Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sharks and Minnows

            His body cut a figure he didn’t recognize anymore, but Luke couldn’t understand why. He stared at himself in the mirror, trying to locate the source of the change. He hadn’t gained or lost a significant amount of weight. His posture was much as it had always been. If anything, his shoulders slipped back more easily now, modeling the body language of confidence and power. His hair had gone from the perfectly disheveled style of privileged youth to a clean-cut indicator of corporate professionalism, but he had expected this, had dreamed of it, even. So what was the problem?
            Luke put his hands in his pockets, but it didn’t help. He couldn’t shake the hollow sound that kept running through his brain. When he opened his mouth, the words that came out didn’t seem right. He looked at the set of his brow, at the way his cheeks curved under his eyes, and wondered what he would look like thirty years from now.
            “Luke?” he heard from the other room. He glanced back at the mirror, but his train of thought was broken. He crossed the short space that separated their bedroom from the kitchen.
            “Yeah?” he said, and looked at her. Abby was cutting up an avocado, her face an expression of unstressed concentration. She turned to throw the pit in the trash and her feet made that comforting padding sound on the linoleum floor. She was smooth lines and easy strength. She was someone who knew exactly what she wanted and wasn’t selfish about it. For a moment, he felt the cold bite of envy move through him. Then she looked up and their eyes met, and the jealousy was replaced with pride.
            She smiled. “I’m making guac. Do you want any?”
            Luke laughed. “Is that even a question?”
            She laughed back, reached up, and pulled down the heavy molcajete. He watched as Abby’s hands pulled off the avocado skin and carefully placed the meaty insides in the stone bowl.
            “What are you going to do on your day off?” he asked, and observed the slight tremor in her hands.
            “Maybe yoga, maybe go for a run. Depends how I’m feeling in a couple hours,” she smirked. “I don’t know, try not to think about work.”
            He nodded and she laughed again. “What?” he said.
            Abby leaned her head back and sighed. “Just thinking about not thinking about work makes me want to have a beer.”
            Luke smiled and glanced at the clock. “I guess it is a little early, but I wouldn’t judge.” Their eyes met again. He watched as the corners of her mouth twitched down and then struggled to go back up.
            He felt the words course from her brain into her veins, and knew them intimately before they floated out of her mouth. “What time does your dad get in?” she said.
            Luke shrugged and looked at the plant sitting by the television. “4:30, I think.”
            “Do you think you’ll come back here after you pick him up?” she asked.
            He looked at her. “I think we’ll probably go straight to an early dinner. He’s always hungry when he gets someplace new.” Luke watched Abby’s shoulders relax. “So you won’t have to interact with him before we’ve talked.”
            She grinned, reaching for a lime and slicing it in half. “You know I’m always happy to have your dad here,” she said.
            “I know,” he said, smiling at her fondly.
            Abby set her knife down. “Nervous?” she asked.
            He shrugged again. “Not so much nervous as . . .” he smiled, “filled with dread. I know how the conversation’s going to go.”
            She nodded. “Well, try to get some rest before he gets here. I’ll bring you some of this when it’s ready,” she said, pointing at the bowl. He turned. “Luke?” she said, and he looked back. She smiled at him and he crossed the room. He kissed her, feeling the weight of her as she went up on her tiptoes to meet his mouth. Then she pulled away. “Try not to let him get in your head,” she said softly.
            He sighed and walked back into their room.
            A sharp silence infected the car. Luke’s father sat in the passenger seat, clenching his jaw every few minutes and trying not to stare at his son. Whenever they drove over a bump in the road, Luke jumped. His slight nerves from earlier had morphed into imaginary spiders wrapping their legs around his esophagus. He wanted to stop the car, step out into the street, and run until another vehicle hit him or stopped to give him a ride. Instead, he drove straight to the restaurant and parked quietly.
            His father always walked a little in front of him, the leader in everything, even dinner. When they got inside, Luke tried to look away as his father confidently passed the host a tip in the fold of his palm. The host nodded and smiled and led them straight into the dining room.
            The restaurant was situated a short distance from the beach, one of those semi-private expanses that seemed perpetually clear of debris. Luke and his father were seated near the window, their view of the ocean pulsing through Luke’s brain and swallowing him whole. It made him nervous. The sheet of glass separating them from nature’s magnificence reminded him of his place, reminded him he wasn’t supposed to want to leave, only to look.
A waiter appeared with a bottle of red, but his father frowned and put his hand over his wine glass. The waiter turned on his heel and disappeared. Luke tried to look at his father, but kept glancing down. His father’s brown eyes, on the other hand, surveyed him until they were satisfied.
“I’m assuming you know why I felt the need to come here,” his father said.
Luke ran his fingers over his napkin. He nodded.
“I want to hear you say it, just so I know you understand.”
Luke could feel what his father was doing, and he still couldn’t figure a way out of it. “Because it’s been three years since I left school, and I just quit my third job.”
His father nodded, and Luke was surprised he didn’t lick his lips in anticipation. “And do you feel good about that, Luke?”
            Luke shrugged. He stared hard into the shiny white of the plate in front of him.
            “I’m sorry, what was that?” his father said. Luke could feel him lean forward a few inches.
            “No,” Luke said, “I don’t feel particularly good about it.”
            His father smirked. “Well, neither do your mother and I. You should have called me before you left the last one. Maybe I could have talked some sense into you.” The waiter reappeared. “Two filet mignons,” his father said, without looking up. “Medium-rare.”
            Luke could almost hear the waiter’s heels click together as he left. “I didn’t want to have sense talked into me,” he began, but changed tactics when he saw the annoyance grow around his father’s eyes. “I talked it over with Abby. We decided it was the best thing for me to do.”
            His father snorted. “Then she’s not as smart as I thought she was,” he said. “I stuck my neck out for you for that job. Do you think that’s going to happen again? Three different careers in three years? How’s that going to look on a résumé?”
            “I’m only twenty-four, dad,” Luke said.
            “No, you’re already twenty-four. You should have three solid years of work to build a foundation on at this point.” Luke could swear his father was about to roll his eyes.
            “Well, that’s not what happened,” he said.
            “It should have,” his father said. “You should have picked something after you graduated and you should have stuck it out. Instead, you’re living off your girlfriend until you can find somewhere else to take you.” His father picked his water glass up by the stem and tossed its contents down his throat.
            “I did pick something,” Luke said, “but it wasn’t right.”
            His father laughed bitterly. “I don’t know where you got the idea that there’s some magic job out there, waiting for you. You make a job right for you, son. Besides, work’s work. Were you getting paid well? Did they make you do something you were morally opposed to? No?” He laughed again.
            “I wasn’t happy,” Luke said.
            This time his father’s eyes really did roll. “This generation. Work isn’t to make you happy, it’s to provide you with a way to support your family. I did it for you and your sisters. Do you think I was happy every time I marched off to work? Every time I had to take a call on vacation?”
