021 Library relationships
Your first memory is of the public library you went to as a child, a towering edifice of pinkish brick and mirrored windows.
In the memory you are four, holding your little sister’s hand at the mouth of a crosswalk. Your mother stands on your other side, looking straight ahead. In profile she is very beautiful, the silver threads in her blonde hair glittering in the sun. She does not hold your hand. Her mouth is set in the thin, grim line you always dreaded seeing as a child, because it meant that she was worrying about something too great and terrible for you to comprehend, but in this memory there is no room for dread. You are thinking about the book you want to read, the one about the purple crayon. You can almost read it yourself now.
This memory is as vivid as if it happened yesterday and not twenty years ago. When you close your eyes and think of it you could swear you’re standing on that sidewalk again, holding your sister’s hand, jittery and impatient as you wait for the light to turn green.
You tell your girlfriend Miranda about it one day, hoping that it will explain why you are so excited to have gotten a low-level job as a library clerk. It isn’t even full-time, the pay is terrible, the work is physical, but you are still trembling with joy when the circulation librarian calls you and tells you that you can start on Monday. When you finish, she lets loose a long and gusty sigh.
“So you remember standing in front of a building,” she says. “And?”
You guess that’s all it is, really, although it feels like so much more.
This is the number you memorize in your first week as a public library clerk. Your supervisor wants you to learn how to shelve, and she gets you out onto the floor with a full cart of returns on your very first day.
“The best librarians know their collections,” she tells you. She is a big woman, very tall and very fat, her hair dyed a shrieking shade of red. She uses no makeup and wears sleeveless shirts to work, baring thick arms stamped with tattoos. Like every other librarian you’ve ever met, her eyes shine with good intentions. It is a little intimidating. “And the best way to learn the collection is to shelve. If you want to get anywhere in this field, start by figuring out where everything is.”
The cookbook section is a mess, stuffed and gasping, the shelves slightly bowed from the groaning weight of their cargo. You slide volume after volume into place, your eyes swimming with visions of slow cook pot roasts and five-dollar meals, coconut soups and fresh salad greens.
Shelving does not bother you. You were raised by an immigrant mother, and she drilled into you early that no work is beneath your dignity, no job too small for you to do. But when you tell Miranda what you did on your first day, she is furious on your behalf.
“You have a degree,” she fumes, slamming plates down on the kitchen counter like she is trying to crack them in half. “You’re smarter than half the people working at that reference desk. Why doesn’t she put you there?”
You try to explain that that’s not how the jobs work, that you’re one thing and the people on the desk are another, but she remains furious for the rest of the evening, stabbing silently at the spaghetti carbonara she made to celebrate your new job. Every now and then she looks up at you and narrows her eyes, as though her fury has stopped being on your behalf and begun to aim itself at you.
One book you shelve has only recipes for fancy spaghetti. You think of mentioning this to her, but decide against it. Too risky.
Miranda tells people the story of how you met all the time. You can hardly blame her. It is a good story.
It was in the middle of a summer storm (this is how she always begins), and the streets were full of water. You’d gotten caught in it as you waited in line outside a club, the rain running off your dress in little rivers to join the bigger ones in the gutter. It might have been better for you to cut your losses and leave, but you’d gotten separated from your friends, and if you didn’t join them inside they’d think you’d been abducted by some trenchcoat-wearing late-night television pervert. You stayed in line, a drenched and shivering mess.
Someone tapped you on the shoulder. You turned and looked down into a pair of green eyes.
“Want to share?” This was the first thing Miranda said to you. She hunkered under an enormous umbrella, tiny and impish and freckled, with hair like rosy gold.
There was plenty of room underneath, so you took her up on her offer. Small talk got bigger the longer you waited, and you discovered common ground, shared experiences, similar tastes. By the time the two of you got through the door of the club, you were friends.
It was too dark inside for you to find your friends, so you and Miranda stuck together. A booth became your home for the night as you eschewed the dance floor for drinks, conversation, more drinks. She bought you your first Tom Collins and told you that you had a beautiful mouth. It was only then that you realized she was flirting, that she had been from the first moment you met. The liquor made you brave, and you decided to flirt back.
“Well, you have a beautiful…” But you found yourself unable to decide what feature to compliment—there were too many that you liked. Her pert nose, her wry mouth, the delicate point of her chin. And her hands, pale and slender, with long fingers tapered to blunt and elegant points. “A beautiful everything,” was how you decided to end your sentence, and immediately felt like a fool.
