A Latex Ghost
The moment he saw the crinkled condom wrapper sitting in the trashcan in Julie's kitchen, Tommy knew he couldn’t possibly mention it to her. He'd put in too much effort fighting his way back into this cramped efficiency, coaxing her via phone and text into giving him another chance. There was simply no way he could flip this chessboard, not with checkmate so close.
“I’ve been a fan of Dr. Izawa’s work for some time,” Julie called from the bedroom, answering the question Tommy had asked her, just before the foil wrapper being had struck him silent. She wandered across the efficiency’s main room and stood in the doorway of the galley kitchen.
“His work on changes in hippocampal volume is especially exciting in light of… whatever and ever.” She shrugged, picking lint off the front of the navy blazer she’d thrown over a plain, white blouse. Her hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. “It gets kind of technical from there. Feeling confident, though. How do I look?”
Tommy glanced at her only briefly. “Sensible,” he said.
Julie took a deep breath and nodded. “Good. Sensible is good. You should see it with the shoes, though.” She disappeared from the doorway, and in seconds Tommy could hear her rummaging about in the closet again. “Keep ‘em coming. This really does help.”
Pushing aside the jagged image of a gold-foil wrapper with bold, black lettering, Tommy wracked his brain for another likely interview question. “What would you say is your biggest weakness?”
“God, I hate that one.” Tommy heard heels clicking across the hardwood floor. Julie appeared once more in the kitchen doorway, this time in two-inch black pumps. “How about now? Still sensible?”
“Oh yeah,” Tommy said, adjusting his knit beanie and shifting weight from one leg to the other. “Still sensible. And fashion-forward.”
“But not, like, sensible and witchy, right?”
Tommy frowned. “I don’t think that’s a thing. Answer the question.”
“Fine. My biggest weakness.” Julie opened the fridge, grabbed a bottle of beer from the top shelf, and twisted the cap off. Pivoting, she stepped on the pedal at the base of the trashcan. Her eyelids rose with the creaking lid, and she froze.
“Problem?” Tommy asked. He’d moved to the dusty coffee table table next to the futon, where he was setting out napkins and silverware for two.
“Nope.” Julie let the trashcan clatter shut and leaned against the kitchen counter. “What was the question?”
“Your one weakness.” Tommy had sat down on the futon, forcing himself into what he hoped was a posture of easy nonchalance – reclining, with fingers interlaced behind his head.
“Right.” Julie took a long pull on her beer. Her movements had become jerky, exaggerated. “I’d say, ah… I dunno. Maybe I move on too fast.”
Tommy eyed her carefully, but her gaze was on the middle distance. “Is that really a weakness? In a researcher, I mean.”
Julie set the beer on the counter and straightened up a bit, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well, maybe not. Maybe that’s how I need to be. If an experiment isn’t bearing fruit, I gotta move on to the next thing.”
Slowly, deliberately, Tommy nodded. “Of course.” He felt like he was trying to figure out which wire to cut. “Who could fault you for that, right?”
“Right.” Julie was holding his gaze now, her head cocked slightly to one side. Before either of them could say anything further, though, the egg timer atop the stove dinged. Tommy rose to his feet and slipped past Julie, grabbing a pair of oven mitts off a hook by the doorway. Opening the oven door with a blast of hot air, he pulled the casserole out and set it carefully on the stovetop.
Julie walked over and sat down on the futon, kicking the heels off and tucking her legs up underneath her. Tommy followed along a few moments later, carrying two steaming plates of beef and cheese and vegetables. He set both down on the coffee table, then sat down next to Julie.
“So what about you?” Julie asked.
Tommy looked over at her, one eyebrow raised. “What about me?”
“What’s your biggest weakness?”
“Huh.” Tommy put down his fork and leaned back, lips twisting with the effort of thought. “I guess I’d go with the same answer. I can be a little too quick to move on.”
Julie nodded slowly, and after a few agonizing moments, ventured a guess. “So… Pam.”
“Yeah.” Tommy let out the breath he hadn’t been conscious of holding. “And I’m gonna say… Carl?”
“Uh huh.” Julie ignored the steaming plate in front of her, instead grabbing a soft pack of menthol cigarettes. After shaking one out, she tossed the pack to Tommy, who caught it mid-air. “So are we just gonna be cool about this?”
He thought about it for a moment, and with all alternatives exhausted, decided on honesty. “I don’t know,” he said at last.
“Do you wanna leave?”
“Not just this moment.” Tommy lit his cigarette, inhaled, and pushed out a ragged cloud of bluish-grey smoke. “Do you want me to leave?”
“Not really.” They sat in silence for what felt like several minutes, smoking and thinking. For the first time that night, Tommy felt a strange absence of anxiety. It was the sort of comfortable silence he and Julie had never quite managed to experience in the past. Julie broke it with a chuckle, pointing at the plates in front of them.
“You know, I really hate this casserole,” she said, crossing one leg over the other.
Tommy frowned. “Seriously?”
“Absolutely,” she said, nodding vigorously as she stubbed her cigarette out in a carved glass ashtray. “It seriously tastes how I imagine dog food tastes. Full stop.”
Tommy stared at her, mouth agape. “I’ve made this for you, like, a dozen times.”
“Yeah,” she said with a slight cringe.
“And you always say you love it.”
“Yup.” She shrugged. “Lying through my teeth.”
Tommy stared at her for another moment, then shook his head. Reaching into the pockets of his slim black jeans, he pulled out his phone and scrolled through his contacts until he landed on pizza delivery. “Wow,” he breathed as he heard the other line begin to ring.
Julie straightened up, looking slightly alarmed. “I’m sorry. Too far?”
“Not at all,” he said, hand over the receiver. On the other end, somebody picked up and asked whether it would be pick-up or delivery. Despite himself, Tommy laughed. “Jesus Christ, Julie. We might actually be getting somewhere.”