            Luke sat there in silence and observed the way his father’s shoulders always returned to the same posture when he was finished speaking. He wondered if this was still a conscious effort, or if it had become a force of habit. Their dinner was delivered and he watched in silence as his father sliced through the bright pink meat. Every bite was carefully speared with a fork and transported to a perpetually ravenous mouth. Luke started to feel nauseated.
            “I feel like that’s not true, though,” he found himself saying.
            His father glanced up from his meal. “What’s not?” he said.
            “That you weren’t happy to do those things,” Luke said.
            His father’s fork clattered when he set it down on his plate. “Don’t be ungrateful,” he said. “I worked myself into the ground. I made sacrifices. For you.”
            “Maybe that was true,” Luke said. “But what happened after you made your first million? Or your second? Did you stop working yourself into the ground when we had enough?”
            His father’s frown deepened. “That’s an embarrassingly ignorant thing for you to say.”
            “No, it’s not,” Luke said. “I’ve watched you, and I know you. You didn’t stop working like that because you didn’t want to.” His father opened his mouth to reply, but Luke continued. “Your work is an addiction. There’s something that you get out of it that you don’t get from anything else.”
            “Oh please,” his father said. “You’re romanticizing everything. I did what I had to.”
            Luke’s words caught up to him and he felt the blood drain from his face. But still he didn’t stop. “I don’t doubt that’s true. But can you tell me, can you really tell me, that the moment you look another man in the eye after closing a deal with him, knowing you’ve bested him, that that doesn’t give you some kind of charge?”
            “If you understand it so much, I don’t know why you keep quitting your fucking jobs,” his father said.
            “Because I’m not like you!” Luke yelled. The couple at the table next to them looked over. “I don’t want to do those things!”
            “Bullshit,” his father said. “Everyone wants to do those things. Everyone would be in that position of power if they could.”
            “Well I fucking wouldn’t, okay?”
            His father shook his head. “I could hand it all to you, I could literally hand it all to you . . .” He rubbed his forehead.
            Luke sighed. “I don’t want it, though. I thought I did, but . . . I don’t.”
            His father rapped his fingers on the tabletop. “You’re not who I thought you were,” he said.
            A moment passed. “I know,” Luke said quietly.
            “Well, I’m not going to support this kind of thinking, I can tell you that right now,” his father said, leaning forward with his palms flat on the table. “As far as your mom and I are concerned, we’re cutting you off financially.”
            Luke shrugged. “So how will things be any different?” he said.
            “I mean it,” his father said. “If you want to move, or get a new car, or go to grad school, you’re not getting anything from us. Not a single cent.”
            “That’s fine,” Luke said. “I don’t want anything.”
            His father looked at him for a long time. “I hope you’ll snap out of this before it’s too late. I wouldn’t want you to get to your mid-thirties and realize you should have done everything differently.”
            “Don’t worry. I won’t.”
            His father’s steely eyes passed over him. Then he raised his right hand. Within seconds, their waiter was tableside. His father produced his credit card and gave it to the eager man without asking to see the check. When the plastic had left his hand, Luke watched as his father pushed his hair back. A signal of distress, but a subtle one. If Luke didn’t know the manner in which his father moved when he was agitated, the speech patterns he chose, and the way his left eye twitched, he wouldn’t have caught it. He wouldn’t have understood that the imposing man in front of him was at a loss for words.
            The waiter returned, and Luke’s father snapped open the bill and scrawled a tip. He stood up from his seat and straightened his suit jacket. “I think I’m going to fly back to LA tonight,” his father said.
            This surprised Luke. “Um, okay,” he said. “Do you want me to drive you?”
            His father shook his head. “No. I’ll get a taxi.” He held out his hand and Luke took it in a firm handshake. “Best of luck to you,” his father said. Luke could feel the slight tremble in his fingers. He wanted to pull his father close, tell him he was sorry that he couldn’t be more predatory, that he had tried as hard as he could to develop a killer instinct. But he didn’t say it, because he wasn’t sorry. He wanted to have another life, an honest life, so he let his father’s hand fall away.
            His father nodded, refastened his suit jacket, and turned on his heel. He walked out of the dining room, the seas seeming to part before him as he went.
            Luke sat there for a moment longer. He took a deep breath, expecting it to be ragged. But no, he felt surprisingly calm. He ran his finger along the pristine white edge of his untouched plate. Then he stood up and walked to the entrance of the restaurant. When he got outside, he didn’t head for his car. Instead, he turned and walked in the direction of the ocean.
            The smell of the salt on the air steadied him and reminded him where he was. He trudged a ways through the sand before finding a spot that seemed about the right distance from the water. He sat down. He had so dreaded the conversation with his father that he hadn’t slept for two nights. He had been so sure that it would end in his own broken-down resolution. But it didn’t, and here he was.
           Nothing had really changed. He was still out of a job, didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, and didn’t have his parents to fall back on anymore. But Luke felt lighter. The exhilarating terror of having the world laid out in front of him filled his lungs, and he smiled as he breathed deep. For the first time in his life, he was obligated to no one, to nothing except the things he wanted to love. He was ready for them. He was finally whole, finally filled with electricity, finally steadied. Luke looked out at the waves, watching the gentle white caps break on the water. He was finally freed. 


That dreadful pumping organ
slides into her stomach:
it’s going to be a long night.
Still, she rolls over and wants sleep,
her shoulders are heavy,
and the nerves on the back
of her neck are tied together.

It’s not meant to be.
When her eyelids find each other
she feels the spiraling black
suck her in.
There’s no pulling away
(she understands from experience),
her brain will be captured eventually.

She curls up and tries to leave,
as the broken mantra repeats:
this madness is coming for you.
Retreat into your dreams,
and suppress your triggers,
but this will go better for you
if you stop your breath and embrace the fall.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Exodus

            Her fingers tapped lightly against the side of her wine glass. Rachel took a deep breath and tried to focus on the words coming out of his mouth. He was telling her all about his new startup, the intricacies of which she could have sworn she had heard before. His eyes were filled with that familiar fever, his gaze was intent and sincere. Rachel kept her mouth in a pleasant smile. She was painfully aware of the chair digging into her thighs. They were in one of those bars that she usually tried to avoid. The wall decorations were ostentatiously trendy and the lighting ever-so-slightly flickered. She had wanted to come here with an open mind, but the sour red liquid on the back of her tongue pushed her to consider the surroundings with a harsher eye.
Rachel was listening for an opening to politely change the subject. Then she heard him utter the words, “. . . it’s going to change the world,” and she let out an involuntary snicker.
            “What?” he said, his lips folding into a startled frown.
            Her hand found her mouth and she shook her head quickly. “Nothing,” she said. “It’s nothing.”
            His brown eyes seemed to grow darker. “No, really,” he said, “did I say something funny?”
            Rachel tilted her head to the side. “Seriously, it’s not important.”
