O’Hare is a Circle of Hell

It is December in Chicago.    

When I step off the train, there’s a palpable cold. The car pulls away, and all the air suddenly goes with it. I follow the other hollow-eyed travelers to the escalator; only small children and middle-aged women with something to prove take the stairs. When I get to the top, I dig out my paper boarding pass. I’ve never trusted the mobile ones. The few times I’ve used them, I end up killing my battery. The whole way through line, I’m terrified that the phone will die at the exact moment I reach the TSA officer, so I constantly tap the screen back to life whenever it goes black.

            Terminal 4. I squint at the sign above me, which reads Terminals 1-2-3          5. I feel my eyebrows lock in a furrow that won’t be undone. Around me, bodies mutter and part. Somewhere, a busker is playing a dirge. Slowly, the number 4 starts to flicker in between three and five, a weak neon beacon. I follow where the arrow points.

            I’ve only brought a single backpack, and I wonder if it looks suspicious. But I’m only traveling from Chicago to St. Louis—a mere 30 minute flight. Lesser beings would have driven, but when December in the Midwest is a choice between abject misery and utter misery, you take your chances. The security line snakes around to the accursed Spirit Airlines “service” desk. Bodies looking for human assistance and bodies waiting to be stripped of their shoes, hats, boots co-mingle. Three drug hounds patrol lethargically.

            As soon as I get in line behind a family of four, I begin to strategize: Liquids, laptop, Kindle, shoes, coat. But over the course of an hour, which is how long it takes to get to the part of the line where this process begins, things start to go wrong. There’s so many people that more and more get shunted to the metal detector, which you think would make the line go faster. But it seems as though no matter which line I’m in, there’s an abundance of things that make it move more slowly: A man’s taken all off his coat and shoes even though he’s clearly over 80 and is slowly and painstakingly folding them to lay into a tray. A kid gets loose and runs through the backscatter machine, so it has to be recalibrated it several times. A TSA agent opens a bag and finds a forty of Mickey’s in it. “Sir,” he says without emotion, you have to toss this or drink it.” Without hesitation, the gentleman in question drinks half and throws the rest away.

            When I finally get to the backscatter machine, I spread my feet and hold my hands up over my head as though I’m at a stop and frisk. “Higher,” the TSA agent says, and I raise my shoulders, feeling my t-shirt start to hover above my gut.

            The agent beckons with a skeletal finger. I lower my arms and walk through, but he holds up a hand for me to wait. I should have put on more deodorant or at least used the stuff that says its made and tested in laboratories. The clinical smell would be fitting in this labyrinth of which I am but one rat waiting my turn to access the cheese cubes. After a few moments, he waves me through, several blessings be upon me. Other passengers are furiously pawing at items, as if everyone’s flight is in exactly ten minutes. I shoulder my backpack and gather my various detritus into my arms like babies. I redress myself, but I’ll never regain any sense of pride.

            Where is terminal 4? I go from person to person to ask this question. I even Google “Ohare help” and manage to find some sort of hotline, but am told that there is no information for terminal 4.

            “As in, it doesn’t exist?” I ask.

            “As in, I can’t help you,” the operator says tersely, hanging up on me. By now, I’ve sweated straight through my Led Zeppelin tee, but I’m trapped inside winter apparel until I die of dehydration or get to my gate, whichever comes first.

            “YOU ARE LOOKING FOR TERMINAL 4.” That voice. At once familiar, unnerving. Many decibels too loud, strained as though the speaker had never heard of an “inside voice” or at the very least, had always had to compete with a screaming crowd.

            I turn to see a man—an 80s Adonis really, blonde hair teased out like a halo around his head. He wears a tank top tucked into tight stonewashed jeans. And he’s tan and glistening. So very tan and glistening. In addition to his strange appearance, the man has absolutely no luggage and no coat. I try not to stare at his nipples, erect from either cold or perhaps it is simply that his skin was too tight and muscly to contain itself.

            “YOU ARE LOOKING FOR TERMINAL 4!” he yells again.

“Me?” I say like an idiot.

            “I’LL TAKE YOU,” he says.
            This seems strange, but I’ll be honest reader—I am desperate. Before I arrived at O’Hare, which now seems to be days ago, even years, I imagined what it would be like. Sure, the TSA lines would be long, but once inside, I’d make my way to my gate with an hour to spare, then order a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts (1 cream, 1 sugar, perfectly mixed by a machine designed to do exactly this), drink leisurely, take a PPP (pre plane poop), and get back to the gate as they start to call for passengers.

