Curiosity Killed The Cat, But Satisfaction Brought Him Back (More Jaded)

“Do you know what poisons cows?” He asked.

A plastic bag was rustling between the long limbs of an old, wrinkled tree stump. Two paper coffee cups tumbled down the street, their plastic lids clinking against the worn and grey gravel of a bubble gum strewn sidewalk in New York. Urban tumbleweeds sifting between cars, bodies, half-opened trash bags and brown dry grass never to see Spring again.

“What?” I said, not really listening. I was too focused on the fauna fouling around us.

A valley of ash without the eyes or pity of TJ Eckleburg, the machinations of New York City they never write about in the movies. Grime, industry and man conglomerated into one. The wind had picked up, the bags rustled louder, cups clinked faster, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a city.

“The cow.” He repeated calmly. “You know what poisons them?”

I shook my head and he nodded wisely to himself,  shifting slightly against his cane which made his thousand year old Puerto-Rican bones groan. A while passed and he said nothing, stood leaning against the earth with the patience of trees.

“What poisons cows,” I asked absently, and his mustache twitched like cat whiskers, as if the question startled him awake. He smacked his lips, a bad habit he’d retained after years of chewing tobacco.

“The cow.” He repeated, again  calmly. “Do you know what poisons them?”

“No, Mingo. What poisons the cows?”

We were leaning on concrete slabs just steep enough to take a seat in, meandering the morning in fifty cent cigarettes and a small bottle of Jameson tucked safely in a brown paper bag. Me, looking too deeply into everyday scenery, and Mingo’s lively little eyes glinting grey, gazing out to Third Avenue the way a farmer does his crop.

He had the patience only age can teach- the still, sturdy, wise air of witnessing and being a part of decay. Wise and old, or old enough to seem wise; I couldn’t tell. An old man can say just about whatever he wants and get an absolute veneration from me. Remnants of my inner Catholic I’ve yet to snuff out: respecting elders and thinking too highly of them, feeling overwhelmed by guilt if I didn’t. Or possibly I trusted experience more than anything, because the hardness of life is also a teacher. And from what I’ve seen, we don’t learn as much from happiness as we do from the scars of healing.

“Esperanza, is a plant. They eat it, and then,” He ran his index finger along his neck, a universal sign, clicking his teeth. The little calf was done.

I felt a stubborn, humid heat smoldering my skin. It was close to 10AM but the day didn’t seem to want to start. Sunlight lingered on the horizon and yawned across the fruit cart vendors temples, slouched between the children across the avenue who’d stopped jumping and found more interest staring at their own feet. Lazy, dingy rays dragged between the plastic lids nestling in the gutter, crawled along the sidewalk and halfway up the 99 Cent and bodega storefronts. Then, just near the top, seemed to wince and suddenly retreat, giving up on ever moving on with the day. The morning was a low, dull Monday: fat, bloated, and sitting on itself, waiting.

But for what?

“Why do they eat it,” I asked. “If it’s poison.” And Mingo shrugged.

Esperanza is a flower, bright and beautiful with yellow petals. And Esperanza is also hope, just as bright and ruinous. I couldn’t decide which he meant, what he was referring to: the toxins or definition. And as I wondered this, Mingo dug his shoes into the sidewalk and began to show his roots.

“I killed somebody once,” He said unexpectedly. “Coz’ of a woman.”

He was calm, not sad or entirely delighted. Not resentful, or proud, but with the air of a man that’s lived, and in living, was reflective of what he had done. I lack the grace to remain kind in cruel situations, but a hot heart for the coldest matters. Mingo had purposefully either confided in me as a friend, or turned the sanctuary of our corner into his personal confession booth. And in either scenario I couldn’t think of what to say, so chose to remain silent and sip the bottle of Jameson as if he’d just commented on the weather. I preferred to come off as indifferent than commit to either condoning or forgiving him, listened as a cars exhaust coughed awkwardly down the road.

“You got a girl?” He asked after a while.

Down the street, a gilded goddesses hips swayed toward us, and she reminded me of a girl I reminded myself to forget. Gray eyes with dark, somber lips; the kind of face easy to compliment and hard to miss-remember. I was staring and I didn’t care, and the longer I dared the sooner I realized that familiar was just wistful thinking. She didn’t look anything like her. Her face, the angles, the sighs were all wrong. She didn’t have the unhappiness riddled along the creases of her cheeks, she didn’t hold me like a gasp for air while crying at the sight of her hand or freckled forearm.