            He sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t care. Let’s hear it.”
            “It’s just . . . I’ve heard that phrase before.”
            He blinked. “What phrase?”
            “’It’s going to change the world,’” she said. “I’ve heard it a lot.”
            His frown deepened. “So, what are you saying? I don’t know what I’m talking about?      “No, that’s not—“
            “Because I think, of the two of us, I probably know more about this industry than you do.”
            She leaned back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
            “It means I’m the one with the engineering degree.”
            She sighed. “Yeah?” she said, draining the rest of her glass.
            He took her response as a sign she was backing off. “Yeah,” he said, a satisfied expression growing around the corners of his eyes.
            “Look, I’m not denying what you studied or that you worked hard in school,” she said, lowering her eyes to the grooves in the table, “I just think there’re some things you have to live here for a few years to figure out.”
            “How would you know? How old are you? Twenty-four?”
            She shrugged. “I just said I’ve heard it before.”
            “Oh, you have? In all your numerous life experiences?”
            Rachel reached up and itched the side of her neck. “I’m sorry I laughed and offended you,” she said, “but there’s no need to get nasty.”
            He rolled his eyes. “Okay.”
            They stared at each other. She stood up. “I think I’m going to take off,” she said, curling her fingers around her empty glass. “See you around.”
            “That’s it?” he said.
            The confused expression on his face made her smile. “Yeah. What did you think was going to happen?”
            “I don’t know . . . I thought, you know, maybe we’d end up going back to my place . . .”
            She laughed. “Sorry, bro, I’m no longer interested in sleeping with you.”
            “Bitch,” Rachel heard him mutter under his breath as she walked away. She kicked one of the legs of his stool.
            In her rush to leave, Rachel pulled her jacket on over the strap of her bag. She tucked her hands in her armpits and walked out onto the street. Growing up in the center of the tech industry wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; on the contrary, it had provided her with a number of opportunities that she knew she wouldn’t have had anywhere else. The dating scene, though, that was something different. 20+ years of watching her father move from startup to startup had made her cynical, and it was hard to hide. But in the multitude of hopeful ladder climbers she had dated, not one had welcomed her input on the subject. If it wasn’t a code monkey, it was a corporate guy who swore he was five years out from becoming a major player, or a graduate student who would save the world just as soon as he finished his ivy league degree. Every one of them insisted they knew better than her, and wouldn’t waste any time telling her so. It was a problem she had grown up with, but had never grown out of.
            Maybe the issue was with her, but she didn’t know how to help that.
            She waited until the walk sign flashed before stepping out into the road. Five steps in, a Prius came to a sudden stop inches from her left leg. Rachel slapped the hood of it and raised her hands in mock anger. The driver shrugged and shrunk back into his seat. She kept walking and pulled the sides of her jacket close, keeping herself warm against the temperate weather.
            She was walking quickly towards the train station. When Rachel crossed the pedestrian bridge to her side of the tracks, she watched the early train pull in. Just in time. Rachel took a jog step towards it.
            She forgot about the slight heel on the back of her shoe and tripped over it. Her other foot came down to support her, but her ankle was too weak. Rachel fell to her knees, catching herself with her hands. She felt a jarring sting on her palms, but jumped right back up. Carefully running towards the open doors on the balls of her feet, Rachel made it onto the train. She teetered back and forth and took a deep breath. Then she looked down and realized there was a small stream of blood flowing freely from a scrape on her knee. Perfect.
            The blood had formed a sticky pool in her shoe by the time she reached the house. It was a small three-bedroom in a suspiciously swanky part of town. She and her roommates had snatched it up as soon as they had heard the landlord was offering cheap rent to tenants for the months leading up to the house’s demolition. Two of its window frames were starting to fall off and its outer roof tiles formed uneven patterns, but Rachel like the house for its character. She pushed open the unlocked front door.
            “Rachel?” a voice called from within. “What happened? Why are you back so early?” She closed the door behind her. Her roommate, Carla, appeared from around the corner, clutching a mug of peppermint tea. “Oh shit,” she said, “what happened to your knee?”
            “Girl,” Rachel said, “the date was a bust. Same old, same old. ‘I have the idea of the future and what would you know about it?’ I left early and fell running to the train.” She took off her jacket and threw it on one of the side tables by the door.
            “Yikes, I’m sorry,” Carla said.
            “It’s okay,” Rachel said. She stretched her arms up.
            Carla smirked. “Did you have to hide in the bathroom again?”
            Rachel threw her hands out to her sides. “I actually didn’t have time to buy a ticket, okay?” Then she laughed. “This night . . .” she said.
            “It’ll be fine,” Carla said. “We’ll open a bottle of red wine and forget all about it.” Rachel stared at the tea in her friend’s hands. “What?” Carla said. “I can drink both.”
            Rachel laughed again. “Whatever,” she said.
            They walked into their living room. Emma, their other roommate, was huddled on the couch with a blanket thrown around her shoulders.
            “Hey girl,” Rachel said, “how are you doing?”
            Emma shrugged and tucked her chin into her arms. Rachel glanced at Carla, who rolled her eyes. Rachel set her lips in a line.
            “Do you want to talk about it any more?” Rachel asked, knowing what the answer would be.
            Emma sighed loudly. “I don’t know how I can,” she said.
            “Okay,” Rachel said, “well in that case—“
            “It’s just that I’m so sick of the disappointment,” Emma said. “I’m sick of getting my hopes up and having them crushed in the mud.”
            “Yeah,” Rachel said. “That’s hard.” She heard the pop of a wine cork. Carla wasn’t wasting any time. “But, you know, there will be other competitions.”
            “I know, but I’m so sick of it!” Emma said. “When will it be my turn? I submitted my best story and nothing.”
            “That happens, though,” Rachel said. “You know that happens.”
            “Why does it have to keep happening to me, though?” Emma said, and leaned her head on the side of the couch.
            Carla pushed a wine glass into Rachel’s hand. “Why don’t you show them by working through it?” Carla said. “You should be using this rejection to push your writing even further.”
            Emma’s expression soured. “You act like I haven’t been working.”
            Carla put her hands up in front of her. “I didn’t say that—“
            Emma threw the blanket back onto the couch and marched off to her room. “I’m doing the best I can, goddamnit!” she yelled over her shoulder. Carla and Rachel looked at each other. Then they both started laughing.
            “Stop it!” Rachel said through giggles. “She’ll hear you!”
            Carla drained her wine glass. “So what? She’s being ridiculous. She’ll figure that out.”
            Rachel rolled her eyes. She flopped on the couch and pulled her knees to her chest. She cradled her wine against her legs and took out her phone. She automatically loaded the dating app and started swiping through guys. Carla saw what she was doing and snickered. “Looking for a repeat of tonight?” she asked.
            Rachel looked up. “It’s a numbers game,” she said, and looked back down.
