Living a Little
I covered the geraniums in the window box with tinfoil seconds before the storm broke. Virginia came in, lit a cigarette on the stovetop, and sat next to me to watch the downpour. I loved that she smoked, if only because we could sit like this: me eating, her with a cigarette—“indulging our vices,” she would say. I’d taken up her ad for a roommate seven months ago. We got along well, I thought. She was always busy, between her theater friends and her non-theater friends and her cousins, who were always begging to see her, and also her boyfriend, Matt, but in the evenings she’d sometimes sit with me in the kitchen for a short while.
We could hear the cars threshing up water in their wakes as they raced down 116th.
“Smart of you to cover up our babies,” she said.
“What?” I was scraping icing onto my plate in order to get the perfect cake-to-topping ratio in the next bite.
“The flower babies!” she nodded toward the window.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. Hope they’ll be ok.”
“They’re tough little guys.” She squinted as if smiling, pressed her lips in a straight line. “They’ll make it.” She took an empty wine glass from the sink, and tapped ash into it. “So, what’s up? How’s work?”
“Just peachy,” I said. She raised an eyebrow, and leaned back against the counter—eternally nonchalant.
“Holly. Is it crushing your soul?”
“It’s just boring.”
I was an assistant at this staffing firm, ANP Services—my ‘just for now’ job. That’s what I told my mother—just while I get settled in the city, just while I figure out what I want to do.
That morning there had been an email from my boss on the subject of lateness, which he hoped I understood was unacceptable.
“I hate to have to remind you,” the email said. “This isn’t college. There are expectations and consequences.”
I hated that. I wrote an apology and watched him through the glass doors of his office. He seemed calm. He drank his coffee and typed away at his standing desk. I decided I was safe for now; he wouldn’t fire me over something so little. I looked for Denise, but she wasn’t at her desk.
I’d never told Virginia about Denise, because I didn’t want Virginia to think I was creepy. I’d never actually talked to Denise. She was the only black person in our office which seemed to be a depressingly common scenario in this city. I could see her desk from my desk and I liked to imagine us as friends, chatting quietly over our cubicle walls.
Denise was Director of Outreach, but she emailed people instead of talking to them and when she did talk, she whispered. She was shorter than me, very thin and pretty, and wore skirts and flats and a tight bun at the back of her neck. I knew it was wrong to want to know Denise because of what she looked like, but it wasn’t just that. It was how she did things—how she kept her desk clear of papers, how she’d stand and stretch her arms out sideways and then behind her back, lacing her fingers and bending forwards.
She’d arrived at 9:40 today, set her purse under her desk and woke up her computer. She didn’t look at anyone. Twenty minutes later, she walked out again. She did that all morning, leaving and returning, a little rushed, but still composed as ever. No one else seemed to notice.
A few times in my months at ANP, Denise had given me a quick smile—when she was walking into the elevator, or when she looked up and caught my eyes. There was real warmth in her smile, unlike mine, which looks like a tic: a momentary contraction of muscles, before my face goes slack again. “For a smart girl,” my mother used to say, “you look very dumb when you smile.” She would blink many times, quickly, as she said it, which meant she found it hard, but important, to say.
Virginia was looking at me with her chin resting on her fist. Her lips made an actual cupid’s bow; I’d never seen anything like it, outside of early Hollywood movies. “You need a cigarette,” she said.
“No, no, I don’t, thank you.”
“Honey, we all need our vices.” Virginia was an actress—or actor, she would say. She was going to be in an off-off Broadway play about a prisoner. In the end, the prisoner digs his way out of his cell, Shawshank Redemption style—except with a wholly original take on the themes of freedom and captivity, according to Virginia. She was playing the prisoner’s mother, and had started calling me things like “honey” since she got the part.
“I’ve got my carrot cake,” I said.
“Yes, you’ve got your carrot cake. Thank God for the carrot cake!” She put her right hand in the air and looked at the ceiling. Virginia didn’t eat gluten or refined sugar, so I guess she was thanking Him on my behalf. I’d started baking after I moved here; it gave me something to do, and at first I thought it might make me a fun roommate. Then Virginia told me about her diet. It kept her in “theater shape.” I kept on baking; I’d actually gotten quite good at it.
The rain had turned to hail and was drumming against the foil. I wanted to tell Virginia about Denise—the mystery of Denise leaving her desk so often.
“I’m going to go practice my lines,” she said, getting up.
I scraped up the excess icing and ate that too, before making my way to bed. Through the living room door, I glimpsed Virginia lying on the couch, her script held over her head, gesticulating in miniature as she read.
I slid the top book from the pile at my bedside. I had started them all and then set them aside. This one was As I Lay Dying; I was only on page three. I tried to focus, but the words receded into marks. An alarm went off for a long time and then stopped. So I saved out the eggs and baked yesterday, I kept reading, but I was thinking about my cake, which was gone now: ten grated carrots, a pound of cream cheese and all; which made me think about Emma George—the fact of missing something, I guess. I was sick of the thought of her, but there she was going in circles around my brain again. I wished I could tell Virginia, or someone, about her; let it go by telling it—release it, kind of.