She passed us swiftly, her heels clicking behind her like a round of applause, and swooped around the corner. Mingo slapped his lips again, and the girl I had almost remembered was gone.

“Yeah,” I said to Mingo, and I heard the sound of his neck creaking a nod.

Strange, the debris our hearts seem to build even after years of street cleaning. Odd, how songs still sound the same but lose meaning once outgrown. The plastic bag still rustled between the limbs of an old and wrinkled tree, and a car horn’s scream got louder, but sounded just a little farther off. The wind died down, the cups sat silently in the gutter, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a human being.

“Never killed anybody for her though,” I added, and Mingo laughed, ominously.

“You might,” He said.

I clipped my cigarette and said goodbye.

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Two Is A Crowd, Episode II

No bouncer at the door and a newly drawn sign “Welcoming Lost Souls To Oblivion…and $9 Cocktails. For Madmen Only.” I made my way in.

“I told you we had a true one, Anna,” Said Sam, his gunmetal gray eyes the first I met as I walked in. Like he were waiting for it.

Anna, with her back half turned and a song see-sawing her her waist and shoulders, “He must have a sixth sense for a good time,” Said Anna.

Everything inside could have been crafted by their hands. Dim lights, swirvy armchairs, the smooth smell of leather and wood in the air. Hems of polka dot skirts bobbing along the sparse room singing and laughing with freshly decked men that had their ties loose and top buttons undone. All singing and laughing to the melody of congruence. Even the bartenders chiseled and serious chin lowered and smiled, like he was in on it. Whatever “it” was, or is.

“Lucky guess,” I said, taking my place in the only space between them. “Next time don’t brag, and give me an address I can Google.”

I smiled, or tried to, but Sam looked away. Displeased and annoyed, like he’d been given a poem for a place to meet up but nobody showed, I thought I was being casual, but when I turned to Anna even she had hid her face,

“How did you find us?” Anna asked. Boredly. A question with about as much significance as How-Was-Your-Weekend on Monday morning.

I sat between them and stared at my bubbling pint for the courage and words. They wouldn’t come, but, I wouldn’t drink until I found them either.

“I tried to think like you,” I said. Forcing myself. How difficult it was, knowing honesty was in a glass within my hand I couldn’t take. But there was a thing they wanted and a thing that needed to be said. A confession or rite of passage. A three legged beast and club I was on the verge to become a part of. But if I were drunk, well then, yes we would be friends but not really.

So I did it with the comfort of knowing what I was confessing was something hard to label in the aftermath that doesn’t come off as stupid. “A certain taste in the air, the way people on Bleeker moved when I was smoking. I got a scent, and I followed and…fuck. I don’t know! I tried to…I did, see thing, as you’d see them. Then I got feelings, hunches on which way to go.”

“And?”

“I went. Something told me you were here. Like a fucking voice or something, I don’t know. It wouldn’t tell me where to go but it would tell me where I shouldn’t. So I got here and, I don’t know.

By then I took a drink. “I just got the feeling that you would like this sort of place- out of the way, but still in the thick of it. Dark but light, quiet and loud.” I looked around unsure. “And it is nice, and you. This place is very you. But like I said, I got lucky.”

Sam and Anna laughed, together and alone, separately but cherused. They bought me a drink and kissed me with their smiles, as they had a tendency to.

Jingle Bell Blues (aka All I Want For Christmas Is You…To Shush)

A part of me likes to socialize for the sole purpose of disliking it. A self prophecy or flagellation, depending on the mood I’m in. Instead of rotting at home between four walls and the endless void of myself, I could grab my coat and finally answer someone I only left on read as a power move. Boys are cute and men make for better conversation, but in the end I like to think the games I play are less because I’m a bitch and more because I’m just window shopping.

Most guys still get angry at the fact, but then again I guess most guys never worked in retail.

“Can I buy you a drink?” He says, a little nervous but hiding it well.

“I hope so. This dress doesn’t come with a wallet.” I said, not disclosing the fifty dollars I have stashed in my bra because mama taught me well.

I like my loneliness throughout the year but then November starts turning the bend into Christmas- “cuddle weather” or “cuffing season,” depending on where you stand, culturally. Then all those days I spent alone bird watching in Central Park, or drinking enough wine to want to practice yoga poses at home, they start feeling less and less fulfilling when the holidays rolls around. Those wide, dead eyed Macy’s-Holiday-Sale ads glaring from the side of buses and subway platforms. A generic couple or family staring at you, actors actually, complete strangers that still manage to give you the impression like you’re missing out on something.