            Carla sat down on the couch across from Rachel and turned the TV on. A few peaceful moments passed. Then they heard Emma scream. Rachel shot Carla a look that said, “This is a real thing, right?” and Carla shrugged. Rachel got up and ran to Emma’s room.
            “What is it?” Rachel asked. “What’s going on?”
            Emma was gripping her hair at the roots with one hand and clutching her phone with the other. Her mouth formed words again and again. “There was another one,” she said. “Someone we went to high school with.”
            Rachel felt her body go numb as the information seeped into her brain. She grabbed the doorframe at her side and rested her forehead against it. “Who?” she said.
            “This girl,” Emma said, “Jasmine. I had a math class with her sophomore year. I can’t . . .” Her head tipped forward into her hands.
            Rachel felt the pressure build behind her face. She pressed at it gently and tried to take a deep breath, but it came out ragged. She sank to the floor. “Why does this keep happening?” she asked.
            Emma shook her head. “She was about to graduate from college,” she said. “I don’t . . . what the fuck is wrong with this area?”
            Rachel stared at the carpet and swallowed. She heard Carla’s steps come up behind her and looked. When Carla saw her sturdy roommate sitting on the ground, she took a deep breath. “Is it bad?” she asked.
            “Another train suicide,” Rachel said. “This makes it three in the last month.”
            Carla closed her eyes and nodded. Then she turned around and walked back to the living room.
            “What the hell?” Emma said, gesturing at the hallway.
            “What?” Rachel said.
            “What was that reaction?” she looked at Rachel and her eyes filled with tears. “How can she just accept it like that?” A tear streamed down each cheek.
            Rachel sighed. “We all have our ways of dealing with things,” she said. “Carla’s isn’t as . . . vocal as yours.”
            Emma stared at her. “I’m sorry I care that someone’s dead! Think about her family!” she yelled.
            “We all care, Emma. Truly, we do,” Rachel tried to think through what she was going to say, but the words stumbled out wrong anyway. “There have been so many, though, and nothing about the situation has changed.”
            “That’s heartless, Rachel,” Emma said, wiping the tears from her face.
            “I’m sorry, I don’t mean it to be,” she crossed her legs in front of her. “I’m sorry that Jasmine . . . I’m sorry for her and I’m sorry for her family. But I’m tired of everyone caring the day after it happens and then putting it away as though nothing . . .” Rachel was starting to get a headache. She massaged her forehead as Emma waited for her to continue. “This whole town is fucked. Our attitude towards mental illness, all this ‘academic perfection’ bullshit. We’ve set up an environment where kids do their best and still fail repeatedly. It needs to change, but . . . I don’t know how it will.”
            She looked up. Emma was crying again. Rachel wanted to go sit on her bed and put her arms around her. Instead, she sat there on the floor and watched the devastation run through her friend. Rachel felt the rumbling of the train beneath her, she heard the whine of its horns as it tore through the night. The assault of the cold air rushed over her as she left the warm train compartment, as she unwittingly walked away from the end of another girl’s existence.
            Five nights later, she sat in a bar again. Across from her was a guy she had met online, his brown hair sticking up in the back. She wanted to reach across and push it down, then beg him for something, anything more authentic then what she had been getting. But his eyes burned with the fever of the newly initiated and his hands twitched on the table as he talked. She was filled with the urge to tell him to leave, to get out before this place changed him. Everyone was hiding from each other, and didn’t realize it until their loved ones disappeared. And then they all went through a collective amnesia, putting away death as if it didn’t directly impact them. It happened, again and again. It was toxic in a way she couldn’t explain, and yet she had to. She leaned forward.
            And then she heard it. His five year plan, his ideas that would put him on top of the tech industry. His empty promises of success, and the outlook he had collected from the long lines of white men before him. He was here, and he wasn’t. He was covered by the dream that filled them all up and broke their hearts. And Rachel didn’t know what to say about that anymore.
            Her fingers tapped against her wine glass, empty this time.

After Life

Lutz, Salchow, Axel.
Thoughtless bruises, beaming scars,
all a part of the process.
“Everything you do past the point of exhaustion counts for twice as much,”
these days getting out of bed makes me dizzy.

Lexapro, Klonopin, Ativan.
These are the new gods.
We must move forward, I think
as I lie shivering in the back seat of my car.
If I say I’m okay, then I am okay
Don’t look back, panic,
Ignoring the paralysis will make it go away.
If I fill my mouth with supplications,
then the process must be working.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Three Years Gone

            Her fingers grasp for the car door handle. They miss. She redirects them again and again, until she finally gets ahold of it. Her hand slips around the warm, green metal and she sighs in relief. She pulls the door open and slumps into the driver’s seat. She wants to rest her head against the steering wheel and close her eyes, but she knows she will fall asleep if she does. Justine gazes at her face in the rearview mirror, her eyes’ reflection swimming in front of her. She knows she would feel better if she threw up, but she can’t bring herself to stick her fingers down her throat. She pulls the door closed.
            Justine surprises herself with how quickly her key is able to find the ignition. She turns it and lets go automatically, feeling the car come to life like an old friend. She glances up at the rearview mirror, then looks over her shoulder, then can’t quite remember which is more acceptable when she is backing up. Her foot finds the gas and she manages to inch the car out of its parking space.
            A hand smacks her window. She looks over and sees that it’s her friend, Ted, who apparently followed her up off the beach. He motions for her to roll it down. She complies.
            “What do you think you’re doing?” he says, lunging forward so that the whole of his weight is resting on her car.
            “I’m just . . . I just need to go . . .” Justine says, her body leaning away from his.
            “Not in that state, you don’t,” he says, and pulls the car door open. He grabs her by the elbow and starts to lift her out.
            “Stop . . .” she says, trying to pull her arm away. “I mean it, I need to go . . .”
            Ted pulls her into a standing position and moves so that their faces are inches from one another. Behind his head, Justine can see the sun start to go down. The thick sea salt scent travels over the air and the sound of waves is punctuated by the laughter of their friends, who are still out on the sand. If Justine didn’t know any better, she would think they are about to kiss.
            “No, you don’t. You’ve had too much to drink. You need to come back with me.” Ted grabs her hand and starts pulling her back towards the beach.
            “Stop . . . I . . . Lauren needs me to get her . . . I need to go . . .” But Ted isn’t listening to her. He grabs her elbow with his other hand and jerks her forward. She stumbles. “Stop,” she says again. She turns and grabs the side of her car.
            “Stop being so difficult,” he says. “Come on, Justine, just come with me. Lauren will be fine.”
            “No, she needs me . . . I told you . . .” Ted’s hands slip off her arms for a second, and Justine takes advantage of the opening. She curls back and then strikes him as hard as she can on the side of his face. In her half-aware state, Justine is surprised by the way the slap makes her hand sting.
