The first weekend in December, I have the apartment to myself because my roommate, Jack, is off at a “fondude ranch” retreat for work. Horses and cheese. Trust a Williamsburg tech startup to find the one patch of Brooklyn in Vermont. It doesn’t matter to me where he is, exactly, but I do know that he’s partial to one-off hookups with coworkers who aren’t sure if they’re gay, so I slipped a box of condoms into his suitcase before he left. He calls the hookups his Christmas charity. When we pass Salvation Army collectors ringing bells to the rhythm of ‘All I Want for Christmas is You,’ their noses dripping in the cold, he stops in front of them without dropping any coins into their buckets. “I already contributed,” he tells them.
Without Jack here, I wake up early and open all the windows. The cold drives the cat to me. The cat and I have an agreement: I buy it a new ugly bird toy for it to gnaw into a slobbery lump whenever they go on sale at the Dollar Tree, and in return, the cat only scratches the chair that used to belong to my grandmother. Per my request, it leaves my grandfather’s chair alone.
Right now, the cat waddles into the living room and settles itself across my bare ankles. I’m lying on the couch I bought when I first moved to Williamsburg two years ago, right after college, at a vintage store that was going out of business. My mother hasn’t visited me here and she swears she never will. She says that with furniture like this, my apartment must be swarming with bedbugs. I don’t mind. Whenever I see her, she tells me that my eyebrows are uneven.
I drag a blanket across my lap and dial Domino’s. “Hello,” says the girl on the other end. “Domino’s Pizza. Would you like to place an order?”
“I’m not sure,” I tell her. “I thought I did when I called. Never mind — I don’t want to waste your time.”
“It’s okay. People usually do this at eleven at night, not nine in the morning. Want to chat?”
“Not really,” I say.
“That’s a pity,” she says. “I like playing Pizza Therapist.”
“Is that why you have this job?”
“No. I have this job because I like to steal leftover sausages from the trash heap at the end of the day and feed them to my pet pig.”
“No, hon, just trying to see if you were listening.”
I hang up. She probably wasn’t joking. You never know — pizza can really produce some psychos. I once went on a date with a man who ordered and ate a full pie of pizza. They were small pies, granted, at an artisanal pizza parlor. I ate three slices. But there was something about watching him pick up each triangle of margherita, fold it down the center like creasing a paper airplane, and load it into his mouth bite by bite, eight times over.
He was a nice guy, but I couldn’t get over the pizza. There was no second date.
The cat realizes that it’s showing me affection — it let me pick it up to give it a hug today, and that was disturbing enough — and skitters off my ankles. I hurl the blanket further down to cover my feet. There are four different texts I need to respond to, and I probably will, but not before noon. I’ve told all my friends that on the weekends I sleep in; when I moved in with Jack, I told him that he’d have to find another roommate if he told anyone the truth. In exchange, I put up with his collection of aging fungi, the mushrooms in various states of decomposing toxicity.
James, my boss, 9:17 a.m.: Can you work the morning shift on Tuesday? Thanks!
Gabbie from Zumba, 7:52 a.m.: Want to grab brunch tomorrow? There’s a new quinoa cafe on 9th.
Henry, the drunk Starbucks barista I work with whose ass I covered on Thursday and whom I gave my number to because he said he wanted to properly apologize when he was sober, 6:32 a.m.: Are you getting my texts? If you weren’t going to respond, why did you give me your number?
Alexa from college, 3:04 a.m.: dude have I got some tea to spill!! text me asap
In truth, I gave Henry my number because I thought he was gay and I wanted to set Jack up with a decent guy. But Henry’s apology texts had come with a request to take me out to dinner to make up for it, and besides, decent guys don’t usually get drunk on the job at 4:00 on a Thursday.
Irrelevant. It’s a Saturday morning. I break my ban on leaving the house before 1:00, and decide to take a run. I don’t run. But I also don’t want to apply for non-Starbucks-related jobs, or hold a FaceTime session with Alexa, or go back to sleep and wake up again at five in the evening with a headache and an inferiority complex. I don’t bother to change out of my pajamas, just yank an athletic jacket — a birthday gift from my grandmother, delivered with a cursive suggestion to Run more :) — over my faded Superman shirt and snowflake pants, and leave the brownstone.