“This is nice,” I said. “How many other pretty girls have you brought here?”

It’s all bullshit, and I know I go right back to being bad all by my merry self once January comes around. But who doesn’t like a nice looking stud or vixen to grab you by the waist, pull you close and make you feel wanted once the ball drops on New Years? I sure as hell do.

“Its my first time here,” He said. But the way the bartender doesn’t even glance my way makes me believe otherwise.

“Let’s dance,” I said, fully aware that he doesn’t like to.

“Hell yeah,” He replied, smiling softly. In a way that almost makes me start to like him. “I’ve been practicing.”

So I’ll be gone til’ November and when December comes, I submit to carefully worded invitations laced with subtle flirts and sexually charged emoji’s. A couple drinks in Mulberry’s or High Bridge with another yuppie that thinks he either has me figured it out or has it all together. Throw the dust off my social withdrawal and take my place in a song, dance in the hysteria of a mob bouncing to a base and dissolving into a sea of other people. Move my hips in a rhythm that begins to feel instinctive, almost natural, and that despite myself feels good and on the fringes of having a good time. A place where words or thoughts or how stupid he looks in that ascot are no longer necessary.

“You have gotten better.” And he has. It’s the most honest thing I’d said to him the entire night.

“I was tired of you making me fun of me,” He said, trying to laugh.

Then I could bring him home, sleep sound and full of thoughts, and sentences, and sometimes bodies, other than my own. Happy, or at least, on the verge of some semblance of it. Him hopping through the hoops and traps I lay behind me. My conscience feeling awful for it every time he lands the fall. Then Christmas comes and he gets me something stupid and sweet like a yoga mat or blue rose, and then I wake up to hate myself for being so mean and a hypocrite.

“Then you definitely should not have worn that thing around your neck,” I said.

Or I could sit outside of it all as an observer and reinforce my prejudices, safe behind the looking glass of a bell jar. Convicted of my convictions and incapable of seeing the other side of the coin. Say Fuck-You to Macy’s the next time I see her, grow out my underarm hair and make an Instagram entirely dedicated to The Makings Of A Cat Lady and Drunk Yoga. Isolated and un-reproachable, impossible to hold the mildest of conversations with until he goes to the bathroom and comes back without the ascot because I can be that cruel. And as I’m emotionally ostracized and lie about having to work early because his eyes start looking a little angry, I can wander off home. Alone but a little glad- proud and the champion of my own misery.

“You’re kind of a bitch, you know that?” He said.

But I guess he never worked in retail.

My Baby Takes The Morning Train, When Uber Pool Is Too Expensive (aka I’d Quit Tomorrow If Sheena Asked Me To Stay)

It was early morning, around six thirty AM I think. That un-Godly hour when men in construction work boots march soul-less towards the MTA, and a handful of office workers with long commutes start their day before the sun will. When transit is slow and sluggish, quiet besides the scuffle of winter coats and urban foliage stirring awake. Early birds and no worms.

I slouched off of the 39 Bus hungover as the moon on the horizon, dragging my feet towards Nine To Five with my body in tow. Hungry, because I’d ate too late last night. Angry at another schedule I couldn’t skip, because rent’s a bitch and cheesesteaks don’t grow on trees. Calling out was out of the question, and I didn’t have any sick days left anyway. Between the bus fares, nephews, and bottles of rum lining my recycling bin, I needed the money. But not desperately. Enough to get me out of bed when I’d rather be somewhere else.

Not a unique feeling, I noticed, as I watched a couple stop on the corner. He was about my height, not much more handsome with a handful of grays around his cobble-colored hair. She was all legs, nick-knacks dangling from her wrists, ears, neck, jacket, boots, lips; everywhere. Hands just barely held, calm and comfortable as they lazily rushed towards their obligations as the rest of us. They hit the corner and slowed, spoke some four to five words or syllables I tried my hardest to listen in on (all I could make out was ‘Don’t—this weekend—‘) and kissed each other on the cheek goodbye.

She clicked on toward the subway, he stood and stared at her go for a while. I stood there watching while he was wrestling with something. An idea maybe, words or feelings he should have shown or let shed. Or maybe he was throwing in the towel on the rat race, would have rather run down the block and take her by the hand back down where they came from. Board up the windows and lock the door at home, let the rent and bills pile up, spend all day listening to quiet comfort of her soft breathing on his chest, and the nick-knacks dangling off the dressers and coffee tables.

