LISA BUBERT | WOMAN HOLLERING
One week after it happened, a strange woman appeared in my apartment. I say appeared because that’s what she did—one day she was not there, the next day she was. I checked the locks on the door, the screens on the windows, everything still shut up safe. I ran my fingers over the seams of my closet, thinking perhaps that was how she got in. But everything was how one would expect it to be. Clothes that no longer fit. Shoes rarely if ever worn. Boxes full of mementos I know are important but can no longer remember why. Everything in all the hidden places was still hidden. Except that she was here now, and the oddest thing of all was that she seemed to belong here more than me.
She was there when I came home from work and watched as I washed the dishes. I thought she was odd, maybe even should have been threatening, but something about her was familiar so I let her share the room with me as I plodded on with my work. We did not speak; it seemed unnecessary and besides, I didn’t want to. I ran the water hot enough to scald my hands, trying not to think about it, the thing that happened. I let the water burn until I couldn’t stand it anymore. My roommate, Min, came out of her bedroom to get a glass of water.
“Who’s your friend?” I asked, now annoyed by the intruder.
“Who?” she said. She was in her pajamas, her face washed, hair tied up for bed. The woman was gone; there was no one here but us.
“Never mind,” I said.
She ignored this, took a gulp of water. Her eye caught the steam rising from the water in the sink and my hands, beet-red, plunged into it.
“Jesus,” she said and turned the cold tap on. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
I shrugged. It did hurt.
The thing that happened happened on a Thursday. They were at Smit’s house, one of those after-work things to shake off a particularly shitty day. She hadn’t really cared to go, would much rather have gone home and soaked in a long bath. But everyone was going to Smit’s—including him. She knew little about this him but enough to know that she liked him, found him cute, and could deny herself a small luxury in order to learn more about who this him was.
She took her time getting there, circling the block a few times. She preferred to arrive at these things after they started, after everyone knew everyone else. After the awkwardness has settled down, the tension in the room subsided. A room of tension made her nervous, even in the smallest amounts.
But of course, when she arrived, Smit made a big to-do over it and everyone turned to look. “Well, look what the cat drug in,” he yelled and they all smiled and cheered, already drunk. There in the back, she saw the him with a quiet smile that said he was still getting to know everyone. This made her nervous too.
That’s how I would start the story, if I were going to write this as a story. I do like to write though I’ve never taken a class. It seems too wasteful, all things considered. Besides, this story that constantly clamors to be written always drifts away as soon as I sit down to write it. I can tell it in my head perfectly. I can see all the edges, all the lines, the beats, the false turns. It’s there at the tip of my pen, in the keratin of my fingernails. It vibrates with anticipation enough to make me shake. Then a hand on my shoulder—the woman is here again.
Lex says I’ve been different lately. “Your light is low.” Her sweeter way of saying I look like shit. We are shopping. Lex is shopping. I am walking next to her, eyeing nothing.
“Work.” (I work at a terrible restaurant.)
“God,” she says. “When are you going to quit that shitass job? That guy’s a dick.”
I shrug. “He’s the Boss.” (The manager, and technically, the chef.)
“You couldn’t pay me to take his lip.”
I nod. This is why I love Lex. She had jumped from restaurant to restaurant since moving for school, leaving when the job went downhill. School went downhill so she dropped out and job hopped her way into the nicer places, where a waitress could actually make a buck. Her only problem was her refusal to take lip, as she said. At the shittier places, cooks could stand too close, stare at her, make comments about her ass, grab her ass—but the second they talked shit to her, she was done. At the nicer establishments, nobody grabbed anybody but the shit-talking was endless. Her father was a shit-talker. There was nothing she hated more than shit-talkers, she said. There was nothing I hated more than not making rent, which is why I can endure the shitty job and why Lex will never get me.
“Well,” she sighs. “At least everyone else there seems pretty cool. Especially that newbie cutie.” She winks her incorrigible wink.
