It was one of those things that happened sometimes when they were drinking. It was early evening, six o’clock, at the Carriage House. They met after work, he in his pinstripe suit and lime green tie, she in her black net stockings and two-inch pumps. He placed his hand on her knee and told her how much he liked those stockings before they even requested the cocktail menu from the bartender.
“A mojito, please,” she requested. She liked the scent of mint. And the sugarcane. She liked to nibble on the ends of the sugarcane when there was nothing to do, nothing to say.
“Make that two,” he added. And the bartender began crushing the mint leaves with his pestle.
They discussed their day, how tiring it had been, how tedious, he adding up numbers in front of a blue screen with a coffee in hand, she shelving books and swiping library cards through the machine. Setting the ink in the stamp to make the imprint of a future date, a month from now. Would things be the same in thirty days? Would she still be setting the ink and collecting late fees in her register? Would she still be spooning her pillows at night, wishing there was life in feathers?
That evening it had been two months since they had last seen each other. Christmas had just ended and the decorations in the street, the tinsel and wreaths and icicle lights twinkled with a stale artifice. The dry pine needles from the tree in the corner of the bar lay scattered like some sort of love letter that had been ripped apart. After her third mojito, she began to tear up a little. She didn’t know why. She just kept staring at the trail of pine needles on the grey linoleum and shaking her head.
Armand confessed to her, “You are my very best friend, Jayce. No one knows me as you do.”
She nodded. She thought he was right. And yet he wasn’t right at all.
He looked at her with love in his eyes and asked her if she would share a bottle of sparkling wine. It would be on him. She nodded. The bartender set two glasses and filled them and they drank. Armand topped them off until the bottle rang empty, his thumb and forefinger flicking against the glass. She knew that they were lonely and that they knew what they were doing. They had done this many times before.
In the morning, a high-pitch thrumming invaded her ears and would not quit. Her head was split like a melon. Armand was snoring, the sheets twisted around his pale ankles, his back turned exposing the fine thread of coarse black hairs that ran down up and down his spine. He flopped onto his back in his dreaming, his flaccid member a reminder of what had been the night before. Jayce winced away the thought. Not again.
She wished she could love him.
He discovered a sock missing while dressing. They couldn’t find it in the sheets, under the bed, and so she loaned him one, though she had very few clean pairs left. Laundry needed to be done. Her peppermint checkered knee-high looked ridiculous next to the black and grey argyle mate. He pulled on his tasseled leather loafer and straightened the end of his trousers. The sock was to be their secret.
Armand said, “Do you feel all right? We’re all right, yes?”
She shook her head yes and shooed him away and he seemed grateful for it.
That night Jayce turned the lights off in the library and proceeded to walk home down deserted, icy streets. The clouds hung low and threatened rain, but she liked knowing that there would be an excuse to cocoon herself up in her apartment later. After making herself a tunafish sandwich for dinner, the phone rang. It was Armand—his usual follow-up call to secure their friendship. She let it ring into voicemail and stood there in the kitchen, staring blankly at the dirty dishes in the sink. Five minutes passed and it rang again. She sighed and answered it, plucking a branch off the Christmas tree and knotting it over and over again with her fingers until the sap became sticky like glue.
“You sure you feel all right?” he said to her.
“I mean about us. You would tell me if you felt strange.”
“Did I say or do anything you didn’t like?”
“No. I don’t think so. I don’t remember. No.”
“You would tell me if I did?”
“Yes. Don’t worry about it.”
“I feel protective of you.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’m taking down the Christmas tree.”
“But I don’t want me to be the thing I’m protecting you from.”
There was a long pause and she knew that he had regretted what he said. Still, she knew he felt a little guilty. Just a little. And there wasn’t anything wrong with that.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I have to take down the tree.”
At the age of thirty-seven, it was the first Christmas tree she had ever purchased on her own. A full, green Douglas-fir, six feet in height with a wide, round girth. She had carried it up the three flights of stairs by herself. She had collected decorations over the years, cerulean glass bulbs, papier-mâché angels, whittled turtle doves, but there had been no tree until now. She wrapped up her favorite ornament in newspaper, a red wooden sleigh festooned with a white ribbon at its tail, and placed it in the cardboard box with the rest of her collection.
