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.