“So tell me,” she says. Switching gears is her specialty. “Did you and the cutie get a chance to 'talk' at Smit’s party?” She says this with a laugh and a raising of her eyebrows that any other time I would have found endearing.
“I left kinda early.”
“I thought I saw you outside the bathroom before I took off? Or was that some other girl I shoved out of the way before I puked? Fucking Smit and his tequila.”
I shake my head. “Some other girl, I guess.”
Lex chuckles but she stares at her hands as if trying to figure something. It worries me, the way she seems to be calculating. I search for something else to say. But Lex shakes it off. “Well, that’s too bad. For you, I mean. If you don’t snatch that dude up, I will.”
I laugh and Lex is already on to the next subject. My heart takes a double beat. I want to tell her to wait.
At the party, he is shy. He sips his beer and keeps quiet as they all stand around the kitchen island. Occasionally, he glances at her and she notices this and tries not to smile. He likes her, she can tell. Smit pulls out shot glasses and a jar of tequila no one asked for. Tequila is everyone’s last choice for a shot. But they take them anyway and clink glasses before tipping their heads back. Again, Smit says and pours another round.
It had been a rough day at the restaurant. Meltdowns, screaming, tickets written wrong, plates dying on the pass. The potatoes had been julienned with an ogre’s hand, Boss said, which was rich coming from him. That had been her job. She didn’t think they looked any different than they normally did but once Boss was on the path, everything in his way was collateral, especially her. This was supposed to be a part-time job, just something to make rent in between classes. A job so easy an idiot could do it, Boss said, especially an idiot college student like her. Still, he complained of her idiocy daily—how only a moron could fuck up the chopping of romaine, how only a silver-spooned college twat wouldn’t know how to load an industrial dishwasher. This last one stung the most—the idea that she had a silver spoon. I’m here on grants and loans I can’t afford, she wanted to say. My mother worked two jobs to buy me clothes for school. On and on with all the proof that she wasn’t exactly what he said she was—lazy, spoiled, entitled—all the things Boss thought of all the kids today. Don’t take it personal, Smit said. He does it to everyone. No wonder they were perpetually short-staffed, all of them having to do all the jobs in the place. But the truth was Boss only did it to the girls. He didn’t mind rolling through four or five waitresses in a month. Easy come, easy go, he said. But back-end kitchen staff were harder to find. She just happened to be a waitress that knew how to chop lettuce and needed the hours. Smit pours another shot and asks where she went. Nowhere, she says and downs the shot, already feeling dizzy.
Looking directly at the woman proves impossible. It is as if she flickers, always at the edge of my vision, only seen when she is half seen. She has begun to accompany me throughout my day. She is in the corner of my eye as I walk to and from classes. She’s at the back of the lecture hall under the exit sign gleaming red. I can feel her at my shoulder as I wipe the counters at work. She is less ghost and more spirit. An angel, perhaps. A patron saint, though I have never been religious. Earlier today, I took a breather in the walk-in to sit, my mind gone blank. I could feel her there with me. It felt safer with her there. Less lonely, like someone cared to look. I start to think of her as an old friend; I imagine us years from now, two women sitting at a kitchen table with cups of steaming tea, no conversation needed. Her presence like a completion. We would sit silently, drawing lines in the air with our eyes, settling matters with the shift of our shoulders. That will be then. But for now, she sits before me, eager and congenial. Finally, she says. Look at me. Talk to me.
His name is Gabriel. She learns this fifteen minutes into their conversation in the hallway, both of them leaning against the wood-paneled wall, a corner jutting between them. He was coming out of the bathroom, she was going into it. They ran into each other, spilled their drinks. It was a perfect meet cute, she thought, embarrassed that the term “meet cute” floated through her mind. He was new at the restaurant, new to town, hadn’t really felt like coming to Smit’s after work but thought he should get out and make some friends.
“It’s what my mom would want me to do.” He smiles and she smiles, enamored by a boy who would consider his mother.