            “FOLLOW ME,” orders my overly energetic guide. 

            I do as he says. He leads me past the Cinnabon, where the line stretches beyond what I can see. All the nearby tables are crowded with patrons who chomp the sweet buns mechanically one after another. We pass the lactation room where a crying woman is trying the door, which appears to be locked. She’s knocking, pressing her ear to the door, waiting. She walks away, circles back, and repeats these desperate motions. We walk past restaurants where people are eating expensive hot dogs and flavorless pizza that costs $25. A teenager almost runs me over as she walks briskly with her head down staring into her phone, then looks up desperately. She’s searching for an outlet that will never appear. As we pass the Sunglass Hut, an older woman is trying out one pair of glasses after another, never satisfied by what she sees in the tiny mirror she has to squat to look into. She can’t find the right pair even though her flight to Florida is in an hour and she needs to, at all costs, protect her eyeballs.

            My guide notices me watching these events and says, “DO NOT TRY TO REASON WHY. THERE IS NO HOPE FOR THEM. WE WALK. I NEED FUEL.”

            My brisk walk turns into a gallop to keep up with him.

            We stop at a Starbucks. The sea of people part before my oiled-up guide. I attempt to meet their eyes in apology, but they are shriveling away from us like the sad seaweed people in The Little Mermaid as Ursula’s shadow passes over them.

            “MACCHIATO. CARAMEL” my guide booms at the barista who honestly doesn’t seem shaken. Maybe he’s used to the ever replenishing supply of weirdos here.

            “Name,” the barista asks holding a sharpie over the cup.

            My guide replies, “I, HULK HOGAN, AM THE ONLY ONE.”

            “Pick it up over there,” the barista says.

            Later, a voice calls out “caramel macchiato for Hoke!” My guide picks up his drink, inhales the steam deeply, and booms, “SMELL IT, WARRIORS.” I honestly can’t say who he’s talking to, but I realize we still haven’t made it to Terminal 4. He seems to sense my unease and places his giant hand on my shoulder like a lead weight. “THANK YOUR CREATOR, LITTLE SQUID, WE ARE NOW GOING TO TERMINAL 4.”

            Minutes later, we round a corner. The lights are flickering in this hallway like a David Lynch movie. It seems relatively abandoned for O’Hare’s usual bustle. We’ve run out of restaurants: A solitary Quizno’s sits at the entrance to Terminal 4. Years of neglect have not been kind to this forlorn sandwichery: Faded etchings depicting demonic hamster-men decorate the walls. The stench of roasted porcine flesh fills the air. This terminal seems oddly narrow: A series of dark arcades. A wall monitor comes into view: Abandon all hope, you who enter here. My guide shouts, “WE ARE ABOUT TO ENTER PARTS UNKNOWN.”

            Although we have entered the place that I had thought was my destination, the feelings of loss and despair do not leave. And my glistening guide shows no signs of ending his guidance. He keeps striding along into the terminal with purpose. And so I follow him into the darkened hallway. When he finishes his drink, he crumples the paper cup, arm veins bulging, and throws it to the ground.

            “Hey,” I start, about to scold him for littering, but the cup rolls toward the wall and disappears into some black, endless abyss that swallows his transgression.

            He sees me staring and shrugs – at least, I think he does, for it is impossible to distinguish his shoulders from his neck. “I HAVE ACCEPTED MY FATE, TRAVELER, WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU ACCEPTED YOUR FATE?”

            What had the fates dealt me? It is then that I do start to smell it (Warriors). I taste it—that hunger for a $30 sandwich gnawing at my bones, but I feel I must press on. I turn back to look behind us, but my guide grabs my arm with his tyrannical grip. “YOU SEE NOTHING,” he simply states. Existentially, the words stung. But he was right. If there was anything back there at all, it was only endless bathroom lines, drinking fountains whose filters were always on red alert and needing to be changed by a night janitor who never appears. Indeed, there is no greater sorrow than to recall our times of joy in wretchedness.

