Authors: Courtney Moreno
It’s not too late to run away. The closer I get, the more I catalog her features. Olive skin, strong jaw, pursed lips, perfect ears, a small birthmark on her straining neck, and beautiful, moody green eyes that stare back at me. How long has she been looking at me? I’m standing here like a slack-jawed stalker. This is awkward.
“Hello,” I say.
She nods at me. “Hey.” She’s completely still, waiting. “Can I help you with something?” Her voice is pure sex. It’s low and husky and growling without even trying.
I manage, “What’s your name?”
She wipes her hands on her apron. “Ayla.”
“Ayla. Hi. I’m Piper. Can you tell me where the tea section is?”
She points to her left. “Middle of Aisle 7.”
My “thanks” is a whisper. I move past her, careful to hold my head high, careful not to sag into my breastbone. These days the people I’m surrounded by guzzle coffee, soda, energy drinks; even if I brought tea to station, no one would drink it. Ayla isn’t fooled. She can’t be. She must know I came here just to talk to her, she probably thinks I’m crazy, and she might even joke around with other employees later.
Did you see that weird girl?
By the time I reach Aisle 7, my entire body feels shamed and electric, angry and alive. It’s not my fault I’m awkward; it’s been years since I liked anybody. Smoothing down my frizzy hair and T-shirt, I try to remember how it felt to be in a racing swimsuit and goggles in Las Vegas right before we won a meet, or the time I climbed up movie-set scaffolding to watch a take from above, unnoticed by the cast and crew except for Christopher Lloyd, who winked. People are either attracted to me or they’re not. The ones who are tend to say things like, “There’s something about you.” Still, I don’t want to imagine what I look like right now.
I stare at the shelves, pretending to search for something. Maybe a powdered juice mix. Maybe an aromatic chai spice. I want to hear Ayla’s voice again and find out what she smells like and ask about her day and run my tongue down the side of her neck.
I try to think of it like a flow chart. If I get up the nerve to ask Ayla out, that will be a reward in and of itself, because it will mean I’ve reached some kind of turning point. Even if she says no, at least I will have an answer; if she says no, I can stop pining after a stranger. No one has ever actually died of embarrassment, and perhaps Ayla will be one of those people who realizes there
something about me, despite my frizzy hair and crumpled T-shirt.
I snatch a plastic-wrapped box of organic jasmine green tea with lemon and licorice root and walk back the way I came. Ayla gives me a sly sideways glance as I pass the bulk section. My stubborn chin lifts up; I’m suddenly filled with a sense of injustice. After making it five steps past her, I whirl around and march back. She shifts suddenly in a reflexive effort to get away from me.
“Look,” I hear myself say. “Look, I’m not good at this, and I know that, but I came here because, well, I thought you might be here. I know that probably sounds weird. I swear I’m not a stalker or anything—I won’t ever bother you again, I won’t even
here, if it feels like I’m bothering you. But I wanted to know if you want to get lunch. Sometime. On one of your breaks or something.”
Ayla relaxes and doesn’t lean back quite so much. She looks at my flushed face and raises her eyebrows. “Lunch?”
Her short dark hair is unkempt chaos, boasting accidental style rather than prim deliberation. Strands stick out in every direction, hang over her face, collect behind her ears, curl up sweetly at the nape of her neck. She’s
one of those people who can look out at the world through bangs and not seem to mind. At any given moment, with even the smallest shift from her or from the light, she appears now more masculine, now more feminine. The lower part of her face juts out, boxlike and fierce, but the grace of how she moves is obvious in the curve of her neck. There’s a toughness to her, sure, but there’s also a softness in her frame, and her eyes—flashing intelligence bordered by dark lashes, partially covered by her habit of hiding behind her hair—are easily the most stunning thing about her.
“Why not?” she says. “Piper, is it? Meet me here on Friday, Piper. Out back at one o’clock.” She leans over the cart; her tumbling hair can’t mask her grin.