He is here for a graduate degree, a couple years older than her. He is studying Mexican-American history, particularly the war with Texas, which is why he is here in San Antonio. His mother is Mexican and his father American, and as a result, has always heard different tales regarding history. His father’s stories always align with the books in school. His mother’s stories are legends passed down and those are the stories he wants to learn more about. He has no interest in being a professor. She can relate; she is majoring in English with no ambition to continue it past graduation.
“Why don’t you change your major?” he asks.
She shrugs. “I’m due to graduate next semester.”
He nods, he gets it. “Cheers to poorly thought out decisions then.” He smiles and they clink glasses. Someone knocks into her from behind and she spills her drink on his shoulder. Smit stumbles past them both, shouting a slurred apology on his way to the bathroom.
“Fucking Smit,” she says. She dabs at the new stain on his shirt and he lets her.
“That’s guy’s a nut.” She nods. She laughs. It’s funny; this is no big deal.
“I’m gonna clean up real quick,” he says. “Don’t go anywhere.”
“I won’t,” she says, quietly. His smile is expansive and sweet.
I finally have a day off and spend it at home with a coloring book. I never thought I’d be one of those women who color. It is comforting how it allows my mind to go blank, to stop spinning, to focus only on one thing—the quality of this red pencil, if I should use a lighter shade of blue or green. The lights are low. The woman stands nearby, surveying my work. The front door unlocks and Min shuffles in, setting her things on the table. I hear her come to the living room. I hear her freeze. She stands at the threshold of the living room carpet, staring at the figure behind me who stares back at her as if they too are old friends, or perhaps old adversaries.
“You can see her?” I ask. I look for the woman but she is already gone.
“I’ve seen her ever since I was six,” Min says. “When did it happen?”
“When did what happen?”
Min waits. I take a breath.
She waits for him in the hallway with a half-empty glass of tequila. Tequila and something else that doesn’t add up to a real drink, more a concoction of something drunk-making. She shifts her weight and is surprised to find herself unsteady. A chair would be nice. Going home would be nicer. But she is having fun and she can wait this out. She is talking to a boy.
The bathroom door flings open behind her. Smit darkens the doorway. He is paler than usual, a light sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
He nods and smiles, leans against the wall next to her, where Gabe stood moments earlier. “I think I made these drinks too strong.”
She laughs, agrees. They talk, mirroring each other, their heads cocked to the side and rested on the pillow of the wall. Smit has a nice smile; she’s noticed this before and she notices it now. He is telling her some story she can’t keep up with but she laughs at the right places anyway. She nods when it’s her turn to. They are having a good time—she isn’t sure what about this encounter is particularly good, other than that she feels good, she is laughing for no reason, she is with friends.
Smit reaches out and touches her elbow as he makes a point and smiles. He reaches out again, this time to clasp her hands as he tells the funny part of his story. His hands are warm, clammy. He finishes the story but holds on, steps closer. She doesn’t mind this so much but she does think about the other boy—Gabe—what he would think. If he ever comes back. Maybe he won’t come back after all.
You know, Smit says, I always thought you were so cute. He grabs a lock of her hair loose from the ponytail and tugs. He doesn’t mean it to hurt, she thinks. He is smiling at her. Thanks, she says, and takes a step back without meaning to. He moves forward again. Now he is closer than before. She isn’t looking at his face anymore; now she stares at the adam’s apple of his throat, the way it bobs as he talks. He is saying words she isn’t hearing. A cold sweat breaks and her stomach turns.
“Hang on,” she says and shoves past him to the bathroom.
She kneels in front of the toilet but once she is there, she finds no reason to kneel. She stares into the still water, thinking. The door creaks open and Smit peeks around the edge. He comes in and she hears the door click shut behind him.
“Are you okay?” he asks, bending over her.