Although the journey here had been harrowing, nothing prepares me for the sights of terminal 4. As I follow on the heels of my steroidal guide, things start to look more familiar, but uncannily so. There are now gates on either side of us, but I shudder looking upon those waiting there. A group of ragged travelers have built a trash can fire to keep themselves warm, but the sprinkler system periodically erupts to extinguish the flames, so they continually throw items out from their carry-ons to stoke it back to life. “Why don’t they just move the trashcan?” I ask my guide, watching the Sisyphean scene.

“THE SCREEN,” he yells, pointing to the flight status monitor, which shows that the flight has been delayed five hours, but continuously updates to say it will only be five minutes more. I now understand that they cannot move for fear that their flight will leave without them. So, they huddle together in their misery forever.

Over the loudspeaker, Styx’s Come Sail Away plays. My guide tenses, and I wonder if he too has always thought that Styx was too hardcore of a name to be responsible for such a lively song celebrating the following of one’s dreams.  Perhaps this infernal dichotomy is why the song has been banished to Terminal 4 and karaoke bars. At the next gate, I see a man watching advertisement after advertisement waiting to use the free wifi. Each ad is increasingly more annoying. The man starts to sing jingles to himself, occasionally letting loose a maniacal laugh, his eyes never leaving his laptop screen.

We pass by the chair massage place where the cries of passengers rise up in an opera of pain (I assume because their 30 min massages are $100), children with soot on their cheeks chew on the foliage of decorative plants. I look at my boarding pass, crumpled in my hand and damp with sweat. Gate X8. I am here. I look up at my guide, who begins to launch into a speech as though he has a camera trained upon him. He begins with a loud and vigorous snort. “AS YOU TRAVEL BY CONVENTIONAL MEANS, THE NORMALS YOU TRAVEL WITH EXPERIENCE MALFUNCTIONS. ALL THAT IS LEFT IS TOTAL SELF-DESTRUCTION…”

I stop listening. My stomach is growling like a hellbeast, and I want nothing more than to get on the plane and eat my pittance of dry pretzels or, if I am blessed, speculoos cookies. Will I leave limbo today? The worker behind the desk wears the navy blue of American Airlines, the scarf around her neck a river of deep red. She picks up the intercom and puts it to her mouth. My own mouth is dry; I am neither dead nor living. I am in some kind of eternity. Praise be upon Group 9, I silently pray, those behind families with small children, active military, and those of the endless large carry-on. May we again behold the stars.

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

The Carpet Jane Wanted

“Answer the door, Jane.”

            Jane looked at her husband blankly.

            “Who’s here?” she asked.

            “I said Franklin and Molly were coming,” Roy answered, scratching his nose.

            “What did you just do?”

            “What?”

            Jane leaned forward, the white couch creaking slightly.

            “You just snuck something into your mouth.”

            “Jane, can we answer the door?”

            Jane sighed and slouched to the door. She hesitated, then returned to the sofa.

            “No thank you.”

            Roy returned the sigh and went to their heavy, clunky apartment door. He opened it as Jane stayed on the sofa, her back to him. At Roy’s invitation, a pair of drawn out and overtly grand “Hellooooo’s,” entered the living room.

            “Hi Jane!” Molly chirped brightly at the slumped figure that barely indented the sofa.

            Jane’s silence did not dissuade Molly, who sat gracefully across from her on a matching white chair. Franklin threw his expensive jacket on the back of the sofa and plopped down beside Jane with a loud, too loud, exhale. He swept back his light red hair and gave Jane’s shoulder a friendly squeeze.

            Hey Jane.”

            “How’ve you been?” Molly spoke after her husband.

            “The baby’s sick,” Jane stood and dug her bare feet into the carpet.

            “…Oh,” Molly looked at Roy.

            “It’ll be fine, Jane,” Roy assured.

            Little shag threads clung to Jane’s toes, and she hopped away from the carpet.

            Roy took his wife’s place on the sofa.

            “How are the kids, Molly?” Roy asked.

            “Oh great, just great! Straight A’s for Eddie, Clay won the wrestling match on Saturday. Liz is Sandy in Grease. The twins both made the swim team. I’m forgetting things I know it, let’s see…”

            As Molly cooed over her roost of accomplished little chicks, Jane stared at her. Molly’s long black hair draped over her shoulder like a theatre curtain. Her charcoal blouse bore no wrinkles, even in her curved sitting position. Her lipstick outlined her mouth perfectly. Not a thing out of place. Yet, here she is, vomiting worthless bile into Jane’s living room, onto Jane’s carpet.

