I Am . . . Not Sure
My eyeliner runs. Around the fleshy arcs of my cheeks. Down the sides of my nose. It’s the car’s air conditioning not working. That’s what makes me sweat. I don’t always pay attention—as I dab my face with napkins—to the road. And people get mad. They honk. For me, everything is so hard . . . while driving to work in the summer.
I’m driving across the river. Into the little city which used to be a busy port. The river was a highway . . . back in the nineteenth century. Today it’s just an obstacle—each day—for me to cross. No one wants to live in—though they do live in—that city across the river.
I’ve seen them. During my lunch breaks. Some work in a deli behind a house on main street. The deli sells candy, soda, newspapers, and cold-cut sandwiches. I wonder whether the people who work there live in the house. I don’t ask them—I don’t know how to ask them. They might think I’m weird. Then I won’t be able to go there for lunch anymore.
The roads in the city have potholes. My coffee jumps. Over the rim. My napkins are already soaked. With sweaty eyeliner. I need four hands. There must be an easier way in life . . . to do something as easy as drive to work. But not in this sad city. I know it’s cheap rent and low taxes. Keeping the company here. But I can’t control that. So I shouldn’t ever care . . . to stay: remain in this sad city during each day of my shortening life. I shouldn’t stay. But I am . . . staying. “Shouldn’t” only exists in my mind. I don’t think I’ll ever . . . see it step out my brain and look me in the eye.
My eyeliner runs. And I try to catch it. But I get tangled up . . . in my cell phone charger. And my seat belt. And people keep honking. And my drive becomes more uncomfortable. Because I make things so complicated for myself . . . while driving to work. That’s why I can’t trust the “shouldn’t.” It’s in my head. What’s in my head isn’t good . . . for me.
I am . . . not sure . . . of much or anything. There are too many women . . . in my family. I could’ve used a brother since I am woman—or a girl—who does not know much for sure . . . about men.
When I go to the third floor, I have something—“work-related”—to do. Does he count how many times? I pass by. He doesn’t look up. A bad sign. But maybe just because he doesn’t know it’s me who likes . . . walking by. His emails to me are strictly work-related—actually work-related. A bad sign? I’m not sure. That’s why I keep trying by. . . walking past him. My feet don’t pay attention to bad signs. I guess it’s because they’re connected to my body and eventually my head. So my feet can’t be trusted like my head can’t be trusted.
I mention things to him—things I’ve discovered he likes—several times each week. “Did you see the race this weekend?” “What race, Joyce?” “The Nascar race.” “No, I was out hunting the whole weekend.” “Did you kill anything?” “No, I was up in a hunter’s platform drinking Wild Turkey the whole time.” “What were you hunting?” “Deer, squirrels, rabbits—anything that moves kind of.” “You ever shoot—by accident —someone’s cat or dog?” “No, why would I do that?” “If you—maybe—looked quick . . . you said you shoot anything that moves.’ ” “I never shoot unless I take a second look.” “Oh.” “Yes, firearms are not to be trifled with.” “. . . Oh . . .” “I have some work to do, Joyce. It’s been nice hearing about your weekend.” “Oh, me too—I have work to do too—nice hearing about your hunting and your Wild Turkey.”
All that jumbled dialogue. It all wasn’t so confusing . . . while we were talking. But afterwards, in my head, the questions and answers got all mixed up. “It’s been nice hearing about your weekend”—but I didn’t tell him about my weekend. Did that mean he wanted me to tell him . . . about my weekend? I “should” next time. There is the danger. For me, “should” could be just as bad as “shouldn’t” . . . if I let it break out of my brain and into the open.
At night, I search—sometimes—for where I missed—obliviously—men. I had a father—I always had had a father. The problem is I never thought of my father as a man. He was a presence. Now I see him—him as a man—even less than when I lived with him.
Boys then men—I’d met real ones—who would talk to me. They might want something from me—some information about a friend or sister or directions to a gas station—but nothing from me. Just a way to get from Point A to Point B. I am . . . Point C, way over—far, far, over—there. What happens after meeting one of them is something—a “should”—I slosh around inside my mouth preparing to release, only to—once I realize he’s listening—swallow. They don’t care because no one—especially with decent looks to spare—judges a book and ignores the cover.
In bed—if I’m still awake—after thinking about my father and boys—I think of my sisters. Two beautiful sisters. Too beautiful, too. I was too, they said. They said, of course. “Was” and not “are.” The difference between the words is everything. It’s my choice of words. But it’s their long distance phone calls blaring at me from their domestic-bliss homes, harmonizing with obliging husbands’ baritones, praising my “shapely” face, my “healthy” hips, my “pretty teeth,” and my “wonderful soul.” And I can’t trust my memories of them . . . telling me encouraging things anymore. Beauties are always doling out beauty—praises of beauty. “Praises of” is not “Beauty” . . . a word that does not apply to me.
