This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2011

Fiction: “It’s Just Not Working Out” by Zoe Whittall

Zoe WhittallWebsite@zoewhittall


Dear Katie,

I woke up with a lingering vision of my Aunt Agnes’s swollen feet propped on her filthy coffee table. They looked like two puff pastries stuffed into once pastel blue slippers, now the colour of a graying robin’s egg. Aunt Agnes smoked like a tire yard on fire. When I was a child it seemed she ate nothing but bridge mix. She drank sherry from a highball glass. We kids were offered warm tap water in Styrofoam cups that she rewashed and used only when we came around, the rims worried with eight-year-old teeth. This was my introduction to single living.

I left Tom a few hours ago. I’ve been thinking of you and your apartment in the city. I know you say it’s too expensive and your neighbours are always yelling obscenities through the floor, but I’ve been dreaming of moving in with you. Going to the market to buy an apple, just for myself. When I’m standing at the Fiesta Farms with a bag of apples—because Tom eats one a day, every day, cut into quarters—I dream about that single apple. I rip into the plastic bag with a finger and isolate one, hold it like a bowling ball, and lift my curled hand above all the other groceries in the cart. I see it as clearly as I saw my Aunt Agnes’s feet this morning. At first, I couldn’t picture anything but her feet, not until I willed my eyes up to see her face, the lines gathering around her lips like a tightly pulled seam. Cigarette held in her puckered lips.

Yesterday at work, I was holding a white ceramic bowl hot from the microwave. It was balanced in both of my hands like I was holding somebody’s head still and with love. I was staring at my computer screen, at an Excel file stacked heavily with numbers and letters. I didn’t want to look down into the warm bowl because I feared that it might be filled with blood. I glanced down at it. I knew there would be no blood in it, and I was right. Lentil soup. But every time I lifted the spoon, I had that thought. The soup even changed in flavour. Like metal, similar to the taste that erupts when you pull the tip of your tongue from away from a frozen, metal surface.

I threw the soup away and shrugged it off. I had a deadline to meet. You know how Sherry gets, sucking in her teeth and orbiting around your cubicle in those ugly black turtlenecks, pretending to look distracted, eyes burrowing holes into your head. She still talks about you, like you’re friends or something. Asks how you’re doing all by yourself in the big city. I say you’ve gone off with a biker. She always believes me for a second, cause she doesn’t really get sarcasm. I say you’re great, starring in a play, etc. All those things that you do. It’s amazing, Katie. I’m so proud of you. Sherry smiles, but I can tell she’s jealous of you, and jealous of me for being your friend, and staying in touch even after you quit.

There’s a new girl at work whose entire family was killed. I do not think suffering ennobles. But I watch her when she smiles. It’s like she knows something I can’t. She spends all day looking at the horoscopes.

Last night I slept at the office. I stayed behind to work on something and told Sherry I’d lock up and I just never left. I slept on the scratchy paisley couch in the break room and ate everyone’s leftover lunches for dinner. I snooped in Sherry’s desk drawers. You won’t believe what I found in them. I’ll tell you when I get to your place. I hope it’s okay to stay with you. I just can’t go home, you know. Not even to get my things. My things weigh me down. Do you know what I bought last week? Stuff off the TV. Tom will be so mad when he gets the Visa bill.

I called Tom from the office and said I was staying over. He thought I’d gone mad or that I was lying, that I was really having an affair—but I took a photo on my phone and it showed him where I was. He said I must be going really crazy this time and that he was on his way to get me. I told him not to. I wasn’t surprised when I saw his face on the intercom video screen, his time-delayed voice of concern begging me to buzz him in. I had no choice really, I had to tell him it was over. IT’S JUST NOT WORKING OUT, I said, pressing the talk button on the intercom. GO HOME. He just kept saying LET ME IN, over and over, until I turned away, went back to the break room and turned up the volume on the TV. I watched the cooking channel and feel asleep. When I woke up, a half hour ago, he was gone. It’s dawn now and the sun is coming up over the industrial park. I can see the early bird cars on the highway curling around the overpass. I’m going to have to hide under my desk soon when the cleaners come. That, or act like nothing is weird. I just came in really early. I’m a keener. You know.

Love, Mary

Dear Katie,

Remember when we were 12, and we used to read all the dirty parts from Judy Blume’s Forever into a tape recorder so we could listen to them later in bed? How did we even come up with that? Then you’d talk about wanting to be a star on Broadway in New York City, and I was going to be the next Judy Blume. Seems ridiculous now, doesn’t it?