            “Jane?”

            “What?”

            “Oh, I said this cake looks lovely,” Molly repeated.

            “It’s store-bought.”

            “Oh.”

            The cake in question sat innocently enough on a glass coffee table, shiny with syrup and artificial-looking fruit. A tea set sat beside the cake, not innocent at all. From the China teapot decorated with delicate pink flowers, leaked an unusual and unpleasant blend of tea, infecting the sinuses with ginger and lemongrass.

            Molly deterred from the tea but sliced the cake. Jane studied the knife as it slowly divided the cake, removing a piece, destroying it.

            It seemed the whole room was focused on Molly’s manicured hands pillaging her slice of cake. Jane thought the three seated figures looked like a picture in a magazine. This idea was disrupted by the ceiling fan, vigorously spinning to no escape. Round and round, jolting against the base.

“How’s work, Roy?” Franklin asked, breaking Jane’s little picture.

            “Fine, same old job as it was ten years ago.”

            Roy rose and made himself a drink in the corner of the light green room. At his removal from the sitting area, Franklin looked at Molly. Molly swallowed the glob of cake in her mouth and did not look at her husband.  

            “Jane,” Molly’s voice sounded like gentle cotton against the ear.  “I love what you’ve done to the apartment, the furniture is so classic!”

            “I haven’t done anything to it,” Jane said in a not-so-cotton tone and moved to Roy.

            “How long are they staying?” she whispered. Was she whispering? She must have been, since Roy conveyed deafness. “The baby’s sick, she may have to go to the doctor-”

            Roy downed his drink.

            “Well, I’m going to check on her,” Jane hissed.

            “How’s your work going, Frank?” Roy turned and went back to the ever-safe sofa.

            “He’s actually going into his own business,” Molly answered. “He learned enough from them anyway.”

            “Really?” Roy asked, glancing at his friend, who sniffed dismissively and smiled.

            “Yes,” Molly continued in an automated-recording-voice, “People prefer freelance nowadays, and he’s got the computer to do those designs, so he can work from home now.”

            Roy nodded. “Well, good for you, Frank. I’m sure the family missed having you around anyway.”

            “You uh, got a drink for your guest, Roy?”

            Franklin meant to ask this in good humor, but its execution sliced awkwardly. He attempted a reassuring chuckle, but failed once again, and the room was filled with a dry wheeze. Dry wheeze and displeasing tea.

            “She’s coughing a lot, Roy,” Jane returned to the living room and looked down at her bundle. How could Roy ignore such a precious thing? A precious thing.

            Jane recalled the night her baby was created.

A year-younger Jane ruled against her usual frumpy-dumpy pjs, and instead put on her silk pink nightie with white lace in all the places women think men want lace to be. Jane thought maybe if she asked for a baby in this nightie, with her usually limp blonde hair teased and her sharp face softened in lamp-light and evening darkness, Roy would comply.

            So, Jane summoned whatever goddess of fertility probably laughed down at her razor burned legs and hidden push up cups in her negligee, and gave Roy some sexy line about baby-making she could no longer remember. But she never forgot what Roy said back.

            “We both know you aren’t a mother, Jane.”

            Anything that made Jane feel like a woman in that moment deflated and vanished. She failed to convince Roy before, but this was the first time he said that.

            Compensating for her current lack of confidence and underwear, Jane started yelling, and the question of why they even got married popped up. When neither could answer it, Roy slammed the bedroom door on Jane. Oh, but then came Jane’s favorite part of the bittersweet memory. Roy burst out of the bedroom and gathered up his sobbing wife, holding her close to him. He begged forgiveness over and over for the poison he spat at her, for the insults. He kissed her between the ‘sorry’s and embraced all sadness out of her frame. Roy never apologized like that, and that night the baby was conceived.

             Jane saw that in her baby’s sickly face, which she looked up from to eye her seated guests. Franklin and Molly appeared less perfect. Molly’s unreasonably costly foundation could not conceal a breakout of raised acne under her cheekbones and on the tip of her nose. When Franklin lifted his muscle-rich arm and rested it on the back of the sofa, he exposed a u-shaped ring of sweat spreading through his dark button up shirt.

            “Don’t you want any tea, Molly?” Jane asked, squinting. Molly looked up at her, mid-sentence through a kid-story Jane did not desire her to continue.