            Ted steps back and clutches his face. “You fucking bitch,” he says. His eyes rake over her and she finds herself looking away. She shrugs. “Fine, you’re on your own. It’s your fucking funeral. I’m not going to drag you away.” He turns and starts walking back.
            Justine presses down the urge to run after him, to explain that she didn’t really mean it, she just needed him to stop. But she is suddenly aware of how tired her legs are. She sits back down in the driver’s seat and closes her eyes. She thinks about the way Lauren’s black hair moves when it is hit by a breeze, and she feels the purr of the car beneath her. She gathers her legs into the car and closes the door again.
            When the car is moving at a consistent speed, Justine starts to calm down. Her hands still shake at the wheel, and the trucks that pass on the other side of the median are blurry, but Justine thinks she can deal. It is easier now that she is doing it.
            Drinking that day happened the way it always does: Justine barely realized she was doing it until she was three drinks in. It’s not something she thinks about anymore. Whenever she goes somewhere and alcohol is an option, she always partakes. Does she want something to drink? Why yes, when does she not?
            Justine likes to tell herself it is just a fun activity. She can be in a group of people she barely knows, and she can count on a few shots of tequila to smooth out the edges of her social anxiety. It is all right, it has to be. It is always all right.
            Her fingers curl around the steering wheel. She had second thoughts about driving in this condition, but she didn’t know what else to do. Her daughter called her, she needed her, and so Justine is on her way. Her hand trembles as she reaches up to sweep her bangs out of her eyes.
            Then it appears. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the harsh white vehicle sitting at the side of the road. Justine is suddenly very aware of the steady pounding of her heart. She shifts her hands around the steering wheel, reaching over to the gear shift and clutching it. The pressure of anxiety creeps up the back of her neck. Her breathing grows shallow. She tries not to stare at the police car, but she can’t help it. Her eyes keep shifting over.
            Justine starts to panic. She knows the policeman can tell something is wrong with her. What is it? Is she swerving across the center line? She steps on the brake, and then quickly steps off. She doesn’t want him to think she has been speeding. Her stomach twists. Justine sets her eyes on the road in front of her.
            She begins praying that the cop is male. Justine figures she should decide now the lengths to which she is willing to go to get out of a DUI. The thought of it makes her tear up, but she has to be strong. She made her decision when she got into the driver’s seat. She taps her left foot on the floor. She passes the car, watching in the rearview mirror for the lights to turn on and the siren to shriek.
            And nothing happens. Because of course nothing happens. Justine continues driving and the police car doesn’t take off after her. The insides of her brain feel fuzzy and frayed. The sides of the road blur and her eyelids start to droop. Justine taps her head against the window to wake herself back up.
            She is surprised when she arrives at the house. How did she get here? She glances around and reaches out for the door handle. She closes her eyes, pressing her lids together as hard as she can. This haze needs to go away. She takes a deep breath. Justine fumbles with the handle before pulling it open. She slips out.
            The ground is farther than she anticipates, and Justine stumbles to plant her feet underneath her. Finally figuring it out, she braces herself against the open car door and looks around. The front door is distant, but she thinks she can make it. She takes a step in that direction.
            Another step, and another. They might be a little zigzagged, but Justine is doing okay. Then she feels it coming, tastes the warm saliva that fills her mouth. She has seconds to stumble to the patch of tulips lining the driveway. Justine leans down and vomits all over their carefully-cultivated white petals.
            After what feels like the entire contents of her stomach is covering the flowers, Justine straightens up and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. She looks around. Across the street, a blonde woman and her golden retriever are standing completely still. She stares at Justine and Justine stares back. Justine doesn’t know what to do. She raises a shaky hand in a halfhearted greeting. The blonde woman gives her a dirty look and continues walking. She tugs the dog along behind her, as though afraid it might be infected by Justine’s classless behavior.
            Justine’s head starts to pound. She really should have stayed better hydrated. She runs her fingers through her hair and tries to make it neat. Justine fixes her eyes on the front door of the house. She makes a beeline toward it without tearing her gaze away.
            When she knocks on the door, she knows she does so too forcefully. Justine can feel the rap on the wood ring through her knuckles. The door flies open.
            A tall redhead stands in the doorway. She is solidly built, and her complexion is flawless. She has fantastically blue eyes, but the look behind them is hard and calculating. Her gaze passes over Justine’s appearance. She seems to take in the rumpled clothing and the beads of sweat causing hair to stick to her forehead. “Mrs. Montgomery?” she says.
            Justine nods. “Yeah, that’s me.” She tastes the vomit on her breath and wonders if this woman can smell it. She looks as though it would be difficult to get something like that past her. 
            “Lauren?” the woman calls into the house. “Your mother’s here.” She returns her gaze to Justine. One hand is placed on either side of the doorframe. Her stance is set in a casual manner, although her legs looks tense. Justine suddenly gets the urge to put both hands on her chest and push her backwards. She wants to see what the woman looks like off-balance.
            Lauren bounds up behind her. Her brown eyes lock on her mother, and Justine watches as the spark fades out of them. She holds out her hand. “Come on, sweetie, time to go.”
            The woman at the door exchanges a look with Lauren. Justine can’t quite read it. Lauren shrugs her slim shoulders and ducks under the woman’s arm. She ignores Justine’s outstretched fingers and walks past her. Justine smiles at the woman, who closes the front door. She whirls around and tries to catch up with her daughter.
            “Well, you’re welcome for coming to get you,” she says, louder than she intends.
            “You didn’t have to,” Lauren says. “I would have found another ride.”
            Justine blinks. “What?” she says. “You said you needed me.”
            Lauren puts her hand on the passenger door handle and studies her mother. “You knew where I was. What did you think had happened?”
            Justine puts her hand on her forehead. “Fuck, Lauren.”
            “I’m sorry,” Lauren says, pulling the door open and heaving herself inside. “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal, though.”
            Justine doesn’t respond and gets back into the driver’s seat. She sits there and takes a deep breath.
            “What?” Lauren asks. “What is it?”
            Justine shakes her head and turns the car on. Putting it in reverse, she speeds backwards and narrowly misses the trashcans lined up on the street.
            “Kind of cutting it close, aren’t we?” Lauren says. Justine still doesn’t say anything. “Look, mom, I don’t know what you want me to say. Izzy and I got in a fight. I needed to get out of there.”
            The world starts to swirl in front of Justine’s eyes. She squints at the street signs she passes, and then slams on the brakes when she almost runs a red light.
            “Jesus, mom, watch out,” Lauren says. She leans forward and turns the radio on. The upbeat pop beats infect Justine’s world and make her feel lost. She wants to close her eyes and clap her hands over her ears. Her shaky fingers reach out and turn it back off. She hears Lauren sigh loudly in the seat next to her and slump down.
            The light turns green and Justine puts her foot on the accelerator. She misjudges the amount of force she needs to use and feels the car lurch forward. Pulling the wheel to the right to compensate for this unexpected start, Justine thinks she has fixed the problem. Then she hears Lauren yell, “Mom!” and she slams on her brakes. It is too late.