She stays hugging the toilet. He leans against the sink and waits. She almost wills herself to puke, anything to show that they all have a reason to be here, but there is nothing. There is nothing in her and no reason and still they are in this room, both waiting.
Smit reaches down and sweeps her hair back. His fingers brush her neck. She leans into the toilet again to heave and he places a hand at her back. He rubs. His fingers press harder against her neck. They clasp her collarbone. They reach around her shoulder. She can feel his breath.
Wait, she says, sitting up.
It’s okay, he says. He sits next to her, hand still on her back. I’m sorry I made these drinks too strong. He laughs and her smile is automatic, as if a button is pressed and she must comply. He fiddles with her hair again, scoots closer. They are both sitting on the floor. The door is closed, the lock turned, she notices. He is in front of her, his lips on hers. She closes her eyes. She pulls herself back.
He pushes forward. His hands are on her hips now, his fingers encircling the belt loops of her jeans. She can feel fingers on her stomach, her ribs. The pinch of a button being undone. The sound of a zipper, clothes rustling off. A hand tugging her underwear aside. It is happening faster than she ever thought it could. His weight bears down and his mouth is on hers and she can’t breathe. His fingers. She kicks herself back and knocks her head against the wall with a loud thunk.
The sound wakes them both up. Oh shit, he laughs and reaches for the back of her head. She keeps her neck stiff but he tugs her closer, his hand hot on the back of her neck. She braces against his shoulders and shoves him. He rocks back and falls against the toilet.
Stop it, she says. He freezes, his smile now disappeared. She looks down; her pants have been tugged to her knees and his are unbuttoned, unzipped, the line of him hard against his underwear. How close all of this was. She scrambles to her feet, her heart pounding. The door is locked, it really is locked.
Wait, he says. He yanks at her shirt. But she works the door open and as soon as it is, he lets go.
A couple waits in the hallway to get in. They are talking but they stop when they see her. They look at her unbuttoned pants, at Smit’s blush. She recognizes them from the restaurant. The guy laughs and shakes his head; the girl raises her eyebrows in a look she knows well. Behind them, Gabe waits. He takes in her appearance. I’m sorry, he says, backing up. I thought. But he doesn’t finish. He waves his hands indiscriminately, as if fanning away a smell. He walks away. Smit pushes past her and does not look back.
Min sits beside me on the couch, her feet curled up under her, herself made small. She waits until I finish, the silence floating between us like a soft blanket we share.
“Have you told anyone else?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Not yet.” I add this because it seems right. “Did you? Ever tell anyone.”
She nods. “Eventually.”
After it happened, I decided it was easiest to just avoid everyone at the restaurant. Gabe would give me small nods when I arrived and left but nothing more. Smit would leave any room I entered, which was preferable for me, but eventually he changed tactics. He wouldn’t look at me, talk to me, but he would work near me. He would choose the prep station near mine. He would mop behind me as I washed dishes. He would pass close by and I could feel the air of him ruffle my shirt. This goes on for a while until today, when he changes tactics again and corners me in the pantry.
Boss needs the inventory and I volunteer, happy to get away for a minute. But Smit follows me. I continue my work, as if this is all nothing, but I check the door he came in from to see that it is still open and I check the door that goes out back to see that it is still locked. He moves things around on the shelves, pretending to re-organize as he speaks.
“So that party was crazy,” he starts. I nod along. “Fun,” he says. I stay still.
“Hey,” he says, turning full to me now. “I’m sorry if we got a little too drunk. I didn’t mean to pour the drinks that strong.” I don’t answer. “Bartender’s pour,” he laughs.
“That whole night’s a little spotty in my mind,” he continues. He waits for me to answer. Finally, he relents and moves in to speak quietly. “I don’t remember much of anything. Do you?”
Footsteps sound at the door. Gabe walks in carrying a bag of apples. He pauses a moment at the entry, then goes about his work. Smit turns to leave. I have lost count and start my work over.
“That seemed weird,” Gabe says. “Is everything okay?”