After several days of not seeing my roommate, I sit with Marla at our kitchen table on Thursday night and watch her new love interest, Tom, cook us dinner. I try to see him as she does. Tom is an obvious introvert. His enormous build is an apologetic demand for attention. He smells faintly of clove cigarettes, and as he moves around our kitchen, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, he makes origami of his large frame in order to chop up ingredients. Green onions, celery, peppers. Blood-red beef strips for a stir-fry. Everything he touches gets mangled in his clumsy hands. I don’t get it.
“Tell me everything,” Marla says to me.
I start with work, and once I start talking I can’t stop. I describe patients’ homes and people’s faces, Ruth and Carl and their badge bunny bet. I can’t shake the image of that woman’s face and her little dog, but I’m not ready to tell anyone about Carl’s photograph yet. When I get to the story about the convulsing hypoglycemic, Marla’s eyes stretch wide in concern. “That poor guy,” she says. “You must have felt so bad for him.”
“There’s no time! Everything happens so fast. If I get overwhelmed there’s no way for me to do my job. That’s what’s so weird. Probably the best way to help someone is to treat an emergency like it’s the most normal thing in the world.” I think about Ruth and her efficiency, how she can seem cold, uncaring.
Once the food is ready, I force myself to stop talking about work. There’s an unnatural silence. What follows stories of life and death?
Marla asks about Nathan and it takes me a moment to remember who he is. I tell her I ended things, and that I finally had the courage to talk to the girl at Sustainable Living.
It’s as if she didn’t hear me. She nods and returns to her food.
The sound of metal scraping ceramic.
Sometimes the best way to show someone’s being an asshole is to ooze politeness. I turn to Tom. “So tell me—how did you and Marla meet?”
He looks up from his hunched-over seat. “We work together.”
“At Birchwood & Brown?” I’ve been there only once. A fifteen-story engineering geekdom located squarely downtown.
“I told you that.” Marla laughs, a little shrill, and smiles at Tom. “Piper’s so busy, she must have forgotten.”
Now she’s really starting to annoy me. It can be hard to keep track of her rebounds, and Tom is clearly not a keeper. In a couple months her affection will dry up—she’ll admit she’s not over Alexander, her ex, then swear she’s going to take a year off dating—only to do it all over again and break the next rebound boy’s heart. In the meantime, though, if she’s happy with Tom then I’m happy for her, and maybe she could do me the same favor. I pile green onion shrapnel on one side of my plate and avoid her eyes.
“Actually, I noticed Marla months ago,” Tom says. “One day we were on the elevator and started talking, and I rode up twelve extra flights, pretending I needed something from HR. But apparently I didn’t make much of an impression.”
“That’s not true!”
I suddenly remember Marla talking about “some ponytail guy” at work.
“How great,” I gush. “You mean you had a crush on her for months and then you were finally able to ask her out?”
“Exactly!” Tom says. “It wasn’t until I sent” —he lowers his voice—“well, I used our internal mail service to invite her to a Ben Harper show, because I remembered we’d talked about his music in the elevator. But she didn’t remember me, so I—”
Marla touches his arm. “He thought I’d report him for sexual harassment! But then I ran into him and he apologized. It was so cute.”
A spattering of small talk occurs as we eat. I try to remember who Ben Harper is. Marla refuses to make eye contact with me. Tom has a strange way of looking up at the ceiling after he takes a bite, as if the answer to how flavorful the food is will be written on the ceiling.
Marla’s ex, Alexander, wasn’t nearly as statuesque as Tom, but he was much more charismatic—we used to joke that he was sex on a stick—and he was a lot stronger than he looked. When he and Marla would fight, sometimes he’d pick her up, turn her upside down, and shake her a little. And she would scream at him to stop, she’d complain that he drove her absolutely crazy, but by the time she found her feet again, she would have forgotten how to be mad at him. During the three years they dated, whenever Alexander had anything to drink, the drinking would spin him toward old habits, habits he managed to hide from Marla for a long time, like borrowing money, calling up old contacts, finding pills to pop, and, eventually, and more noticeably, heroin to smoke. Marla never talks about how much she misses him, but I know she does.
