A Woman Named June

June never liked to be in anyone’s face. She was the type who would be in the room so quiet you didn’t even notice her. Her therapist liked to talk about this tendency for “passivity. A kind of introversion that lets you fade into the background. Your relationship with Matthew shows me this desire to, you know, not be any bother. You don’t want to be trouble to anyone so you take it all on yourself.” It’s very comforting to hear her life explained to her like this. June sits in her therapist’s office and nods. She doesn’t want to disagree, and she wouldn’t know what to say if she did.

When she walked up High Street last week she ran into Matthew. She can’t stop thinking about it. He was surprised to see her, hey June I haven’t seen you in ages how are you doing I hope everything’s going well. Matthew always did manage to talk a lot without communicating much of anything. She said she was doing fine, thanks, and asked how he was. He rattled on for a while, and she nodded. He said it was great to see her, and she nodded. He hugged her goodbye and she froze, stiff and unresponsive and too startled to bring her arms up around him until he was already pulling away. That’s how it had always been with them anyway.

When she told her therapist about this encounter, her therapist’s mouth twisted and her eyes gleamed with speculation. June could just feel the analysis waiting to rush out. She didn’t hear any of it, though. She heard her therapist’s voice tumbling over her and caught the odd word–aggression–anonymous–relationship–depression. June’s mind was roaming, though, and she nodded and nodded without taking in any of the explanation of her life.

When she left her therapist’s office, she sat in her car in the parking lot. She put the key in the ignition but she didn’t start the car. The expectant light on her dashboard faded, disappointed. June folded her hands in her lap and stared ahead. She didn’t know how long it had been (five minutes? thirty?) when she was jerked from the reverie by a tapping. Matthew was outside her window, smiling his well-isn’t-this-funny smile. She rolled down the window and he burst into speech. Hey June so funny to see you again twice in a week after a whole year seems strange doesn’t it what are you doing here? She looked up at his eager face, the sweat shining on his forehead and his abashed smile. June said, “I feel like a robot.”

“Yeah,” said Matthew. “I know what you mean.”

June nodded, then she got in her car and drove away.

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Falling

Her heart was pounding the beat of a song she couldn’t hear, and so she couldn’t fall asleep. She lay awake instead and listened to it thump against her chest, the soft sure sound that kept her awake. Across the room, her computer blinked at her with a slow glowing and dimming, the light strengthening and dying again. It didn’t match her heartbeat and the dissonance bothered her, in a vague distant way. She couldn’t hear anything but her heartbeat echoing through her body. The rest was silence.

There was a very large rabbit and she was outside. Oh, she thought, I’m dreaming now. Maybe I should climb on the rabbit. When she approached it, trying to touch its fur, it gave a startled whinny and hopped away, bounding toward the sky before it fell again to the earth with a deafening crash. She shook with the force of its fall, and then it was off again. She ran after it, feeble, wishing her legs could carry her farther and push her off the ground like that. When the rabbit landed again, it turned to her and blared.

She woke to the sound of the car horns, pulled from her half-sleeping by the sudden noise. The horn whined through the air and then stopped. The silence grew again, except for her heart. Now it was thundering in her ribs, beating a frightened tattoo. Her bones were jangling, like the bundle of knives she dropped trying to empty the dishwasher. Her skeleton jittered in the same way and the vibrations buzzed against her bones for a long time before the shivers faded again into sleep.

Exit Only

I’m driving with Sarah when my dad calls, and my phone lights up. The road is just shifting into darkness now, my headlights spreading timid light on the pavement of the highway. The brightness of the screen is distracting, a tiny beacon pulling my gaze from the road ahead. Sarah taps the screen before I can stop her, and picks up the phone. I shoot her a look and turn my eyes back to the road. She covers the phone with one hand, and whispers, “You need to tell him we’re moving. Hurry up then.” Then she clicks on speakerphone and lays the phone down, where my father’s voice spills into the air between us.

He starts talking almost at once, telling me that he wishes he’d called me back sooner and he meant to tell me they’d thought it would be nice to have us over for dinner and they could really try to give Sarah another chance, as long as I wasn’t too silly about anything.

“Dad.” I can hear my own voice crackle on the line, little bits of static darting in like sparks.

“-you know how your mother is, of course we’ll get back to you on that. Nice to talk to you, Sam.” He’s still rushing over me, words clattering. Sarah moves the phone to slip into the cup holder and my dad’s voice is suddenly floating in the air by my ear, the sound thin and strained now.

“Dad,” I say louder. “Listen!”

He stops, and I stumble in the sudden silence. “I wanted to talk to you. I mean talk, can I talk for a minute?”

I can hear his sigh puff against the phone. He’s nodding, I bet. “Sure, sweetie, go ahead.”

“Um, okay,” I say, the words stark and loud now. The quiet stretches and stays. He sighs again.

