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Stephanie Greene Fiction

Poison

By Stephanie Greene


I discovered chocolate, my lifelong love and drug of choice, as a five-year-old with my best friend, Tilty. We’d descend into our gloomy basement, past its old furnace groaning like a minotaur, into a little room with a 15-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling, armed only with a single spoon. You had to find the switch, which was a sub-game full of drama as we screeched in delighted terror. Once the light was on, the prize, the giant white chest freezer, gleamed its welcome. Gilgamesh, deep diving for the prized watercress, could not have felt more triumph. We struggled to open the heavy lid, and there, among the bricks of frozen hamburger and bags of spinach, was a five- gallon tub of chocolate ice cream.

One of us would suspend, upside down, into the freezer’s tundra, chip out a stingy spoonful of ice cream shavings, and pass it back. We were assiduous in our turn-taking—the next went to the digger. Back and forth, until the digger got too cold and we switched places.

We reveled as much in our bravery as our reward. We could do anything.

Finished, we’d go up to the kitchen, wash our spoon and rinse our faces before repairing to my bedroom to continue our Barbie play. We’d fashion minute bras and sanitary napkin belts for them, which they’d sport under their cute poodle skirts, their faces giving nothing away. Aren’t most children’s games about what we fear? War. Monsters. Doctor. Puberty. We needed that chocolate.

Now I support myself by telling people what to eat. I counsel people whose only fun, only comfort or entertainment is scarfing the poisons that will eventually kill them. There’s a fine line between anodyne and poison.

On the November morning that Darling Morrissette sashayed into my office, all 275 pounds of her, she’d poured her hourglass figure into a sequined dress whose color shimmered between brown and purple, setting off her wine-colored, smoke-shadowed eyes.

Southern Vermont has never been a fashion capital. You cannot buy pumps in my town of 12,000. People wear work boots to weddings. My clients’ attire is upcountry sackcloth. Women shuffle in, wearing their brothers’ stained flannel shirts and drooping sweats, eyes downcast, braced for a scolding.

But Darling was unrepentant, radiant with fury. She’d been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes; her blood glucose readings were catastrophic.

She actually smiled. “Well, here I am.”

I launched into my spiel, Baby Steps to Better Health, about gradually adjusting one’s diet to contain more fiber, more vegetables, more protein.

“And I cut out sugar, spice, and everything nice?” she interrupted.

“Pretty much,” I admitted.

“What do I do with my malted chocolate cake recipe? It’s my piece de resistance.”

“You can have birthday cake.”

She lifted an elegant eyebrow. “That’s good, because my friends have lots of birthdays.”

“Darling…”

“Call me Dar. People hear you being called Darling, and they draw the wrong conclusions. They meant well, my folks, but Jesus: Darling? You need armor.”

“Boundaries,” I agreed, creeping up on one of my favorite fat topics.

I got a skeptical look. “Do any of those initials after your name mean that you’re

a shrink?”

“No, I’m a diet counselor, but I used to weigh over 200.”

“Ah.”

“I have a few thoughts,” I tried again.

She laughed. “I can see you’re itching to tell me.”

“Why do you think you have a weight problem?”

“Um…I eat too much? I get the math, Honey. I can call you Honey if you’re calling me Darling, right?”

“Do you think you might be a sugar addict?”

She shrugged. “Sure.”

Information is not power. What power have I over the siren song of a Zero bar? That very week I’d read a study that said there was no data proving that nutritionists have actually helped people lose weight.

I confined the rest of my remarks to practicalities, showing her how to read nutrition labels, subtracting grams of fiber from carb counts. I gave her a little notebook to record her readings in, told her to get her test strips at Walmart, one tenth the price of those at the drugstore downtown. We set up another meeting two weeks hence. And with all my heart, I wished her well.

That evening, I went out with my fellow helping professionals. Jake’s, our local dive, offers free popcorn at Happy Hour. We claimed a booth decorated with framed photos of sport fishing trips. Clearly Jake was a menace to every sea creature larger than krill.