He begins unpacking the bag. “I hope I wasn’t too weird the other night. At the party.” He is nervous. He seems like he would wring his hands if they weren’t busy with apples. “I didn’t know you and Smit were a thing.”
“Oh,” he says and I can see the mental calculus in his head and I hate to think of what he is thinking about me. About what kind of girl I am, the kind that goes into bathrooms with men she doesn’t have a thing with. What kind of girl I would be if we were to start our own thing.
“That wasn’t—” I start but am unsure of how to finish. “What you saw at the party wasn’t anything.”
“Okay,” he says, and I feel that he believes me, I really do.
We start with coffee, in the morning, in the daytime. When Gabe says he wants to learn more about me, he really means it. I find myself blushing across the table as he asks about where I grew up, what I wish I could spend my days doing rather than what I actually do. I tell him how I like to write, how I want to grow a garden, how maybe one day I can own my shop of whatever so long as I am my own boss. Independent. Doing whatever I want. At no point does he laugh like this is an unattainable idea. We don’t talk about school and we don’t talk about the restaurant. He tells me odd stories from history, more about his mother, how his parents met, what it was like for them in south Texas as an interracial couple. The things people assume they can say to you. We debate rather than argue, we solve, we find everything the other has to say interesting. We are friends first—friends who are also attracted to each other. When I invite him to my apartment to watch a movie, his only move is to lay down and rest his head on a pillow that rests at my hip. I am the one who reaches out to stroke his hair, and when I do, he kisses my palm and holds my hand at his cheek.
I do eventually tell him what happened with Smit. I feel silly as I do because even as my heart pounds and my palms sweat as I recount the night, it still feels as if I’m complaining about nothing. Nothing happened. Everything happened. He listens without interrupting. He looks down at the ground for most of it which unnerves me. When I finish, he sits with it a moment. I don’t know what I expect from him—to tell me he will confront Smit, kick him in the ribs, or just assure me that it’s not as bad as I thought it was, that something like this happens all the time, maybe it was even something he has done. But he says none of this. He asks if I’ve told anyone else and I say only Min.
You should tell Boss, he says, but both of us realize how much of a non-starter this is.
The cops, he suggests, but this also seems ridiculous. It was just a thing that happened at a party.
The answer for now is that we will both avoid Smit.
You have to tell Lex, he says. And I know he’s right. This is the hardest part of all. Lex and I are friends, good friends, but the truth is she and Smit were friends first. They go back to a restaurant long before this restaurant. If she had to choose between us, I’m not sure who she would pick.
Soon, Gabe tells me he’s gotten a fellowship at the university and will quit the restaurant. He’ll still need a second job to cover expenses but one month at this place has been enough to put him off kitchen work for as long as he can avoid it. My heart breaks a little when he tells me but I smile and tell him this is great, that I’m proud of him, that I would take it in a heartbeat as well.
“You should quit too,” he says.
I shake my head. We’re in a recession and I have no savings. I could get more loans but the thought of going into even more debt for a degree I’m not sure I want seems stupider than leaving a job with a dick boss who thinks I’m an idiot with or without the degree.
“Something better will come along,” I say, not believing it. “And when it does, I’ll leave too, just like you did.”
Gabe’s last day is a rough one. Boss makes two waitresses cry, one cook walk out, and service is stilted. I stay out of his war path best as I can. Gabe picks up the tables the waitresses dropped, fuming in a way that scares me. Smit watches everything with a smirk. He had said these new girls wouldn’t last a week with Boss and he is only marginally wrong—they lasted two.
When the shift is over, I toss my apron in the bin and leave out back. Gabe’s already long gone—clocked out early when he’d had enough. As I walk to my car, I see Smit out here too with one of the fired waitresses. They stand in between a couple of parked cars, leaning against the doors. He leans in close; she has a line of dried tears on her cheeks but she is smiling at him. I pass by slowly to hear their conversation, even if it is none of my business. As I do, Smit tells me good night and waves me away. I look at the girl, try to get her to look at me, but she has her eyes locked on Smit, looking for answers. It is a look I can’t help but hate. I walk on. It really is none of my business.