I don’t take my phone, which is stupid for safety/music purposes, but the texts can’t haunt me if they’re not in my pocket. Instead, I focus on the buildings I pass. Here’s where my Orthodox Jewish neighbors live; once, they forgot to turn off their sink tap on a Friday night, and the drain was clogged so the water started to spill onto the kitchen floor. When one of the older daughters was at the window, I happened to be passing by, and she asked me to come in and turn it off for them. That’s why I’m reform. I’d rather break the rules of Shabbat than invite a potential murderer inside to twist a tap.
I round the corner onto 9th and pass the quinoa cafe, which looks exactly like I’d expect a quinoa cafe to look, and then the Starbucks where Henry and I work, and then a barbershop that specializes in androgynous cuts, and then the Domino’s. Maybe I’m cold or maybe I’m curious, but I go inside.
It’s a dirty shop, cramped, and the windows and the fire in the back of the pizza oven serve as the main sources of light. One of the tiles on the ceiling is missing, and there are two frayed electrical cords dangling from the square black void above me. No one else is inside the shop except a middle-aged guy with a neck beard, his meaty forearms resting on the marble of the counter from behind. “You want a slice?” he says.
“No thank you,” I tell him. “I’m just here for the experience.”
The door to the kitchen swings open, and a girl in a down coat comes out. “I’m taking my lunch break early,” she says to Neck Beard. “See you in forty-five minutes.”
She pushes open the half-door separating the counter from the rest of the restaurant, then brushes by me as she heads toward the door. “Wait,” I say.
Both she and Neck Beard turn to me.
“So you do want to buy something?” asks Neck Beard.
“No, I was actually talking to —” I gesture at the girl. “You’re the one with the sausages, right?”
She smiles. “You must be the one with the existential crisis.”
I glance down at my pajama pants. “Maybe.”
“Take a walk with me.”
“Thank you! And, um, sorry!” I call over my shoulder in Neck Beard’s general direction as I follow the girl out of the Domino’s.
We walk in silence for a few blocks until we’re out of Williamsburg, maybe into Bushwick. Finally, she asks, “Why did you come find me?”
“I didn’t come find you,” I say. “You were just there.”
She shoves a strip of mint gum between her teeth. Even though she isn’t a teenager — maybe she’s even a few years older than I am — she has braces. “Sure, hon.”
“It’s been fourteen years since I adopted my cat, and for the first time, it didn’t squirm and try to escape when I picked it up today,” I say. “That means that it’s going senile, doesn’t it.”
“You could be going senile too,” she says.
“But I’m not.”
“Sure you are. I am, too. Last week I went to the wrong daycare center to pick up my kid.”
“You have a kid?”
“She goes to Miss Annie’s on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Mx. Avery’s on the other days, and I went to Miss Annie’s on a Friday.”
“What’s her name?”
“I just told you, her name is Miss Annie. And I went to —”
“No, your daughter’s name.”
I always thought that people who name their kids after food expect them to grow up to be prostitutes, but I don’t share that particular detail. “That’s a cute name.”
“What’s your cat’s name?”
“A child and a cat are hardly the same.”
“Still. What is it?”
“It had a name for a while, but the cat was an asshole, so I kept calling it ‘the cat’ and it stuck.”
It’s been more than twenty minutes since we left the Domino’s, and we haven’t turned back. We’re at least a mile into Bushwick by now. “Aren’t you on lunch break?”
“Hon, I work at a pizza place. I can eat while I’m on the job.”
“But you’re planning to go back there in a few minutes, right?”
She looks me in the face for the first time. “Yeah. I don’t seem like the type to just leave work and keep walking, do I?”
She does. “Of course not.”
In the middle of crossing a street, she stops abruptly and pivots. I’m still walking forward when I realize it. I turn and run a few steps until I’m next to her again.
“What was that?”
“Twenty-two and a half minutes.”
We walk through Bushwick in silence, tracing the same blocks we passed the first time. We’re almost at the Domino’s again, three minutes earlier than we needed to be for her to be back in time. She cuts across the parking lot behind the Starbucks. I follow her.
“I like to see if I can beat my time,” she says.
There are a couple of giggling stoners; a group of beret-clad hipsters smoking and arguing about how to keep succulents alive; two men making out against the exposed brick of the back wall. For a moment, I think that the men are Jack and Henry, but we get a little closer and I realize that they’re just two skinny guys wearing all black.
