like a phantasm coming towards her. This was her real brother, in ripped jeans and a Pavement T-shirt, stubble on his face.

“James,” she called out, when he was already past her.

He turned around and briefly glanced at her, then kept walking. Had he recognized her? Was it possible that he’d recognized her and intentionally walked away? She felt panicked. What if she never saw him again? He was already so far away that she had to yell.

“James, it’s Michelle. Your sister, Michelle.”

She was tempted to run after him, but she was too queasy, too exhausted. Besides, what was the point? James wasn’t even her brother anymore, not really. She had no family anymore, no friends that knew her. Turning back to the subway entrance, Audrey was startled by her reflection in a glass office building. She was hugely pregnant and sweating through her pink silk sheath. Her hair was coming loose from its French twist. Michelle would never have worn her hair in a twist; she never would’ve worn anything that required dry cleaning or even ironing. She had taken pride in not caring about appearances, in being straightforward and sincere. Audrey stared into the glass, trying to imagine what Michelle would look like now, but she couldn’t picture it.
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Jennifer Hurley’s fiction has previously appeared in Front Porch, The Mississippi Review, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Natural Bridge, Brain Harvest, Slow Trains, and of course, Toasted Cheese. Website: jen-hurley.com. Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu

Daphne

Fiction
Jennifer Hurley


Chihuahua Chic
Photo Credit: Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

I stood at Kim’s front door—which had once been my front door—with Daphne’s baby gate separating us. I’d stopped by to collect some leftover pieces of mail. They were just ads, Kim had kept saying on the phone, but I came anyway. I hadn’t intended to tell her about losing my job, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Kim did not ask why I’d been laid off, or whether I could pay my rent. Instead she looked thoughtful, and after a moment asked if I would be willing to visit Daphne every weekday at lunchtime. I was not surprised. I was beyond expecting Kim to show any concern for me.

“What do you want me to do with her?” I asked.

“I want you to walk her, dummy,” she said.

“Does she even know how to walk on a leash?”

“Peter, you don’t need a lesson to walk on a fucking leash. She’s four fucking pounds and you’re what—two hundred? You think you can’t control her on a leash?”

I was tempted to correct her—I only weighed one-ninety-five—but I stopped myself. Four years ago, when I started dating Kim, I was a lean one-seventy. I was a runner then. But now I had bad knees, the same ailment that had troubled my father and my grandfather. I was only thirty years old, but my knees felt ancient.

“Will you do it? Come on, I can’t afford to keep taking her to day care five days a week.”

Kim had used money we didn’t have to buy that dog a satin bed, a personalized water bowl, and a fleece-lined parka, even though the temperature in Oakland barely dipped below forty. Each time she gave the dog a bath, she wasted a dollar-fifty’s worth of quarters warming a towel in the dryer. This behavior would have been troublesome under any circumstances, but during the time when Kim was shutting me out, on her way to breaking up with me, it was almost impossible to endure.

“I’m going to get another job. Soon.” I hated the way my voice sounded, as if I were trying to justify myself.

“Of course. I’m just asking for now,” she said.

Just then Daphne appeared on the scene with a squeaky toy in her mouth. She was a tiny, trembling black-and-white Chihuahua, a ten-year-old rescue with an arthritic hip that made her look a little lopsided. She had been an impulse buy on Kim’s part, from the ASCPA booth at the gym. I had nothing against Daphne per se, but I’d grown up with a Doberman Pinscher, and I could not for the life of me understand why small dogs should even exist. They could not guard a house, hike a trail, fetch a ball in the ocean, or sit at your feet by the fire—in short, they could not do anything that made a dog a dog.

“Hi Daphne,” I said.

“Try to act like you care about her, just a little,” Kim said.

On the way back to my apartment—a studio with broken mini-blinds located above a Chinese restaurant—I cursed myself for giving in to Kim again. She’d dumped me, basically communicating that I and my ruined knees were too boring for her, and still I couldn’t say no to her. A year ago, when she wanted to move to California, I agreed even though I had a job lined up as a docent in a history museum. I drove every single one of the 2,827 miles from Maryland to California while she chose the music. In California, Kim pursued her personal trainer ambitions while I found admin work in a San Francisco office, the same office that had just laid me off.

To feel better I told myself I was walking Daphne for my own benefit, so that I’d get out of the apartment every day and not be tempted to sit around in dirty sweatpants. But it had not occurred to me what it would be like to walk a dog like Daphne on the streets of downtown Oakland, past the old man hat shop and the place called Gold Teeth Master. Several men on the street openly laughed at me. And I couldn’t blame them. Daphne was outfitted in a pink leather collar with rhinestones, obviously not of my choosing. She was small enough to fit the inside pocket of my bomber jacket—and I admit, I did that once when it was raining, because I couldn’t stand to see the pitiful little thing shiver.