The next day at the library, while shelving books in the cold, dingy stacks, she received a call from the doctor’s office, reminding her of her five o’clock appointment. She had forgotten. All of the nonsense with Armand had made her forget. “Drink two liters of water before you arrive,” the nurse reminded her. She left the library early, bought a two liter bottle at the metro station and drank it all on the train in big gulps.
There was a text on her phone from Armand when she emerged from the subway station that read ‘Are you angry with me?’ and she deleted it.
By the time she walked the three avenues to the Diagnostic Center, her bladder was full and she skipped through the revolving glass doors to hide her discomfort. She knew she could not empty out her insides until the technician had seen her. The nurse told her to change—everything off except the green gown. “You know the drill,” she said.
Yes, she knew it. A few years ago they had found something. A large growth in her fallopian tube. What it was, they weren’t sure. She had been thirty-three then. Cancer? They couldn’t say. They put her through the CAT scan, they pinched and probed.
She had been delicate before then, but this toughened her. Men were fiddling with her insides to save her. She was grateful, but she couldn’t help but feel a bit invaded, as if her body were turned inside out and the most private parts of herself lay on the operating table for all to see and she was just supposed to sit there and wait calmly and patiently while they made their assessments. After the surgery her doctor had shown her the images—of her pink uterus and ovary and fallopian tubes. They looked to be a slab of raw meat. “All clear,” the doctor said proudly. “You’re going to be just fine. You’ll have plenty of children,” he said.
Jeffrey was the name of the technician who did the annual procedure for her these last four years. A routine check-up, they called it. After surgery, it was required. To make sure it didn’t come back. In the waiting room she was one of many, most of whom were expecting.
She rested on the cold, metallic table in her green gown with her legs spread while Jeffrey held the probe. A long, lean wand. She couldn’t help but think of the pestle at the bar crushing the mint two nights before. And her confession to Armand at the Carriage House: “I want a child.” He had stared at her blankly. She hadn’t meant she wanted a child with him, she had meant she wanted a child with somebody, who wasn’t him, somebody whom she loved. Why could she not find this? Armand laughed it off and said, “You are beautiful,” and she could see the bartender out of the corner of her eye shaking his head at them.
Over the past few years Jeffrey the technician had always seemed much older than Jayce, a father almost, with deep creases at his eyes and jowls, and a grey beard grown thick over his chin. Today, however, her age caught up with his. She put him at about fifty. She noticed the turquoise flecks in his eyes for the first time, his calm, slow voice, his gentle manner.
“Would you like to insert the probe?”
“Yes,” she said, “I’ll do it,” and slipped it in.
For twenty minutes he took pictures—positioned the probe against her inner right thigh, then her left, clicking the grip each time the angle was right and analyzing the images of her insides on the screen. Images she could not see. She looked to the ceiling and listened to the play-by-play of the ball game on the radio. She didn’t care for sports, but it was the only thing worth focusing on. She unclenched her stomach and buttocks. She tried to relax as she listened to the announcer’s gruff and muffled voice on the radio: two homeruns at the second inning.
She thought of Armand. She had met him seven years before in a dance hall. He had been friends with an old classmate from her university. They hardly paid any attention to each other that night—he was busy practicing rumba with a co-ed and she was tired and wanted to go home. They had been dancing on opposite sides of the DJ. Soon after that, he began coming around to their 5 o’clock happy hours after work. Eventually, the friend of theirs got married and moved away, which left just the two of them carrying on old traditions.
She never understood how they had become friends. She still didn’t know his place in her life—was he a flirtation? A danger? A promise? Were there strings or not? All she knew was that he now possessed her peppermint sock and she eventually wanted it back.
When Jeffrey told her she could empty her bladder, she was relieved.
“You can get dressed and I’ll see you outside.”