How do I form the words? When he heard I had a new girlfriend he didn’t call me back for a week. He avoided asking where I lived or what I did. He pretended she didn’t exist, and now he wanted to have us over for dinner. Maybe, I thought, he would be okay with this. Maybe he would be okay with this if I weren’t about to move across the country with my girlfriend, hours away with a new job, a new house, and a new family.

I’m distracted now. I suck in a breath and let it slide out between my teeth, turning my attention back to the road amongst the gray shapes of the cars and the shadows enveloping everything. The lines between us and the rest of the highway are lengthening, coming together to block us off, and there’s a sign we’re about to pass – EXIT ONLY, it says, Exit 21 to Scarsdale. I don’t want to go that way. I signal and move into the next lane, fitting neatly between a clunky old car and a sleek little sedan.

My dad is still waiting on the phone, the silence stretching long and flat. “I don’t know, Dad,” I say. “I guess I forgot, we’ll talk later though. Sarah and I would love to come over for dinner. Can I call you back once I get home, since I’m in the car?”

“Sure,” he says, “talk to you in a little while then.” The phone beeps and goes quiet, and I can feel Sarah’s stare on me. I snatch a glance and she’s frowning. She doesn’t even need to ask. I know she thinks something’s wrong, because I didn’t tell him we were leaving.

“Oh,” I tell her. “It’s fine. I’ll tell him later.”

The Perils of Everyday

When the cars speed past, their rumble grows and swallows Meg whole, only to let go as they pass and leave. The noise relaxes and she tumbles out of it, swaying slightly as they round the bend. Her hand is wrapped around the metal pole, the thin edge of it pressing a line into her skin. The old man in the rain hat next to her is peering into her face sideways, and she pulls on a smile for him, faintly and without much conviction. He grins at her under his bushy mustache.

The bus appears at the edge of the road, barreling down the hill with a roar. When it shivers to a halt before them, smelling of oil and metal, she starts and digs in her bag for coins. The bus doors are starting to close when she scrambles onto the steps and clinks the coins down. There is only one seat empty, so Meg plants herself there and hugs her purse to her chest.

“Hi there,” says the lady sitting at the window. “Are you a follower of Christ our Lord?”

Meg tries to put on a polite smile, and shakes her head just enough to see.

“No?” The woman’s eyes widen, wrinkles creasing her forehead. “Why you devil, then! Go take your red skin and your tail down under, into the sewers, flames and all.”

 

Inside of Bus

Photo credit: Carolyn Coles

The words worm into her ears and she flinches, hunched and small in the bus seat. She looks straight down at the ridges of the floor, keeping her face averted. Her heart is pounding painfully in her chest. The woman leans closer.

“You think you can escape, oh no. You’ll be burning with the rest of them, oh you evil thing you. Nobody loves a sinner, you know.” The woman’s voice is grating, high and unwieldy. The bus lurches to a stop, and Meg gets up. She has to sidle around the crazy lady, ducking past her and letting her steps propel her onto the sidewalk and then a few paces more. When she peeps up, nobody has followed her. She begins to walk, sucking in a deep breath. The supermarket is at the next stop, but it’s only a couple of blocks. Meg slings her purse over her shoulder and scuttles around the homeless man draped over the curb, his cardboard sign tilting dangerously in the wind.

When she gets to the story, she swings a basket out of the stack and surprises herself with the motion. The first few feet inside the door are piled with pots of flowers, and she walks through the yellow-and-pink sweet-scented flurry – two for ten! – and then dives into the produce aisle. There the bushy handfuls of parsley and the streak of red in the rubber-banded chard calm her. This is familiar, gently dripping water, and perfectly ordinary.

After a moment judging weight and bruised spots, she reaches for a plastic bag. The quick movement of another person makes her cringe, but when she looks up it is the old man from the bus stop, with his rain hat and mustache. He looks just as startled by her for a moment, but then his face relaxes with recognition.

“Oh!” he says. “You again, hello!”

She feels so grateful to him that she smiles, her eyes vague, and can’t think of any words. He gives her a rather worried smile back and hurries away, leaving her lost, unsteady, clutching a bell pepper and staring after a stranger.

 

Submission

“Are you done yet? I’m so excited to see it.”

“Yeah, it’s over in my room but I can go grab it if you want.”

“Please do, I want to know what you came up with in the end. I love reading your work, it’s inspiring.”

“Aw, thanks.”

No, Caitlin thought, Sara was never likely to be that direct or anything. That’s even a bit sentimental. People don’t say things like “inspiring” over stuff like articles for something as trivial as the school paper. Especially the editor, even if they were sort of friends.

“I’ve got a story to turn in, where should I leave it?”

“Oh, give it to me. I want to read it.”

“Okay, I guess I’ll go?”

“No, no, you should stay. I read fast, I’ll be done in a second.”

“Okay.”

Sara would sit there for a minute, flip a page, and then look up. “Wow.”

“Um, in a good way?”

“Really good. This is really good. Great. Is it okay if we publish it in next week’s edition?”

“Okay? That’d be wonderful. Thank you so much!”

“No, thank you. I love having something this powerful on the front page.”