It worried me passing homeless people on the street. Probably they’d been sane and freshly showered once, but something happened to them, something like losing a job, and now here they were, cold, filthy, and drugged, repelling passersby with their smell. I wondered if some of them had a humanities degree like I did, and if they’d once thought they might embark on a meaningful career. I’d given up on that idea. Instead I’d become a master of trivial office skills. I could debug networks, repair HTML errors, and generate a slick, color-coded graph using Excel. I knew how to fix the most intransigent paper jam on a touch-screen Xerox machine. I was the most competent fucking admin guy in that entire office, and it made no sense that I was the one to get laid off first.

I lugged my laptop around on walks with Daphne, intending to surf the job sites at an outdoor cafe. Instead, I found myself occupied keeping an eye on Daphne. I was worried someone in workman boots or high heels might step on her and then Kim would make my life a fucking hell. So I made sure Daphne was sitting beneath my chair, out of the way of pedestrian traffic. I’d bought her a harness in camouflage material. People still laughed, but they had way more respect for a dog in camo. Lots of women approached me wanting to meet Daphne. If they seemed kind and gentle—different from Kim, basically—I let them pet her. If not, I told them Daphne was a vicious biter. I liked to see these women draw back their hands, their smiles fading.

The fourth or fifth time I came to pick Daphne up, Kim had left me a note: Peter, please don’t try to comfort Daphne when she is whining. Cesar Millan says that’s just rewarding the unwanted behavior. I noticed that she is whining at the door a lot since you have been walking her. —Thanks, Kim. I laughed out loud, and then I felt annoyed. Here I was, walking her pipsqueak dog out of the goodness of my heart—picking up her dog’s shit, for god’s sake—while Kim was searching for reasons to criticize me. I looked down at Daphne, who was leaping up my pant legs, trying to get my attention.

“You don’t ever whine around me,” I said to her.

Daphne wagged her tail as if to say, “Who cares, let’s walk!”

Several weeks went by and I still had not sent out my resume—I was touching it up, and it never seemed finished. When I thought of myself sitting in a cubicle again, smelling air-conditioning and printer ink, it was as if a belt were being cinched around my chest. The walks with Daphne made me feel a little less anxious. Each morning I showered, iced my knees, and grabbed a cup of coffee and a donut before walking the twelve blocks to Kim’s apartment. Using the key felt different, the way it feels to use a key in a stranger’s home. I was relieved when Daphne came running to the door, breaking the silence with her squeaky barks. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say she was thrilled to see me. Kim was always bustling about, so busy that she probably didn’t bother to look the poor dog in the eye. And Daphne made great eye contact; she had big, brown, soulful eyes, probably her best feature.

I could tell that Daphne’s hip stiffened up in the cold, just as my knees did. So once, on a particularly cold day, I took her over to my apartment, drew the broken blinds, and we watched movies for the afternoon. Daphne curled up in my lap, a furry ball of warmth, and I felt so relaxed that I fell asleep, waking with a start when my cell phone rang. It was Kim’s angry voice, demanding to know where Daphne was. I had slept until six o’clock—and so had Daphne, who was now on my carpet doing her sleepy yoga stretch. I carried Daphne back to Kim’s in the dark, upbraiding myself the whole time for allowing myself to sleep like that. I had promised myself I would not do that—I would not become an unemployed person who slept at odd hours. When I got back to my apartment, I immediately went online and started emailing out résumés. It was crazy that I’d waited so long; my unemployment benefits were already starting to run out.

Between phone calls and emails, I walked Daphne. I didn’t get any more notes from Kim, but one time she left me an envelope of photos she’d taken of Daphne at Halloween, outfitted in a ludicrous bumblebee costume. I stretched out on Kim’s bed as I flipped through the photos, careful not to touch the covers with my boots. This was her new bed—I had taken the old crummy one—but it smelled the same as I remembered. She still had the same yellow sheets with tiny bluebirds on them and the battered headboard that had once been her grandmother’s. She’d insisted on paying movers to move that poor old headboard all the way from Maryland. Once I gashed my forehead on it when we were play-wrestling on the bed. Kim drove me to the emergency room, but when the woman at the counter said the wait would be at least two hours, Kim would not hear of it. She took me right back home and stitched me up herself with a needle and thread, five perfect, painful stitches that had not left even the faintest scar.

I should never have lain down on Kim’s bed; I should’ve known it would make me sad. Plus, while I was reminiscing away, Daphne was busy chewing up a pen in the other room. Thankfully I caught her before she swallowed anything dangerous. I hid the ruined pen in my laptop case to throw out later. When I left Kim’s apartment that day, I lingered in the hall a few minutes to see if I could hear Daphne whining for me, but she was quiet.

A few days later I got an interview for an administrative assistant position at an office supply company in San Francisco. The commute by public transit was atrocious and the pay was mediocre, but when I was offered the job, I took it immediately. Riding back to Oakland at rush hour on BART, I felt like I was part of things again. I had somewhere to be, and someone who cared if I showed up. I had a reason to shave and to iron my clothes.

I hadn’t thought about what would happen with Daphne when I went back to work. When I called to tell Kim about the new job, she thanked me for taking care of Daphne and said she’d mail me a $20 gift card to Starbucks that she wasn’t using because she’d quit coffee. I wanted to ask her whether I could stop by the apartment to say goodbye to Daphne, but I knew Kim would think I was inventing an excuse to see her.