            The side of the car smashes into the side of a parked minivan, and Justine feels the impact force her right shoulder backward. Lauren’s screams drown out the rest of the noise, and then catch in her throat. The car jolts to a stop.
            Breathing heavily, Justine tries to get her world straight. A streak of blood runs down the side of Lauren’s forehead, but other than that she appears unharmed. “What the hell was that, mom?” she screams.
            “I—I don’t know. Are you okay?” Justine says, reaching out to her daughter.
            “Don’t touch me!” Lauren screams. “I’m fine, I just want to get out. Just let me out!”
            Justine opens her door and stumbles out. Lauren climbs over into the driver’s seat and follows behind her. She grabs her mom’s hand and pulls her around the side of the car and up onto the sidewalk.
            “Mom, what do we do?” Lauren’s eyes are pleading and desperate.
            “I don’t know, I—“ Justine surveys the accident. Fear starts to crumble in her stomach. She looks back at Lauren. “Please don’t tell your father.”
            “What are you talking about? Of course we have to tell dad!” Lauren pulls out her phone. "I think I’m going to call the police,” she says.
            “Don’t, I—“ Justine runs her hands through her hair.
            Lauren stares at her. “What’s wrong with you, mom?”
            “Nothing, I just don’t . . . I don’t want to get in trouble.”
            Understanding replaces the confusion littered across Lauren’s face. “Please tell me you didn’t,” she says.
            Justine’s eyes flicker to Lauren’s and she raises her shoulders in a small shrug.
            “What the hell is wrong with you?” Lauren screams. “How could you do that to me and dad?”
            “I didn’t do anything to you two on purpose,” Justine says. “I just . . . I just went to a party.”
            “You went to a party?” Lauren says, her eyes bugging out of her head.
            “Yeah, it was just like this beach party that one of my old work colleagues was having. It was fine.”
            Lauren throws her hands up and gestures toward the wrecked vehicle. “Clearly it wasn’t fine! Clearly we’re back where we were three years ago!” She closes her eyes and drops her hands to massage her neck. “You went to a beach party,” she says, under her voice. “God, how old are you?”
            “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
            Lauren shakes her head and looks up at the sky. “You never mean for any of it to happen.”
            A crowd is forming across the street. They are pointing and talking amongst themselves, and a man steps forward. “Are you guys okay?” he yells. Justine looks back and forth between him and her daughter and then gives him a halfhearted thumbs up.
            “You said you needed me, so I came running!” Justine says.
            Lauren’s lip trembles. “So this is my fault?” she says, her voice cracking. “Mom, I can’t do this again.” She turns and starts to walk down the sidewalk, away from her mother.
            “Wait!” Justine yells after her. “Where are you going? How are you going to get home? It’s not safe!”
            Lauren’s shoulders are heaving. She looks back around and wipes the blood off her forehead with the back of her hand. “It’s safer than being with you,” she says. Justine’s hands fall to her sides. Lauren keeps walking, and Justine doesn’t run after her.
            She turns and sits down on the curb next to her car. She stares at the twisted metal that locks the machines together, the hood of hers raised as though in shock. If she looks at the vehicles long enough, they start to seem as though they were formed together, placed to exist with their lives intertwined. If she tries hard enough, Justine can convince herself that they wanted it this way, that one hadn’t smashed into the other and mangled its unsuspecting flesh.
Justine brings her knees to her chest and wraps her arms around them. She closes her eyes and waits for the police to arrive.

This Reclaimed Beast

            This skin falls away, once again. This shell that had grown hard and brittle falls to the ground and cracks. I’m not sure if I’m sad to watch it go. All I feel as I survey the pieces of my long-lived shelter is the sweet grip of fear.
            My new skin is paper, but it is also pulsing and screaming. My hands reach to cover my breasts and then fall to my sides. Parts of me want to grab my old shell, sew the pieces into my flesh until I feel armored again. But at the back of my head I hear those words echo: In a smoke-filled room, In a smoke-filled room, and I know I can’t go back.
           This nakedness is the only way forward. It makes me shout in pain and it keeps me alive. There’s no sitting down in war zones, no blizzard here to hide me. There is the constant sound of drumming, the shrieking of seagulls that scares me and draws me in. There is the wind, and I feel all of it, my arms drawn wide in patient offering. There is the sunset that bleeds before me, causing me to mumble and weep at its persistent beauty.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Interview Blues

            It wasn’t the end, even though it felt like it. Marie had to keep telling herself that. It was only an opportunity, a possibility, not something that she had had and then lost. Her perfectly manicured fingers trembled as she pushed on the door and let herself out. Marie would never see these people again, never know the consequences of the words that had slipped out of her mouth. So why did it feel like she had been clubbed with a crowbar?
            The nausea, at least, began to subside after she got a hundred feet from the building. Marie took a deep breath and let her brain wander over the past few minutes. The brightly lit room, the gentle hum of the AC . . . The nausea returned so quickly that she ran to the nearest trashcan and leaned over it. She dry-heaved several times, and sweat began to bead on her forehead. She wiped it away.
            Marie straightened up and pulled at the sleeves of her blazer. It was itchy under the collar and a little tight in the shoulders.  She wanted to take it off, but she was also pretty sure that the sweat from her armpits showed through the tight button down she wore underneath it. She took a few unsteady steps away from the trashcan.
            It wasn’t that Marie lacked confidence. That had never been true. In fact, when she had been approaching graduation and watching her friends have meltdowns over the stress of numerous interviews, she hadn’t been worried. It’s just talking to someone, she had insisted, how difficult could that be? She was used to her words slipping under people’s skin, warming them or filling them with guilt as she required. Surely, interviewing would be the same.
            It hadn’t even been a difficult question, that was the most embarrassing part. The neatly dressed woman asked her why she was interested in working for the company, and Marie enthusiastically dove in. She had always dreamed of working for a nonprofit, and what they were doing in Haiti was admirable. She especially appreciated the way they sourced local materials for their housing projects. Did they need someone to work on the ground there, or was the position primarily located in the States? She would be perfectly happy doing either.
            The woman stared at her. She pressed her lips together. “Housing projects?” she asked. “What do you mean?”
            At this point, Marie was still unfazed. “The ones you started fairly soon after the earthquake. I think it’s amazing that you have continued to work in that region, even though most other nonprofits pulled out when media coverage declined. That’s the kind of company I want to work for.”
            The woman blinked. “Interviewing for a lot of jobs, are we?” she said.
            Marie could feel a drop of sweat run down the back of her neck and along her spine. She swallowed. “Um, a few,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
            The woman’s eyes flickered up and down Marie’s outfit before she said, “Because we don’t work in Haiti, and we never have. We’re not involved in housing at all.”