Then a car honked, he looked at his cell, and marched towards the 9 bus to work instead. He needed the money too, I guess, or couldn’t manage to break the habit. I looked at the 9 bus, marched towards the liquor store I knew would be open in an hour, and called The Boss on my cell.

Because I couldn’t either.

I Give ‘Calling-In-Sick’ A Whole Other Meaning (aka If You Don’t Like What You Do, That’s Why They Pay You For It)

To: Margaret.Steeler@theacademyschool.gov
Cc: HR; Jack Stiller;
Bcc: YourMom; WhyHaventIQuitThisJob
Subject: RE: Security Staffing Issues Update

Good morning Margaret.

As per our discussion, I’ve reached out to the upper management of Secure Staffing Inc. I had a lengthy discussion with their senior manager Greg Philmoore, who voiced some concerns regarding our decision to relocate one security guard from our secondary school location. He divulged feelings that this was done out of spite, and referenced what I can only describe as a ‘vague friction’ between The Academy School and Secure Staffing Inc.

In addition, he said this was very much a bitch move, which went directly against an earlier conversation I was not a part of. In fact, I wasn’t a part of any of the conversations until now, as I stumble to pick up the pieces to a mess you’ve left behind to attend your daughters recital concert. While I smoked a cigarette and listened to Greg’s incessant whining our employee-client relation, a part of me kept wondering how the hell this was my problem. There was a circle tar of gum pasted onto the sidewalk, and for a moment I felt a terrible connection between myself and that black blotch on the floor. You see, that glued and trampled dot was once something pristine- sitting neatly in a wrapper, complete and minding it’s business on some shelf or deli counter in upper west side Manhattan. Perfectly made. Whole. Un-bothered by the world and all it’s problems. Just as I was, before this job.  I used to go to the gym on Wednesdays and call my friends to see how they were doing. Occasionally I would even have sex. And now I’m  melded into this 9 to 9 job, endlessly answering e-mails that keep popping up like weeds or your mistakes. Marooned in Microsoft Outlook, stranded in half assed meetings about meetings that amount to nothing. Sealed in necessity and welded to the sun.

I explained to Greg this was not the case, and that this decision was in no way done to go around his authority, but rather, was in collusion with our ideals of “School First.” Management came together to assess how we can best support our vision, and after careful deliberation, this was decided to be the best alternative.

Which is some cult shit, really. Why would I ever possibly put you strangers above myself? I’ve got a family, friends and growing nephews that need me, and I need them, much more than this false-family-narrative you’re trying to spin. Why does a job even have to be more than a paycheck? When did being good at a job not become enough? What kind of lunatic doesn’t work for his pay, but because he wants to be there? We aren’t artist, we’re talking deskjobs and dealing with other peoples gross children. It’s a brand of psychological slavery I can pretend to go along with, but laugh tragically over as I’m getting plastered in my condo Monday through Thursday. The stupid, arrogant naivety of it all. Trying to force a man to forsake himself  for the sake of establishing a “job culture.” You’re tools, all of you, trying to make a wrench out of me. But I’ve been sharpening my resume along with every fake smile.

In conclusion, I believe a best practice would be to be more honest as to why we’re here; understand that what we’re asking for is unreasonable. The Academy School and Secure Staffing are not places we should aspire to, just names and LLC’s trying to make us think we owe them something.  We should do our best to be better people, and a better person doesn’t succumb to cultural brainwashing. He or she should work hard because that’s what they’re paid to, and working hard doesn’t require the buy-in of pretending their job is a family. It only needs a decent pay, sincerity, and you handling your own damn problems so that I don’t have to.

Also, your daughters shit at the flute.

Always,

Noel Edwards
District Manager
The Academy Schools
8042 Netherland Boulevard
New York, NY 10033

PS – I quit.

Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her (aka A Broken Heart’s A Heavy Bar Tab)

Even when I’m not a vagrant there are days I get the taste of gin and cinders on my tongue again. Waking up skeletal, bare as bone, with nothing but a name. Veins poking from a sleeve, revealing what I’m made of, like wires from old headphones you get ashamed to pull out in public. Some days leave me feeling ends-less, frigid and grey as the clouds I’m blowing smoke circles at from the balcony of my house. The air feels wet, the grass shimmers just a little greener, and as I take a breath I’m thrown to somewhere that isn’t here. Smell, they say, is most directly linked to memory, so there must been a scent of the early 2000’s perspiring in the grass of Trump’s America.