She put on her stockings and tweed skirt, her undershirt and wool sweater, fastened the buckles on her boots and combed her hair. She zipped up her blue anorak and twisted the scarf around her neck. Outside the dressing room, Jeffrey was waiting.
“Is everything ok?”
He had never asked to see her “outside” before. Usually after the procedure she left and went home. He hesitated. His mouth opened and nothing came out. Only a crescent moon of teeth shone out of a black little hole. He was gentle with her.
“I can’t be sure. We’ll have to take a closer look. It could be nothing.”
A closer look? She couldn’t imagine anything closer. A flow of acid ran down her throat.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll call you in a few days, a week at most, to do a few more tests. Go home,” he said.
On her way to the station, Armand sent her another text. ‘Please call me. I want to make things right,’ it said. ‘Please don’t be angry,’ it said. She was punishing him and he knew it.
Panic was in her now. On the train, surrounded by strangers, she wanted to grab hold of each and every one of them, shake them, beg them. Help me, she would say. Help me.
Instead she opened her compact from inside her purse and straightened her hair in the mirror, applied fresh gloss to her lips, her hands shaking. She imagined that maybe what Jeffrey was looking at was the beginning of a life since she had been with Armand two days before. And that wouldn’t be so bad. Not ideal, but better than the alternative.
As he was probing her, Jeffrey must have seen it, a smudge, evidence of her and Armand’s meaningless frolicking, the drunken conquests they sometimes found themselves in.
She was thirty-seven and did not know what it was to be loved.
Jeffrey would give her an answer one way or another. She felt sorry for Armand. She felt more sorry for herself. I want to be out of this, she thought, desperately watching the rush-hour passengers fold themselves into the car when the doors spread. Out out! She pushed through them and out the train door and onto the platform. It was not her stop.
She vomited on the platform. No one came to help her. Instead, people avoided her. They looked at her, their faces pinched together with slits for eyes that seemed to say: Look at that poor, disgusting sick girl who just threw up on the platform.
It didn’t matter that she was nicely dressed. She felt like a wanderer, a vagabond, dirty, grimy, filthy.
A few weeks later, when Jayce finally agreed to see Armand again, he told her that he had gotten into an accident.
“I got punched in the head,” he said in the car. He was driving her home on a weeknight after an early dinner. Neither of them had been drinking.
“What? When?” she said, laughing. From the casual way he brought it up, she didn’t quite believe him.
“The other day. Not long after we…”
He stopped at the stoplight and flipped on his signal. His blinkers ticked like a pendulum.
“After we what? –Oh! Then!” she said, as if she had trouble remembering. “It’s true,” he admitted, clearing his throat while turning at an intersection.
“Some kids started following me and yelling at me on my way home from work. I told them to go home to their mother. They yelled at me and then knocked me right out. Can you believe that? It wasn’t even late. It was still daylight. There were people on the sidewalk and everything.”
“What did they yell?”
Armand began squirming a little in his seat.
“They called me a Jew.”
“And a fag. Can you believe that?” he chuckled, straightening up at the wheel.
Jayce looked at him, shocked, and began envisioning him as a homosexual. It was possible, but not probable. His laughter was self conscious, but strangely reminded her of the pre-teen boys she sometimes caught in the library giggling at the pornography they sifted through on their computers.
The street light turned green, and Armand hit the gas, rubber tires screeching. “Well, did you call the police?”
The speedometer rose from twenty to thirty to thirty-five to forty as they passed other teenagers in black woolen beanies lighting up cigarettes on the corner of the avenue.
“Well?” Jayce said.
“No. No police,” Armand said. “It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
The car got quiet and he turned onto her block.
“Well, I’m glad you’re all right.” She could tell he was done talking.
“Thanks for the ride home,” she said when they arrived at her apartment. She waved at him from the front steps after she fit her key into the keyhole. She ran up three flights of stairs, turned on the lights and went to draw the curtains. Drops of rain began to gather on the windowpane, and she could see Armand’s car there under the streetlight, the engine still thrumming.