This is a story I haven’t told you, I’d start. I almost feel like it isn’t worth telling.
And she would say, I’m listening.
Well, it’s about a girl.
And she’d say, Oh, I love it already.
Because she knew I liked girls. I’d told her that, at least.
So, I would go on: and her name was Emma George. And she was so cute, Virginia, she was so tall and had piles of red hair and these funny, blue-shaded glasses that she wore even indoors. My room was right above hers in our dorm, and her desk was right above mine in the library. At night, I’d sit reading in the common room, because she usually came through around one, and then I’d lie in bed—right above where her bed would be—and think This is the most awful part, this not knowing, but it will end—give it a few weeks, a few days—either she likes me or she doesn’t, and I will know. And then we were drunk, and she led me out of the dance, and pointed out a constellation, and told me how she’d learned in astronomy that the universe is expanding and folding in on itself at the same time and she never could understand that.
Like an Icee machine, I said. Those red and blue Icee machines, mixing the Icee and making more of it at the same time.
And she said, Ok, yeah, I can see that, and then she kissed me in the middle of the soccer field and we were talking so fast: What does your mom do what does your dad do what was your high school like what was your first kiss like, and she gave me her shoes to wear, these giant clogs, when my heels were hurting me too much, and she hopped around the little patches of snow in her socks.
And she said Where do you want to go from here? in her goofy voice. She was from Arkansas; I shouldn’t say goofy, but I didn’t know anyone from the South, I still don’t. I had my shirt off in her twin bed, and I couldn’t think what to say. So I said, Oh, I don’t care, we could have sex or we could not have sex. She set her glasses on the windowsill, under a beaded rosary. Huh, she said, Well… And I said, Actually, can we not have sex? Is that ok? I’d had sex before, it’s just that it was tricky; I don’t know, it made me nervous, and I didn’t want to be nervous—I was so happy just then. And she said, Of course, I would love to not have sex with you.
In the morning, neither of us knew what to say. Eventually I sat up and said, Well, see you in the library, and she said, Will you give me your number? My hand shook as I typed it into her phone, and then I walked out, without looking back, as if that could keep the night intact.
I stared at the white paint flaking off the ceiling, listening to Virginia whispering her lines in the other room and longing for sleep. I closed my eyes and imagined painting over the inside of my eyelids with white paint, left to right. But it didn’t work, so I took a chewable melatonin.
Virginia appeared at the doorway, her long shadow stretching into the room.
“Look at you, kiddo. Covers up to your chin,” she said. “Need anything while I’m up?”
“I’m good,” I said. “Sleep well, V.”
“Sweet dreams, my sweet!” she said, closing the door. It was a line from her play.
In the morning, I uncovered the geraniums, which had survived with only a couple of dark spots, like bruises. Virginia was already gone. Cigarette butts floated in a bowl of milk in the sink.
Denise wasn’t at her desk when I arrived. I worried about it, then looked up to see her standing at my cubicle wall.
“Holly,” she said, in her whisper voice. I didn’t know that she knew my name. I stood up, and saw that she was wearing a black skirt with a blue flower print. She’d tucked her blouse into it, so it ballooned out just a bit—I could never figure out how to do that. “Sit, sit,” she said, so I sat. “How’s it going?” She rested her arms on top of the flimsy wall and looked down at me. “Do you like it here?”
“Yeah,” she whispered, brightly, and so I said,
“Yeah! It’s good! I’m happy!” Blowing any chance of becoming her confidante.
“Cool,” she said, leaning over. She could see my whole desk, which was, at that moment, a disaster of client satisfaction questionnaires. Denise did a half-smile—and I wished so desperately that my desk were as clear as hers, and that I’d said the truth because maybe that’s why she’d come; maybe she was fed up with this place and wanted to talk to someone else who had aspirations beyond ANP, except that was a stupid fantasy, of course. “Well,” she said, “I’m glad,” and walked back to her desk. Five minutes later she left, at 2:15, and I knew right then that she wasn’t coming back.
Four days after I slept in Emma George’s room, she asked me to come by again and we sat on her futon, sober, me reading Swann’s Way and explaining it to her, about how love doesn’t exist outside of you, how it’s only inside, and her reading Joseph Stiglitz, and telling me about insurance and equilibrium. She told me her parents had separated for eight years and now they’re together again, always cuddling on the couch, and I told her my parents didn’t touch at all anymore, and I asked if she thought love really exists (after Swann’s Way, you know) and if it can last and how long it can last, and she didn’t want to talk about that—I can’t believe I started talking about that—but then we cuddled a bit on her futon. She stretched her legs across my lap and we read that way for a while until she said Ok, I’ve gotta get some sleep, and I took that as my cue to leave.
An email popped up from my boss; did I know where Denise was, was she sick? I replied No, sorry, I didn’t know where she was, and went back to explaining things to Virginia in my head.