I was nostalgic, I guess. Remiss of the past, the way a particular type of weather reminds you of that time in third grade when it was raining, the day you saw Samantha scrape her knee in the PS 143 playground. A gash so long you couldn’t tell where it began or ended. You can’t even remember what it looked like, just the sensation of black tar and plasma. And while some kids ran for the nurse she just sat there, no crying, not shedding a damn tear, staring into that cut the way adults look at sunsets or somebody they used love. Almost hopeful, like waiting long enough might make something jump out of all that velvet. Make it more than just colors and blood.

I think that’s when it started for us, really. Fifth grade, Ms. Turmiski’s class. She made an impact on me that day, and no matter where she sat I had my eyes on her ever since. Even if she was in another room. Feelings I denied vehemently until sexuality amplified too high to be tucked away in an Ew-Girls. Samantha had came back from Summer damn near 5’5, towered above the rest of us with her home-cut bobbed hair and thick black rimmed glasses (before that fad came in, you hacks.) The only girl in class who had a binder when all the rest of us were early-primming into drawstring Nike bags and spiral notebooks. Come junior high she started keeping a deck of cards on the sleeves, and I’d make it a point to always sit across from her on the other team when we played spade or casino. Took the usual route of juvenile affections, found it easier to make her an enemy than admit her face made me want to do things with her I didn’t understand yet. Bluffed through boyfriends like Troy, Elijah, and Anthony like a champ. Fake-It-Til-You-Can’t-Take-It was the name of the game, and I was good.

Kept it cool until that one long walk home Sophmore year, hit a slump I couldn’t manage to flash a smile and hump over. Told her what I always felt, even mentioned that thing about her knee in fifth grade, and she said “I always knew, dummy.” Kissed me on the corner of Taylor Avenue, deli lights flashing above our stupid little heads. A world on the verge of conquering us at sixteen, and a universe of intimacy opening the floodgates. Going at it like jackrabbits and a lot of arguments over silly things. I wanted to make the world laugh, and she wanted me to study and make something out of me. She had kisses made of phosphene, I still remember the way her lips against mine would make my head melt. The only girl I ever suffered the dilemma – kiss her, and feel that bliss of touch and sexuality, but miss out on all the lovely things she could have said.

“i want to see your face. send me a photo.”
Her text read at four in the morning, and so I did.
“no. a real one. something I can hold and write your name.
scribble the date and the way you make me feel on.”

Her love was comforting, the way a light from another room is when you’re trying to fall asleep but afraid of the dark. Or yourself. When I couldn’t bare to go down a street because it looked so lonely, she’d remind me what I was scared of wasn’t outside. But in. And I loved her terribly, but only in retrospect. Spent more time dreary eyed with the boys on Amsterdam when I should have been watching Samantha color code her study binders. A realization I wasn’t able to see or understand until long after it happened, and honestly, only because it was gone. Like suddenly missing a limb or finger, or admitting you were an asshole to somebody that didn’t deserve it. There’s a learning curve to gratitude and I was on the verge of overcoming the anchor line. Which is no excuse, I guess. Hindsight is 20-20 and not having regrets just means having things you haven’t thought of enough yet.

“So just like that, you’d leave New York,” I said. Unable to admit by ‘New York’ I meant me.

“It’s a scholarship. Why wouldn’t I?” She said.

And I think we could have made it work, past the slammed doors and distance. Rebuilding trust from where there was none over jokes I shouldn’t be making. Six month breaks that break easy over the holidays, and all the blood we’ve tried to draw from one another wiped clean with something as simple as an I-Miss-You text. Enough distance that makes us wonder what we were so angry about anyway, two weekends into Lets-Just-Be-Friends that ends the moment we notice its 5 am and the bar is closing. Goodbyes and lonely train rides home that turn the world into a stranger, that make us pull the breaks and reverse into each other. Is it still falling if its the fifth time in love? Why are we so surprised to be veering off the side of the road because Why-The-Fuck-Does-Everything-Have-To-Be-A-Joke-With-You? A phone call slammed, and I don’t call back, because I’m tired and her birthday is right around the corner. I’ll take six months off before I start rolling the boulder of our love up over and over again, like Sisyphus. Glossing over our past in grey, summer weather. Sitting there not shedding a damn tear, staring at the sunrise like somebody I used to love. Hopeful, like waiting long enough might make something jump out of all that rosy velvet. Make it more than just the colors and blood we shed to each other.