“OK, then,” I said. “Say hi to Daphne for me.”

“She’s a dog, Peter. She can’t understand English.”

“Well, maybe I’ll see you around then. Or I could pet sit when you go visit your parents.”

Kim sighed. “Oh, Peter,” she said. “I feel so strange about telling you, but I started seeing someone, not serious or anything, but he thinks it’s weird, having you come to my apartment all the time, and I guess it is kind of weird. I was going to say something, but then you called and said you had a job, so— anyway, you probably shouldn’t come by anymore.”

Blood was rushing to my face and for a moment I couldn’t speak. “Oh,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” Kim said. “I’m sorry about so many things.”

I could hear now that she was crying. I didn’t know what to say. “It’s OK. Everything will be OK,” I told her.

“Are you OK?” she said.

There was a catch in my voice, too, and I didn’t even care if she heard it. “I’m doing all right,” I said. “I’m about to be a functioning member of society again.”

She laughed, and then covered the mouthpiece to muffle the sound of her blowing her nose.

After we hung up the phone, I was surprised to find that I felt fine. I was getting over Kim, I thought to myself, and I wanted to tell someone. But I hadn’t returned any calls from friends or family for at least a month, and I wasn’t up to making the introductory small talk a phone call would require. It was silly, but what I really wanted to do was talk to Daphne, just to speak my thoughts aloud to her unassuming, uncomprehending presence.

When the weekend came, I decided I would try a slow jog around Lake Merritt, something that once would’ve been a warm-up. Kim and I used to run multiple laps around that lake. That was back when we still had fun together, before my knees gave out, before Kim made a slew of new friends that were never friends of mine. We would take our runs at sunset, watching the light on the lake turn pink and orange, and then we’d go home and make huge plates of spaghetti. Because of our runs, we were eating all the time. These days, I ate plenty but I never felt hungry.

I put on my running clothes and sneakers and went out at dawn, thinking I might bump into Kim and Daphne on their pre-breakfast powerwalk. The lake was slate blue in the morning light. I started jogging. It was terrible—with every step, my knees felt like they being stabbed with invisible knives. But I pressed on, concentrating on the cool air pushing through my lungs. The thing I hated most about office jobs was the stale, overheated air. It stank of chemicals and a mix of bad perfumes. If only I could open a window, I could work a job like that, no problem. But in the office where I had worked previously, and in the one where I’d begin work on Monday, the windows were sealed shut against the elements. You could look outside, but you could only look.

I ran around the entire lake, and when I was done, I collapsed on the grass. I sat there for a long time, rubbing my knees, trying to ignore the homeless man in a sleeping bag nearby, shouting in his sleep. There was no sign of Kim and Daphne. I sat there until it began to rain, scared that I wouldn’t be able to walk the half-mile back to my apartment. Somehow I managed to limp back. I was less mobile than the old woman who rolled her cart through Safeway, her back so hunched it hurt my heart to look at her.

I woke up on Monday morning aching all over and feeling jittery about the new job. I put on my work clothes—khakis, a white button-down, and a tie—gave myself a good shave, and even flossed my teeth. I took five Advil to combat the searing pain in my knees. But before I even got outside, I knew I wasn’t going to that office building in San Francisco, despite the fact that my checking account held less than eighty dollars.

It was a perfectly crisp late-autumn day, and I inhaled the cold air as I walked, my hands trembling as they had when I was almost hit by a car a few months before. At Kim’s apartment, I let myself inside with the key that she had forgotten to ask me to return. Daphne barked and wiggled and licked my face. I scooped her up and held her in one arm while I dug around in Kim’s foyer cabinet for the camouflage harness and leash. We went to the lake. We walked the three point four miles slowly, our bodies aching, stopping frequently just to look at things: the geese squalking, babies being pushed in strollers, people with good knees taking a run. At the end of the walk, we sat on a grassy bank by the side of the lake, a place where no one sat, not even the homeless, due to the abundant goose poop. Daphne, of course, didn’t care and in fact seemed to enjoy sniffing each individual pellet of poop. I lay on my back, studying the sky, which was a bird’s egg blue with puffy white clouds. I had not previously noticed how the clouds seemed to come together, then push apart, as if they were breathing.

My cell phone rang. It had to be my almost-boss wondering where I was, or Kim in a panic looking for Daphne. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. In fact, the ringing of the phone sent a flash of anger through my body, which I could feel in my knees. I felt like I hated everyone, like the whole endeavor of being around people was not suited for me. I took my cell phone out, and without looking to see who had called, covered it with a pile of leaves. Then I called Daphne to me. She rushed to jump into my lap and curled into a ball, looking up at me as if to say, “Let’s nap!” It was really too cold to sleep outside, but with Daphne next to me emitting her waves of little-dog heat, I could almost bear it.

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Jennifer Hurley’s fiction has appeared in Front Porch, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Slow Trains, and The Mississippi Review, among others. An alum of Boston University’s graduate creative writing program, she currently works as an Associate Professor of English at Ohlone College in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives in the island town of Alameda with her husband, four cats, puppy, and innumerable books. Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu