The following story is the winner of the first annual Marguerite McGlinn National Fiction Prize (click HERE for details about the 2009 contest).
Kendra fell for Russ at a party. The theme was Winter Blues, which meant everyone dressed normally, in jeans and a monochrome palette of shirts, ranging from navy to sky. “It’s me,” he said from his pack of males in the corner. “The guy from Tragedy who never talks.”
She’d always found him attractive in their seminar, but he came alive that day, having finally used his voice. He was compassionate and broad-shouldered, and he seemed to see in Kendra the glamorous figure she imagined for herself instead of the bulging thighs and flaring nose that were real. He was going to law school in the fall. She would be a book editor. A book editor could marry a lawyer, she thought, and they both had dark eyebrows and hair.
By the end of the night, they were standing in their coats in the backyard and he was leaning within inches of her mouth. Deep in her coat pocket, she found a thin red ribbon, a Christmas leftover. “Aha!” she said, holding it out. She tied their belt loops together. What else was ribbon for?
They had sweaty, vocal sex in ludicrous positions, sex that Kendra might have laughed at if it hadn’t so unraveled her. She told him everything, and still, he stayed. On a piece of ruled paper, they wrote up a list of campus sites: the library stacks, Memorial Fountain, the seminar table where they sat every Tuesday and Thursday from 1 to 2:15. By the time they graduated, they had done them all.
Now, in New York, as college graduates, they sat facing each other from the deep ends of his tweedy, second-hand couch. She rubbed his feet one at a time and watched reality television: people being cruel for fun. He caught up on Torts and Anti-Discrimination, and every half hour or so, looked at her like a puppy. “I promise you,” he said, “in three years, I’ll massage your feet when you need it.” They had only been dating a year; three seemed a lot of time to bank.
She let his foot rest in her lap and scratched the back of her wrist over the rounded bone. She’d lost weight since college—one of those irrational patterns of city living; you ate out or you didn’t eat—and she had to admit she liked it. Russ had noticed, but was careful. He’d been raised to treat women like rare books, turning the pages one by one, reading the words he understood, and looking up the rest, making no assumptions.
“I might need it sooner,” she said, resuming the massage.
“Next year, then.” He bargained with her the way children did, offering false promises because he knew he had to offer something.
They were in constant contact but lived apart to ease his stress. His dorm room was near the law school, partially subsidized, with naked windows overlooking Washington Square. Besides the couch, he counted among his furnishings a 14-inch television, two bar stools from the trash heap, an aquarium with a goldfish and sunken castle, and a mattress and box spring on wheels. Her own Park Slope apartment, which she shared with two dieting actresses, had exposed brick and uneven floors. A ball placed on one end of the narrow living room would roll to the other, unless obstructed by a pile of shoes. It was like living in a subway car. She had considered hanging a handrail from the ceiling, for balance.
Since college, Russ had become more like a brother than a boyfriend. He had his own schedule, and he asked her if she’d been safe when she walked places at night. She could describe him to strangers with the cavalier precision usually reserved for a blood relative. He’s thinking about employment law. He likes racquetball, pink hamburgers, and camping. Yet unlike a brother, he was always kind, and for this she felt compelled to reward him. When she went over on Sundays—dinner night—she brought loaves of bread and special olive oil from the gourmet grocery. Before long she was buying exotic spices and learning to cook him meals, producing odd, schizophrenic experiments inspired by menus at Restaurant Week: chicken with mint and chives and honey, shrimp with garlic and orange and cardamom. He always praised her meals, no matter how spectacularly she failed, as she often did.
“Do you know what my problem is?” she asked him one night over dinner. “I used to be full of potential. Everyone said so. But now the period of potential is over, and I am what I am.”
“Who says you’re out of potential?” he asked, his mouth streaked with orange.
“Easy for you to say. You’re a student—you have time. I’m already a career girl, and sinking.”
“Didn’t you just get a raise?” He spoke with admiration, which embarrassed her. She was trying to tell him she wasn’t his equal, but he was too much the better person to understand.
“Trust me,” she said, pushing her food to the side of her plate. “I’m sinking.”
Kendra was an editorial assistant for Willett & Stokes, a large and venerable publishing house. It was her first job, and she honored its legacy in stacked heels and pencil skirts.
Books, it turned out, were a mysterious business: no one seemed to know which ones would succeed, or whom to blame when they didn’t. Kendra hardly knew anything, including the names of most of her colleagues. She didn’t know Alex’s name for months because of the way their departments interacted. As it worked, he brought the purple cover art folders for her boss Amanda’s signature, and she passed them on to someone in marketing, who then passed them on to the publisher, innumerable vehement changes marked in color along the way.
Alex was quick with his deliveries, and Kendra nearly always received the folders without glimpsing the human messenger. There would be a disturbance near her open door, then a flash of collar and blond sideburns at the edge of her vision. She would look up at her plastic, wall-mounted inbox, and a purple folder would have appeared, tilting outward toward her fluorescent, overhead light, a banal office flower reaching for its sun. Unsettled by the anonymity of everything, Kendra began to glance up from her desk more frequently, until one day, she finally saw her messenger’s face. He was older, bearded, efficient: an experienced publishing professional. Still, no one had told her who he was, and she was too embarrassed to ask. It wasn’t until she accompanied Amanda to a cover design meeting one morning in February that Kendra finally learned his name. “Alex will take this one,” the publisher said. The blond, bearded man brought his left boot to rest on his right knee and adjusted the hem of his pant.
“Thanks, Alex,” she said, the next time he made his rounds.
“Any time, Kendra,” he said, as though she’d made a clever remark.
She stood before her mirror for nearly an hour that night, sucking in her stomach, wondering if her hair had grown darker. She’d heard the body changes every seven years or so and felt she must’ve reached a new end. It made sense, mathematically; she was almost twenty-three.
He came by more often, sometimes without purple folders. They had lunch. They talked about the covers he was designing, the false certainty of publishers. His voice was spacious and wet and she found herself swiveling her legs to the side when she spoke. She called him her work boyfriend, and told everyone, so it would be clear she had nothing to hide.
It was when she began to see him on weekends that she realized she had a problem. Anything that happened at lunch or on a weeknight could be compartmentalized. It could be shuffled together with work the way the pages of a manuscript could bury crosswords, applications for graduate school, and other evidence of a growing disloyalty.
But Alex refused to remain in his compartment. They met up on Saturdays, went to dreamy, color-drenched movies, her elbow barely touching his on the armrest. They walked around uptown neighborhoods, where every residence had its own staircase and dark cars idled for wives outside. The air smelled of fresh pavement and perfumes, the sodden stink of garbage consigned to other parts of town. She felt that this was the ingenuity of wealth: the ability to shut out trash. She felt that Alex was ingenious too.
Kendra allowed herself a reckless intimacy on these walks. She could hear her voice yammering as though she had never spoken to another person in her life. Though he was older, they’d both been pampered by the liberal arts at earnest New England colleges, and had come to love all the same foolish things: lanky black basketball players, Thai food, yoga, all products of Russia and France. Like her, Alex was free flowing in his speech, yet his ropy, logical body seemed evidence of a profound equilibrium within. He was handsome, too: astonishingly bright lips, slightly watery eyes that watched closely when she spoke.
Before long, he invited her to his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. She wore a plum knit dress and dotted pink ballet flats, the fifth or sixth arrangement she had tried. It seemed to her casual and forgiving, and it looked good under her heavy brown coat.
He greeted her at the door in a baby blue button-down. It was a Sunday afternoon, and baby blue suddenly seemed a very insincere color. But it was too late now. She’d had at least three weeks and an entire subway ride to change her mind. She imagined her subway driver, shouting warnings she hadn’t heard over her headphones: Christopher Street: Last exit for virtue. Fourteenth Street: For dignity and face!
Kendra let Alex take her tote bag of manuscripts, which he stowed in a hallway closet. She’d brought it as armor, spurred by a perverse fantasy: if she were caught, she could hold it up in righteous protest. See?—her bra exposed as lacy and pink, her panties in a cowering twist at the end of the bed—we were working!
Alex had real hardwood floors—not the parquet wood tile she was used to seeing in New York. His apartment was a one-bedroom, and he had it all to himself. As it turned out, he came from money, the kind Russ was working to get. Covetously, Kendra noticed everything on this first visit: crown moldings, stainless steel appliances, ceramic tiled bathroom with self-rimming sink. Then there were the distinctly Alex touches. The umbrella stand in the shape of a cannon. The living room walls hand-painted with supernovas in shades of fermented fruit. The adult-looking cylinder of valium in his medicine cabinet, itself painted a petulant green. Nothing matched, everything matched, which seemed to Kendra like some kind of code. And yet a code she’d studied once in school, a code that she could crack.
They sat on floor cushions and drank red wine from enormous Burgundy glasses. She curled her legs to one side and ran her tongue over her teeth between sips.
“What does Kendra wish for?” Alex asked. He broke off the question like a piece of candy he was offering her to bite. He knew about Russ, knew he would never meet him. This made his interrogation freer, and Kendra more forthcoming in her replies.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’ve always wanted to think well of everyone I meet.”
His baby blue shirt crinkled as he leaned towards her. “But you don’t.” He seemed to know how she felt before she did. It was useless even to speak.
“I hate editing,” she went on, not knowing how to be silent. “You have to assume people are idiots.”
“You need to travel more,” he said. His face was set; she could have drawn him, and she was not an artist. “When you get out there, I mean way out, you’ll see what little impact you have on people’s lives.” He spoke in a tone of reluctant authority that she found sweet. He was posturing, even for her, who would have been impressed with him however he spoke.
“That month I spent in Fiji?” he said. “I went days without talking to another person. I would lie there in bed at 4 o’clock in the morning, a whole day ahead of home, and I would look at the light, that first film of morning color, kind of a pale, muted indigo, if you can picture it. And I would think, This is it: This is the color of loneliness.” He swirled the air with his hand as if mixing the exact hue.
“Reading makes me lonely,” she said, looking at his built-in bookshelves. “Harold Bloom can read a thousand pages in an hour. It depresses me to think how much time I’ll have to spend by myself to achieve even half as much.” She tilted her head back to take in the collection. “All those,” she said, waving her free hand. “I’ve probably only read ten.”
He chose this moment to kiss her, while her hand still dangled in the air. It was clear he’d been calculating his approach for several minutes, and when he came at her, it was with stagy abandon, yet straight as a math class line. He licked his lips only the instant before they landed. Kendra received him with gratitude. The suspense was finally over, and it had been worth it after all. As his tongue moved in spirals under her lip, she found herself thinking she would have done it just this way had she been the one to lead. It was exactly the way you kissed someone you weren’t supposed to kiss.
“Does he think you’ll just wait for him?” he asked, when they lay in his bed later.
She stared at the ceiling. Like the rest of his apartment, Alex had painted it himself: a cubist cityscape of overlapping colored squares, all sizes, each one reaching for something in the next. She could not imagine how much money all those colors had cost.
“I think I want to be a psychiatrist,” she said.
“Distressed women always do,” Alex said.
“What about distressed girls? What do they want?”
“Sex.” He rolled over on top of her. She closed her eyes and imagined she was someone else, someone with wisdom and slender thighs. Her old self vanished behind a colored square above: a child’s mythical beast winking, then gone forever. Her hips rolled back with ease; she was a grown-up now.
She left Alex’s while it was still light, her mouth full of searing Altoids, her hands and neck greased with the gardenia-scented body cream she carried in her bag. She took the subway two stops, then walked the last twenty blocks to Russ’s, letting the wind lick Alex’s print from her skin. Papers with public scandal headlines peeled along the sidewalk before her, catching now and then on a street post, or the leg of a jacketed dog. She stopped in at a freshly painted coffee shop and bought a cappuccino and croissant. The boy who rang her up wore a knit cap and was most likely in a band. She made coy and wide-eyed small talk with him, the kind that implied an irreverent and complicated soul beneath, the kind this boy would like. She was a flirt, was all. Harmless! He smiled and gave her a flier for an open mic on the Lower East Side. She tipped him generously and left, humiliated. Back on the sidewalk, oily liquids ran in streams from a storefront to the gutter. She ate the croissant while she walked, avoiding the streams, crispy flakes clinging to her lips and scarf. She was not wealthy enough to neatly eat a croissant.
Russ greeted her looking wolfish. “Are you growing a beard?” she asked him, alarmed.
“Just haven’t shaved in a while.” He nuzzled her cheek with his chin. “Would you like me to grow a beard?”
She pulled back. “I hate beards.” She clamped her hands on either side of his head. “I like your face,” she said with sudden ardor.
“What?” he said, her hands having covered his ears.
Alex sent dangerous emails to her work account. They lacked detail: Are we still on for lunch? The vagueness was damning—if anyone were to see! She deleted them the instant she read them. She couldn’t be sure the distribution list for the entire company wasn’t carbon-copied on every message she received. She couldn’t be sure deletion was even possible. What else did those tech support guys do all day? She’d seen their basement office suite—windowless, paperless, all-knowing. Nothing was ever lost any more. Except dignity. Except face.
Why couldn’t he write her paper notes and sneak them into the purple folders? They were book people, after all. Paper would still be dangerous, but at least it would give her some sense of control. She could shred or burn the notes and know for sure they were gone, no ghost of them remaining.
He came by her office less, which amplified Kendra’s anxiety. Surely this was more suspicious.
“Where is that adorable designer?” Amanda shouted from her office. Amanda shouted everything she said.
“Which one?” Kendra was balancing a 600-page manuscript in her lap, composing the rejection letter she wished she could send. For an “accomplished journalist,” you seem to lack a basic understanding of pacing, characterization, and English grammar. We simply cannot publish an author who misuses common words. I have literally had sex with Alex four times, but you are not literally walking on air. She held the delete key until her document was once again blank.
“I don’t know his name,” Amanda said. “Colin. Micah. Alex!”
Kendra’s boss appeared in the doorway, her knee twitching feverishly, a new manuscript in hand. Amanda had forced intimacy on Kendra early in their professional relationship, treating her to expensive lunches and using these as occasions to unload the details of her two failed marriages. One husband cheated, one drank; both would have preferred her mousy younger sister. Amanda’s life was a story she’d told many times and was by then well-edited. “It will amaze you how little power you have,” she’d said over the salted rim of her margarita. “They just get stronger and stronger the older they get. Well, physically weaker, but more capable of harm.”
“So where’s Alex?” she said to Kendra now. “I have a project he simply has to read. He’ll die. I mean, you can’t even imagine the cover potential.” She dropped the manuscript on Kendra’s desk for copying and scanned the shelf of gimmicky presidential biographies on the wall. “Where’s Grover Cleveland?” she asked. “Someone mentioned him the other day, and I had to come up with some bullshit because I had no idea which one he was.”
“He’s the one who was president twice,” Kendra said. “Once before Benjamin Harrison and once after.” She handed her the volume, Grover Cleveland: The Split-Term President. The series was glib and sold well.
Amanda flipped through a few pages and said, “So why didn’t we make two volumes?”
“Because no one would ever buy two?” Kendra said. This was the longest conversation she had ever had on the subject of Grover Cleveland. Willett & Stokes had been well onto Herbert Hoover by the time she’d come on board.
“Joking, Kendra!” Amanda said. She turned to leave, then snapped her head back. “I love your outfit!”
“Oh!” Kendra’s face burned and she shrugged with instinctive girlishness. “Thanks.” She was wearing an argyle vest in Dutch blue and tangerine.
Amanda squinted, as if reading her for the first time. “What are you trying to be, a runway model? Go eat something!”
“Amanda has a novel for you,” Kendra told Alex over lunch the next day. They were sitting at a second-floor café counter that faced Broadway, watching the scarves and handbags that passed on the street below, and eating spinach salads out of disposable plastic domes. He was a finicky eater, she had learned; this was part of how he stayed so lean.
“Is it a cowboy novel?” he asked.
She put down her fork. What kind of a question was this? Romance fell apart to fatuous questions like this. The smell of his sweat—a peculiar combination of peat and rust—flashed through her nostrils. It was a memory only, but in that moment, she found the sensation revolting. She would have to call it off with Alex.
“It’s about tango dancers in Peron’s Buenos Aires,” she said.
“That’s too bad,” he said. “I like cowboy novels.” He put a forkful of leaves into his mouth and turned to reach for a napkin from the dispenser behind him. A round woman in an I LOVE NY sweatshirt was squeezing by, and his outstretched arm smacked her in the chest. She fumbled her tray, dumping chicken Caesar salad across her shoes and the floor. The woman stood expressionless for a moment, then tilted her head back and closed her eyes, resigned, as though the event she had dreaded her entire life had finally unleashed itself upon her.
“What are you, retarded?” Kendra blurted. “You can’t just fling your arms around like that!”
“Whoa,” Alex said. “Easy.” He wiped a dollop of tomato pulp off his lip, and stood to fish his wallet from his back pocket. But the woman had hurried away without replacing her lost meal, too traumatized to try again. All Alex could do to atone was help the busboy pick up the mess.
“Listen,” he said, once the floor was mostly clean. “I think I’m going away this weekend. Some bonehead friends of mine are gathering in DC. You don’t want to meet them.”
She stiffened. “Who said I would?”
“I just don’t want you to get any ideas.”
“Alex,” she said. “I have a boyfriend.”
For an instant, this statement was empowering. She was the coveted one; her life was whole and good. Love was something to declare, like a large and legal thing she’d purchased overseas.
People continued to shuffle by their table. Salad leaves flew into and out of plastic domes behind the counter. Chairs bucked forward and back. In this incessant atmosphere, her words seemed to ricochet off an invisible current, and come back to her, stinging.
Alex smiled, the blond bristles of his beard standing out in sympathy. He had broken hearts in the past; he knew the pain of hypocrisy, too.
“Of course you do,” he said. “Who the hell do I think I am?”
Luis, the third boyfriend—the gay one—told her she was lucky to have Russ, who had well-sized arms. They were circling the sidewalk carts in SoHo the following Saturday, pretending to have money and influence.
“Well-sized?” She held up a pair of heavily jeweled earrings that hung down in three tiers.
“Cheap!” Luis said. The cart keeper made a face, and Kendra and Luis flounced carelessly down the block, reveling in their small brutality. They were friends because they shared an understanding. They liked private exchanges of empathy and public displays of conceit; liked embracing their own stereotypes one minute and then casting them off the next. Liked being, to each other, the most honest people they knew.
At the hat-and-pashmina cart on the next corner, Luis ducked around the back, then reappeared in a maroon fedora. “If you don’t treat him right, I will,” he said. “Russ needs someone who understands his needs.” He spoke in an exaggerated, kidding tone, but Kendra knew he wasn’t kidding, not completely. Luis liked to fancy himself a housewife, with Russ as his trusty breadwinner. He tossed the fedora back on the pile.
“This is hideous!” she said. She was holding a scarf the color of curried lentils. Luis gasped and plugged his nose.
“Quick, take this one,” he said. His voice made a sound as though he had swallowed a sponge. He draped a sapphire blue over her shoulder and released his breath for show.
She couldn’t tell Luis about Alex or any of it. Luis thought well of her. She was his most reasonable friend, the one who would never cheat.
He held a small mirror in front of her face. “Pretty girl!” he sang. “Bring on the boys! Bring on the football team!” In her conscious life, Kendra did not often feel pretty—certainly not as pretty as Luis, whose skin was cellophane clear. But Luis loved her enough to appeal to her wicked unconscious, and she loved to let herself believe him.
“Who needs a whole team?” she asked, flipping her hair, her best part. “Two is enough for me.” She knew this was not a confession, but it was the closest she would come.
