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Sarah Rachel Egelman
She was born in Canada but did not really live there long enough to feel Canadian. As long as she was living in the northern part of the United States she felt only vaguely irritated by the fact. But later, when she moved farther south, she learned to pretty much keep it a secret. She was never sure why, just that she felt like the sneakiest of all foreigners; someone who looks and talks like everyone else. Someone whose loyalties might, when things got rough, lay elsewhere. She might be someone who denied all of this if the opportunity arose.
Her parents were neither too young nor too old when she was born. And, they seemed well equipped and well intentioned for child-rearing. The only problem was, really, that they never showed her how, explained to her how, things work. They never said, see that flower, if makes tiny little seeds, and if you put on in the ground, under the right conditions, a new flower will grow. Or, see this car? It needs gas and oil and upkeep to maintain it. This works like so… So, as an adult, many things surprised her and she always felt quite naïve.
The world was very big to her and not very inviting. She liked quiet; was used to her explanation-less existence. Her older brother, too, was shy of society. They didn't play together, run or invent games in the huge grassy yard. Instead they shared silence, under the trees, on the window sills. Each had a private agenda never quite apparent. Her parents were pleased with their well behaved, respectful children. They boasted and bragged, but other adults were put off by her and her brother. They seemed too sad and a little listless to be happy. But, they were happy.
Her teachers always liked her; she was quiet, well behaved. They thought her sullen, brooding but she was usually just lost in thought. She brought home just enough friends over the years to keep her parents happy and satisfied. Still, she preferred being alone. Outwardly she seemed normal—she did what was expected of her when it was expected. Her social rebellions were well planned. On the inside, though, she felt she was subversive, maybe even a little abnormal. Not in a way dangerous to anyone but herself. She often thought about running away because someplace else always seemed easier.
She moved away and lived anonymously in a much larger city than the one she grew up in. Her apartment was filled with books and soft furniture, quiet always. She worked in a coffee shop down the block. The work was easy and it left her mind free to wander and invent. She would sometimes meet a co-worker or neighbor for dinner or breakfast, or, even less often, a drink in the evening. But most nights found her curled up on her couch with a book or watching television. His friend came into the store first. Early in the morning.
His eyes were light, troubled. His smile, though, she thought, was wonderful; big and honest, no trace of the pain she originally thought she had seen in his face. She shook herself back to reality. She hated it when she let her thoughts carry her away like that. He was only a construction worker coming in for a cup of morning coffee…His smile didn't cease when he saw her and ordered. He asked her how she was doing, made small talk. She felt herself shrinking, wanting to hide. But she fought her instinct because she could tell he was nice.
Jack started coming in a few mornings a week. She was always happy to see him and despite herself got in the habit of watching the door for his form. If she wasn't busy he stayed as long as he could, asking her about herself, telling her about himself. Sometimes he sat drinking his coffee, thoughtfully reading the paper. She told him she got off of work at about two in the afternoon and one day he was there then. He had the day off, he said. Did she want to walk around the neighborhood? He was new to town.
Back in her apartment, later that night, she looked around as if to assess her life. Two small rooms was really all it was. Ratty couch, rattier ottoman, wobbly table with mismatched chairs, milk crates overflowing with books and some records. She had three paintings from a friend that hung above a sealed up fireplace. Candles and more books on the mantle. The only food items were some apples, some coffee, some gin and some bread. She needed to go shopping. She looked at herself in the mirror; she looked tired, a little anxious, but happy. Yes, she felt happy.
The next time he walked her home, it had been raining for four or five days straight. She had watched the color seep out of city, the energy drain out of the people. She took the bus to the store and from the misty window the world looked incredibly romantic and doomed. They walked slowly, not minding the rain too much. He said he was used to only sunshine. She said she was used to only snow. He came up to her apartment, only for a quick drink, he had to work early in the morning and so did she.
She felt she had divulged too much. She had not gotten drunk, blacked out or anything like that. The few drinks made her talkative is all. But the whole next day she kept remembering things she said, did and was embarrassed. Had she been too sincere? Insincere? She had been too silly and too serious and was deeply ashamed of nothing in particular but felt she should be and was uncomfortable the next day and really hoped she never saw him again. It was just too much for her right now. Yes, she liked him, but it felt too complicated.