She pulled your face down to hers and kissed you just as the lights came up to signal that the club was shutting down. Lightning flashed behind your eyes, a brief flash against the dark.
You wonder how those friends are doing now. It seems you haven’t seen them in a long time.
646.7 Personal appearance
When you got your job, you went out and bought new clothes. In your head, a person who worked in a library wore professional clothes: pressed slacks, cardigans, shirts that button all the way to your throat. It was embarrassing for you to realize when you started working that all the other clerks wear t-shirts and jeans. Only the librarians wear nice stuff.
Still, you have them already, and you kind of like the way you look in them. Sterner, more together. So you wear them anyway.
Miranda hates your new clothes. “Show a little more,” she says, and with her thumb flicks open one, two, three buttons, until the slight swell of your breasts is visible. She will not let you leave the house until she has uncovered some part of you. You wait until you are around the corner to cover up again. You’re never sure if she is watching you leave through the bedroom window.
“You always look so well turned out,” a patron says one day, and you blush all the way to the roots of your hair. On your way home that night you remember to unbutton those three buttons again before you turn onto your street.
“I’m never coming back here,” your sister says. She is smoking, and her hands are shaking, and there is a tiny shard of porcelain caught in the pale tangles of her hair. A long-planned supper did not go well, ending with Miranda throwing a bowl at the wall behind her head. It was a deliberate miss, the kind designed to make a point rather than injure. “You know that, right?”
You want to reach out and pluck out the shard, discard it so its sharp edges won’t cut this person who you have never stopped thinking of as that child whose hand you held so tightly. It was your job to keep her safe. You’ve failed at that.
“That bitch,” she says, and sucks desperately on her cigarette. By the glowing light of the cherry you can see the tears in her eyes. They won’t spill over. Your sister is very proud. “That bitch is crazy. And you’re just staying with her, you won’t—” She shakes her head ferociously, throws her cigarette to the ground and stamps it out. The sound of her boots scraping against the concrete echo. “You’re with someone who throws things at walls. Think about that for a second, will you? Think about that and tell me why the hell you don’t leave.”
You open your mouth to tell her, but all that comes out, aside from a strangling sound, is, “Please don’t tell Mom.”
It takes a moment for you to recognize the expression that travels across your sister’s face when you say this: the curled lip, the narrowed eyes. Contempt.
The two of you sit in silence until her cab sidles up to the curb. She does not hug you goodbye. She does not answer your texts the next day, or the day after that.
310 Collections of general statistics
Ninety percent of statistics are made up on the spot. This was a favourite joke of your father’s, back when he was alive and still bothered to visit. Every time he told it he would change the number, adding depth and flavour to the joke. Sixty-five percent. Seventy-nine percent. Eighty-three.
In your head you imagine your relationship as a series of bar graphs, pie charts, projecting lines. By your reckoning, fifty-two percent of Miranda is wonderful. She fills your hefty travel mug with coffee before you leave for work, knowing that you hate to waste money in cafes. She comes up behind you while you brush your teeth and squeezes you tightly around the waist, murmuring sweet things into the hair at the nape of your neck. She stops you on the way out the door, demanding one more kiss, one more hug, one more “I love you” in a way that makes you melt. It is this percentage of Miranda that you cling to.
Thirty-seven percent of Miranda is not wonderful. She rolls her eyes when you speak about your family, her mouth distorting in a cruel imitation of your mother’s faded German accent. She pointedly refuses to make eye contact with homeless people and panhandlers. She makes disparaging remarks about women she sees on the street, their hair, their weight, and you can’t help but notice that a lot of those women are your size, have short, messy hair like yours.
Eleven percent of Miranda is a horror movie. It’s the sound of her stumbling through the door at five in the morning, the spatter of her vomit on the carpet. It’s waking up to her fingers in your underwear, pinching and pulling at you while she slurs obscenities into your ear. It’s her hand covering your mouth, the sounds that die behind it.
But still, fifty-two percent wonderful is pretty good. It’s more than half. How many people can say that?
534 Sound & related vibrations
“Shut the fuck up,” Miranda hisses, her mouth so close to your ear that the words buzz painfully inside it. “The neighbours can hear you.”
The walls are thin. You shut the fuck up.