            “Roy made you both tea and bought that cake. He must have done it while I was taking care of the baby. It’ll get cold soon.”

            Molly looked down at the dreaded teapot. She poured herself a cup. The smell worsened now that the concoction presented itself uncovered in the little teacup.

            “Did you see the new couple who moved into our building last week?” Jane probed her question slowly at Molly, who took a tentative sip from her cup. She swallowed politely.

            “No, I don’t think so-”

            The tweed of the white chair itched at Molly’s legs, causing them to sweat.

            “Jerry and… oh what was the wife’s name, do you remember, Roy?” Jane asked her husband.

            “No.”

            Jane clicked her tongue, pretending to think, her eyes not leaving Molly.

            “Blonde hair, skinny-”

            “Wendy,” Franklin answered curtly.

            Molly set her cup down hard on its saucer, the first unpleasant noise she made. Her eyes winced slightly at her own action.

            “I met her in the elevator,” Franklin explained to no one’s inquiry. Franklin rubbed his lips together behind his groomed crimson beard. The pomaded hairs twitched, and he stood up to pour himself another drink.

            The sides of Jane’s mouth moved upward in satisfaction.

            “You don’t have to drink the tea, Molly,” Roy interjected. “I never make tea so I’m sure it’s horrible.”

            “Actually,” Molly clinked the cup and saucer more carefully on the coffee table, “I think I’ll take a drink too, Franklin.”

            She gave an airy laugh, poorly performed.

            Jane sat with her baby in the accent chair near Molly, red leather. It was only an accent chair in that absolutely nothing else in the apartment was red, and Roy vouched for its striking “vibe.” Jane’s feet pushed down into the plush of the carpet. Franklin handed Molly her drink and took his seat on the sofa with Roy.

            “I couldn’t find the baby Aspirin, Roy, did we use it all?” Jane asked when the baby jolted her with her sudden cries.

            Now this time, she knew she had not whispered, yet Roy still showed no acknowledgement.

            Jane noticed Molly’s expression.

            “What?”

            Molly blinked several times.

            “What?” Molly parroted guiltlessly.

            “There’s no need to-” Jane cut herself off when she saw Roy scratch his nose.

            “You did it again,” Jane said at him.

            “Did what?” Roy asked, pushing up his mock-vintage glasses, not looking at his accuser.

            “You just put something in your mouth again. It’s the baby Aspirin, isn’t it? I said to use the regular kind if you had a headache-”

            “I didn’t take any pills. Maybe you should start taking yours again.”

            Molly chewed the ice in her drink uncomfortably, and a shard went down the wrong side, triggering loud coughs and sputters. The room turned to her, and she set down the glass, waving her hands apologetically and taking a bite of cake to smother the lodged ice chip. This helped nothing, since the cake dried up in the time it was left uneaten. Now stale crumbs and ice choked the wildly embarrassed Molly, who grabbed for the tea next. The sour beverage put a sour face on her, but the hacking finally ceased and Molly survived.

Her fingers rested on her windpipe as she croaked a-

            “Sorry.”

            Jane would not have heard Molly if she convulsed to the floor and choked to death on that ice. Her ears heated to a degree which muted all the sound in the room, but her heartbeat.

            She felt the same way on her wedding day, during the reception. Jane dreamed of having a quiet wedding in an outdoor garden venue lit only by the twinkly glow of Christmas lights strung above them. The white of her dress would stand out from the pale-yellow chrysanthemums and green shrubbery surrounding them. She’d look so angelic that people would think her too perfect to have anything wrong with her.  

            Yet there she sat inside a rented-out room of a night club in the city, at a plastic table with a garishly gold tablecloth. She could see Roy and his wide smile, shouting something to Franklin and their other male friends across the room. She could see the women dancing in front of her to noisy and incoherently written music. But not a sound. Nothing reached Jane’s ears but pulsing, hateful blood. On the day which she felt should have been only about her, Jane wondered if anyone noticed her presence at all.

She recalled the exact burgundy-black color of wine that stood in high stemware before her, inches from her hand. If she took that hand, burdened only by a ring, and pounded it down on the goblet, would it break? Did she possess enough anything to affect that thin crystal glass? And if it did shatter against the table, staining the hideous tablecloth, would someone come rushing with napkins to soak up her mistake?