Marie apologized profusely and tried to clean up the mistake, but it was too late. The rest of the interview felt like a formality. The woman sitting across from her asked a few more questions before telling her they would let her know. Marie tried to make a joke of her mistake as she got up to exit, but the sides of the woman’s mouth barely twitched. This wasn’t going to be her job.
            And that should be fine. Her humanity should allow her a few mistakes. This should be something that caused Marie to blush whenever she talked about it, preferably over a few beers with friends. A funny anecdote, and not one that defined her. But it didn’t seem that way right now. Marie felt her tights begin to slip down her legs. This was her fourteenth interview since leaving school. She couldn’t afford this kind of humiliation.
Marie’s steps got a little steadier. She wanted to walk home, to give herself space to think, but she already felt her feet painfully pulse from being in heels too long. It was tempting to slip them off, press the ground into her bare skin and let the pavement’s coolness travel up through her legs and calm her. She reached down, but glanced back to the building from which she had just retreated. Marie couldn’t make a fool of herself, not here. She needed to be professional.
She took the short walk back to the subway. The blast of warm air that hit her as she descended the steps made her grip the railing with both hands.
            “Hey! How’d it go?” her roommate, Jeanette, called as she walked in. She was seated on their couch with both legs extended, her laptop planted in front of her.
            Marie smoothed down her hair as she nudged the front door closed. “Um, it could have gone better,” she said.
            Jeanette’s brow furrowed. “What happened?”
            Marie shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t think I got it, though.”
            “Really? But you were so excited about it.”
            “Excited about the wrong thing, as it turns out.”
            Marie flopped down at the end of the couch and looked at her friend. “I just . . . I don’t think I can talk about it yet. It’s too horrible.”
            “Uh oh,” Jeanette said. She tore her eyes from her computer screen. “Do you need a drink?”
            Marie glanced at the oven clock. “It’s still too early.” She paused. Then, “I think I’m going to go look at the alumni board. Maybe some more jobs have been posted.” She got up and walked towards her room.
            “I’ll let you wallow for an hour and then I’m coming in after you,” Jeanette called. Marie raised her hand in response. She walked into her room and let herself fall facedown onto her bed. She kicked her shoes off and listened to the satisfying thudding sound they made as they hit the floor.
            Marie found it surprisingly easy to clear her mind. The stress of the day slipped away and left behind exhaustion. She closed her eyes.
            It wasn’t until she was jolted awake by the bright ringtone of her phone that Marie realized she had fallen asleep. She grabbed the tiny device and slid her thumb along the answer button.
            “Hello?” she said, rubbing her eyes.
            “Honey? Did I wake you?” her mother’s voice shouted into her ear.
            “No, mom, it’s the middle of the day,” she said. “What’s up?”
            “I just wanted to know how your interview went,” her mother said.
            “So . . . how did it go?”
            Marie tried not to sigh audibly. “It could have gone better.”
            “Did you like the interviewer?”
            “I guess.”
            “Was the company everything you imagined?”
            “Not quite.”
            “Well, honey.”
            “Yeah, mom?”
            “You don’t sound like you want to talk.”
            “Sorry, mom. I’m just . . . tired.” Marie sat up.
            “What have you been doing?” her mother’s voice was laced with concern.
            “Nothing like that, mom. The interview today was . . . stressful. I just need a minute.”
            “Okay, well I’ll let you go. I wanted to check in because, you know, the rent’s due in six days . . .”
            Marie massaged her forehead. “Mom, even if I got a job tomorrow, I wouldn’t get paid for a while.”
            “I know, sweetie.” Her mother seemed to deliberate before continuing. “It would just be a start.”
            “I’m doing my best.”
            “And your room’s still here. You could always come back . . .”
            Marie glanced at her door and wondered if Jeanette could hear her. “I know, but I’m not ready for that yet.”
            “Well, honey, you’re not in college anymore. We don’t know how much longer we can support you financially . . .”
            “I know, mom. Look, I have to go.”
            “Alright, sweetie, I love you.”
            “Love you, too,” she said, hanging up and letting the phone fall into her lap. She felt the familiar chest pressure that came with intense stress. She turned and stood up out of bed, folding both hands together and stretching her whole body up to the ceiling. It was only then that she realized she was still wearing her interviewing clothes. Marie unzipped the side of her pencil skirt and let it fall to the ground. She looked down at her body, the curve of her stomach under her tights and the hemmed edges of her stocking feet. She tried to conjure the self-respect she had spent so many of her teenage years cultivating, but right now her body felt like a nothing instrument. She bit her lower lip.
            “Marie?” she heard Jeanette call from the other room. “Come in here for a minute.” Marie quickly replaced her tights with sweats and pulled off the itchy blazer.
            “Yeah?” she said, entering the living room.
            Jeanette was standing by the open door, her hand resting on it like she was prepared to slam it shut. Her other hand seemed paused in the middle of brushing through her hair. Her eyes were pinched in worry, the skin on her neck was starting to turn red and blotchy. Marie took time examining the unexpected details of her friend before her thoughts were interrupted by Jeanette saying, “Look who it is.”
            Marie switched her focus to the figure in the doorway. He was blurry at first, like it was with all the people she knew intimately, but hadn’t seen in years. Her eyes readjusted their expectations with what was in front of her. His hair was longer than she remembered, and darker brown, but his eyes were less blue. His ears still stuck out from his head, and he still held his shoulders in what looked like a permanent half-shrug. She watched as he touched the side of the doorframe, then let his hand fall back at his side. Nervous.
            “Hi,” he said. “How are you?”
            Marie looked at him. Then she looked down at what she was wearing. Armpit sweat stains shone through her formal button down shirt, which was ever so slightly tucked into her sweatpants. She closed her eyes and wanted to bash her head into the wall. But when her eyes closed, everything moved in a little bit closer, and got a little realer. She felt the telltale pressure start to build, so she forced them open again. He was still standing there, foot poised to step into the apartment, taking care of her as soon as she showed signs of weakness.
            “She’s had kind of a long day,” Jeanette started. “Maybe you should come back later . . .”
            “No,” Marie said, as she watched his body begin to turn. “Come in. Come inside and sit down.” She gestured to the couches where Jeanette had just been working. “I’m assuming you have something you want to talk about.”
            As soon as Thomas crossed the boundary into her apartment, Marie woke up. Her senses heightened as though responding to a challenge. She pulled at the bottom of her shirt, straightening it and smoothing the wrinkles. Her shoulders back, she crossed the apartment to the couch where Thomas was headed.
            “Um,” Jeanette said, “I think I’m just going to grab my stuff . . . maybe work at a Starbucks or something.” Marie nodded and they locked eyes. Jeanette’s expression said she knew this might take a while. She shoved her things into a laptop bag and slipped on her shoes. Marie watched her fly out the door and tramp down the stairs, the rhythm of her footsteps the same even though she hurried.
            She returned her focus to the man in front of her. “Well?” she said. She sat down and watched as he perched beside her.