Gabe texts on my way home and asks if I want to go on an adventure. Of course, I reply. Anything. He picks me up from my apartment at midnight. I meet him outside because the woman has entered the living room and refuses to leave. There is an insistence in her tonight that unsettles me. She is less comforting and more pressing. She had been coming around less and less but tonight she feels clearer than she was on the first night I met her. I get the sense that if I saw her picture in the paper, I would recognize her immediately. And here I thought she was going away. I realize now how rude the assumption is.
Gabe drives us outside the city going east, toward the coast. Are we going to the beach, I ask, and he laughs. We don’t need to go that far. What he wants to show me is closer than I think.
We drive for a half hour on the highway and it gets darker and darker as the city gives way to a smattering of houses gives way to empty fields. I rest my head against the window to see the stars, which I haven’t seen since I left for college. Fifteen minutes out was all it took to find them. We take an exit at a place where there is nothing and Gabe drives along the feeder. I briefly wonder if I should be nervous—how well do I know Gabe, how bad is the service on my phone. I place a hand on the door out of habit. We’re almost there, he says, and I believe him but I still don’t ask where we are going. He means this to be a surprise.
We come to a small bridge, pull off and park. A green reflective sign shimmers against his headlights proclaiming WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK.
You know this story, he asks, and I shake my head no. We get out.
The creek is barely a creek at all. A small trickle of water babbles over silt rocks and we can only hear it if we listen close. I dip my feet in and am surprised to find the small creek still shivering cold. There hasn’t hardly been any rainfall and the creek is shrunk because of it. But after a good rain, I can see where the water would reach up the banks and swell five times its size. It’ll happen fast, I remember my father telling me this. When I was eight or nine, our whole area flooded and several cars got swept out at the overflowing bridges. One had a child in it. That funeral is something burned into my memory, the smallness of the coffin, the collapse of that mother’s face. She had been in the car when it took him. She had been there and she hadn’t been able to stop it.
You never cross over water in the road, my father told me after that. Even if you think it’s shallow. You can’t know how far down it goes, the depth, the strength of the water. It’ll take away even a man. It’ll only take a minute.
I sit at the edge of the creek and Gabe sits beside me. I wonder too if this is a moment my father would be unhappy about. If I am doing another thing he would find stupid, not because he knows my mind but because he knows a boy’s mind, even a boy like Gabe.
This creek got its name from two different stories, he says. The white settlers in this area said the name came from a woman carried off by Indians. She screamed for help but the men were too far off to hear her. They found her weeks later on the banks of this creek, emaciated and naked. They say her ghost paces here, weeping forever in search of help.
Gabe pauses. Of course, he continues, if you look at native history, there were no “indians” in the area. So if the story is true, she certainly wasn’t killed by natives.
I swallow a lump in my throat. What’s the other story, I ask.
He continues. Mexican culture has its own legend. There once was a beautiful woman named Maria who caught the eye of a wealthy ranchero. This was before the war. In some versions of the story, Maria is haughty and proud, a woman who likes to play hard to get. In other stories, she’s just a woman being pursued by a wealthy man. In even others, depending on proximity to the border, the man isn’t a ranchero but a Texas soldier who couldn’t stay on his side of the line. Either way, the man pursues Maria until she relents, marries him, and bears two children. Once the children arrived, the man grew bored and left, sending money to keep up the house and feed the children. Maria grew resentful, both of her children and her life. When the man finally returned after a year gone, he came with another beautiful woman in tow. He gave candies to the children but not a glance to Maria before leaving again. Here again the story diverges—some say Maria sought revenge against the ranchero and found it through the children; others say she was just a broken-hearted woman. Either way, the story ends with her drowning the children in the creek and then later drowning herself.