Headquarters had just issued an edict that we were to be graded on the performance of our wayward charges, prompting much mirthless laughter and drowning of sorrows. We were only temporarily united: too different and competitive to be friends. But I stayed and laughed at the unfunny jokes, nodded vigorously in feigned agreement while sucking down three beers and enough popcorn to fill a rowboat. Finally, I abandoned the un-popped spinsters and went home, my stomach feeling inflated, as if by a bicycle pump.

Darling’s next appointment was on a Tuesday. This time she arrived in a hot pink tunic, covered with dangly beds, obviously meant for shimmying. I stared at her open mouthed. If she could wear clothes like these, what did she need me for? So what if she wore a size 22? No one looking at her would think about numbers.

But of course it is the numbers. We live by actuarial charts. Your blood is not supposed to be half sugar, but looking at Darling, it was easy to forget why.

Her blood glucose reading had actually come down some and I congratulated her. She waved my praise away.

“This is just dress-up,” she said. “Can I smoke?”

“Officially, no, but yeah, sure.” I opened a window and pulled out the ashtray hidden in my third drawer, hoping for a secondhand whiff.

“My husband and his sister, who lives with us—I don’t know why, so don’t ask—have just put a down payment on a $100,000 Road Master RV. Together we have five kids, our twin teenaged girls, and our ten-year-old son—he still talks to me. Rachelle has two little girls, four and five.”

I waited.

“I didn’t have a vote, because I don’t work.”

“You’re a stay-at-home mom, right?” I interrupted, consulting her paperwork. “You cook, clean, shop, do laundry, organize school trips, oversee house maintenance … you run the show!”

“Not the way they see it.”

“What would you like to say to them?” It was too obvious to ignore.

“They overwhelm me.” She looked down at her lap.

“How about singly?”

“That’s the thing. It’s like I’m never alone with Kevin. She sleeps in the room next to ours but the walls are like paper. I can hear her fart at night.”

Even as I laughed, my own throat tightened. I wanted to ask if Kevin is married to her or to his sister. But I couldn’t say that.

I had to say, “Here is the food pyramid. You’ll notice that it is mostly grains.”

She scanned it. “Nine servings? You mean I can eat a whole box of Wheat Thins and still be on the diet?”

We looked at each other. “Maybe you should go to a marriage counselor.”

“I need a doctor’s referral. Mine doesn’t believe in them. I doubt I could get Kevin through the door without a rag soaked in chloroform. Anyway, I get one side dish on my plan and it’s you.”

“What do you like to do?”

“Eat, obviously.”

I glanced at the poster above my desk: Eating is Not a Hobby.

She blew smoke out the window. When she turned back to me, her eyes were brimming. “Lookit, my fifteen-year-olds use me as a backboard to push against. I won’t say they hate my guts, but they’re trying to grow up and they act that way. Naturally, they think my sister-in-law walks on water. Okay. But there’s not much time or space for ‘what I like to do’.” The last phrase was accompanied by air quotes.

“Right.” The frustration inched its way up my throat. “The thing is, Dar, you’re on a collision course. Five more years of this and you could be looking at dialysis.”

“I’m tough.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before, the working class, bad-ass-I-can-take-any-punishment-forever bravado. I watched my dad die of it.”

You are not supposed to scold clients. Where were my damn boundaries?

“So, you take mini-vacations with sugar.” I continued. “I’ve done that. You’re sad so you bake a hummingbird cake. Something creative, pretty, homey. Who would argue with that? ‘Bake someone happy,’” I sang the last bit out of tune enough to make her smile. “Sugar works that way. But a slice of hummingbird cake weighs in at 90 net carbs, all by itself. That’s a whole day’s allotment if you’re trying to lose weight.”

Dar’s voice was so small I could barely hear it. “There’s no room for me in my life.” We sat there. What could I say? But that’s never stopped me before.

