Jocelyn’s burgandy manicure obscures the screen of her new iPhone – she has a hummingbird’s touch. She scans an incoming text, mascara’d eyelashes flickering. “Marlena is a treasure,” she says.
Marlena is an uber-blonde au pair of uncertain Eastern European extraction who apparently wrangled Jocelyn’s twins and the baby in and out of a Super Target for back to school shopping in thirty minutes flat – and still looked immaculate. The rusty remains of what I believe is a ketchup stain have crusted on the left knee of my “city-wear” yoga pants. I try to scratch it away without Jocelyn spotting it through the glass-topped café table. “She certainly is,” I agree.
She smiles. “I don’t have to hurry home. Have another cappuccino.”
Our gossamer-strand reconnection…
In the fifteen years since exchanging What a long, strange trip it’s been in our senior yearbooks, we’d hardly veered into each other’s paths. Facebook friends since 2006, I suppose; a few intermittent likes. And then: I was at Athleta requesting an application for the assistant manager job (the associate arched a microbladed eyebrow and snipped, “Go online”). Then: “Nancy? Is that you?”
Alas, it was.
“I was just looking for a little sundress – Jacob just told me we’re sailing the western Caribbean over the holidays. I’m hoping for something a little sporty and a little sexy.” That self-conscious comfortable-lady laugh – and the hand to the heart. Right. “How about you?”
The associate watched, a lioness eyeing a hapless gazelle whose misery she is in no particular hurry to end. I said, “Oh, I’m just looking for some new yoga pants.”
“They’re great, aren’t they? I got some here for my HIIT class –”
And then that conversation devolved into a standing every-other-Saturday coffee date, for which I am duly grateful. The weekends when Lily is with Michael – and Cosima, for God’s sake, her name is Cosima – are their own brand of horror, one that neither Stephen King nor Clive Barker nor even Poe could ever touch.
So I have something to look forward to.
But while Jocelyn and I have traded the splashier stories from our graduating class – Katie-and-her-three-baby-daddies and Aaron-and-his-cocaine-bust and, I admit grudgingly, Graham-and-his-soap-stardom – we haven’t delved much below the blue-mirror surface of our lives. Not my job at Old Navy (Athleta said no), not Michael and fucking Cosima, not the fact that each cappuccino costs $4.57 with tax and before tip, each one a thirty-minute walk to work (and home) instead of the bus.
“That sounds great, but I’ve got class.”
“Oh, right, your drawing course. I’d love to see some of your work sometime.”
I give her the same smile Lily used to give me at eight months, in the face of strained peas. “See you soon,” I say.
Resisting the sweet relief of the break-room soda machine on Wednesday and Friday means bus fare, and I snuggle against the burnt-orange plastic seat with a library paperback. Michael and I had just signed a new lease when he finally told me. He had the decency to leave, but now I and court-mandated child support are covering the rent for what was originally a three-person, actual-job-with-benefits-including-health-insurance household. I had been home with Lily for five years, had just been thinking about finding something part-time…in a lovely dreamy flower shop, the kind of place that exists solely in the space between my ears, or in a disappointing sequel to My Fair Lady.
I arrive at the university.
Not one student or professor has dared to besmirch the regimentally-cut grass by placing so much as a toe-print in it; not one desire path has been etched from the bus stop to Kensington Hall despite an obvious diagonal. So my path converges with Madison as she emerges, curls a-bounce like hydrogen ions in an atom smasher, steaming coffee in hand. I can almost smell the soy milk.
“We’re lucky you’re here,” she says. “Walter came in with the flu last week and projectile-vomited onto Emma’s sketch pad. She lost everything.”
Walter had inherited his father’s grocery, which was successfully besieged by Walmart in the early 2000s. He now lived with a cat named Mildred in a rent-controlled apartment 75 minutes by bus from Kensington Hall. (That name always fell oddly on my ear. It sounded like…I don’t know – James Bond’s mentor, perhaps, or a sub-prime villain from a B-movie.) I say, “I hope Walter’s feeling better.”
“Right, of course,” Madison says, briskly.
“I’m only here every other week.”
“Right. I forgot.”
Nearly everyone is there. Anders exhibits his muscular forearms to impressive effect, showing-but-not-deliberately-showing Ciara his opus du jour, willfully misremembering the discouraging turn of her claddagh ring. Sawyer and Vivienne speak in low monosyllables about his on-again-off-again relationship with Chase, unaware that their tragic pairing sounds unfortunately like the name of a rebranded bank. Sloane – how could there not be a Sloane? – is the only one I feel drawn to, because of the telltale scar on her knuckles. So violently thin that envy slices compassion’s delicate throat as I glance at her.