Winter break came, so I drove back to Winchester and Emma flew to Arkansas. I texted once and she didn’t reply. When we returned to campus she had to finish her economics thesis, and she never came by my desk anymore, even though I could hear her laughing sometimes up on the mezzanine—but really stressed too, you know, finishing her thesis, and also I had to finish my thesis, and then we graduated and she moved to China.
To China! (Virginia would love that part.)
Because she’d studied Chinese, too. And I don’t know how long she stayed there or what. She sent this one text, It was really nice getting to know you, stay in touch, so I wrote her an email. I don’t know, maybe it was too mushy because she never wrote back.
Oh, Virginia would say, so that’s all there is. She’s off and married to some financier in China or whatever.
Well, probably not. But yeah, that’s all.
The train home from work was jammed, and I felt like I might throw up from the smell of bodies. I took out my book and water bottle, and dropped my backpack to my feet. A stocky, blonde man standing over me tapped my book and asked what I was reading, and I spilled water all over his sneakers.
“The fuck,” he said. “I was trying to be friendly.” A few people around us chimed in. What was I doing with an open water bottle on a train? they asked. The man’s sweatshirt said IN IT TO WIN IT. People pressed against me from all sides, someone muttered “No respect,” over and over, so I shut my eyes and decided to bake another cake. Peanut butter and chocolate. I pushed through the crowd at my stop, then glanced back, but the sweatshirt man wasn’t looking. He’d already spread his feet over the space where I’d been.
As I walked, I counted off ingredients: flour, sugar, baking soda, in rhythm with my steps. Cocoa powder, eggs and butter, milk, vanilla, salt. I keyed into our building and went up the stairs, catching my reflection in the mirror at the top. Something had changed since the Holly of college. My face had lost its edges—it was squishy, like someone whizzing by on a train.
I tried to smile, which made it worse. I did look stupid; I could see why it upset my mother.
I made myself keep walking, re-counted my ingredients. I thought Virginia might be home, but as I put my phone on the counter, she texted that she was getting dinner with Matt. I put my mind firmly back on the cake.
I laid out most of the ingredients before clambering onto the counter to reach the sugar and flour from the top cabinet. I inched the flour jar towards me with the tips of my fingers, felt it tilt over the edge into my hands, and then fall right through them, shattering on the counter, a piece of glass pinging against the sink, white flour exploding out in a puff, then settling.
I reached back for the sugar jar, and then I let it fall, too. It smashed against the counter and coated the floor.
I crawled from the counter onto a chair, my feet making prints in the mounds of white. The kitchen looked like one of those mini Christmas villages, fake snow on every path and rooftop. It was that hollowed-out quiet, too, the whole scene hushed and shimmering.
As I stepped down from the chair, I felt a piece of glass slice into the ball of my foot, fuck, I shook it and drops of blood splattered and sank into the flour and sugar, turning it red and then pink. Ok, be practical. I wet a paper towel and sat down. When I pushed on the flesh at the cut’s edges, it opened cleanly, like the mouth of a cartoon character. Pulling out the shard, I could see the two white walls of skin narrowing down to a deep line of black. Grains of sugar had gotten inside. I tried to swipe them out with the paper towel, but I felt like I would throw up, so I let them be.
I pulled myself up and held my foot in the air to wrap paper towels around it, securing them with Band-Aids from under the sink. It was really bleeding now, a red stain blossoming on the makeshift bandage. I added a few more layers then gave up and limped into the living room, tracking flour and sugar and a bit of blood down the hallway. Virginia would come home and think I’d lost it. I’m ok, I’d call out, look, it’s like it snowed in here! It was the kind of thing Virginia might do, actually, covering the kitchen with flour just for the heck of it.
Jesus, she’d say, why didn’t you take up smoking instead of baking, but then we’d clean it up and maybe she’d stay while I made my cake, even try a slice out of sympathy.
I settled onto the couch and took out my book. I crossed the bandaged foot over my other knee, with the sole facing up to slow the bleeding. I imagined the cut opening again, filling with blood like a backyard swimming pool. The sugar would float to the top, then overflow and wash away. That’s why it bleeds, my mother told me when I was little—the blood gets the dirt out.
But this time the blood congealed too quickly, and the sugar stayed in. Months later, I’d find grains on my bed sheets and in my shoes. There would be a scar—not a clean line, but a scratchy pink groove. It would be nice, actually, knowing it was there, like I’d created an edge for myself to stand on.
I tried to stop thinking about my foot. It would be easier when Virginia got home. I closed my eyes and recited the alphabet backwards, Z-Y-X-W-V-U-T, but I got stuck at S, and it was still throbbing. Why was my mind like this: always doing the opposite of what I wanted? “Stop hurting,” I whispered, before giving in, letting out a little scream, and then opening my book again. I’d gotten to page ninety when I realized it was one o’clock and Virginia was probably staying over with Matt—and how stupid of me, here waiting.
Photograph by Jaceks Photos