“Do you know about the study in which overweight people were divided into two groups? One was assigned to a nutritionist and a trainer, with a gym membership, and the other got an organizer and a secretary. The latter group lost more weight.”

“Well! What are we waiting for?” She looked around my office. “So—you’re a packrat, huh?”

I laughed. “Actually, yes. And I eat M&MS regularly, so I’m am probably an addict and certainly a hypocrite.” I opened my desk drawer, pulled out the Sharing Size bag of almond M&Ms, offered it to her, and took some myself.

“So you’re telling me I could do your job,” she concluded through the candy rubble in her mouth.

I didn’t tell her she’d have to drop a hundred pounds first. There’s always a catch.

A week later, I was to meet up with Tilty, her new husband in tow. I’m not sure what I was expecting from the evening … to be set free from adulthood for a couple hours? To retrace my steps and start another path?

We’d managed to lose touch for the better part of five years. The last time I’d seen her was in Boston. She was looking at an art therapy program at Lesley, and I was at BU doing what I’ve come to see as my Nutrition Slog.

Anyway, we laughed our way through two bathtubs of delicious pho in what used to be the Combat Zone. The server liked us so much, she brought us Vietnamese coffees—milkshakes basically—on the house.

“Americans no laugh,” she told us. “You must be Canadian!”

We found this hilarious.

Then, I missed her wedding. Maybe she sent the invite to an old address. Her mother was probably relieved. She didn’t want the only wedding she’d get to plan wrecked by a tipsy bridesmaid in faux reindeer antlers.

When I got to the restaurant, they were already there. The husband, Roger, was abrasively ugly; his butch haircut resembling grey Astroturf. He wore a powder blue plaid three-piece suit, and a paisley tie with matching pocket square. My first reaction, as he crushed my hand, was, Are you kidding? I looked over his shoulder for the real Adonis Tilty should have chosen. A composed public smile stretched across her face like a girdle cinching in my old friend. I began to suspect that the evening would be anything but a glorious recap of good times.

Right away Roger started a fuss over the wine list, the kind of adult pretension we would have mimicked as girls with pants-wetting laughter.

I kept darting looks at Tilty, trying to find the avid comrade who’d gotten me through high school. She was thicker, dressed with drab modesty. Her hair had darkened and was pulled back into a bun. She’d become the dutiful brown female cardinal to his ostentatious male. I wondered if they were members of some sort of cult in which the women wear prairie dresses and do all the work, and the men bed twelve-year olds while pontificating about God.

My date for the evening was my on-again-off-again boyfriend, Clayton, a stoic carpenter behind a full beard whom I’d bribed—with a blackberry pie, come the season—to join me. He smelled like clean wood, didn’t talk much, but could floor me with his wit. That night, when I did look in his direction, which wasn’t often, since I was pretty sure he was enjoying this even less than I, he seemed to be burrowing into his beard.

I cut to the chase. “So, tell me,” I asked Roger, “what do you do?”

He taught American history at a Boston junior college notorious for its parties. Most of his time was spent trying to explain plagiarism to his students. Who in turn explained to him that they were busy people and had paid good money for papers, so those papers belonged to them to use as they saw fit.

“Yikes,” was all I could say, thinking that perhaps being a dietician to non-compliant patients was the better deal.

“Are they curious about history?” I asked.

“Nope.” He and Tilty chuckled.

“Let me show you some card tricks,” he ventured, pulling out a pack.

He fluttered the deck around like a pro, had me pull out a card. Then, without looking at

it, he put it on top of his head, and smacked it, hard. A ping-pong ball jettisoned out of his mouth, bouncing spittily across the table into my lap.

Tilty gave the same girdled laugh she’d been hiding behind all night.
“What a card you are!” she exclaimed.

A card?

Bewildered, I retrieved the ping pong ball, wiped it with my napkin and wedged it between the vase of faux carnations and the votive candle beside it. I wanted to put it on top of Roger’s head and tee off. Instead, I turned to Tilty. “You’re an art therapist now, right?”