No. Jane decorated the wedding as much as the wine, something to be at a table, something to sit be beside Roy, something to pour, and drink, and empty, and say, “hm, very nice,” and never think about again…

“Jane? …Jane?”

A few timid fingers grazed Jane’s arm. Jane stood and whirled around to see Molly, whose startled eyebrows raised in alarm.

“He kissed someone that night,” Jane whispered. “Did you know that?”

“Wh-what?”

“Franklin and that bridesmaid who got drunk. You were dancing with Roy, but I saw it. He kissed her, six feet from you.”

“Jane- I don’t think you-” Molly was breathing unsteadily.

Franklin cleared his throat and scratched the nape of his freckled neck.

“Sandwiched together all night, those two,” Jane continued, “And you didn’t even see it.”

“Jane.” Roy uncrossed his legs and set his drink on the coffee table with a thick clank.

“You never see it, do you Molly. Not even in our own apartment.”

“Jane, that’s enough,” Roy’s shoulders tensed, the muscles trying to support his raising tone.

“It’s pretty late,” Franklin stood up and grabbed his coat.

Jane just realized how close she was standing to Molly, and how tightly she was squeezing the baby’s blanket. She backed up and shifted her feet into the shag.

Surprising everyone, Molly stepped forward, her features hard and focused.

“I saw it Jane. Maybe not as quickly as you did, but I saw it. I am sorry you aren’t always in your right mind, but that gives you no right to talk to friends this way. And, unlike you, I try to keep matters between a husband and wife private. Our personal affairs are no business of yours, especially when you have no room to talk.”

Molly exhaled entirely through her nose, and finally stepped away. The weight of her tears gave way and trickled slowly, streaking the beige makeup and black mascara.

Jane licked her dry lips as Roy opened the door for Molly and Franklin.

“‘Affairs’ is definitely the right word for it!”

Had Jane said that? No. She couldn’t have said that.

Though perhaps she had, since Franklin stopped at the door.

“She uh-” Roy spoke to Franklin, who swung his shoulders around to face Jane.

“She didn’t mean it, Frank-” Roy finished.

Franklin’s size seemed immense. His now disheveled hair and beard surrounded his eyes in tangerine flames.

As if blind to the amassing energy of intimidation, Jane chuckled.

“You know, when she was choking on that ice like an idiot, I thought you were going to let her die.”

Jane closed her eyes to laugh again, a sound absent of joy. When she opened them, Roy was standing in front of her, his back against her cheek, pushing Franklin away toward the door.

“Franklin stop!” Molly yelled.

Franklin sighed hard and stared over Roy’s shoulder into Jane’s eyes.

“You’re fucking nuts.”

Molly pulled her husband away and the door closed with a hideous wack. Like a tub plug being lifted, the strength in Jane drained out of her and she sat down on the white sofa.

While Jane’s venom flushed, Roy’s filled. He stood at the closed door when he spoke.

“Well, you got what you wanted.”

“This isn’t what I wanted-”

“What?”

“This isn’t-”

“Speak up!”

Jane stopped talking altogether.

“What is it Jane? What? What? Because I can’t keep going like this. I can’t keep inviting people over to see you like you’re a fucking zoo animal!”

Jane suddenly stood, her face trembling with a furious retort on the horizon of her lips.

“THIS,” she set the baby on the sofa and waved her arms around the apartment with wild gesticulation.

“This isn’t what I wanted, this was all you. The- the- the-”

The wedding, the unhappy years of condescension toward her mental state, the night she wanted a baby, the apartment. This apartment. The green walls, the white furniture, the accent chair…  

She finally allowed the plush of the carpet to engulf her feet, squeezing between her pale toes. Could she move? No, she was stuck, Jane was certainly stuck.

“The carpet-”

“What?”

Jane felt paralysis creeping up from her sweating feet, to the denim which suffocated her legs.

“This isn’t the carpet I wanted!”

Roy stared at his wife, who shivered in her own desperate fear. His forehead lines showed frustrated confusion, but his voice was level.

“Carpet?”

“I never liked it, but you just had to have it. You insist on everything in our lives to suit your picture, but it’s not my picture. I wanted… a different picture.”

“You picked it.”

“What?”

The intensity grew in Roy’s voice.