There’s still that sign above the photocopier that Tom made when we all worked together. The one that reads, “Flaubert never wasted a word. Why waste a sheet of paper?” Underneath it I scrawled “Oh, and no need to talk down to us, either,” I added a smiley face too. It was funny when I wrote it. I can’t even tell you how much that sign bugs me now. It’s a daily reminder that I once graduated with an English degree. That I was the first one in my family to graduate from college, and that 13 years later it still doesn’t mean shit. My brothers make $85,000 a year in jobs they only needed trade school for. I make $27,000 a year take-home. That sign reminds me that Tom started out as my employee, and then got promoted, and promoted and then headhunted out of here. And I’m still here. Middle-Management Mary. Sherry got drunk at the Christmas party and said I won’t ever get promoted because James thinks I’m just going to end up getting pregnant again soon. Jesus, Katie, sometimes those family photographs up in everyone’s cubicle are enough to make me want to weep.

I had to fire a girl in customer service a few weeks ago. I could tell she thought she was so much better than me, than this whole office. She had a streak of blue in her blonde hair. She wore Fluevog shoes, so I know she has rich parents, right? She published a book of poetry on the internet. An e-book. Whatever. We logged her internet hours and you wouldn’t believe how little work she did. I said, we don’t pay you to chat. I’m sure they’ll hire her back as our Social Media Manager or some bullshit in a few months, especially since she has great tits, but until then, I got to fire her and I tell you something, firing people used to make me cry. I cried every time. Not this time. I felt energized. Take your smug little scarf you wear in 30 degree weather, your third generation granny boots, your pop culture blah blah blog, and go back to your mother’s basement suite in Brantford, little one.

I didn’t say that, of course.

It’s almost noon, and I just bought my train ticket. Thanks for the invitation to your opening night. I will definitely be there. I’m just waiting for pay day.

Love, M

Dear Katie,

I’m so glad we connected on Facebook. Your photos are so awesome: I love the one with you smoking under the bridge wearing that evening gown. I gave up smoking years ago when I was pregnant with Maggie. I started again when she died, but I only smoked until the funeral. I just didn’t enjoy it anymore anyway. Or anything else, really. Has it been three years already? It still seems like yesterday. That week you let me sleep on your couch was so important to me. I know you know that. I remember how glad I was when Tom came to get me, though. Back when I still loved him. I know you say you’re lonely sometimes, and you’re tired of never finding the right guy, but you have no idea how lucky you are. I’d rather have a gay best friend and a book club and three day benders (great photo of you singing shirtless karaoke!) than the same night every night, that thick silence of two people who have given in to growing old. Tom started playing golf. Do I even need to expand?

Love, M

Dear Katie,

Thanks for letting me stay for at least a little while. I totally understand that it’s not a great time for me to move in. I get it. Maybe I can get a place in your building? And don’t worry, you know how clean I am. I won’t leave a trace! We can run your lines together. I can help you with your costumes. Really, I can’t wait to just sit still in a café and watch people. I used to love doing that I went to U of T. Remember that place in Kensington Market? I still dream I’m there sometimes. Is it still there, Moon-something? I can’t believe my two most incessant daydreams involve buying myself an apple, and watching people while drinking a cup of really good coffee. I am so sick of Tim Hortons I could cry some mornings.

Love, M

Dear Katie,

I’m not sure what to tell you. I came in to work this morning, after a terrible sleep at the Comfort Inn across the highway the office and security was waiting to greet me at the door. Apparently Sherry caught on to my expense account scheme. I may have skimmed a few dollars here and there, but seriously, no promotions ever? I only took what I was worth. It’s bullshit. I can’t even tell you how mad I am. I’m slamming on the keys here in the Comfort Inn business centre. I’ll be out of here today, Katie. I hope you don’t mind that I arrive a bit early. Tom wants me to come home, I know. Lena told him where I am and he’s been sitting in the van in the parking lot for an hour now. I can see him from across the little window, he’s been going to my room and knocking, I suppose. I guess that’s love, right? Or craziness. I’m not sure how I’ll get my stuff. Maybe I’ll just show up with nothing? I’m afraid to see him.

When I see Tom in person, I know I won’t stand my guard. He’s just so safe. I’ll walk towards him because I’ll have no control over my body. Bodies crave security. It’s like when you’re freezing to death and you just go on autopilot doing things to get warm, like shivering. Your body tricks you. My body will open the van door, and slide into the front seat, and he’ll say, “How about a pizza, my best girl?” and then I’ll be 68, in a matching recliner next to his, and we’ll be watching some awards show. You’ll be getting a lifetime achievement award, and I’ll be getting him a beer from the cooler between us. And that will be my whole life.

Love, M

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