Finally, I get to my mother. My sisters match her—grace, voice, charisma. All of which also do not apply to me. She definitely knew . . . that I deserved it too. But it’s not something to be deserved. It’s genes. It’s science. It’s supposed to happen. I can make it happen . . . so I dream . . . while lying awake in bed at night.
Back at work, I have nothing . . . but a plan. There is an action that I am taking—to make it happen. First: I’ll say hello . . . to him—or good morning—or good afternoon. Whatever is appropriate. Of course, I should make up . . . my mind and my face. That is why I wish, I so wish, I were . . . decisive and didn’t sweat so much.
Then one day—on a day I look in the mirror and am looking better than my worst —I’ll say: “Take me to drink Wild Turkey in a hunting platform and—if I throw up because I haven’t gotten drunk before—don’t laugh at me. Take me to your room where you hang the sheepskin hat you wear in winter, and the Mets jacket you wear in spring, and the dresser stand where you keep that mint-smelling deodorant and those comfy wool socks I’d like to pull up over my arms. And if you don’t keep it all in your bedroom, show me where you do, and wear something different for me, that you don’t at work, that I don’t get to see . . .”
. . . maybe: “What are you doing this weekend?” would be the best thing . . . to say to him . . . when I walk down to the third floor on another “important errand” for the Contracts Department.
His potential words to me are something terrifying. It’s because I don’t know about the future and what he’ll . . . say to me. If he says: “What are you doing this weekend,” I would say, “Nothing”—that is honest. I know—in this situation—honesty is my enemy. It would be different if I had many things—widely accepted and normal—to talk about.
But I can’t tell him . . . about everything I want to—my clown fish, my ant farm, my valium, my nightmares . . . the way I would sometimes spend whole days standing by the mailbox—alongside the road—on one hand waiting for a letter and on the other hand waiting for the mailman who was . . . someone to talk to. I can’t tell him about . . .
. . . me, looking in the full-length mirror, in the dark. I do it sometimes—look in the mirror—so I can see a human face in my apartment. It’s perfect—just seeing the suggestive curve around the shaded oval of my face—because I know someone is there but I don’t have to see . . . who it is. It’s the closest I get to someone . . . at night, because no one else is ever there. Alone each week . . . end. And. Monday. And. Tuesday. And. Wednesday—I “should” . . . answer all of his questions vaguely and halfway.
I follow the third floor’s gray carpet—it runs on a long ramp—wishing the corridor was longer no matter how much—day in and day out—I hated its grayness. Even the usual things—copiers, waste bins, personal desk effects—are absent in that passageway. The sound of my own footsteps—muffled by the carpet—abandons me. I stare out the rectangular window—that parallels the ramp—looking out onto the sewage plant and the train tracks. I try to tell myself that they are part of the world outside the office until I . . . can’t deny that they’re just defects on the window pane.
“Joyce, wait a sec.” “Hi, what can I do for you?” “First of all, I’d just like to ask you how you’re doing.” “Fiiine…what about you?” “Good. Going to the demolition derby this weekend. This guy I know is running a car.” “You’re…going to the demolition derby.” “Yeah. You got something to say about it?” “No—it sounds fun.” “What are you doing?” “This weekend?” “Yeah.” “I’m going to go . . . scuba diving.” “Scuba diving?” “Yeah.” “I didn’t know you were into that.” “Me either—I didn’t know you were into demolition derbies either.” “So anyway.” “So . . . anyway.” “Can you do me a favor?” “Sure.” “I told Milstead that I would mail out a screening form today and I forgot to fill it out. Mail already went out for the day. Do you think you could run it to the post office for me.” “Run it . . . to the post office. Sure. Yes. I can definitely . . . do that.” “Thank you. Here it is. I don’t have any stamps, but here’s a dollar.” “Thanks. You don’t need to give me . . . a dollar.” “Cool. Have it your way.” “I will. Thanks!”
I was very . . . useful to him. I was able to save him by committing . . . the end of my workday to making a post office run. It worked out—me delivering that screening form to the post office—because I was then able to make him happy . . . that evening . . . and maybe through the night.
[BIO]: Ned is a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. His fiction and academic articles can be found in Slice Magazine, Lacuna, the Foundling Review, Up the Beanstalk, and the Brooklyn Journal of International Law. He grew up in Kinderhook, NY.