No, definitely not like that. That was silly. She knew Sara wouldn’t be that effusive. Even if it were wonderful, Sara would probably say so in a more reserved manner.

Maybe she would say, “This is decent work. We’ll get back to you about when we’re publishing it, okay?”

Caitlin would blush at that, probably. “Sure. Thank you.”

It would be a short conversation, to the point. Or maybe they’d talk more about the practicalities of it.

“Hey, so here’s my piece, I’m supposed to submit it here, right?”

“Oh hi Caitlin, yes. Let me check over it, while you’re here.”

“Alright.”

“Go on, sit, I’m almost done and then we can talk about it. I only really need to skim, you know, practice and all that.”

“Right.”

“Okay, so this is good – I mean, you know, typos, things like that. But on the whole I think it’s a strong piece, and we can put it in next week’s with a bit of tweaking. In the third paragraph here, when you talk about the public’s reaction, I think maybe you need to make it more specific. Listen – ”

Sara might not want to talk about it though. She might just say something like, “Okay, I can see a couple things we should fiddle with. Do you want to meet up, have a coffee or something, on Friday to talk about it?”

That would make more sense. That way Sara could glance it over without having to spend too much time on it. Then they would meet to figure out the little things, maybe have a conversation about some other stuff after they’d ironed out the kinks.

Caitlin hugged the slim packet of paper to her chest, and took a breath. There was a jumbled hum of voices creeping from under the door, and when she pushed it open the buzz of talk grew and surrounded her. Sara was in the corner, reading something and biting her lip. There was a maze between desks and chairs to get to her, and Caitlin maneuvered it with her eyes fixed on the carpet. Her heart thudded with every step – stop it, she told herself. It’s just one article, just one school paper.

“Hey, um, Sara?”

Sara glanced over, her eyebrows pulled down and her mouth pressed flat. “Oh. Uh, Katie, right?”

“Caitlin.”

“Right, right, sorry. What’s up?” She was looking over Caitlin’s shoulder, eyes unfocused.

“I have an article. To submit. I’m supposed to give it to you, right?”

“Sure, can you just leave there?” Sara waved a hand at the pile on the corner of her desk, papers splaying out of a basket. Caitlin placed the packet there and nudged some of the corners straight.

Sara seemed to look up and remember she was there. “Yes, what is it?”

Caitlin flushed. “About submitting, though, I mean articles. What – ”

“Yeah, sorry. Lots of work, you know how it is. Okay, so you should get an email in – ” she turned and squinted at the calendar taped to the wall. It was crowded with hasty scribbles. “In less than two weeks, probably. If it’s in you’ll get an edited version to look over, and if not, well, I guess not.”

“Oh,” said Caitlin. “Is that it?”

“Well, yeah,” said Sara. Her voice had a note of annoyance in it now. “We’ll let you know. I mean, I guess we have a ton of submissions right now, like fifty for about twelve spaces, so don’t expect too much, okay? Even some of the good stuff we get doesn’t get printed.”

Caitlin stood for a moment. Then she nodded and turned to navigate again through the labyrinth of the newspaper office. Sara called after her and she spun, a smile breaking across her face without her willing it there. Sara was holding up the papers, and said, “What’s your last name? You don’t have your name on this. Katie what?”

“Caitlin Holmes, H O L M E S.”

Sara nodded and wrote, and then looked up to wave before settling back in her chair and turning to her computer again. The office was murmuring with conversation just as it had been as Caitlin ducked out the door and started the long walk home.

Because of “A Telephone Call”

There’s no reason for it. I just wanted to. I mean, I couldn’t ever have tried before, and why not? After all, it’s not hurting anyone. Did you think I was? Of course I wasn’t. Just because you think you have to be so careful with everything you do, it’s not a reason for me to be afraid of stepping on someone’s toes every time I move. I’m fine, clearly, and they’re all fine. Completely, totally fine. Doing well even. I doubt anyone even remembers me anyway. I’m not so huge an event, I mean it wasn’t exactly an occasion to remember. Well, what I mean is, it’s barely worth mentioning anyway. I don’t know why you’re even talking about it.

Anyway, I think it’s really perfectly silly that anyone would bother getting upset. It’s certainly not worth it for any reason, is it, we might as well go on and think of other things. There are a lot of wonderful things, and everyone’s attempting to do wonderful things, are they not? There, you see, I’m attempting to do something wonderful. I thought it would be wonderful, there wasn’t any reason to believe anything else. Well, wonderful for me certainly, but you know it might have been wonderful for fairly everyone. That is, even if it wasn’t perfectly wonderful, it’s not all bad, it’s never all bad. You oughtn’t be such a pessimist. It’s not such a thing to bother over, after all. It’s merely a trifle, something to forget. It’s nothing important, nothing about which you need inquire. You needn’t know why it happened, or what for. Those things simply aren’t important, as it did happen, has happened, and anyway it’s all right now, isn’t it? Of course it is, clearly it is. You’re not doing any good by asking what for and why, and how did it happen, and how could this happen. There’s no reason for it.