363.78 Pest control
The apartment has mice. You realize this early one morning while you stand at the kitchen counter, eating peanut butter on toast. Out of the corner of your eye you see a greyish brown flash with a pattering tail, and you shriek and jump. Thank God you are alone when it happens, or there would be hell to pay for the noise.
The superintendent sends in a man with thick, curly hair on the back of his neck to remedy the situation. This man places bait boxes in all the corners, conspicuous blocks that draw the eye despite their size. These are not traps, he tells you; there will be no bodies for you to dispose of. The stuff inside, an anticoagulant, smells good to the mice. They will dart into the box to nibble at the enticing treats, then scurry back under the baseboards. Their blood will slowly stop clotting until they die, hemorrhaging internally. This process usually lasts a few days, he explains, but sometimes it can take up to a week.
You wish he’d just brought some snap traps. They seem wholesome in comparison.
On nights when Miranda is at work, or out with friends, or otherwise occupied, you sit in the living room with only one light on and read. The mice come out because they think no one is home, and you listen to them scuttle and squeak with minimal interest. They enter the bait box, eat the poison, retreat under the floorboards to die. The more you hear them at it, the more your pity curdles into loathing.
“Stupid animals,” you mutter. It’s their own fault, they keep coming back for more. They’re asking for it.
264 Public worship
When the two of you first started dating, Miranda convinced you to fuck her in a public bathroom.
You say “convinced,” but she really didn’t need to do much to convince you. In those early days of your courtship, her very presence was enough to leave you wrecked and trembling with need. You were perpetually wet, swollen and sore, the ache thrumming up your bones and into the back of your mind. The littlest thing could set you off: a smell, a smile from a stranger, the flight of a bird. You knelt there on the dirty floor, the stink of urine rising from the tiles, and let her ride your face, gripping desperately at her hips and trying to swallow your moans. The feel of her, the smell, the taste, it was all so right you could barely stand it. You dripped with her, felt her oozing out of your pores like sweat.
You think about those times when Miranda comes home from one of her nights out at the bar and throws herself on top of you, grabbing your hand and forcing it inside her. In, out, in, out, with the rough efficiency of a piston. She arches above you, writhing furiously, and you lie back and watch it happen. It is astonishing how little you feel.
650 Management & public relations
When your mother is on the phone she asks how the two of you are doing, caution creeping into her voice. She knows something, suspects something, in spite of all you have done to keep your shame hidden.
“Great,” you say, and you smile even though there is no one there to see you, no one to catch you out. Miranda is at work. You are safe. “We’re doing great.”
001.9 Controversial knowledge
Your supervisor overhears you talking to Miranda on the phone one day on your break. You thought that you were safe, pacing back and forth on the pavement behind the library, but her office is at the back of the building, and she leaves the window open all summer to let in the breeze. It wafts your end of the conversation in with it, “please, baby” and “I’m sorry” and “you’re right” circling the room like water down a drain.
She does not mention this to you, not at first. Instead she comes up to you at the end of a shift and says: “Would you like to come to my house for dinner?”
This seems unusual, perhaps even unprofessional, but you are not sure if it would be more unprofessional to say no, so you accept.
Your supervisor’s car is plastered with bumper stickers, and the backseat is a riotous mess of garbage and old flyers. She sees you looking at it and laughs as she slides into the driver’s seat.
“Some librarians have tidy minds,” she says. “And tidy cars. Not me, though.”
This is good to know. You are starting to suspect that you yourself do not have a tidy mind.
Her apartment is cramped and cozy, nestled at the very top of a high rise. Her boyfriend, a small man with big glasses, has made chicken fettuccine. He is clearly surprised to have a third person to feed, and you are terrified that you have put your supervisor in danger. Your stomach cramps with anxiety. You can barely eat at first, even though it smells delicious and the alfredo sauce is homemade, with fresh parmesan and heavy cream.
But your supervisor and her boyfriend seem to be totally at ease with one another. He teases her about the amount of garlic bread she eats; she laughs and threatens to kiss him without brushing her teeth, her hand resting briefly on top of his. Beneath the table a plump grey cat winds itself around their ankles, howling for chicken. Bit by bit you relax, smile, eat your dinner. You even accept a glass of wine.
You can’t remember the last time you had a drink without Miranda there. It is a strange feeling, knowing that you are only responsible for yourself.
