“I don’t belong here.” This is what I say as Jack pours ketchup on his fries. He gives me a look and picks up his beer. “I can’t get out,” I say. “Really, I can’t . I don’t know how.”
Jack is not a handsome guy. He’s about my age, 50 or so, but more wrinkled. Creases abound on his round face, becoming deeper when he concentrates or when he is annoyed. He is annoyed now.
“We’ve talked about this,” he says. “I know you don’t like it here but you can leave if you want to. Stop acting like a prisoner. Get off your ass and do something about it.”
“No, no, no,” I say. “You don’t get it. I made a mistake. Somewhere, sometime I made a mistake that caused me to end up here. Here. In the wrong place. I’ve thought and thought about it and I can’t figure it out. If I knew what the mistake was, I think I could fix it. But I don’t know. I’m stuck.”
I’ve never said it quite this way. Oh, we’ve talked about things before. How pedestrian this town is with its sports teams and churches. We’ve laughed about things before. Like who the heck would name a restaurant Bessie’s Bistro? Is Bessie a cow or some archetypal farmer’s wife? Like why do insurance agents and hair salons feel the need to advertise their religious sensibilities? Can you really find Jesus while updating your homeowners insurance or suffering through a pedicure with cotton balls jammed between your toes?
We’ve condescended, really. What matters to us always trumps what those other people care about. But now I’ve said it. It’s me. It’s me. I know it’s me. I’ve landed here because of me. And I won’t be able to leave until I know what I did that sent me here.
I push salad around my plate. Pale green cucumbers nudge the tomato wedges as pallid ranch dressing drips from the edge of the plate onto the table. We are silent, Jack and I.
“You know what I mean, don’t you?” I finally say.
He sighs, leans back in his chair. His yellow golf shirt has some vendor’s logo on the right sleeve. This is what he always wears, a golf shirt and khakis. Business casual in the 21st century.
“Paula”, he says, “I can’t help you. You’re here. I’m here. It’s the way things are. Change it or don’t. The other stuff makes no sense to me.”
So then I’m mad. I want to be pacified. I put some money on the table and get up.
“Gotta get back to work now,” I say. It’s true but not really so urgent. “I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”
At the office, I settle into my cube, surrounded by piles of paper and computer equipment too old to be much use. Young Stacy comes by for advice on a billing problem. Fat Tom wanders in to complain, again, about skinny Mark and his stuck-up attitude. “We all have attitude,” I say. “Get over it,” I say.
Phil calls an important meeting in the Willow Room. Young Stacy sits next to me and chews her nail. Fat Tom sits across from skinny Mark and glares. Ambitious Bob holds his pen at the ready. He will write down every word we say and later study his notes as if they can tell him how to succeed. Phil heads the table. “We have more budget cuts”, he says. “I know this is hard but we have to suck it up and make do with what we have left. Be productive. Get the job done.”
“So what else is new?” I ask. I don’t want an answer. Phil rolls his eyes. Ambitious Bob writes and writes. What has Bob learned today, I wonder? How to suck it up or how to act like all this matters?
I stop at the grocery store on the way home. I need something but now I can’t remember what it is. I wheel up and down the aisles and put things in my cart: a jar of marinara sauce, honey crisp apples, organic almond butter, broccoli and sour cream. In some aisles, women block the way with their over-sized kiddy carts. In others, senior citizens move so slowly that I doubt they will wrap up their shopping before bedtime. I navigate my way through the store, get in line at the checkout counter and suddenly remember what I really needed, why I am here. Too late now. I am hemmed in by other shoppers.
“How are you today?” the checker says. “Did you find everything you needed?” “Well, no,” I am tempted to say, “no, I did not.” I pay for what I have and head out.
Home again. I give up the idea of cooking dinner. I make a sandwich with the almond butter and apples instead, feel vaguely guilty for not including something green. I eat in front of the television, flipping channels between bites. Images come and go: a family looking for justice, a young couple looking for their first house, a mother looking for cooking tips, everyone looking for something. Sometimes they find it. These questions I ask myself from night to night. Who are these people? What place do they inhabit? Where is there?
At 9:00 pm, I allow myself to get ready for bed. My pajamas are soft, baggy and old. Entering the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth, I leave the light off, making do with a glow from the hall. The mirror glints with bits of my reflection. I close my eyes. The woman there is not me. So I imagine, anyway. The woman there is not here. She is living the other life, the one where all the right choices have been made, the one without mistakes. She is the should-be-me. We are not friends.
I am not sleepy. Not at all. My digital clock glows red in the gloom, seconds passing in silence. The quiet in this house is immense and overwhelming. I am waiting for an hour that will never strike, I think. I pick up the phone and call Jack. His voicemail kicks in. “Hey, Jack, hey” I say when I hear the tone, “It’s me. Sorry about that crap at lunch.”
“You know me,” I say. “Call me back if you want, if you feel like talking. I’m here.”
© 2016 Karen Kleis – All Rights Reserved
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