He did come in for coffee the next morning. He looked so happy to see her and was dripping wet from the rain that still had not let up. He walked towards her and she felt that confusion rising again. Just a moment later another walked in behind him. He walked slowly and smirked at everyone and everything around him. It took her a second to realize they were together. Oh, Jack said, this is my friend, Nick. Nick flashed his dark eyes at her and asked if he could get a cup of drip coffee, black. She said yes.
Jack asked her if she wanted to go out for drinks that night. She wanted to. She didn't want to. She said yes because that is what she always said. Nick left before Jack, without saying a word, without leaving a tip. Jack lingered for a few minutes before leaving for work. He seemed suddenly shy, a date being a big step up from walking with her the mile or so to her house, or having a couple beers on her couch. She knew it was a date, but she tried not to think of it that way. He left.
She got to the bar before Jack did. And when he arrived he was with Nick. He gave her a look as if to say, what can I tell you, he just tagged along. She already had a gin and tonic in front of her but they brought her another one from the bar. So there they were, the three of them in a horseshoe shaped booth in the near dark. Jack talked on mindlessly. She realized it was Nick, not her, make him nervous. She bummed a cigarette from Nick. He gave her the one he was already smoking.
Sometime between the second and third round Jack became sullen and quiet. But Nick was animated, his eyes shining. He told her stories about the construction job they were on, the assholes they work with, the town he grew up in back east. She listened and nodded, laughed and asked questions because she already loved to her him talk. He was crude and his hands were so dry they were almost cracking open. He brought her another drink and asked her about where she was from. It seemed like he was listening, but his eyes were darting around the bar.
Jack came by the coffee shop less and less. But when he did show up, shy and unsure, he was always with Nick. She was happy to see them both, but for very different reasons. Jack she knew instinctively was tender and sincere. But he shrunk around Nick, was bullied by him and it disgusted her. Nick, on the other hand, made her feel anxious and a little scared. She knew if she started to fall for him she would get hurt. But, it really was too late. And then Jack called her and they talked late into the night.
She was still sweetly confused and mildly happy two days after her conversation with Jack when Nick showed up at the shop just as she was leaving. He guessed it was too late for coffee anyhow and did she want to go get a drink? The rain kept the crew from working that day and Jack had gone home feeling a little sick which left Nick, he said, with a whole afternoon, and night for that matter, alone. Like Jack he had moved to the city looking for work and didn't know many people. They went to a bar closeby.
She liked the darkness and smokiness not because you could hide in it, but because it revealed so much. People are comfortable talking in the dark. They share much without intending to; they feel they are so hidden. She knew this and enjoyed watching them open up and tell everything. It made her feel ordinary, less alone. And there she sat with Nick. Empty glasses on the table in front of them. He talked a lot but never said anything personal. He made her laugh and he said she needed to laugh more but was prettier when she was frowing.
She was not surprised an hour later when her and Nick were sitting on her couch drinking and smoking. It was just as dark as the bar had been. They were hardly talking, just listening to music: Billie Holiday then some John Coltrane. In the dim light she could see the muscles of his arms were tense even though his face looked calm. He stood up abruptly, said he had to go, he was sure he would see her around, with Jack maybe. Yeah, she said, I should get some sleep. But it hurt her physically to see him leave.
It didn't rain but the sky was dark and cloudy. She felt tense at work, her eyes on the door. But neither Jack nor Nick came in. She hurried home, curled up on the couch, crying or reading. She wasn't sure why she cried, frustration maybe, maybe fear. But after a few days she felt so silly that she decided to snap out of it. She answered the phone on the second ring and it was Jack. He made small talk but she knew where the conversation was headed. So, he said, you hung out with Nick the other night?
By the time Jack came over, he'd had at least two pints and she at least two glasses of wine. Again, she found herself on a couch with a man she was unsure about. They drank some more and both grew quiet. They leaned against each other in the near darkness and eventually he turned to her and kissed her softly. Did she know how much he liked her? She said she didn't. He wished she knew how hard it was for him to tell her. He wanted her to know he wasn't like Nick. She wondered what that meant.
As soon as Jack left, she knew she had made a mistake, maybe several. She poured herself a last glass of wine, turned off the lights and sat in the dark. The next day at work it already seemed like something in the distant past. She had a feeling Jack was too shy to come visit her for a while and she was glad. She hoped, however, that Nick would come to see her. She was beginning to see the two of them as part of a larger story. She didn't know their history only she was already complicating things.