Gabe pauses here again. The wind picks up and rustles leaves at my feet. It is chilly but I refuse to fold up and grab my knees. I have no wish to make myself small.
The legend goes that she is the one who haunts this creek, weeping forever for her children, he says. La llorona, they call her. The weeping woman.
Which story do you think is the real one, I ask.
Both, Gabe says. Neither. Both could have happened. Both are cruel to the subjects in the story.
They should have called it Weeping Woman Creek, I say.
Maybe, Gabe says. That seems like it would only compound the cruelty. A hollering woman is an angry woman. I’d rather remember a wronged woman who is angry than a defeated woman who is sad.
I nod but I don’t answer. Angry and sad have always felt the same to me. When the wrong is way down there, it seems an impossible thing to dig out. It’s something that works into the bones like marrow, with anger and sadness both at the middle. I can see now how easy it would be to be a vengeful ghost. Where else would that wrong go without the bone and muscle and blood to hold it in?
That night after Gabe drops me off, I am confronted again by the woman. It as if she knows I have been to her place of rest. I try to look at her more clearly, see who she really is. A fog of dark anger, a menacing blur. I should be afraid but I can’t be. In her presence, I feel as safe as I’ve ever been. If I could see her face, I wouldn’t be surprised to see my own reflected back. We are the same, her and I. We are like sisters, twinned by wounds, tempered by fury.
I decide to tell Lex about Smit. I decide after Lex comes to the restaurant one day as we are prepping and sits in front of Smit at the bar. I decide after I see her lean over the bar and laugh with him. I decide when he smiles at her, pours her a drink. I decide when they kiss, long and languid and my heart stops and I blink and stare at the counter, trying to remember what I was doing. What I will do now. Must do.
Lex says hello to the other waitresses as they pass by, new ones that have yet to see Boss at his worst. She grabs a stack of napkins and sits next to me as she folds them. This is why people love her; it doesn’t matter where she is, she will find a way to help. It’s the kind of thing every girl wishes she knew how to do but few do it as effortlessly as Lex. I can tell her, I decide. It will be okay.
“Come with me to the walk-in,” I ask her.
Lex’s eyes widen with glee. “A secret? That’s why you’ve been so quiet lately.”
“Yes,” I nod. Lex is rarely wrong.
We go to the back, avoiding Boss. Lex grabs my hand and jogs with me to the pantry, giggling as we shut ourselves into the large, cold room. She is the best female friend I’ve ever had, I realize. I was never one of those girls who did slumber parties or girls’ nights. It never felt natural to me, more like I was reshaping myself to fill a certain container. It’s not my mother’s fault—she’s always been a lady of etiquette. Something got lost in me, I guess. But with Lex, none of that matters. If I don’t know what I’m doing, she will pull me along anyway, curious and safe. She shuts the walk-in door and turns to me.
“Okay, spill.” She has a large smile on her face. She is expecting some news about Gabe. Anything other than what she is about to hear.
“What are you doing with Smit?”
Her smile falters. I’m already on the wrong track. “What do you mean?”
“I thought you guys were just friends.”
“We are friends,” she says. “But I’ve always kinda had a thing for him and it turns out he has a thing for me too.” She pauses a moment. “Are you mad? I didn’t think you were into him.”
Lex looks down. “Okay,” she says, quietly.
“You don’t believe me.”
“No,” she counters quickly. “It’s just —that’s not what he said.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing, just forget about it. What did you want to talk about?”
“Just tell me,” I plead. “What did he say?”
She hesitates again. “That you guys hooked up.”
“Okay,” she says again in that disbelieving voice. I want to shake her. “He just figured it would be better if we didn’t say anything about us to you for a bit and I like secrets so I played along.” She looks at her feet. “I thought maybe that was why you’ve been ignoring me. Maybe you found out and were mad.”