Roger cut in. “Matilda bakes her own bread. She’s such a homebody.”

Tilty smiled, without discernable irony.

Our dinners arrived. Roger’s was particularly gruesome: his Salisbury Steak was a brown island in a sea of polluted gravy. I made a mental note that if I ever wanted to try aversion therapy with my clients, this would be the place to come.

“You still like baking? Do you remember making jelly rolls every day after school?”

“Oh yes!” Her teeth were clenched in a rictus smile.

“Remember when we baked the jelly right into it? Save some boring waiting around?”

Ha, ha, ha.

“And the jelly sort of exploded out, dripping onto the bottom of the oven and catching fire?” I couldn’t stop. “And then we threw in not only water, but the plastic cups, too? Screaming our heads off?

“From then on, my father referred to Tilty as ‘The Torch,’” I explained to Roger.

He cleared his throat, straight-faced. “Matilda needed reining in. She ran wild as a girl.”

You don’t begin to understand her, I wanted to say.

“Have a biscuit.” Clay proffered the basket. “Sop up some of that gravy.”

Roger did, dripping onto his tie. Exasperated, he snapped his fingers for the server. “Club soda,” he barked.

The next few minutes were taken up with Roger’s spots. I kept peering at Tilty, hoping for a complicit smirk. But she was too busy sponging Roger.

“How did this happen?” I wailed when we finally escaped. I’d regaled Clay with enough Tilty stories that he could appreciate the contrast. “She’s really gone!”

Clay nodded. “That was a pretty good trick, though. Maybe she likes magic.”

“She was magic. And now she’s a nursemaid to that…boor.”

Clay rubbed my back as I sank into mournful silence. Our night together was sweet, if no real consolation.

I saw my life as a mobius strip of trapped confusion. If my work life hadn’t been such a dead end, I wouldn’t be so desperate to find the old Tilty. If the night hadn’t been such a disappointment, perhaps I wouldn’t be bent on blowing my career sky-high.

At Darling’s next appointment, she reported her weight had gone up. She’d learned how to make fondant, which she rolled out and draped over cakes, then consumed. She didn’t report this with her usual bravado. In fact, her whole demeanor has taken on a defeated dowdiness.  Had Roger somehow gotten hold of her, too? Gone were the garments blazing with sequins, replaced by slacks and a grey boucle top covered with pills.

“How are you doing, besides the scale?”

She lifted and dropped one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “My house is a pit. I can’t even think.” She noticed my glance at her top. “My girls say I should dress my age.”

“Tell them to mind their own beeswax!” I snapped.

She cracked a smile. “What do you think I should do?”

“Find a place that is just for you. Clean their junk out of it and claim it. Then do something you enjoy there.”

She looked interested.

“I’ll come help.” This was a definite no-no. Do not fraternize with clients. They have enough problems maintaining boundaries. But I was in deep and determined.

“You can tell your family I am a friend, or your sponsor from a twelve-step group. That should scare them. Or you could say I’m a personal organizer working gratis to get my certification.” I was surprised at how easily the lies came. “What do you think? Is it a deal?”

I showed up at her house, a modest cape whose lawn could comprise a museum of plastic toys: life-seized doll houses, ride-in plastic cars, lawn mowers that blew bubbles out their play exhaust pipes. Someone was having fun, but it wasn’t Dar.

I rang the bell as I surveyed the flat of withering pansies left beside the stoop. With effort I turned back to the door. I longed to water them, tuck them into the balding dirt beside the stairs: Choose your battles I reminded myself.

The little house rocked with a stampede of small, hard feet. The door was yanked open by two little girls, their faces smeared with something jam-like. They stood their ground, mouths agape, taking in this Unidentified Invading Grownup.

“Anty! Some wady is at da door! She’s dot a big suitcase!” cried the older, gap-toothed one.

Well, of course it wasn’t a suitcase. It was just a shoulder bag, with extra trash bags, markers and labels.

We stood there. “ANTY! She’s still here!”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake. Who is it?” Dar’s voice came from the back of the house. The older girl glared at me.