When Tom gathers our streaked plates I thank him for dinner. As soon as he heads outside to smoke, the screen door whining to a close behind him, Marla wants to talk about Nathan again. She says I’ve been in hiding
for two years and that I should have given him a chance. Her voice sounds pleading. “All I’m saying is you need to let yourself have some fun. Break the cycle by going on more than a few dates.”
When Marla and I were in college we had a conversation that I still think of as the moment when something shifted, the beginning of our transition from being acquaintances to close friends. Bisexuals are treated like unicorns: tell someone you’re bi, get treated like you don’t exist. But when I told Marla, her acceptance came easily. The world is lonely enough without following useless rules, she said.
Right now the last thing I want to talk about is Ayla—all my euphoria feels flattened—but I force myself.
“If all you want is to see me back out there,” I say, “then you should be happy for me. When have you known me to ask someone out? This is big.”
She looks worried. “No, it’s great, and I’m happy for you—”
She doesn’t answer. She goes to the sink to do the dishes, filling one side with hot water, squirting in a liberal amount of soap. At first I help her, stacking dirty pots and pans on the counter, but after a few moments the silence gets to me. I turn the faucet off and square her shoulders to mine.
“It’s really nothing,” she says, finally. “It’s just, one day I was at Sustainable Living and I saw—what’s her name?”
“Ayla. Okay. She just strikes me as volatile, I guess. That day I was there it seemed like something was really wrong with her. Her face was red, her hands were all balled up, and it looked like she was going to punch something. I didn’t like it.”
“When was this?”
“Maybe two or three weeks ago.”
“Was she arguing with someone?”
“I don’t know, I only saw her for a minute. It didn’t look like she was with anyone. She just looked really upset.”
“What had just happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what’d she do then?”
“For the love of god, Piper,
I don’t know
. I just noticed her, it made me feel kind of scared, I guess, so I walked the other way.”
I sit back down at the kitchen table and carefully link my fingers in front of me, the way I imagine a diplomat would. “You seem upset.”
Marla leans heavily against the counter’s edge. “You’re impossible.”
“No, it’s true, you look upset. Maybe even mad? I’m not sure.”
She flattens a cloud of suds sitting on top of the water. “Why do you like her so much?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“It would really kill me to see you… how you were before. That was so hard to watch. I want you to date someone
. You know? A good person.”
I don’t know what to say back to her. That I just know, somehow, that Ayla won’t hurt me? That I won’t let anyone do that to me again? By the time Tom comes back inside, Marla and I are silent. She plays with her bracelet. I use the condensation rings from the bottom of my water glass to create the symbol for the Olympics on our beat-up table. Tom stands in the middle of our kitchen, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, pretending to take an interest in our refrigerator magnets. Blending in with the appliances. It’s heartbreaking in a way. Marla wants me to go with Nathan because he’s good and kind and safe, but look where that’s gotten her.
She goes to Tom, stretching up on her tiptoes like a seal angling for bait, and he bends his bulk toward her upturned lips. Then he looks at me, his expression friendly, playful. “You know what you guys look like right now?” he says. “Houdini, after he got sucker punched. Every hear that story?
Greatest escape artist in the world, and he died because someone socked him in the gut before he had the chance to flex his stomach muscles.”
It’s Friday morning. I have a date in two hours. Maybe I’m supposed to be excited, but instead I keep thinking about my conversation with Marla. Restless and irritable, annoyed that no one is around to witness my restless irritability, I decide to take a long shower.
After I step into the tile cell and slide the frosted door shut, I turn the water full blast and stand there, teeth and eyes clenched, arms crossed over my nipples, while I wait for it to heat up.