After dinner your supervisor invites you out to her balcony, handing you a second glass of wine. The two of you stand against the railing and gaze out onto the city, slate roofs and red brick, the faraway glint of the harbour. Contentment blooms warmly in your belly.
“Just so you know,” your supervisor says, twirling her glass in her hand, “I heard you on the phone today.”
The contentment shrivels up and dies.
“I know this is awkward,” she says. “I don’t want to overstep. But it sounded pretty bad.”
You say nothing.
“Was that your girlfriend?” she says. “Does she often speak to you that way? If you need resources, a number to call, I can get that for you, I’ve been there. I know where this kind of thing ends. And it’s never good.”
You make your excuses and leave as fast as you can.
“Please don’t go,” she says.
On the bus home you cry and cry and cry, wondering how you could have been so stupid.
The reference section is the one you find most soothing to shelve. No one browses it for long, and it is far enough from the children’s section that the sounds of computer games and puzzle-related disputes are a faint buzz in the distance. You let your fingers trail over the spines of the newest set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas as you work, breathing in the heavy smell of many facts jostling for space.
The simplicity of books of facts appeals to you. If you open an encyclopedia and look up the city of Lisbon, everything you read there will be plain and true: average rainfall, demographics, square kilometers. There will be nothing for you to analyze, nothing to pick apart syllable by syllable in a desperate search for hidden meaning. The encyclopedia is not setting traps for you and waiting for you to walk into them.
Your supervisor never brings up the night you came over for dinner, but occasionally you catch her watching you, her mouth twisted into a grimace, as if she is watching a small animal in pain. You avoid her whenever you can. It’s easier that way.
795 Games of chance
What mood will she be in when you get home?
When she realizes that you forgot to pick up that thing she asked for, how angry will she be?
If you leave your shoes by the door instead of putting them in the closet, how long will she scream at you about it?
If you lock yourself in the bathroom while she is still shouting, and she starts to hammer on it with her delicate fists, how likely is it that she will break down the door?
What will happen after that?
395.22 Wedding planning
Miranda loves reality shows about weddings. She will sit on the couch and watch hours of Say Yes To The Dress and Four Weddings and Bridezillas, scribbling notes in a little yellow planner. You look at it one day when she is at work. Peacock feathers for centrepieces. A gazebo hung with fairy lights and electric lanterns. A mermaid dress of ivory silk and Alencon lace. She’s sketched a rough outline of what the dress will look like, and you can picture it on her. It will be beautiful.
The two of you are not engaged, although you have discussed marriage as a possibility, a semi-serious option in a comfortably faraway future. As you look through the planner, trying to ignore the panic rising in your chest, you feel the distance between you and the future closing.
There is nothing much in it about you, other than your list of guests, which includes your mother and a few mutual friends. Your sister’s name has been scratched out viciously enough to tear the paper. Apparently she is not invited.
She proposes to you after dinner one night, using a candy ring instead of a real one. Because of that you think it is a joke for a good thirty seconds before you realize that her eyes are deadly serious.
You accept. God help you, you accept, and Miranda sighs in relief.
“I thought you were going to say no!” she cries, and you laugh and kiss her and say of course not, how could you say no? The two of you eat the candy ring together, alternating bites, and she promises she’ll get you a real one soon.
That night you can’t sleep. She thought you might say no. That means that she thinks there is a reason you might say no. That means she knows what she is doing, how she is treating you, is a reason to say no. You want to puke up the stupid candy ring, but too much time has passed. It’s probably digested now. Besides, half of it is inside her.
You promised to marry her. You gave her your word. You promised to marry her and now you’re stuck, you idiot, you promised to marry her and you can’t break a promise like that, not something that serious, this isn’t like the time you promised your mother you would do the dishes and didn’t, or the time your father promised he would remember your birthday and didn’t, or the time she promised you she’d stop drinking and didn’t—this is marriage, this is for life, and you can’t back out, you moron, you’ve made your bed and now you’re going to die in it.
398.2 Fairy tales
Magic. Romance. Happy endings. You shelve these books with more force than necessary, shoving them in with no care for the integrity of the spines.
What you must do to survive the next week, the next month, the rest of your life, is this.
Always have a pot of coffee ready, regardless of the hour.
Agree (it doesn’t matter with what).
Speak calmly and softly, with a gentle smile. Don’t stutter. Don’t scowl. Don’t raise your voice.
