Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018

Hanky-Panky

Last spring, a new Chipotle opened two blocks from my apartment. In a neighborhood full of vendors that sold costume jewelry and plastic beads, asparagus ferns and Gatorade by the case, it was a welcome addition. I was one of the first customers to have lunch there, and within days I’d come to recognize most of the employees—the woman with the gold tooth who called me mi amor, the hipster with the cupcake tattooed on his neck, the blond girl with the raspy voice who looked like she’d grown up selling more than just Girl Scout Cookies. I’d recently been fired from my job and I had time on my hands. Also, I like Mexican food. It’s cheap and filling and for me that’s enough.

Whereas at another point in my life I might have eaten quickly and left, I now took my time. I’d take a bite, look at the people in line, peruse a few paragraphs of whatever reading material I’d brought along, ask for more hot sauce. Lunch could take an hour, maybe two.

I found something about the atmosphere comforting: the bright lights, the expansive windows, the upbeat music and crowds. Being there made me feel younger. It made me feel au courant. Most of the people who frequent Chipotle, I’ve noticed, are in their twenties and thirties, twenties mostly. I myself am forty-three, almost forty-four.

It’s not that I was depressed exactly. Part of me had been hoping to get fired. I was sick of assembling charts and tables and documents that made zero sense. I was fed up with wearing pressed slacks and staring at the computer. The company I’d worked for—Intermedia Ventures—sold data abroad; the politics were atrocious.

“We’ll call this a termination,” my boss, Sheila, had said, peering at me through the glasses perched on the end of her nose. Her face was bony, her hair short. “Without cause. That way you can get unemployment.” Sheila had always made me nervous. She arrived at work early, stayed late, wore heels that cost nine hundred dollars.

“Termination?”

“That’s right. Marcy has the forms you’ll need to sign.”

The split, the separation—the dismissal—was, as people often say, amicable. My colleagues threw a party in the conference room at the end of the hall. There were balloons. “We’ll miss you,” they said. “Stay in touch.”

At first I was excited. I liked not having to set my alarm. I liked being able to get up and make a pot of coffee, read the paper without watching the clock. This was April and it had been a treacherous winter, full of sleet and hail and disappointment. The days were finally getting longer; the city’s trees began sprouting leaves, as tiny and hopeful as fresh pubic hairs.

I fell into the habit of preparing elaborate breakfasts for myself. I bought cartons of eggs and heavy cream, purchased a cheese grater and a new set of knives. I made omelets with minced scallions and chunks of ham and Gruyère. I sat at the table in my apartment and looked through the window, enjoying the sunshine and studying the neighboring building: a squat tenement with a generator on the roof and a shrub, or perhaps it was a kind of tree, growing from the facade. I noticed what looked like buds on its branches. I marveled at the tenacity of nature, the ability of a root system to take hold in the most unlikely of places. I bought a bike from a dental hygienist in Queens and went up to the park. I’d always wanted to be the type of person who spends the day outside while others toil away in their cubicles. I’d saved some money, not much, but enough to live a few months. I’ll take some time for myself, I decided. Clear my head. Then, when I’m ready, I’ll assess my options. I was optimistic.

Two weeks into my hiatus, I started dreaming about fish. I saw myself standing in a room full of buckets of trout. Even after I’d woken up, their strained efforts stayed with me. I saw their open mouths, the bubbles on their lips. I lay in bed listening to the traffic outside. I thought about moving abroad. I knew people who’d taken time off between jobs to travel. I’d received postcards from London and Paris, Marseilles and Istanbul.

I spent my mornings on Craigslist looking for apartments in Berlin. I considered the possibilities. I could put my belongings in storage and sublet my apartment. I could help hurricane victims rebuild their homes. I could move in with my mother—go back to California, tail between my legs. My mother sold insurance at Allstate and went to church twice a week. She took handfuls of pills, mood stabilizers and serotonin inhibitors and occasionally small doses of lithium. Each time the phone rang, I was afraid it was her, calling to say she missed me, that she wanted me to come home so she’d have someone to go to the rec center with and talk to when she couldn’t sleep. “Don’t you love me?” she pleaded.

The last time I’d seen her, we had a fight because I refused to play Kings in the Corner. “Why can’t you ever make me happy?” she groused. “All you do is sit on the couch watching shows about spiders devouring each other and trashy women pretending to commune with the dead. Can’t we play ping-pong together or go for a walk?” She always wanted me to go on walks with her around the little duck pond in her trailer park so she could introduce me to the neighbors and tell them I bought her roses. For many years, she made me hold her hand when the pastor in church led the group prayer. Sometimes she stood near my bed at night, in curlers, and cried, insisting that God had a plan.

I considered applying to PhD programs. In college I’d taken some anthropology classes and found them quite interesting. The idea of doing fieldwork in Namibia or Botswana—of living with hunter-gatherers, people who weren’t obsessed with wearing the latest fashions—appealed to me. I perused the admissions requirements for schools in Boston and Chicago and even Miami. I wondered whether any universities would accept someone my age. I went to the bookstore and thumbed through the study guides, trying to make sense of the questions.

▴ ▴ ▴

By this point, I’d become friendly with the Chipotle cashier, a woman named Betsy. She was young and self-confident and what my mother used to call zaftig. She had emerald nail polish and a silver ring in her nose.

“You must be boiling in that thing,” Betsy said one day after she handed me my receipt. “Don’t you have any summer clothes, Karl?”

I blushed and unzipped my jacket. I told her I got cold easily, which isn’t actually the case. “I totally know what you mean,” she said. “My dad’s exactly the same. Even if it’s like eighty or something, he still needs the heat on. What’re you reading?”

I told her about the novel under my arm: a depressing book about a family of Swedish farmers whose matriarch commits suicide. I’d been at Barnes & Noble, and the cover caught my eye. I thought the book might give me some insight into Scandinavian culture. My father, who died when I was three, was Norwegian. Growing up, whenever I asked my mother what he was like, she invariably grew sullen. “He was a bad man,” she said. “Forget about him.” She told me their marriage had been a mistake.

In the novel, a balding farmer with a limp toils with his sons in the fields for hours at a stretch, under the sun. The story takes place over a three-month period during the summer, just after World War II. The man’s wife, a woman with a large nose who suffers from schizophrenia, imagines that her family is conspiring against her. She bolts the door to her room, refusing to come out.

Eventually, I felt strange showing up for lunch with the same book. I didn’t want Betsy to think I was a slow reader. She herself seemed quite intelligent. She’d majored in women’s studies at a prestigious school on the Hudson. I bought a copy of the New Yorker at a newsstand. A few days later, I saw the Economist in the recycling area of my building and decided to pick it up. I’d never read the Economist, but I thought it might project the sort of image I was after. I read an article about people who die from diarrhea abroad, people who live on less than ten cents a day.

“Why don’t you work here?” Betsy suggested one afternoon, as I was returning the large metal spoon attached to the bathroom key. The restaurant was nearly empty, and she and I had become engaged in a rather lengthy conversation about the decisions that led to this point in my life—my work as an admissions officer for a college that catered to families with troubled children, the decision to move to New York after people started spreading rumors, my fear of the future.

“What kind of job are you looking for?” she asked.

That was the problem; I didn’t really know. “Something that doesn’t involve numbers and weird calculations.”

“You should totally do it. It’d be fun. We could hang out.”

I couldn’t stop grinning. She was, as I’ve mentioned, half my age. Was she making a pass at me? I didn’t think so, though one can never be sure. She’d already told me about her boyfriend. Maybe she thinks you’re a bugger, I mused. It had happened before—eighteen months earlier, my erstwhile hairdresser tried to set me up with her uncle.

There were plenty of jobs I could choose from, Betsy said. They were understaffed. She herself was filling in for the manager, a Kenyan guy with dreadlocks who’d pulled a muscle lifting a sack of brown rice. She encouraged me to work in the front, serving customers. “You’re a people person,” she said. “I knew that from the minute I met you.” I wasn’t sure she was right, but I liked the idea of making new friends. I filled out an application, and that Friday she called to ask when I could start.

This would be a fresh start, I decided. I promised myself I wouldn’t make any of my prior mistakes—wouldn’t use twenty-pound bright-white paper instead of 25-percent cotton when preparing presentation materials, wouldn’t staple documents that required binder clips, wouldn’t hide in the supply room during Friday afternoon mixers.

▴ ▴ ▴

I realize that the portrait I’ve painted of myself may not be entirely flattering. I should clarify, however, that I am by no means a social misfit. In my free time I enjoy going to movies, visiting museums, as well as meeting friends for brunch, and, while it is true I may not be a ladies’ man, I’ve had my share of relationships. In college, I dated a Christian student from Tulsa for five and a half months, a girl named Laura Winter, who I’ve since learned married a minister and moved to the Twin Cities. I also recently joined Facebook, the social networking site.

These changes in my circumstances—the new job, my online adventures—made me, as I’ve mentioned, feel younger, and, I might add, more virile. I noticed some of our regulars smiling at me, paying more attention than they once might have. The attention, I will admit, wasn’t unwelcome, but I didn’t let it distract me from my duties.

Betsy had made it clear soon after I started that, as staff members, we were expected to maintain a professional distance from the clientele. Chipotle had a strict policy regarding what she referred to as hanky-panky, a term I found somewhat juvenile. “There’s pretty much just one rule here,” she said during a team meeting. “No hanky-panky between employees and no hanky-panky between you and the customers. Gets too messy. I don’t mean to talk down, but there’s been incidents recently.” She was referring to incidents at other Chipotles—supervisors caught having sexual relations with their subordinates in the storeroom; employees flirting and, in some cases, exchanging phone numbers with patrons.

“But what if it’s initiated by the other party?” our newest hire, a skinny kid from the Bronx, asked. “Like if the chick tries to hit on you or something. Are we supposed to just turn the other cheek?”

“I can’t talk in hypotheticals,” Betsy responded. “You have to use your judgment, Ramón. Obviously what you do on your own time isn’t my business. I’m just saying you can’t do it at work.”

I myself had something happen early on that I decided to keep confidential. Three days after I’d started, an older gentleman—a man with a silver goatee—had been rather forward with me. He lingered at the counter, smiling, asking me how I was. At first, I thought nothing of his attention. “Very well, thank you,” I replied, “and yourself?” I engaged in a bit of reciprocal banter.

“Karl,” he said, “I wonder whether you might want to have a drink with me sometime.”

“A drink?”

“You know, a beer or something.”

It was then that I realized what the man had in mind. “I’m sorry, Courtney, I can’t do that. It’s forbidden.”

“Forbidden? By whom?”

“I’m busy,” I told him, arranging the tortillas. I decided it would be best from then on to keep eye contact to a minimum. It was a confusing time for me, and I didn’t want to give him the wrong idea. I’d spent so many years believing I needed to behave.

▴ ▴ ▴

Six weeks into the job, I hit a wall. My back started to hurt. I wasn’t used to standing all day. I wasn’t used to physical labor. In retrospect, I realize that my change of heart probably also had something to do with an unexpected visit from my former boss’s secretary, Marcy. The lunch-hour rush had just begun, and I looked up and saw her staring at me. She was wearing some kind of bow in her hair—a red clip-on with tiny white hearts.

“Karl!” she shrieked, as if someone had doused her pantsuit with kerosene and touched a match to it. “Is that you?”

“Hi, Marcy,” I said as nonchalantly as possible. “How’s it going?”

“Oh my God, Karl. What are you doing here? You don’t work here, do you?”

“I’m writing a book,” I said, reminding myself to breathe. “It’s for research.”

“You’re writing a book?”

“Yeah, about Chipotle. I mean about the fast-food industry. It’s an exposé.”

“Jesus, Karl. I’m speechless.”

“It’s actually pretty fun,” I said, noticing that the white hearts seemed to be floating, almost dancing. I told her I needed to take her order.

“I don’t know. I can’t think straight. I guess I’ll have the veggie bowl.”

“To stay or to go?”

“To stay. I mean to go. Can you make it to go?”

I asked her whether she wanted black beans or pinto.

“Pinto, I guess, but not too many. God, Karl. It’s good to see you. I’ll email you. Okay? Do you still have your same email?”

I wanted to say yes, wanted to tell her that I was okay, that I was doing well, had never been happier, but people were giving me their orders faster than I could process them. A man ordered six burritos to go. Perforce, I had to warm up six separate tortillas. By the time I looked up to see whether Marcy was still there, she’d left.

That night, after work, I walked to the CVS. It isn’t the closest drugstore to my apartment, but I find its decor comforting. The aisles are wider than most drugstores in New York and there’s a large selection of greeting cards. It reminds me of California, and sometimes, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll walk up and down the aisles examining the merchandise. When I was a child, my mother and I sometimes went to the drugstore on rainy afternoons to read greeting cards to each other. On this particular evening, I was reading the graduation cards when I noticed a man in the next aisle over talking to a child in a stroller.

“That’s enough, Noah,” he said. “Keep it up and you’re going straight to your room when we get home. Do you understand?”

The man was having a hard time maneuvering the stroller, and when he turned to leave, I got a good look at him. To my surprise, it was Courtney. I ducked behind one of the displays, my heart pounding. I managed to make my way to the other side of the store and, from a safe distance, I saw him waiting in line with a large bag of diapers and some paper towels. Something about seeing him there with a child, on his way home to—I assumed—his wife, depressed me. I decided I must have been mistaken about his earlier intentions. I wondered whether I’d imagined the entire interaction. I watched him pay and then I left the store, empty-handed. It was humid outside and, as I waited for the light to change, a dump truck expelled thick exhaust. I held my breath to avoid inhaling the dark fumes. When I finally allowed myself a small inhalation, carcinogens infiltrated my alveoli.

I started having trouble falling asleep. I kept wondering whether Marcy had told my former coworkers about running into me. Who was I kidding? Of course she’d told them. She was a blabbermouth. I wondered whether she believed I was writing a book. I imagined other people I’d worked with coming in to see whether it was true, whether I was really working at Chipotle.

Sure enough, five days later, I got an email from the manager of accounts receivable at my old company:

Hey Karl –

Wassup, buddy? Marcy said she saw you working at the big C. Tell me it ain’t so. You know her. She’s always so full of shit. She’s joking, right? We should grab a beer sometime. Lemme know. —Bob E.

I asked to be transferred. “I need some time to think,” I told Betsy. “Can I grate cheese or something in back?”

“No problemo. I’ll put your name on the list. Right now there’s no openings, but as soon as a slot opens up, I’ll let you know. Everything okay, Karl? You look sort of pale. Have you been getting enough sleep?”

The fact is I hadn’t been sleeping at all. A heat wave had descended on the East Coast and the city had become a kind of inferno. Even at ten p.m., the concrete was still warm. It got to the point where I couldn’t bear to leave my apartment. At night, I’d sit in my living room, in front of the air conditioner, fanning myself with a manila folder. My air conditioner was old, and the air it emitted was fetid. I thought about buying a new unit, but by this point I was worried about money. My paychecks were smaller than I’d expected and my savings had begun to dwindle. I bought a fan at a hardware store for twenty dollars and positioned it in front of my bed. I kept it next to the box of manila folders and binder clips I’d stolen from under Sheila’s nose the day I was fired.

Night after night, I lay on top of my mattress, listening to the couple who lived above me—a guy who wore expensive ties and his swimsuit-model girlfriend. Their apartment had been renovated. He looked like the kind of person who’d snap a wet towel at you in the locker room while you were trying to change, or trip you after class as a joke. They had a stainless-steel fridge and an oven that worked. Whenever I saw the girlfriend in the elevator she avoided making eye contact with me. She wore lip gloss and smelled like shampoo and she always seemed to be carrying a turquoise yoga mat under her arm. Despite the fact that I’d barely spoken to either one of them, I harbored a strange hostility toward these petits bourgeois. The floor separating our apartments was thin, and at night, when the city quieted down, I heard the sounds of their lovemaking. They seemed quite happy together. Sometimes, during their sessions, I heard the girl call out his name.

I wanted to pound my broom against the ceiling and drown out their sounds with my screams. I fantasized about going upstairs with a club. Was I harboring unexpressed anger? Possibly. Sometimes, I imagined filling a satin gift box with horse droppings and sending it to Sheila’s penthouse on the Upper East Side. I pictured her opening the wrapped package in her marble foyer.

Occasionally, I turned on the light and opened the little photo album I kept on my nightstand. The photos were nothing special, mostly insignificant moments from high school and college, but there was one picture that made me feel better, a photo of my father holding me on his lap when I was just two years old. It was the only photo my mother had kept of my father, and I’d retrieved it from the trash in eighth grade, after she found it in an envelope and threw it away. In the photo, my father is wearing an undershirt and his arms look muscular; his face is partly obscured by a shadow and he’s looking down, but it’s clear he was handsome.

Growing up I pleaded with my mother to tell me about him, but she refused. “Water under the bridge,” she always said, stone-faced. “No need to dredge up the past—he was a selfish person, only out for himself.” I know he did something to hurt her, though she’s never said what. Once she referred to him as a womanizer, and I wondered whether he left her for someone else. I wondered whether he hadn’t died but had simply left to start a new life. I imagined him living in a Colonial house with a woman who carved pumpkins at Halloween and sent Christmas cards with festive stamps, someone who showed up to parent-teacher conferences on time and didn’t change the channel when people on TV started making out.

In August, it rained for a week. It felt as if the city might be washed away. Water flowed from the sewers, and dead fish washed up on land. The sidewalks were strewn with the carcasses of mangled umbrellas. Business slowed down, and some days I found myself filled with melancholy. I longed for our once-hectic pace. Summer was drawing to a close.

Maybe moving back to California was my best option. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for New York. My mother had sent a letter telling me I could stay in the guest room, rent free. There were worse scenarios—recently I’d read about a woman who’d been kidnapped and held in a trailer with no running water. My lifestyle had become unsustainable, and I’d begun to gain weight. I’d started waiting for my coworkers to leave at night, had begun offering to close up, so that I could sneak bags of chips and containers of guacamole into my backpack. I felt like I was eight years old again, driving with my mother to the orchards on the outskirts of town with paper bags from Ralphs so we could steal oranges when no one was looking.

▴ ▴ ▴

A few days after the rain stopped, I was wiping the counters when I saw Sheila outside on the sidewalk. It was a Sunday afternoon, the kind of afternoon when most people—hotshots with jobs in finance and marketing and law—have gone to the Hamptons or upstate for the weekend, and the place was empty. She stopped outside and looked up at the awning, squinting. I hurried behind the counter, keeping my back to the windows.

Nearly two months had passed since Marcy’s visit, and, in the intervening weeks, I’d managed to calm myself down, to convince myself that it didn’t matter what my former colleagues thought of me, that even if they came in to visit, I had nothing to be ashamed of. Then I heard Sheila’s piercing voice. “Karl!” she exclaimed, setting down her shopping bags near one of the tables and striding toward the counter. “I thought you were in France!”

“Hi, Sheila. How are you?” I said, palms moist, my heart a trapped hummingbird, frantic and bereft of its kin.

“Me? How are you? What are you doing working here? I mean I can’t actually believe it!” She had on pink shorts and matching trainers, and she reminded me of Karen Carpenter before the anorexia got really bad.

I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d never seen her in shorts. “I’m okay. I’m doing fine. What can I get you?”

“God, I don’t know, Karl. I’m exhausted. I’ve been out all day. My feet are killing me. Do you guys have lemonade?”

“I’m afraid not, no lemonade.”

“How can you not have lemonade? Isn’t that standard these days?”

“We have cranberry juice.”

“Christ, Karl. Do I look like the kind of person who likes cranberry juice? Just give me a taco or something. A chicken taco.”

I asked her whether she wanted hard shell or soft.

“Jesus, no—I don’t want a taco. Make it a salad. A chicken salad. Lots of lettuce, guac on the side.”

“Guacamole’s extra, okay?”

“What?”

“The guacamole’s a dollar fifty extra.”

“A dollar fifty? Isn’t it supposed to be included?”

“That’s only on the vegetarian meals.”

“Okay, then. I can see you guys are all about service.”

I’d filled Sheila’s bowl with lettuce and had put chicken on top, and I was standing in front of the salsas, wondering which of the options she’d want. We have four varieties—pico de gallo; green-chili tomatillo; corn with roasted poblano pepper; and our spiciest, a tomatillo red-chili puree. Some people just want pico de gallo; others want the works.

“Fine, I’ll pay for the guac. What about the cheese? Is that extra too?”

“No. Just the guacamole.”

“Let’s do the cheese and guac and—wait, that’s too much cheese. Can you take some of that off?”

I tried to finger off a bit of the cheese. My intention was just to take a pinch off the top, but instead I ended up putting my entire hand into the bowl and scooping up a handful of Sheila’s food—of cheese and chicken and lettuce—and then, without thinking, I dropped the entire handful into the garbage.

“Karl! What the hell are you doing? I didn’t tell you to do that. I still want the chicken and lettuce.” Sheila was what people at Intermedia called a screamer; nothing made her happy. Even Bob E., the nicest guy in the world, sometimes made fun of her. I’d heard her lose her temper plenty of times. The thing is she wasn’t my boss anymore.

She was still griping at me when I took a large spoonful of guacamole and plopped it into her half-empty bowl. No one else was around. Betsy was away for the weekend, and Ramón was in the back getting high. I set the bowl down on the counter, signaling that her order was ready. I took off my prep gloves and went over to the cash register to ring up her order.

“What the hell, Karl! Is this how you treat people here? Is this some kind of joke?”

“Ten fifty,” I said.

“I’m not eating that. I said I wanted the guac on the side!”

“The word is guacamole, Sheila. It’s not guac. Guac is not a word.”

“Get a grip, Karl. You’re really losing it,” she said, jamming the twenty-dollar bill she’d been holding back in her purse. She looked at me, and I stared back, looking deep into her flinty eyes. I didn’t turn away, didn’t blink, didn’t avoid her rapacious gaze.

I’d spent my whole life looking the other way—avoiding the judgmental scrutiny of the Sheilas and Marcys of the world. For forty-three years I’d been everyone’s patsy: a punching bag to be pummeled by people with more money and power, with more self-confidence and charm—the Managing Directors and SVPs and CEOs who shoved past me on the subway to sit down while I stood, the guys who grabbed drinks after work, in their Hickey Freeman suits, so they could watch the game and slap each other on the back. I’d smiled and simpered and groveled. I’d held the door open for people who broke wind in my face, who smirked and pissed on my cheeks. I was fed up. I was done being Mr. Nice Guy.

“Excuse me,” I said. “What did you say?”

“I said: Get a grip, Karl. You’re losing it.

“You know who’s losing it, Sheila? It’s you and your fucking matcha smoothies and Cobb salads with dressing on the side. Do you realize there are people in the world who would be thrilled to have a bowl of rice, people who don’t have the luxury of deciding how much cheese they want on their lunch, who would kill to have a scoop of guacamole—in their bowl, under their bowl, on the fucking floor? Do you realize there are villages of people who live on nothing but termites and worms?”

I paused and stared at her, looking as deeply as possible into her beady eyes, dark and black as her soul. She was as motionless as a mannequin. This was the woman who’d told me once in my review that I should proofread my documents more carefully, who’d smirked in a departmental meeting when I’d mixed up net sales and gross receipts, who’d stopped by my office one night when I was working late to tell me she didn’t understand why it was taking me so long to finish my calculations when Wendy had pressed send on her spreadsheet three hours ago, Wendy being the twenty-three-year-old Taiwanese upstart who read Barron’s and had her nails done at the same salon as Sheila, whose parents bought her a place in East Hampton so she could relax by the pool with her besties from Colgate.

“These aren’t rhetorical questions, Sheila,” I continued. “Do you know how many children are dying in Ethiopia? How many people are starving in the Niger Delta and Bangladesh while you’re out buying Gucci handbags at Barneys and Saks? Who the fuck do you think you are telling me to put the guac on the side?”

Sheila’s hair glistened in the fluorescent light—her hair was parted on the left, shoulder length, slicked into place with gel that probably cost five hundred dollars an ounce. Her lips were thin and pale, cheeks sculpted and bronzed. She was moving now, picking up her bags, turning to leave. She was striding out the door, angry no doubt at being forced to confront the hypocrisy of her inconsequential existence.

“Have a nice day, Sheila,” I called out before it was too late. I said it proudly, deliberately. I watched her head out into the fetid swamp she called home, into the August air as thick as the haze over those cities in China where cars belch exhaust 24/7 and people wear masks.

Newcomers often say that living in New York can be exhilarating and, for me, at that moment, it was. There I stood, alone—bathed in crisp air—looking out at the world: the Iranian man who sold oranges and apples and grapes from his cart, and the bike messengers rushing by with documents and packages, and taxis prowling the streets, relentlessly, for new fares.

Sheila’s burrito bowl was still on the counter. I peeled off my powdered gloves, picked her bowl up, and dropped it into the trash: my movements deliberate and precise. The trash bag was new, and there was something satisfying about the sound her food made as it hit the bottom of the garbage can. I gazed at the huge panes of glass separating me from the rest of the world, my skin tingling. Everything looked clean and spacious and open.

A song I liked was playing through the speakers, and I imagined it was the kind of thing you might hear at a club, something you might dance to. The lyrics were hard to follow, but the beat made me want to take off my shoes and climb up onto the tables.

▴ ▴ ▴

Two days later, Betsy told me she was quitting. “I’m joining the Peace Corps,” she said. “I’m going to Palau.”

“Where?”

“Palau. You know, near Micronesia—in the South Pacific.”

“The Peace Corps sends people to the South Pacific?”

“Yeah, it’s a new program. They’re doing a water irrigation project there. It’s gonna be sweet—I’ll get to have my own place on the beach and they said I can check out the Philippines and Papua New Guinea on my time off.”

I was stunned. It’s not that we were best friends, but I’d gotten used to having her around. I hadn’t even realized she was applying to the Peace Corps.

I looked her in the eyes, and I noticed that her irises were the color of light moss—a kind of hazel. They were beautiful. She had a few tiny freckles on her cheeks that were barely perceptible. I asked when she was leaving.

“In a week. My boyfriend’s going with me. We’re selling all our stuff for cheap if you need anything. You don’t need a couch, do you? Or a blender? We’ve got all this crap we have to get rid of.”

We were standing in the back office, near the freezer, and I saw that someone hadn’t closed the door all the way. The cold air was coming out and I thought about reaching over to slam the door shut. For some reason, it surprised me that Betsy had a boyfriend.

“Who’s going to get your job?” I asked.

“God, you know Travis. He’ll probably give it to Crissie. He’s like so in love with her.” Crissie wore heavy eye shadow and T-shirts that were always too small.

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah, but who knows. Maybe you should apply. It pays like twenty-two bucks an hour.”

“Maybe.” I wondered whether I’d be a good manager. I wondered whether the other employees would make fun of me behind my back.

“What do you have to lose? I’ll put in a good word for you.”

I thought about giving Betsy a hug. I wanted to let her know how grateful I was for everything she’d done for me. I wanted her to know I’d miss her, but before I decided what to do, she told me she needed to add up some invoices. She said she needed to leave early to go home and start packing. Then she reached inside her purse and got out some ChapStick, and, as she put it on, she looked up.

“What’s wrong, Karl? Are you okay?” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Karl?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. I got some napkins and wiped my face and then I went back to work. A new shipment of lettuce had just arrived and it needed to be washed and chopped. I ripped open one of the boxes and started taking out the heads of iceberg. They were cool and felt good in my palms. I liked their color. I wondered whether maybe I should paint my apartment that color.

That morning, on my way to work, I’d seen Courtney walking down the street, giving his son a piggyback ride. I was waiting for the light to change and I saw him across the street, walking the other way. He was holding on to the kid’s ankles with his hands and bouncing them back and forth on his chest. It looked like he was a good father; it looked like he was happy. I’m not sure why, but I kept wondering whether Courtney was happy.

I wondered what he would think of my apartment if he came over, whether he’d be impressed if I painted all of my walls green or yellow or another unusual color, something different from white. Recently, I’d been wondering whether maybe he wasn’t married. Maybe he was raising his son on his own. I wondered whether I’d run into him again at the CVS or whether he’d ever come back to the Chipotle to see me. I decided then that, after work, before I went home, I’d buy some toothpaste and dental floss. I decided that if I ran into Courtney I wouldn’t avoid him. I promised myself that if he tried to talk to me I wouldn’t be weird.

It’s not that I wanted to get naked with him or do anything sordid. We could have just talked. I could cook him a meal and make him feel at home. I wasn’t a very good cook, but I’d been intending to practice. I could learn to make meatloaf or maybe chicken cordon bleu. I pictured myself in the kitchen, preparing the bread crumbs, while he opened a bottle of wine. I wondered what the right music would be.

If he put his arm around me on the couch while we were watching TV, I wouldn’t flinch. We’d watch people kiss and make out like it was nothing. He could even put his head on my lap and fall asleep, or nuzzle my ear if he wanted.

I wondered whether, if things went well, he might introduce me to Noah. I pictured the three of us going to Coney Island together or maybe the zoo. If there was an ex-wife and Courtney got depressed when she badgered him, I could provide comfort and solace. “You just have to have faith in the future,” I’d say. “Things will work out if you just have the right mindset. Keeping your positive outlook is everything.”


Matthew Lansburgh’s collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award and the 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. The book’s title story was named a Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories 2018, and the collection has received praise from Andre Dubus III (“mesmerizing”), Kirkus  (“arresting and pointed”), Booklist (“captivating”), and Margot Livesey (“a brilliant collection”). Matthew’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in One StoryGlimmer Train, EcotoneElectric Literature, StoryQuarterly, Columbia, Guernica, the Florida Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review.