As the weeks chugged on, she became acclimated to her routine. First Russ, then Alex. Then Alex, then Russ. Each one, opening the door of his apartment, opened himself to her. It was like being the child of divorce and having two hometowns, two bedrooms of her own. She had different faces for each boyfriend, and sometimes, different clothes. For Russ she was caring and relaxed: a blousy shirt and jeans. For Alex she presented vaguely off-center: extra eyeliner, outfits built from the shoes up. What surprised her was the authenticity that accompanied these shifts. She didn’t have to pretend. She no longer made mistakes.
“You’re so good to me,” said Russ after another meal. He looked down at his chest as though he didn’t know which was the bigger surprise, Kendra’s devotion, or his own male frame.
“You’re so good,” said Alex, after another orgasm.
To each, Kendra purred in contentment. Both goods were important, and she had come to believe that both were true. She was feeling fuller, like the Wonder Woman balloon in the Macy’s parade, inflating at the elbow, the breast, and at the tips of her purple-black hair. Kendra had watched the parade on television as a girl, and when she moved to New York she’d found the live balloon even more magnificent than she’d imagined. It loomed like a generous storm, a woman altered by the power of good.
She stopped reading books on her subway commute and instead composed lists on the backs of junk manuscripts, ones she could shred instead of having to return. Two columns: Russ/Alex. Like two options on a prix fixe menu. The champion/the challenger. Everything could be written like this, with slashes—her entire life in two columns on a page.
This was the secret pleasure she’d discovered: the pleasure of division. She had punched through the tyranny of oneness and found a new religion in twos. She saw the unlikely nobility in her situation, that she could share her love, and in sharing, multiply it.
Riding the subway from Alex to Russ one evening, she realized she loved Amanda, and her dieting roommates, too. She loved the middle-aged men in business suits with bellies and company souls, their thumbs flattened from BlackBerry texting. She loved New York’s many transgressive toddlers, little girls in princess dresses who ate their string cheese whole like carrots, and the glassy-eyed moms who let them run wild through the cars. She especially loved the subway beggars and their bewitching, monotone speeches. The pathos, the editing—they were better than NPR! She went out of her way now to have ones and change, so that she could give freely, whenever she was asked.
Russ’s law school formal fell on a Friday. They’d agreed to meet outside her office building, which was on the way to the hotel.
While she waited for the appointed hour, Kendra caught up on manuscripts, marking each page in red. By the time he called from the lobby, her floor was empty. She asked him if he wanted to see her workspace while she changed into her dress. They’d always kept work and life separate, but with no colleagues around, she found herself wanting to share. The security guard sent Russ up, and she met him at the double doors that separated her floor from the elevator bank. He stood in anticipation on the other side of the glass, looking like a cadet in his rented tuxedo.
“So this is it,” he said, when she opened the door to her windowless office. He plopped down in her swivel chair and put her phone to his ear.
“This is Kendra,” he said in a feminine imitation of her voice.
“I do not sound like that!” she said, switching off her computer. She took her dress down from a hook on the back of the door, which she locked. “I’m going to change in here.”
“Please do,” he said. “I’ll be reading James K. Polk: Our Manifest Destiny.” He stood to pluck the book off its shelf.
“I know, aren’t they ridiculous?” she said, shimmying out of her Casual Friday jeans. “But they sell! Even James K. Polk. I think it’s the promise of the complete set with all the matching spines that really appeals to people.”
“Fucking packaging,” he said, flipping the pages. She hummed in approval; they hated all the same things.
“Who are you up to now? Kennedy?” He turned to look at her.
“In production,” she said. She was standing in her bra and underwear, preparing to step into the dress, which she turned around in her hands until she had the tag at the back. She got one leg in before she realized he was watching her.
“What?” she said. She was bent awkwardly, from the shoulder, her hip jutting out like a peg, her pink lacy bra gaping slightly under her right arm where her breast did not quite fill it. She felt like a zoo animal, caught licking her bottom by a family in sunglasses and cotton brimmed hats.