I wish I had gotten here earlier, dabbed my mouth at the Café Espoir and caught the 10:08 bus instead of the 10:23. Because now Professor Tate’s sere waspy voice will slice through the unironic, buzzing, ambient pretention in the room: “Whenever you’re ready.” And I, a latter-day White Rabbit, will acknowledge my bus-timetable and cappuccino-driven tardiness by slinking away to the washroom, and re-emerging, three minutes later, in my fluffy white robe.
I will step to the front of the classroom, and, with as little fanfare as possible, remove it.
When the cheek-pinching, towering grownups ask children what they want to be when they grow up, no bemused seven-year-old offers ‘life model’ as an answer.
And nor would I offer it now.
While at the height of my attractiveness (senior year, high school), I was not the subject of any of my classmates’ masturbatory fantasies, as confirmed in a three-hour, full-senior-class-scale Truth or Dare session post-prom. Still: I don’t harbor radical levels of hatred for my body, no more than the average cisgender white woman does. Already at the lower end of my Met Life-approved ‘ideal weight’ range, the Cosima cataclysm (plus walking to work) stripped another eleven-point-five pounds. Not even Michael, in our dewy engagement days, ever regarded me as conventionally beautiful – but nor do I inspire repugnance. In short: it’s not that.
It’s twenty dollars an hour for three hours every other Saturday, to keep the ennui, interspersed with hurricane-gale-force-reflections, off my face.
I cycle through every conversation I’ve with Lily, from three to now, about not letting people see or touch her bathing-suit areas.
Professor Tate: “A neutral expression, Ms. Travers.”
Would Professor Tate’s cockroach-skittering voice remain so steady if uncaring eyes were invading and overrunning his secret places?
The only thing that redeems the cloying insectine hell of his voice is the content.
In fleetingly optimistic moments, I had imagined his minions conjuring me in a scallop shell, adorning me with wings in a chapel ceiling, or placing me upon a horse for a never-to-be-forgotten ride to protest my husband’s cruelty (!)…
This seemed not to be the case.
To Anders: “3-D software is not a replacement for talent. Or at least practice.”
To Sloane: “Find your horizon. Find your eye-line. Or find a new class”
To Sawyer, gesturing toward me: “She’s not a manga wench.”
Some enterprising young hipster on the class will make that a meme.
To Ciara: “Please anchor her. She’s unmoored.”
To Vivienne: “You’ve made her look husky –” Glancing toward Chase, he continues, “You’ve made her look like a husk. Class, please remember: she’s a complex body in perspective.”
Afterward I shrug back into my robe, and pull on my baggy clothes in the beige-tiled bathroom stall. I should get a belt, if there’s anything left on the thirty-first.
Back at the apartment, I bypass the – now, solely, my – unmade double bed, snuggle against Lily’s door frame. The autumn sun infuses the bone-tinted walls with a hint of warmth – the nostalgic comfort of pumpkin spice, before Starbucks got it. And suddenly I am riffling through Lily’s plastic bins for the $1.99 colored pencils and the $2.64 sketch pad that, with tax, consumed the last of August.
And I – who never took an art class that wasn’t mandatory – find myself scribbling down image after image:
Me, discarding my Old Navy badge. Smirking.
Me, in a tidy cubicle, reading a report over the rim of my sapphire coffee cup.
A view of a new apartment – underized – bright – a cracked door revealing a lofted child’s bed with a desk beneath.
A car: a lightly used Saturn. The kind, incidentally, that Jocelyn drove in high school.
Lily’s and my silhouettes, hand-in-hand, nearing Macarthur Park.
I offer them up for Jocelyn’s inspection two weeks later.
“They’re good,” she murmurs, with a flush of real astonishment. “They’re…they almost…form a collection. Do you have a name for it?”
“Futures,” I say.
Linda McMullen has been previously published in Burningword, Typishly, Panoply, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, Allegory, Enzo Publications, The Write Launch, Palaver, and many others. She’s a wife, mother, and U.S. diplomat, currently in Arlington, VA, on a domestic rotation but most often found in Africa or Southeast Asia. She is a recent 36-hour prompt finalist for her story “Synergy”.
Notice: All statements of fact, analysis, or opinions are the author's own, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.