The aisles of the farmers market were overflowing with good and beautiful things. She filled her basket with strawberries and oranges, ripe avocados and fresh spinach. She was in a wonderful mood and after she left the market she walked to the used book store and then to the liquor store to get a bottle of wine. She had met a friend for breakfast and hadn't seen or heard from either Jack or Nick in over a week. She took a deep breath, it seemed like she was finally able to relax. She hoped they had forgotten all about her.
They hadn't forgotten about her. Nick showed up late on a random Tuesday night with two bottles of wine and a pack of cigarettes. They drank and talked until the candles burned down. Neon light flooded into through her apartment windows and they looked at each other in profile and listened to the traffic below. Of course he pulled her to him on the couch and of course she did not resist. She did think of Jack, but only to think that Nick was the one she really wanted. Even at that moment she knew Nick didn't really want her…
He didn't spend the night. And after he left she realized that when he got home he would tell Jack where he had been, what they had done. She felt sad for Jack but on the other hand felt like she should be able to do what she wanted. And wasn't that what she had wanted? She called in sick to work the next day and drank coffee and watched TV. She called up a friend and the two of them went to a movie. She went home to her empty apartment and waited. Waited for the phone to ring.
Nick showed up drunk three more times in the next two weeks. She invited him in each time without hesitation. This is what I want, this is what I want, she told herself every time she opened the door to his unshaven face, his beer and cigarette mouth. He said nice things to her in the dark but always left quickly. She told herself that this was a perfect arrangement, few, if any strings attached. In those weeks she saw Jack once, walking by the coffee shop on the way to work. His head was down, his eyes were averted.
Nick stopped coming around, like she knew he would. Jack came back by her apartment a few days later. Can I talk to you for a minute, he asked. He said he knew what was happening with Nick, and not that he wanted to tell her how to live her life, but Nick was a drunk, an ass, with a history she wouldn't want to know about or even believe if she did. Jack, however, really liked her. He thought that they could really be friends or more or whatever she wanted. He wished she had never met with Nick.
He wished he had never met Nick at all. He had known him for about a year and they became roommates quickly. They were both anxious to move to the city and so got on with this construction company and moved there, sharing a small apartment. Jack knew he himself drank too much, wasn't really the smartest guy. But, he came to find Nick, well, scary. He couldn't explain it. Nick was interesting and fun to be around, but under the surface lurked a bully, or worse. And this wasn't the first time there had been a woman between them.
She listened to what Jack had to say and she tried to convince herself he was jealous. Of course, they should go out for a drink sometime. He left and they both felt they would never see each other again. That night Nick called. Did she want to go drinking? She was elated he called and when she opened the door and saw him standing there grinning with Jack sulking behind him she knew she had been wrong, all wrong. Jack had been right. Still, she grabbed her coat and out they went, Nick grabbing her tightly around her arm.
The night was worse than a disaster. She felt out of her body, wished it was true. She saw herself in the booth between them: Jack drinking to oblivion and Nick with his sloppy arm around her. This was a show for Jack she realized. She couldn't imagine why Jack would hang out with them tonight. But, she thought maybe this had all happened before. Maybe this was really between Jack and Nick and she was just the way Nick could assert his power. They walked her up to her apartment and Nick, laughing, slammed the door in Jack's face.
That night she dreamt she was on the bus, the windows were fogged over from the cold rain outside and the hot breath inside. She looked down at her hands, her palms were bloody, her own hair was wrapped around her fingers. She tried to scream, no sound came out, tried to move but was frozen to her seat. In the morning Nick was still there, looking through her cabinets for coffee. She pretended she was asleep until he left. He came back later that day, drunk and angry. He had fought with Jack, breaking his hand on Jack's face.
This was the last time she was going to ride bus in this city. Tomorrow she would already be gone. She realized that no one here would miss her, not really. After Nick she stopped seeing most of her friends. Pulled away from them as she watched their faces change when she told them the story. How awful it was, how Nick was so cruel to her and Jack both. How they each played a part: Nick anger, Jack fear and her sadness. How they each were so lonely and hurt . Now it was over. They were each gone.
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