Russ’s arms hung down at his sides, and his eyes were moist, as if he were remembering something from long ago; his face like warm, heavy clay.
“Are we alone?” he asked quietly.
She didn’t understand at first, but then he came forward and wrapped his arm around her naked waist, causing her to drop her dress to the floor.
They had sex braced against the biography shelf. Spine to spines: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. She put a hand on a stack of purple folders for balance, and understood that she was killing Alex with every thrust. You could not fuck your real boyfriend in your office and expect your office boyfriend to survive. She wrapped her other arm around Russ’s broad back and imagined Alex with his mouth full of salad, dissolving like a weed into compost.
They lay on the few feet of floor space after, boxes of bound galleys cramping them in head and feet. It seemed a gross parody of New York living to snuggle in a space like this, even smaller than her room at home. Next they would have to try an Amtrak sleeper car—or bathroom!
“I have a title for you for Kennedy,” he said.
“What’s that?” She was coiling a strand of his curly chest hair around her index finger, looking into his ear, and thinking she would have to end things with Alex.
“John F. Kennedy: One Shot.”
She smacked his chest, shrieking. It was terrible, it wasn’t even funny. He laughed and grabbed at her arms. He wasn’t funny, but he was hers.
Eventually, they got dressed; he zipped her in, she adjusted his cuff links, then they walked out together, turning off lights as they went. Her new shoes cut tightly into her toes, but she figured she could last the night. She recalled the momentous shift that had occurred in her life the previous fall, when she’d finally purchased a pair of knee-high rubber galoshes. This was being an adult, she’d thought at the time: it was being sensible enough to own things that would keep her feet dry in the rain.
They waited for an elevator under the dim orange glow of the Exit sign, Kendra plunging her hands into Russ’s deep pockets to keep his body close. “All right, all right,” he said, patting her head. She shifted her weight back and forth in her shoes and poked her nose into his coat’s notched collar.
When the elevator came, and its doors opened, Alex was leaning rakishly against the wall inside, the strap of his shoulder bag bisecting his torso, white iPod buds in his ears. Kendra inhaled. She’d forgotten him. Alex saw her with Russ, and his face snapped into a blank expression.
As Kendra and Russ stepped in, she nodded hello to Alex, then faced forward, her hand firmly on the bar. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He wasn’t supposed to have stayed late that night. She looked at Russ, who was watching the numbers tick down, his mouth slightly agape. Behind him, Alex looked straight ahead, like a stranger on the subway. They stood remarkably close. It occurred to her in a rush that she ought to introduce them—they would like one another! It would be the easiest thing in the world. Why not combine love, and increase it, if you’re suddenly given the chance?
When the elevator reached the lobby level, Kendra, Russ, and Alex stepped out and filed through the revolving glass door. She emerged first and stopped on the sidewalk. Behind her, they turned in opposite directions: Alex north, Russ south. “Have a good weekend!” Kendra called into the sharp, metallic air. She watched Alex walk, mind somewhere apart, and waited for him to respond.
“He can’t hear you,” Russ said, his voice still gravelly from their upstairs romp. “Let’s go eat finger food and dance.”
In the hotel restroom several hours later, Kendra took off her heels and ran her thumbs over the oval blisters that had formed on the tops of her toes. She considered her store of cruelty—the measure everyone was given to get even, or get by. She spent hers freely on minutiae: manuscript rejections, coffee shop boys, scarves sold at SoHo corner stalls. She spent it as people do when they’re not really cruel at heart. But she’d also spent it on these boys, and in larger, more regular amounts. At a certain point, she realized, her measure would have to run out. Which left what—an eroding husk of love, diminishing with every exchange? It struck her then for the first time that she did not really know how to treat people, and that the goodness she longed for might already be gone.
Katherine Hill lives and writes in Philadelphia. Her fiction has been published in Word Riot, and her articles and reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bookforum, The Believer, Poets & Writers, Publishers Weekly, and Philadelphia City Paper. A staff writer at the University of Pennsylvania, she holds a BA from Yale and an MFA from Bennington College. She is currently at work on a novel.