“We didn’t hook up,” I say again. “At the party, you know the one—”
“He came into the bathroom with me and tried to—” I’m not sure how to say what I need to say. What to call it. “He forced himself, had his hands down my pants before I could push him off.”
“What are you saying?” Lex asks. Her arms are crossed. I’m not sure what I’m saying. Even as I say the words, they feel untrue. As if my own mind wants to distort what happened in that bathroom, how maybe I was in on it, that maybe I did want him to kiss me, to grab me, to push me down on that floor. That maybe if I had let it go just a little further then I really would have something to complain about.
Lex backs away from me. “Look, I don’t want to talk about this.”
“About whatever it is that’s making you do this.”
“Do what?” My voice raises. I can feel my heart starting to pound, my body break out in a tense sweat.
“I know Smit,” she says. “He just wouldn’t—” She shakes her head. “He wouldn’t do something like that. I know he wouldn’t.”
“Well, he did.”
“Are you sure?”
“Why do you have to ask me?”
At this, she stays silent. Then she uncrosses her arms and pulls the door open. “I have to go,” she says, and she is out of the pantry before the door can swing shut.
I go back to the kitchen. My hand are shaking. I thought I would feel better after telling Lex, no matter what the outcome, because then it would have been done. But I don’t feel better or worse, just different. Like I’ve crossed over the threshold into a room with a different temperature. She is talking to Smit at the bar. He shakes his head. He looks at me and I look down at my potatoes.
From the corner of my eye, I see Lex leave. I see Smit staring at me but I stay focused on what I’m doing. I refuse to look up. The potatoes are to be cut in perfect cubes, no eyes. I work on excising them out one by one and measuring each cube against the first one. When I look again at the bar, Smit is gone. The knife slips from my grip and slices through the edge of my hand just between my thumb and forefinger.
“Fuck!” Blood drips into the potatoes, red smattering over the wet patches of starch on the counter. Boss comes to investigate and pulls me out of the kitchen.
“Don’t just stand there bleeding all over everything.” He shoves me toward the restroom and holds my hand under the light. Blood gushes fresh from the wound.
“Goddammit,” he says. “Run it under the faucet.” I do this, although I know it will do nothing. The blood stains the sink red. This is deep, it’s bad. This will need stitches. I can feel myself going pale. When Boss leaves to get the bandage kit, I grab towels and slip away to the walk-in for some air.
I lean against the shelves and press the back of my head into the cold wall. Silence, only the sound of my breath. Then the door opens and shuts. Smit stands before me.
“Let me see it,” he says.
I pull my hand to my chest. “It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not. Let me see it.” He reaches for me but I back away from him. He is standing in front of the door. He has me cornered. He seems to realize this at the same time I do and steps aside.
“What did you tell Lex?” he asks.
“Bullshit.” The path to the door is clear but it would still require crossing him to get there.
“You told her something that wasn’t true,” he says.
“I told her what happened.”
I squeeze my hand and blood drips to the floor. “Seriously,” Smit says. “Just let me see that.” He grabs at me but I yank away from him.
“Don’t you fucking touch me!” I yell. I am louder than I thought I would be.
I press his shoulders and push, leaving red fingerprints on his chest. He looks at it, back at me, trying to calculate what just happened. My hand pulses under the towel but the pain of the cut has disappeared and I can feel my heart slow with it.
“Fucking cunt,” he says, trying to wipe his shirt. I unwrap the towel and toss it aside.
I move steadily through the kitchen. I can feel the woman with me, her arms in my arms, her breath as my breath. Boss sees me and tosses the bandage kit on my stool but I move past him. He argues as I remove my apron, argues as he follows me out. I don’t hear him anymore. My eyes are only on the red light of the exit. When I reach it, I slap a print to the door, step into the night, and wail.
Lisa Bubert is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Washington Square Review, Carolina Quarterly, Cleaver Magazine, and more, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2020. She is currently at work on her second book. See more of her work on her website, www.lisabubert.com.
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