I don’t think Jack is in Vermont, though. I wonder whether fondude ranches are a real thing, or if it was just a pun that doubled as an excuse.
“You know them?” the girl says.
I shake my head. “Nah.”
We get to the Domino’s, and she nods at me and goes inside. I watch the door bounce on its hinges behind her. I contemplate whether I should keep walking, and decide to speed up back into a run.
This story was published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Penn Review and the December 2020 issue of plain china.
Ever since Cecilia Harrison’s father told her that no one ate cinnamon raisin bagels anymore, she had made it her personal mission to order only cinnamon raisin bagels. She preferred egg. Even so, cinnamon raisin was palatable — even pleasant — lightly toasted and dabbed with full-fat cream cheese. She chose full-fat even though half-fat tasted the same because she needed an excuse to buy new jeans.
Cecilia trudged into the dentist’s office where she worked and opened her personal inbox on her phone, marking all her emails as ‘read’ without seeing who sent them. She took off her puffer coat and glanced down at today’s scrubs, her most fun pair, the ones with the smiling bananas on the arms.
“Those aren’t very clever,” said her favorite receptionist, Lucy. “Bananas are already shaped like mouths.”
“So what?” said Cecilia.
“So they should just have eyes floating above them. And a nose. That would be a more creative face,” said Lucy.
“No, that’s overdone,” said Cecilia. “Banana-as-mouth? That’s obvious. But banana-with-mouth? Now that’s downright subversive.”
Cecilia slid her scale out from under a pile of medical records in the closet that she’d claimed as an unofficial office. Technically, dental hygienists weren’t supposed to have private offices, but she needed somewhere to hyperventilate during panic attacks, and going to the bathroom to panic was something she’d vowed never to do again after high school. She unlaced her sneakers — NewBalance, 2009 fall collection — and stepped onto the scale. She’d gained three pounds of cream cheese weight since last month. Another two and she’d treat herself to a trip to J.C. Penney.
She scanned her schedule for the day. Three patients, lunch break, three patients, short break (used, depending on the day, for a quick walk, a yoga salutation, a minor breakdown, or a cup of coffee), two patients, clock out. Cecilia pushed the scale back under the papers and left her closet.
She stood in the doorway of the waiting room, and even though there was only one family there — a polo-shirted father clutching the hand of an eight-year-old with green plastic glasses — she called, “Danny?”
The boy bounced off the couch, his father lurching forward as Danny’s hand remained clamped onto his. The father pushed himself into a standing position. Cecilia noticed the strong cheekbones beneath skin that was just starting to droop into jowls, and decided that she would check whether Danny’s mother was still alive.
“Dad, I can go by myself,” Danny said.
The father glanced at the dentist cubicles and then at Danny. “Are you sure?”
Danny nodded and let go of his father’s arm.
“If you’re certain, kid,” said the father.
He sat back down on the cushion with a heavy thud, his left arm leveraging his weight. Cecilia noticed a cane propped up on the wall a few feet to his left, the same cold medical steel that composed her own father’s wheelchair, and decided that she wouldn’t mind if Danny’s mother was still around.
“Come on, Danny,” Cecilia said, guiding the boy to the set of sinks. “What color toothbrush do you want?”
“Red,” said Danny. “Do you know what else is red?”
“No, I don’t. Do me a favor and brush your teeth while you tell me, okay, sweetie?” Cecilia said.
Danny squeezed a pearl of bubblegum toothpaste onto his brush. “Okay. What’s red is communism.”
Cecilia choked on a ginger mint.
Danny opened his mouth again, toothpaste dripping from his gums, but Cecilia ushered him into the dentist’s chair before he could say anything.
“I’ll be over in a few,” the dentist, Dr. Gerald, called from inside her office. Dr. Gerald’s office was not a closet. Sometimes when Cecilia was staying late to do inventory, and she was the last person in the unit, she stood inside Dr. Gerald’s office and inhaled Dr. Gerald’s lingering perfume. Cinnamon and cardamom, with a hint of something musky. Cecilia once found a perfume bottle on the windowsill with just a few drops left, really almost ready to be tossed in the recycling bin. Cecilia didn’t recycle it. Instead, she tapped out some of the remaining liquid onto the cockroach trap underneath Dr. Gerald’s desk. (Cecilia’s father kept two pet Madagascar hissing roaches in a glass cage with tomatoes and lettuce, and Cecilia didn’t mind the roaches but she would never eat a BLT.) The next time the exterminator came to change the traps, Cecilia saw one wavering cockroach leg extend from the trap just as he tossed it into a garbage bag. Cecilia didn’t know what she expected to feel at that moment. Anyhow, she didn’t feel it.
Cecilia nodded to Dr. Gerald. “I’ll get him ready.”
“Don’t worry, bud,” Dr. Gerald said, focusing her reptilian eyes on Danny. “Cecilia will make your teeth shine like my father’s bald head in the summer.”
Danny frowned. “Then what’s your job?”
Dr. Gerald’s mouth hardened into a line. “Cecilia, I’ll take over as soon as I can.”
Cecilia suppressed a chuckle and clipped a bib around Danny’s neck. She jabbed sunglasses on his eyes, twisting the dial on the overhead light to shine just a little too bright for his comfort. The rubber of her gloves snapped against her skin and she knew that her palms would be chalky from the silicon when she peeled them off in twenty minutes.
Cecilia stuck an electric toothbrush in Danny’s mouth and swiped at his teeth. Chunks of beige plaque were wedged between his molars.
“My friend told me a joke about communism,” he said through the toothbrush, toothpaste saliva spattering Cecilia’s goggles. “Do you want to hear it?”
Cecilia did not want to hear it. “Of course, hon.”
“Did you hear the one about the Marxist speaker who charged lots of money to speak?” Danny spat into the tube trailing out of the side of his mouth. “That’s it! That’s the joke!”
“Do you know what that means?” Cecilia asked.
“Yes,” said Danny. He glared at her from beneath the sunglasses. “I hate it when adults do that.”
As a dental hygienist, it was quite literally in her contract to do ‘that.’ If she didn’t patronize at least six children each day she’d receive a salary deduction.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” said Cecilia, unhooking the tube from the inside of Danny’s cheek and laying it down on the table beside her. “I’m going to paint your teeth with this special paste, and then swish and spit into the tube, okay?”
“The paste is red like communism,” said Danny.
“Just—swish—and spit,” repeated Cecilia.
She decided that she might have to take her panic break early today.
Dr. Gerald slipped out of her office and padded up to the dental station, then snatched the tube from the table.
“You look like you could use a few minutes, hon,” Dr. Gerald whispered to Cecilia. “If you need, you can take a breather in my office.”
This close to Dr. Gerald’s face, Cecilia noticed the light flick of Dr. Gerald’s eyeliner. It occurred to Cecilia that she’d been a hygienist longer than Dr. Gerald had been legal.
Cecilia nodded and retreated to her own closet. As she shut the door, she felt her phone buzz in the pocket of her scrubs. She read the text. Hi Cecilia. I’m ashamed of the person you’ve become. Xo, Dad.
She opened the door of her closet again and crossed the hall into Dr. Gerald’s office. Watching Dr. Gerald hunch over Danny through the window in the closed door, Cecilia felt something like what she expected to feel after the cockroach/perfume incident. Cecilia opened Dr. Gerald’s desk drawer and found a new bottle of perfume, three-quarters full this time, the translucent rose liquid sloshing inside the glass. She held the bottle to her chest and then slackened her fingers. The bottle plummeted to the linoleum floor and shattered, liquid rushing over shards, then sprawling into a thin layer around Cecilia’s sneakers. The rubber of the soles absorbed some of it. Cecilia would buy a new pair when she went shopping for jeans, which was to say that she would never buy a new pair, because every time she got within a pound of her cream cheese goal the nausea became too thick in her stomach and she heard her voice ordering an egg bagel with butter, and then when she took the Metro to work she ripped the bagel into doughy chunks with her bitten-down fingernails instead of smearing lipstick across her mouth, and when she got into the office on those days Dr. Gerald always offered her a moment to ‘breathe’ and Cecilia — despite her tongue-crushing desire — never offered Dr. Gerald a moment to go fuck herself.
Cecilia stepped over the puddle of perfume and left Dr. Gerald’s office, then opened the gate to the reception desk. She sat down in the folding chair behind Lucy’s rolling one. “You’re right,” she said, leaning forward so that only Lucy could hear her. “The bananas should be mouths. Subversive is practically a cliché.”