She felt afraid. He was so casual about everything. Maybe he hadn’t really been attacked. Maybe he hadn’t been mugged.
His wipers batted against the windshield as the rain came down in sheets. You faggot Jew. You faggot Jew.
Weeks later, Armand started expressing interest in a Latina from work, a girl who was twenty- two. The bar was loud for five o’clock and full of good looking professionals. “I’ve been eyeing her for a while,” he confessed to Jayce, folding his napkin into tiny little squares.
“You always go for the young ones,” she teased, chuckling, and she felt brave to say this out loud to him. She felt she was being a calm, mature person. A person who slept with their friends and then discussed with those same friends the other people they wanted to sleep with. Armand smiled and brought a fresh glass of beer to his mouth, licking away the foam.
“There are two, actually,” he said to Jayce, “but the boss’s secretary doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. I brought her salsa dancing once but she said she just wants to be friends. I told her I thought there was some chemistry between us, but she didn’t want to make things complicated at work. It’s a shame. She’s a beautiful girl though.” His dimpled grin lost itself in reverie. “And she has great legs.”
“And the other one?” Jayce said, not missing a beat. She felt a tightening in her chest, her heart constricting, a little shame beating inside her pocket. Maybe she wasn’t as mature as she thought. She imagined the Latina flaunting bright polished red nails, a delicate beauty mark darkening the edge of her lip and a thick mane of black hair gripping Armand’s skull, loving him and breaking him so that he screamed and cried out loud.
“This one works downstairs in Human Resources. She says she’s attracted, but not much has happened. I took her skiing in the Poconos, we went to the art museum, we ordered Chinese, and nothing. I’ve been very patient,” he said, sturdying his barstool. “She’s a pretty good girl,” he said, “but I don’t like her hair.” He started rustling his keys inside his trouser pockets. “Maybe you can meet her one day.”
“Maybe,” Jayce said, and she took a sip of her beer, which was sour and tasted of metal. She told Armand she would be busy the next few months.
“Inventory for the new year at the library, lots of cataloguing” she said. “Where’s the bill?”
“Hey,” Armand said, looking carefully into Jayce’s eyes while reaching into his wallet. “Chin up. You know you’re my number one girl.” Then he patted her on the shoulder in the same way that she saw the old ladies outside the neighborhood retirement homes pat their small little dogs.
When Jeffrey delivered the news to Jayce at the Diagnostic Center, she gasped and then went limp. There was a nurse standing in the corner of the waiting room and Jayce wanted her out, gone. She sat on a cracked, plastic chair, feeling queasy again.
“You don’t have anyone with you here?” Jeffrey asked. His voice was a tumble of warm water being spun slowly in a glass with a spoon. His face looked drowsy. She knew he felt sorry for her and she didn’t want that. But she couldn’t walk away from it either.
She shook her head. She didn’t have anyone there.
“Shhhhh,” he whispered to her, and his palm found its way onto her shoulder.
It wasn’t a baby inside her.
“Shhhh,” he whispered again, and slid his finger under her eye to wipe away the water. Her stomach heaved up and down. So much crying choked the life right out of her. It was exhausting. In the big, empty hospital it seemed like it was just them, sitting there, practically strangers. Except. “Shhhhh. Don’t you have anyone you can call?
She looked at Jeffrey and what she saw in him was the calm, steady, constant love she was somehow always reaching for, but could never obtain. She reached for it now, the glare from the fluorescent light casting him in a heavenly glow. His face was so close to hers, comforting her, someone so unlike Armand, someone who could maybe understand. Before she knew it, she was leaning her head into his shoulder and holding tight his hand.
“Happy Hour” is a short story from Christy’s most recent fiction collection ‘How I Have Become Like You,’ a body of work she is currently polishing. She earned her MFA from Columbia University, was a fellow at The Writer’s Institute in New York City directed by Andre Aciman, and she has had articles and fiction published in The Brooklyn Rail, The Nashville Review, and Prometheus Dreaming.