That kind of chemistry can become exhausting, so her walking out for good was a victory, really.

Even if it doesn’t feel like it.

 

To Rank The Effort Above The Prize May Be Called Love (aka You Don’t Always Get Brownie Points For Trying)

My mother used to always warn me about people and their gossip. Before she died I’d get so tired of her telling me not to trust people, waning from one story to the next on friends and family that committed horrible atrocities for the sake of their self interest. Worn and bent over a rocking chair, four red checkered playing cards in her hand as we played Casino. Those are my fondest memories of her, before she died. A time when she spilt her wisdom over diamond nines and clubbed jacks. Always hiding an ace around her bed gown for an extra point I never counted.

“They’re animals,” She would say. “Will eat you alive if you give let them. Before we had to fight for food, now we fight for work. They used to kill you with their hands, now they do it with words. Nothing but хуйло́.”

Something about Casino brought out the worst and best of her. I think the game reminded her of earlier times, and she talked so freely and removed from now that she wouldn’t mention my gambling or weed addictions. I made 18 points last hand, she was one spade short of 21. A long sigh leaked from her lips as her wrinkled hands took up the table to shuffle.

“But we have to love them anyway, I guess.” Words I nodded and said goodnight to, not knowing they were her last.

But they remained with me, and I thought of them constantly whenever work became something more than a job. In 2016 I was caught between the animals and a hard place thanks to the dangerous and heartless parfait of teachers in a charter school.

It was called The Faculties Wall. Nobody knew when or how it started, but it was maintained for years as a well kept secret and dishonored tradition. Located in the staff restroom of the fourth floor, securely tucked away from student eyes, hidden behind a loose and shoddy ceramic wall tile in the third stall. Fifth tile up from the toilet handle, perpendicular to the coat hanger of the stall- here you would find a list of names, impressively almost alphabetized,  of teachers and what others thought of them in an old wooden plank. Written in a thin black marker, kept scouts honor on the ceiling tile, with a precise and poignant naming convention. A name, an underline, and a series of adjectives would follow. A simple but effective way to wound somebody, to see the dark thoughts of the mob make a grocery list of all your faults.

“What’s it say for Karen?” I asked.

“Snob. Princess. Stank.” Matthew replied.

“Well it isn’t wrong, I guess.”

“Somebody needs to give that stick up her ass a little twist.” He said. “Then take it out. Then put it back in again. Then take it out. Then put-”

“Yours is probably pretty harmless,” I interrupted, because otherwise the loop would be endless. “Since everyone thinks you’re some prince.”

“I did get one Perv. A few Asshole’s. Two or three somethings about being cocky.”

“I’m so happy for you,” I replied dryly.

“Know what would make me happy? Putting it in Karen’s cooterrrrrrrrrrrr”

“You’re aware shes pregnant.”

“And are you aware that can’t happen twice at the same time.”

The Faculties Wall- an outlet for the adults to finally act as cruel as school children, anonymously and as deprived as chat rooms. But worse, somehow. Internet bullying can all seem the same. They’re just digitized letters. But a hand written Douchebag has something terribly intimate about it. The slant of the d, dashing of the i. it makes it much more personal than some 13 year old having a field day in the YouTube comments.

“You still haven’t checked yours huh?”

“I’m not interested.”

“Good for you man. Way to take the high road so the rest of us dont have to. Now I can keep using this as an excuse to just insult you. Like I personally would never have called you frumpy.”

“Shouldn’t you be working on whatever that is?” I asked, waving generally at the copier.

“Fucking finals week is killing me,” He said, reaching in his pocket for a portabalized bottle of aspirin. He popped one with a swig of mineral water, and added, “But not as much as Karen’s-….”

I didn’t care what anyone thought about me. I was more curious of what they thought of each other. Karen wasn’t all bad behind her resting bitch face. Her husband was this stubby and horrible looking Irish kid, so I knew she wasn’t as superficial as everyone thought. Matthews women mania was a well guarded secret. To everyone else he was just the funny man, and I knew all about his 4 episodes of depression and mild pill addiction. Jessie was the last of four, only one to go to college, the prodigal child. Wanting to make her family proud but side-lining her desires to go back to school and be a social worker.

I liked to know these things as a sort of social empathy.  Like how watching someone yawn almost makes you want to do it as well. The Faculties Wall was a passive interest, like boxing, or passing car accidents on the highway. But I couldn’t bare to look myself. To put on the gloves I knew full well that I wouldn’t be able resist and take whatever I saw scribbled too personally. And not knowing where it was from, I’d place a wall to my back and turn everyone into an enemy.

“And hey man, I know I usually joke about this stuff but this time its serious with the Tee Eff Dubbs.”

“I don’t care if my shirt is wrinkled.”

“It totally is, but this is not about that. Somebody signed their name on the The Faculties Wall. A major no no.”

“So?”

“It’s got us Tee Eff Dubbers talking. That’s some bold shit to do man.”

“Basically saying they don’t care who knows they feel that way. I get it.”

“Might bring us some heat. I can’t believe Jessie would do that.”

“…to who?” I asked, already knowing.

Matthew placed a cold hand on my shoulder.

“It is so much more worse than frumpy.”

——————————————————————————————————————-

The mind is a terrible muscle. Unreliable, prone to forget or exaggeration. It plays tricks and can’t be trusted to even decide if a dress is blue or not. For the weeks that followed, mine played a terrible game against itself. A Daredevil sort of hyper-awareness overcame my senses with every interaction I had with Jessie. I felt lingering eyes sometimes where there were none, as if other staff members were waiting for some eruption or subtle gesture. Some tell to discover the way Jessie truly felt about me under the nuance of office politeness.

That moment never came, I don’t think, but I began to treat Jessie the way the instinct of the healthy treat the sick – kindly, but over-protectively and from a distance. I went so far as to change our bi-weekly meeting to only once, and if possible, I would have had that interaction over dixie cups or a recording device. Before then, I had little to think or say about her. She was not outstanding or a terribly awful receptionist. She was just all right, bland in all the right places that make for terrible conversation and an excellent first line for the waves and waves of parents that came in on a daily.

Three weeks had past since Matthew shared the news, and I was on the verge of forgetting it altogether.

“I don’t know how you play nice with someone like that,” Shi said. Shilynn was a parent, my confidant and one of the few people who I sincerely enjoyed. Five minutes with Shi and you would learn her nickname is an antonym, as she was anything but. Loud, honest, playful and forward. Gorgeously stacked six feet high with hoop earrings and a smile that almost made me as manic as Matthew.

“Don’t tell me you know about the wall too,” I asked. And Shi only made a face with a sardonic and closed lip Mmm-Hmph.

“I haven’t seen it yet. But I’ve heard.” Shi shot me a quizzed look, shaking her head with that brilliant and toothy smile.

“That’s what I love about you Noel. Don’t give a shit about what other people have to say, all about your business. Keep that focus on Finals Week baby.”

The copy machine roared softly in the background, and from the distance I could see two teachers talking laxly in loud whispers. Was it about me? I couldn’t tell. They never looked my way but gave shamed nods and gestures that made me think it was. The way you close your eyes on a train and can swear someone is looking at you, but when you open them, there’s nobody there.

“But you need to check that girl. And don’t even stress,” She clicked, placing a warm hand against my cheek. “I think you look cute frumpy.”
————————————–
The mind is a terrible machine. Always functioning, always turning, even in sleep. I started to have awful dreams. An auditorium full of people I didn’t recognize. Their faces blurred by the spotlight as I stood by the curtain, watching their shapes shift and jiggle in Ooh’s and Aah’s as Jessie stood speaking angrily into the microphone on the stage. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew it was about me. Or did I merely think it? Dreams are funny that way. Even what you’re not sure of tends to be the gist of it. It’s all your imagination – there is no stage, no crowd, no curtain, no Jessie. It was only my own subconscious rebelling against my self esteem.

At one point, Jessie pointed, and a hundred dark shapes jerked to look at me. A sea of black silhouettes staring mercilessly without eyes. And when I thought to run or stand out for myself – the alarm clock jerked me to my bedroom. No stage, no crowd, no curtain or Jessie. Just a mattress and a cat whining for his feed.

That morning I moved purposefully straight to the fourth floor staff bathroom. Something in my expression must have gave me away, because passing Matthew up the staircase he only winced and muttered some nonsense along the lines of I-Knew-You’d-Break. I hung my satchel in the door, third stall. Stood on the slippery sheen of the porcelain toilet, nearly breaking my neck for the pen faithfully kept in the ceiling. I remember the way it felt so different from the others I’ve held. A bit old and watery from years of wear, but powerful. How many hands had gripped this instrument only to gripe their grievances onto a wooden board. How much history of hate was confined into a sharpie, made boringly in some factory by some machine and people with their own sighs and Faculties Wall.

I stared into the ceramic tile, fifth up from the toilet handle, perpendicular to the stall coat rack. I felt an odd touch of destiny that moment, as if I was taking my life and name back from the phantoms behind the wall. But there was a hesitance. I was afraid, I think, or maybe something more. Anger was what anchored me that entire car ride. It was all I could think about past every exit, speeding towards reaching this place I knew, deep down, I never wanted to be a part of. There was a sweat in my palm as I gripped the marker, and I consciously felt myself at a crossroad. Behind the tile, the curtain, was Matthew and Jessie, and even Shi. Two thoughtless movements and I’d be plunged behind the ugly truth behind How-Was-Your-Weekend, weak weather whatever’s and a void of restraint the social contract binds us to.

I took a deep breath.
——————————————————————–

They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, but I don’t think they’ve ever heard of abandonment.  Jessie was drowning, as far as I could tell because Finals Week is a killer. My third year of it caused some pre-planning I neglected to include her with. There aren’t enough hours in the day, so the trick is to come in an hour earlier when nobody is here and focus on those intricate but easy pieces that need to be done. Bubbling spreadsheets, preparing envelopes. Easy stuff that gets difficult once the rush of parents hits you.

“Goodnight Jessie,” I said on my way out. “Don’t let the rain catch you.”

“Thanks,” Jessie groaned behind a stack of paperwork. Hunched, tired eyes resisting the allure of her cell phone vibrating wildly on the counter.

I stood at the door for a second and thunder cracked. A storm was brewing outside, and a really brilliant one. I’ve always loved rainy and cloudy days. The sun bothers me being so obnoxious and glaring. Staring, demanding to be observed or enjoyed in some lackluster restaurant with outside awnings. Gloomy days fits everyone else in my default mood, and it added to the haggrid state I saw Jessie in. Defenseless, piled behind a desk job not feeding her interest. Welded to the sun without an ounce of strength to call and register for classes next semester.  Doomed to the high life of 9 to 5, no recourse except a wooden board on the third floor of the building.

“Do you want help?” I asked, flatly. Her tired eyes contorted to an emotion I couldn’t place, but she didn’t respond.

I placed my satchel on an empty chair and took a stack of papers. Made some joke about how this work was even bigger than Karen’s belly. Jessie laughed, or at least pretended to, and we twiddled through hours of end-of-day deliverables with nothing but placid politeness. The only highlight was a picture of her mom, decked glamorously in a bathrobe throwing a piece sign in a rocking chair. Cigarette pack on her bedside and a deck of cards half opened. A sweet looking old thing ancient as the highways and just as racist.

“She’s cute,” I said, politely. “You have her eyes.”

“She wants me to go back to school, but right now I just can’t because-” Jessie stopped, some subconscious halt to whatever was about spill a terrible honesty.

“You should go back to school,” I said. “Or you should stay here and work. You’re good at either, but nobody wants to be a receptionist forever. Eventually you’ll get tired of this place, because you’ll ask What-If? And that kind of hate festers. It turns you to an animal, and angry, and just…I don’t know. It’s terrible. You start to look at everything around you as a sort of resentment. Like it’s their fault you aren’t where you want to be. Matthew didn’t plan to be a music teacher, he wanted to be a rock star. He tried for years, and he landed here. Which is great, I guess, and is he happy? I think so. Maybe. But more than anything I think he tried his best, and even if this isn’t what he wanted, he’s okay with it, because he pursued his dream.”

Jessie stared into her phone screen, nodding absently. She rolled up her sleeveless blouse, taking the rest of my Finals Week stack into her own.

“Thanks, I’ll take care of the rest,” She said. The drip of rain was deafening outside. A long and soaking bus ride my reward.

I gathered my things and said goodnight, paused at the double doors, wanting and wishing to say more, but unable to make available what words to say.

“By the way,” Jessie chimed. “You shouldn’t wear blue, it makes you look frumpy.”

I nodded and laughed, a little too honestly, and walked wrinkled into the rain.