“You picked this carpet. You don’t even remember, do you? Everything we have ever done has had to be on your terms, but your terms are always changing! You wanted the wedding to be in a city club, then after the honeymoon you say you wanted it in the country. You wanted an apartment with green walls and a red chair, then when we move, you say you wanted a little house with a little fence and a little dog. Then you tell me you want a BABY? What am I supposed to say, Jane? If we have a baby you’ll say you never wanted kids!”

Tears poured out of Jane’s frantically blinking eyes, collecting at the curve of her nose and the corners of her mouth. She felt her body working against her, her mind losing focus. She was reaching for the words, the words to make Roy understand, the words to make him feel sorry for her just once.

“We have to save the baby, Roy-”

Roy panted until the blood settled back into his cheeks. He shook his head wildly and went to the couch. With a great magician’s flourish, he yanked the baby’s blanket, revealing nothing inside.

Jane stared at the blanket, unable to move or speak. Roy wrapped himself up in a grey puffy jacket, put on his hat, and opened the door.

He said something his wife could not hear, and left without shutting the door. The inaudible words floated ominously around the room and drifted down, past Jane’s ears, onto Jane’s carpet.

Stigma

            The stigma was always the most interesting part of a flower to me. It was never due to its reproductive importance or some deep-seated feminist sentiment, but rather because of its functionality. The stigma serves as a gateway, one through which precious pollens are delivered and sent to the ovaries within the flower’s central pistil, a structure surrounded by its petals. When I’d seen the stigma in diagrams and drawings in science class, it was just an indistinguishable shape with a thick, smudged outline. Seeing it on a real plant was much different. One that always lingers in my mind’s eye is that of a pink lily, a triangular structure with a deep yellow color that evokes images of honey-turned-cream. It held the center throne of the lily’s display of beloved petals as if it were the heart of the plant, beating with the lifeblood of its posterity. Its yellowish surface was covered with a sticky coating for the purpose of rehydrating dry pollen for fertilization, but to me it was like magic, like it could give life to everything it touched. If the most beautiful flowers happened to have the most effective pistils, it wouldn’t surprise me.   

            Not many would be keen to hear inner thoughts like these, not even my own mother. Especially not my own mother. She would rather me go to and fro school quietly, to bring up any kind of jargon if only to recite the rote passages and bland fact bits I’d been force-fed in class. She values my education but only to the most surface-level degree. Like many other “old adolescents”, I don’t have the slightest clue of what she wants for my future, and from what I can gather, neither does she.

My mother chimes in and interrupts my self-exposition. “Look Lucy, they’re hiring. I think this would be a great job for you. Grocery stores have flexible hours, you know, and this would be a good first job to get you started.”

            I follow her hand as her index finger points towards the jerking automatic doors to a bright orange sign, inscribed with “Currently Hiring”, plastered to the wall and glistening as I try to will it away.

            I reply with, “I don’t know about that.”

            “Oh, it’s easy work. And I’m sure they’d hire you. These places tend to bring on cute girls your age.”

            I can’t tell if she’s pitying me or if she’s hopelessly, utterly blind to how unsightly I am. If Keira Knightley were a lily, then I’d be a rafflesia.

            Mother always gravitated towards the vegetables and fruits first. Through one convoluted coping mechanism or another, I find a way to enjoy the produce section. It’s colorful, what with the taut skin and glowing red hues of the hand grenade tomatoes, and the shifting green-screen shades of cabbage and okra lining the misty sprinkle machines. On some strange level I, somewhat shamefully, feel a bit of a connection with these crops. We both wait in limbo to change, or be changed. In both cases, what lies ahead could very well be the worst thing to ever happen to us. Though, unlike vegetables, I have the freedom to be forced to listen to incessant spouting about my procuring a job and making more friends.

Like a Ferris wheel motor, we pass rows and rows of freezer doors, all Heaven-lit cockpits full of frozen occupants with courses set to American suburbia. These cold aisles always arouse a bit of excitement from me. According to my mother’s ever-static routine, freezer doors mean we are nearing the end of this grocery shopping vexation. The thought of leaving this claustrophobic, homogenized cardboard cutout prison block inevitably overtakes my thoughts.

That is, until something vaguely familiar graces my peripherals in one wave of motion. Startled, I turn my head swiftly to confront it.

There’s nothing, save for an empty cart garnished by a bouquet.

Photography by Sumner McMurtry

NOVUS Literary and Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN