Look at Us
Rose and Jaclyn sat at the end of the bar close to a couple in a two-seat booth and edged on Jaclyn’s side by a decorative boulder. The restaurant was small, absent of color and proper lighting; the rock stole so much surface area there was little room for water glasses or dinner plates. Jaclyn’s stool was inches from the booth where the man and woman ate without speaking, which gave Jaclyn the sensation of being on display. “What did you like about him?” asked Rose.
“I don’t remember,” said Jaclyn.
“If there’s any way you can deal with it, I’d advise you to stay,” Rose said. “It’s just – it’s been two years for me, and it’s still very hard. Don’t tell anyone in the office.”
“What?” said Jaclyn.
“The D-word,” whispered Rose. She glanced around as if someone would ask them to leave the restaurant at this admission. “And then I got sick,” she said.
“We fought last night,” said Jaclyn.
“About what?” asked Rose.
“I can’t put it into words,” said Jaclyn. It was often like this with their fights–little said, or yelled, but the argument could be deduced by his stomps or a slammed door, the heavy silence that followed. She must have asked him to do something that crossed some line—usually a house chore requiring disconnection from a computer game, the unfulfillment of which resulted in her saying, “never mind, I’ll do it myself,” which he took as an insult. Her husband had stomped off to sleep on the couch.
“It sounds unrealistic in the telling, that a grown man would stomp in such a manner,” said Jaclyn. The floors were red oak, and he walked more loudly and made more noise than any other person she had known,
“I believe you,” said Rose. She used a fingertip to push crumbs to the edge of the bar.
“I’m tired of apologizing,” said Jaclyn. She knew he would not return to bed if she didn’t go to him and apologize for her error, and over the years she had tired of apologizing, of the routine where she went to say sorry, and his face would soften, and only then would he return. So, she didn’t go to apologize, and he never returned.
Now, while she and Rose were eating pappardelle, he sent a text message: what kind of wine do you want? I’m at Costco. This was as near to an apology, or the extension of peace, as she would receive. She read Rose the text.
“See, no one asks me what wine I want from Costco,” she said.
“If you leave him, he will find someone else right away. They always do,” Rose said. “Like that,” and she snapped her fingers. “And you’ll be a cat lady. You’ll find yourself in the wine section of the grocery store on a Saturday night with cat food in your cart.”
“What, is that something you saw in a Hallmark movie?” asked Jaclyn.
“Women our age,” said Rose. She cordoned off three-fourths of the pasta from her bowl and ate from the remaining quarter, limiting herself before she began. “It’s harder for us.”
Near the end of their meal, the man sitting inches from Jaclyn tapped her shoulder, startling her from the conversation. It was a forceful tap, a poke.
“Can I get out?” he said. Instead of excuse me or pardon me. Jaclyn moved her stool immediately, so he could slide out from his cushioned booth.
“Of course,” she said, deciding not to say “sorry.” She was glad she hadn’t. Sorry I was in your way. This was another thing she would remember from that evening: Rose’s warnings, but also the rude man. Rose ate happily, unbothered.
“Do you think he heard us?” Jaclyn asked Rose once they had left the restaurant.
“Who?” Rose said.
“That man. Or maybe he just didn’t like me.”
Rose rooted in her purse as if Jaclyn hadn’t spoken.
Jaclyn cried the entire ride home that night. She looked up from her lap at one point to watch the freeway blur past the bus window. An ad for a new megachurch warned “Your Exit Might Be Next” in the spotlight of a fading bulb. At home, Jaclyn greeted her husband with a hiccup-laden sob, her wails those of a baby screaming out from its crib. She was comforted by the mundanity of the shoe-crowded entryway, the cat vomit ground into the Lands’ End all-weather rug, the queasy blue glare of the television, always on and always too loud or too quiet, a soundtrack to their lives.
On the night of the reading, Jaclyn and Rose exit the light rail tunnel and emerge onto the street, leaving the fluorescence of the underground. It is fully dark, and neither is familiar with this neighborhood, so Jaclyn keeps her eye on the map on her phone in what she hopes is a covert manner, to avoid looking like targets to any of the groups of people gathered at the unlit edges of the park.
“Is it this way?” Jaclyn says, not really to Rose but to the space expanding in front of them. She is surprised to see an entire encampment bloom without warning between buildings, invisible from one angle and then exploding into their field of vision as they scurry through the dark. They walk closely, leaning into each other for warmth or protection.
“Look, that woman over there is out for a run,” Rose says. She nods to the sole woman near the park. More discourse with the intention of reassuring themselves. “Look at us, out in the dark, not even frightened!”
The women find the building without incident, and Jaclyn is temporarily dazzled by tables of books for sale. They look clean, stretched across the merchandise table, their unbent paperback covers – her favorite, over hardcover, textured covers versus smooth jackets. She buys the least popular of the headlining author’s books.
“It’s almost time,” says Rose. “We should get in there.”
Jaclyn stuffs the books into her tote bag and hurries to lead the way into the main auditorium. Wire chairs are arranged in rows, so she chooses two chairs near the exit and not in the front row. The manager of the space says a few words of introduction, making note of the remodel. The building has a cluster of ten individual bathrooms with floor-to-ceiling doors and in-stall sinks like tiny private offices for urinating, which Jaclyn notes as a funny detail though no one else smiles.
“I feel like I’m Not From Around Here,” Jaclyn whispers to Rose.
“You’re not,” Rose whispers back. She pats her hand. At the microphone,the first author to read holds up her book.
“I wanted to capture this sense of feeling like an outsider,” she says. She holds up her book, the same one Jaclyn possesses in her bag. Jaclyn has the thought that the author is the insider here, since the author is the one reading while Jaclyn watches, again positioned on the outside.
Rose closes her eyes, quietly slumbers while upright and perfectly still in her chair. Jaclyn notices Rose passes from alert to asleep to awake again without movement other than a twitch of her eyelids. There is no drama to her detachment.
Jaclyn’s own mother, when slipping into sleep while Jaclyn watched a movie as a child, would startle awake. “Oh, honey, you scared me,” she’d say each time, and smile a sleepy smile, her eyes still shut, as if she knew she was caught and wanted to savor the moment before returning to wakefulness. Her mother was able to slip between the waking and resting worlds at will, or rather, she couldn’t resist, and she made no effort to conceal such jolting evolutions. Rose, on the other hand, slips mentally from the room, eyes open, then shut, her mouth and arms and legs unmoving.
Jaclyn whispers, “Rose?” She makes no further effort to wake her. She can still feel Rose’s presence next to her, as the first author reads and the guest vocalist sings while playing guitar and the headlining author takes the stage and the lights flash purple and yellow and green, too bright and psychedelic for the event, they light in swift succession, and that is enough. With Rose asleep, Jaclyn feels alone in the room but for the scaffolding of Rose’s friendship.
A bit of spit escapes the author’s lips as she first adjusts the microphone and addresses the audience. She reads from a short story without stopping; and her words become a song to Jaclyn’s ears, a lullaby. The author hasn’t written these words specifically for Jaclyn, but she has written them, shaped them, and is reading them aloud, sharing them for Jaclyn to consume. The room is quiet save for these words. The room itself is sunken so that the street-facing windows become like those of a basement and reveal only the knees and sneakers of passersby.
Jaclyn looks out across the room to the windows; several people stop on the sidewalk outside, stoop to peer into the room where Jaclyn and all the others sit. They must wonder what those in the room can hear and see, who is on the stage, outside looking in. No one else glances up at the movement outside on the sidewalk. Maybe they don’t realize they are all being watched, that they aren’t only an audience but are themselves on display for another unseen audience. Inside the room, Jaclyn is transfixed by the words and by the lighting, swirls of purple and green illuminating the blank canvas of the new white walls and the white pantsuit of the reading writer. She is luminous on the stage, glowing.
“I wrote this based on a childhood spent in bodies of water,” the writer says. “Some man-made.” Jaclyn lets herself cry a little – quietly, so that no one notices. It is so beautiful – the words, the colors, the peace of it all – and she knows she will never share the moment with anyone, not because it’s too strange or sad, but because she will fail to describe it adequately, to capture its beauty enough to share with another. She confirms with a glance that Rose’s eyes are still closed. Maybe the moment is just for her, and it will lose some of its luminance when retold.
Rose opens her eyes to clapping at the end of the reading, and the two women go back onto the street to make their way again to the light rail. Jaclyn makes no mention of Rose’s nap. The journey back feels long, too many steps. One method of transportation only to get to another. They deboard the nearly empty light rail downtown. As the escalator reaches its pinnacle, Jaclyn notices they are alone by coincidence or the result of timing; not a single other passenger around. The exit is an unbroken rectangle, blue with night and dotted with the red and white and yellow of street and store lights. The slice of solitude is unplanned and temporary, a moment between arrival and departure.
“Rose?” Jaclyn says. She stops before exiting the station. Maybe if she doesn’t move, she can stay here in this moment. “Rose, what if we were the only two humans left on earth?”
Rose doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh? What if we were!”
“Like, if there had been some sort of…apocalyptic event,” Jaclyn says. “While we were down there.” She nods her head back toward the depths of the station. There is a stillness about the night since hearing the author’s words, an emptiness to their surroundings but the opposite in her mind, where there is now a fullness.
Rose stops too. “And if we were to go out onto the street, we’d see the lights on in all the stores, but no people walking around inside. The street lights are still lit but no cars are moving.”
“It’s not just that everyone has gone home to sleep,” Jaclyn says. “They’re not here at all.” Her tote bag slips from her shoulder and crawls down her arm; she lets it drop, but does not stumble.
Jaclyn imagines reentering a quiet world.
Suzy Eynon is from Arizona and lives in Seattle where she works in college admissions. She has a BA in English Literature and a certificate in literary fiction from University of Washington, and an MEd in Adult Education from City University of Seattle. Her fiction and poetry are published in Overheard Lit, Hungry Ghost Magazine, Daily Drunk, Sledgehammer Lit, King Ludd’s Rag, and others. You can find her on Twitter @SuzyEynon.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021