            “Rough night?” he said, gesturing to her outfit. A smile played across his lips and she realized he was trying to joke to break the tension.
            “Not particularly,” she said.
            “Oh,” he said, “um, okay.”
            They stared at each other for a moment. Then she couldn’t stand it. “So, I’m sorry, but what the hell are you doing here?”
            “I’m back from London,” he said. “Work transferred me back into the area.”
            “Cool, great,” she said, “but you know that’s not what I mean. What do you think you’re doing here?”
            He shrugged. “I . . . I got back. I moved back in and I said everything to everyone and it occurred to me that I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
            She took a deep breath. “So you just came here,” she said.
            “Well, yeah.”
            Marie shook her head. “No,” she said. “That’s not good enough.”
            “Marie . . .”
            “No,” she repeated, more emphatically. “It’s not.”
            He rested an arm on the back of the couch and leaned into it. “You don’t think I remember how things ended? I do, okay, and I feel like an asshole every day thinking about it. But I still want to be with you, okay? I still love you.”
            Her arms gestured wide in a motion of disbelief. “Well, there it is. We’re just jumping straight into it, aren’t we?”
            “Would you rather I tiptoe around it for a few more minutes?”
            “No, but . . .” she stood up and crossed to the kitchen. “You think I don’t realize that the only reason you’re here is because of work? You didn’t come back because of me, so don’t try to set yourself up as the romantic hero.”
            He sighed. “Things aren’t that simple.”
            “How are they not?” she said, too loudly. She could feel her lower lip start to tremble, so she turned away from him and massaged her forehead. “I haven’t heard from you in months.”
            “Because you told me you wanted space.”
            “Well, what was I supposed to do? You moved halfway across the world. We were going to have space whether I wanted it or not.”
            “So you didn’t want it?”
            She put out a hand and leaned on the counter. “But you didn’t even talk to me.”
            Marie could hear him make a frustrated noise from across the room. “Because . . . space . . .”
            She whirled around. “You don’t seem too concerned about giving me space right now.” Thomas shrugged. “What, did you think you could just show back up and I would be waiting for you.”
            “No,” he said, “I didn’t think that. I didn’t think anything.”
            “So why are you here?”
            He stood up and took a few steps toward her. “Because I still love you, and I’m here. I know what happened, but . . .”
            “You left,” she said, letting her eyes wander up and down his lanky figure.
            “I know,” he said, “and I don’t regret it. I did what was right for me. But I left the country, not you.”
            “You left the country and me.”
            “I wasn’t gone forever.”
            “You were just gone for an unspecified amount of time.”
            Marie watched his jaw clench as he realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere. He walked over to her cabinets and opened one. “Do you want a drink or something?” he said.
            “Why? Do you need this conversation to be easier?” she snapped.
            “No, I just think it might go better if we’re both relaxed.”
            She glanced at the window. “It’s still early. Isn’t that kind of tacky?”
            “Come on,” Thomas said, “let’s have some wine in those glasses I got you.”
            Marie exhaled as their interaction moved from heart-wrenching to frustrating. “We don’t have any wine,” she said.
            He looked at her. “Of course you do. You and Jeanette always have wine.”
            She shook her head. “Not now. Red wine gives Jeanette migraines so we don’t keep it in the apartment anymore.” His hands fell away from the cabinet. “Besides, I don’t exactly have those glasses, either.”
            His body turned towards hers and his eyes searched her face. “What do you mean?”
            “I broke them. Accidentally. I broke all four of them . . . accidentally.” She combed through her part with her hand.
            A moment passed between them. Then he said, “Maybe I should have called first.”
            “Maybe,” she said. “But if you had, I probably wouldn’t have let you in.”
            “Yeah,” he said, “I guess I deserve that.” She nodded slowly. He walked to the center of the room and looked around. His fingers ran along the back of the couch.
            “Look,” she said, “I just . . . I need a minute. I was already having a pretty shitty day and now . . . you’re here.” He nodded. “I need to think.”
            He took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said, “I can go.” He closed the space between them until they were separated by a few inches. “I’m sorry I surprised you on a shitty day,” he said. “I just needed to be looking at you when I told you I missed you.” With him so near, Marie felt like her outer layer of skin had slipped off. The blur was starting to fade, until he was just Thomas, back in her apartment. She could feel the itch in her fingers, urging her to touch his collarbone, to touch his waist, to touch the skin behind his ears. Her body had felt his absence, even if she hadn’t allowed her brain to. Then he stepped out of her space.
            Thomas crossed to the door. “I’m living at my old apartment with my old roommates until I can get settled somewhere more permanent.” He opened the door and looked back at her. “And my number’s the same. Take your time.” He left.
            Marie flopped down into one of their rickety dining chairs. She pulled her knees up to her chin and bit into the sides of her mouth. She closed her eyes and tried to fall out of time.
            Two weeks passed and Marie had another interview. This time, she knew where she was going. This time, she walked into the building in an outfit that fit. This time, she felt the steady pump of her heart and wasn’t afraid of it. This time, the body that she had barely been inhabiting was filled to the fingertips with her spirit. She didn’t need to stop and steady her breathing when she walked through the entrance. She felt ready.
            If she could have seen herself, Marie would have expected a woman with a glint in her eye, that international signal of competence and wit. She felt the spell she was weaving over herself and the interviewer, and she let it happen. She was charming in a way that she hadn’t been in years. The jokes that slipped out of her mouth came unbidden, but they made the man that sat across the desk howl with laughter. She was what she needed to be in the moment and when she left, she left confidently.
            Marie got a hundred feet from the building before the momentum of it almost knocked her over. She felt both of her thighs burn as though she had just run five miles. But this time she didn’t need to stop walking. She didn’t want to. She pushed herself towards the subway entrance at a slight jog.
            The movement of the train was soothing, and it let her fall back into her thoughts. She had spent the last thirteen days in her head, twisting her ideas around and around until they were no longer recognizable. Jeanette had brought her tea and chocolate and gossip magazines, and still she had felt like she was stuck in some kind of paralysis.
            But this morning she had needed to get up and go be professional, so she had. Marie had slipped on this persona as though she did it every day. The decision she had agonized over since Thomas had walked back through her door was made when she opened her eyes. It was floating there in front of her, mocking her with its obvious shape.
            The train came to a stop and she got off. She hurried through the dirty tunnels and back up into the sunlight. She didn’t have to think about where she was going. When Marie reached the old green building and knocked on the peeling door, she could barely grasp at memories of the journey over.
            She had wanted to punish both of them. She had wanted to punish him for choosing the smart thing instead of the romantic thing, and she had wanted to punish herself for feeling that internal collapse after he left. But it wasn’t what she needed. The woman she needed to be was draped in forgiveness, and that was the truth. There was no sense in letting him get farther away.
            Thomas opened the door and his expression warmed her shoulders. She stepped over the threshold and back into his life.