“I’m a friend of your auntie’s,” I announced as winningly as I could.

“No, you’re not! I don’t even know your name.”

At last Dar was at the door. “Sorry about that,” she muttered, ushering me in.

“No problem,” I replied, adding under my breath, “They’d make great bouncers.”

“Yeah, right?”

“They’re cute,” I added weakly.

“No, they’re not. They’re my nieces.”

The living room had seen better days. Uneven Austrian shades in maroon slanted across the picture window, as though the house was a sinking boat, going under. Half-eaten plates of food were scattered around. Burritos seemed to have been on the menu, along with several mini-cereal boxes opened and used as bowls, probably leaking milk. A sleeve of saltines was half crushed into the sofa cushions. Shoes, magazines, toys and a 30-nch flat screen completed the picture. The lighting was grey; the scene reeked of depression.

“Go play, girls.” This was directed at the tots, still dumbstruck by my presence.

“You wanna see my mommy? She’s getting donuts.”

“No, I’m here to see your auntie.”

“Why?”

“I’m helping her clean up.”

“It’s such a mess!” the younger girl crowed, flinging her arms wide, twirling.

I leaned down with feigned benevolence. “Are you going to help clean up like big girls?”

“Nope. It ain’t my house and I ain’t big yet.”

“Is any of it your mess?” I persisted, mistaking it for a teaching moment.

Losing interest, she fell upon her doll, an American Girl brand. She yanked off its expensive clothes.

“Take it into your room, Tiffany. We’re cleaning up,” Dar ordered.

Tiffany sighed, dragging the doll by the foot into the back of the house.

“So! Five kids and three adults here?” I asked.

“Yep. My sister-in-law is ‘job hunting’, which is shorthand for sitting in her friends’ cars, drinking coffee and bitching. She has a degree, so presumably she’s got better job prospects.”

“Okay. Where should we start?” I pushed up my sleeves. “What bugs you the most?”

Dar flopped onto the couch, groaning, her arm over her eyes.

“Right. The living room. I’ll get the dishes. Is there a receptacle for all these toys?” I picked up a Barbie shoe and flicked it, arcing, across the mess. I got the laugh I wanted.

“I love the sound of vacuuming those little suckers up,” she said, heaving herself off the sofa.

I brought the dishes to the sink and soaked them in hot soapy water, then picked up toys so Dar could get at the rug. “Where’s the little girls’ room?

“Upstairs, second on the right.”

The kids’ room was a disaster, but I needed the crate, so I just dumped the stuff on the floor. The girls ignored me, engaged in furious play, jamming dolls and stuffed animals into Barbie’s hot pink sportscar. The sight made my heart leap.

“Cool,” I cried. “You have Barbie’s convertible.”

“Santa was outta campers,” Tiffany replied, not looking up.

I closed the door and briefly considered nailing boards over it. Not an appropriate sentiment. But I was expert at refusing to consider what the hell I was up to, and what would happen when (not if) I was found out.

On the way downstairs I peeked into the other rooms, scouting a suitable space for Dar. The master bedroom had a pile of laundry on the bed that you could repel down. A second room clearly belonged to the teens. The single bed on the far side of the room must have belonged to Dar’s son. The beds were all made, though, and two clothing racks on wheels held their wardrobes in fighting trim.

I stopped for a moment. The clothing made me think of the afternoon Tilty and I went over to Sunny Jerard’s house for a clothes swap, junior year. We dragged garbage bags full of outfits we no longer wore up two flights to the large attic bedroom Sunny had inherited from her college-bound sister. It had two arched windows, an asparagus fern flanked by Art Deco posters. A rose-colored scarf draped over a lamp shade.

Charlene La Fontaine, the black-haired, grey-eyed beauty, was there with two bags, since she’d helped herself to her older sister Donna’s cast-offs as well.

Right off the bat, Sunny tried on a pink flowered sundress from Charlene’s pile, turning in front of the full-length mirror she’d leaned against the wall. “Will Donna kill me if she sees me in this?”

“No way. She makes a dress a week for the Rec Dance. She loses interest fast.” Charlene sat on a trunk, lit a cigarette and exhaled out the open window into the newly unfurled maple leaves, Tilty snagged a teal sweater that Charlene had worn skin tight. Tilty swiveled in front of the mirror, appreciating her newly revealed curves.

“Charlie, why are you getting rid of this?” I held up a pink suede jacket with fringe.

“I’m tired of it,” she shrugged.

“But you look so cute in it,” I protested.

“Cute is overrated.” She stamped her cigarette out in a tuna can ashtray, got up and pulled on a pair of Sunny’s dad’s army fatigues, adding a studded belt.

I slid into the jacket and even though I was on the larger end of a size ten, it fit. “Are you sure?” I asked, not believing my luck.

“Go for it.” She extracted a boxy black sweater I had on permanent loan from my brother. Slipping into it, she became a gorgeous Ninja.

“You look better in it than Tommy ever did.” She met our envious stares with weary defiance: “I’m tired of being treated like a piece of meat.”

I filed that under Unexplained Mysteries and gloated over my haul.

When I wore the jacket to school the following Monday, I got razzed. “Why are you wearing Charlie’s jacket? Are you twins now? You wish.”

To my surprise, Charlene stepped in. “We traded. What’s it to you?”

My interlocuters slunk off. Charlene never talked to me again. I kept that jacket all through college, but rarely dared to wear it.

The last bedroom was an oasis, containing two armchairs, and another flatscreen. Dar opened the door behind me.

“Whose room…?” But I already knew.

Darling did her now familiar shoulder lift and dispirited drop, ashamed. The air hung between us like a mildewed curtain.

“She chips in on the mortgage,” she explained. “When Kevin got laid off, she made it possible for us to stay here.”

I tried shaking off the complicated sense of doom that was settling into my shoulders.

“Let’s get out of here,” I urged. “I’m looking for some space we could clear for you. For a desk, a lamp, whatever. Your space to dream.”

The idea is to try to get people to imagine something different for themselves. I ask questions like, Can you picture yourself without the extra weight? What would your life be like? My clients get a faraway look that often ends in tears.

At the end of the hall was an alcove, filled with suitcases, a lampshade, more toys. And miraculously, an outlet.

“This is it! Whose stuff is this?”

“Rachelle’s.”

“Into the garage with it!”

A smile dawned on Darling’s face.

I hauled and toted for twenty minutes, at first lugging suitcases, then scrounging for boxes to contain the loose stuff. Dar made a neat pile in a corner of the garage, chuckling. “She’s gonna be so pissed!”

On my fourth trip to the garage, she stood contemplating me, her head cocked. “You know what? I don’t even know your first name!”

“Oh,” I sighed. “Germaine.”

“Holy shit. I thought Darling was bad. Did they call you Germy?”

“Jammy. My second grade teacher called me ‘German’ for a whole year.

“Yavol, mein Furer!”

“Funny. Nobody obeys me. How about that little table for your space?” I asked, eyeing the perfect piece.

 “Okay.” Dar returned to her stacking, as I maneuvered the table inside to the alcove. The lamp I found didn’t work, but I suspected the bulb, so went out to the garage for a spare.

“How did you come to be a dietician?” she asked, still bent over boxes.

I was not ready for this, and hesitated. “Interest, I guess. I was fat, and lost weight. It seemed like there was a lot of knowledge out there that would help people.”

“Is part of your program cleaning up?”

“Not officially. But having breathing space might be part of it.”

“So, this is an experiment. Wanna take a break? I can make some fresh coffee.” She headed into the kitchen without waiting for my answer, so I followed her.

I perused the space. It was the most orderly part of the house, the walls white with bright red trim on the cabinets. Tall jars of flours and grains sparkled on the counter. In the corner sat a domed cake stand, gleaming and empty.

Dar made the coffee and withdrew a large orange cake from the fridge. At first I thought someone had laid a freshly picked bouquet across the top, the way you’d put a bunch of flowers on the counter while looking for the right vase. But these flowers were made of different colors of buttercream and fondant: irises, roses, lilies–the stems carefully piped and the veined leaves realistic.

“My God—you made this?”

“Yup.” She put it on the cake stand and brought it to the table. She ran a knife under hot water and cut two enormous slices, putting them on flowered dessert plates.

“This isn’t good for you,” I faltered.

“Do you ever stop being a cop, German? Sit down. Tell me what you think.” She pushed the plate toward me.

“You are so talented. This is gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Isn’t it? I’ve won contests.” She nodded toward the blue and gold ribbons hanging from the valence, their tails stirring in the gentle summer breeze.

I cleared my throat. “So how are your numbers?”

She grinned. “Still there. I don’t put sugar in my coffee anymore.”

I wanted to broach recklessness, death wishes, other options, but she was enjoying teasing me, a defiant gleam in her eye.

“I’m not very hungry,” hell—what am I going to do?

“What the fuck does hunger have to do with it? I haven’t been hungry in years.”

The edge in her voice closed my throat.

“Worried about bikini season?” she needled, taking another large forkful.

“Your health, Dar. This is serious.”

“You just want everyone under your thumb, German. Then you’ll watch the progress of the disease, lamenting my lack of will power. You’ll collect your data and write a bestselling book and be featured on Dr. Oz.”

“Not even close. I want you to be healthy so we can be friends,” I blurted, shocking myself.

She didn’t miss a beat. “You really wanna be my little friend? Then taste it.”

“That’s the truth!” I cried.

“No. I’m your experiment.” She shook her head in disgust, drew her fork into her slice and put the morsel into her mouth, closing her eyes, leaning back, not even chewing, but humming. A long moment passed as I watched her, paralyzed.

She sat forward, drilled me with a look. “Balzac died at 51. If he’d lived on tofu and herb tea, he’d probably have lived longer.” Her gaze was molten. “Whatever. I’m not claiming to be some big-ass genius like him, but it’s my life, German. My body. I’m not your petri dish. Party’s over. Get out of my house.”

I pushed the plate away and got up without looking at her. I grabbed my bag and sweater and clicked the door closed behind me.

Outside, I sat in my car, shaking.

I wasn’t surprised when she blew off her next two appointments. The first was accompanied by a breathy message on my office machine, going on about some mysterious, exciting opportunity—far more thrilling than any carb-counting trudge I could offer. The second one, she just skipped.

I tried, off and on, to find a silver lining. We did get her house cleaned, though it would get undone in the course of a weekend. Maybe she would claim and use her space. And this one’s a biggie: I was not found out. Audrey was actually nice about Dar’s mutiny. “She wasn’t ready. Don’t take it personally.”

Over the next month I gave up chocolate, then backslid, gave it up again. When I found out thirdhand that Tilty and Roger had moved to Missouri, where he’d taken a position at a military high school, I had to cop to how dreary my life was.

Clothes are aspirational, are they not? But putting on skinny jeans does not make you skinny. On fat people, they are just tight.

Nevertheless, I aspired. I dug out the pink suede jacket. And though it was a little loose and smelled gamey, I wore it to work, as the chorus of naysayers in my head announced that only floozies wear fringe. I silenced them with the Jackson Five.

When I arrived at my office, there was a package on the floor outside my door: a brown paper bag tied with a hot pink ribbon.

I reasoned that it was too soft to be a bomb, but my heart thudded as I opened it. It was the spangly sequined top. I didn’t mistake it for an invitation, but perhaps it was a kind of apology. I doubt I’ll ever wear it, but I might frame it.

###


BIO

Stephanie Greene has had short fiction published in Nostoc Magazine, Green Mountains Review, The New Guard, Flash Fiction Magazine and Sky Island Journal. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best of The Net. She is an organizer of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, and lives in southern Vermont.





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