Touch her when she demands that you touch her. Let her touch you when she wants to touch you. If you have to fake it, do so, but you probably won’t have to. Your pleasure is not her concern. She just wants to know that she has access to you, can be inside you whenever she likes.
Do not cry, no matter what she does or says. She hates the sound of your crying, the pitch of your voice as you wheeze and gasp. It’s not worth it.
Do not nag her. Remember that the definition of “nag” changes from day to day, so be prepared for it to apply today where it did not yesterday, and vice versa.
Apologize (it doesn’t matter for what).
Tell her that you love her. This is true, in spite of it all, and it is a good thing to tell people that you love them, every day. You never know when you might get hit by a car. (You long to get hit by a car.)
Remind yourself that it’s really not that bad. Your grandfather once tried to choke your grandmother to death. Your father left your mother while she was pregnant with your sister and stole two thousand dollars from her on the way out. Your cousin’s ex-boyfriend stalked her for three years and still sends her the occasional email about what he’ll do when he finds her again. It could be worse. It could be a lot worse.
591.65 Dangerous animals
“Whore,” she mumbles, and reaches out to dig her nails into a handful of your belly. “Fat whore.” In the moonlight her teeth gleam. You wonder if this is how you die.
239 Apologetics & polemics
“I’m sorry for last night,” she says, and then proceeds to explain why it is your fault that she called you a bitch in the middle of a crowded bar. Why you are to blame for her stony silence in the cab home, the way she pushed you out of her way as she staggered up the stairs. Why you are the reason she got blackout drunk and passed out in the bathroom, clawing at your arm when you tried to pull her to her feet until you left her there for hours, wondering if you should go to the gas station across the road to shit. Why actually, when she thinks about it, she isn’t sorry for last night at all, because she did nothing wrong, and in fact it’s you who should be sorry, for making her do so many horrible, embarrassing things. Why did you do that? What’s wrong with you?
618.24 Domestic violence
You let this call number pass in front of your eyes unnoticed. That’s a word for people with real problems. It could be worse, you remind yourself, resolutely shelving titles without reading them, although the occasional word jumps out at you: SILENCE, INTIMATE, BRUISES, HIDDEN, BATTERED. Everything could always be worse.
One day you fill an old backpack with essentials: underwear, socks, a fresh shirt, a toothbrush. You take out sixty dollars and wind it up into a little cinnamon roll spiral, tucking it into one of the pairs of socks. On top of it all you place a box of protein bars. They are your least favourite flavour, so you won’t be tempted to eat them.
Packing this bag makes you feel like you are four years old again, tearfully declaring that you are running away and never coming back. On those occasions you would also pack a bag, shouldering it bravely out the door and into the great unknown after filling it with things you thought would be necessary for a long journey. (How long? Never more than half an hour, then you got bored and wandered home.) You don’t know if you will ever use it, but you sleep more soundly with it hidden at the back of the closet.
791 Public performances
A coworker decides to throw a party—not for any reason, just because parties are fun and the weather’s been nice and you are all desperately trying to forget that summer reading club starts in less than two weeks. Miranda reads the invite over your shoulder and is delighted.
“I’ll get to meet your work friends,” she says, and bestows upon you her lightning-white smile. You smile back and wish that you had hidden the page more quickly. You could have gone and pretended you were somewhere else.
Your coworker’s apartment is tiny, the living room walls hung with little Christmas lights to make things festive. Miranda notes this immediately—you can tell by the way her eyebrows move—and you can see her brain formulating a critique of this space for later, highlighting every piece of furniture assembled from a box, every milk crate used for shelving, every dust bunny spinning across the floor.
Your coworker seems genuinely pleased to see you, albeit a bit surprised. She exclaims happily over the bottle of wine you present to her as a gift.
“You didn’t have to do that!” she says, hugging you with all the spontaneity and joy of a child. You can’t help but stiffen, picturing Miranda standing behind you, watching this happen, but when you turn around she is all smiles, all love. She pounces on your coworker, telling her what a fabulous party this is, how perfect the music, how beautiful her home. Your coworker’s smile wavers only a little as she accepts this heavy load of compliments. Her eyes flick over to you occasionally as if to say “is this for real?”
You don’t know if it is for real. It is impossible to tell.
The party continues, and you have some mild fun, but not enough to distract you from the fact that Miranda drinks all the wine you brought. Your coworker doesn’t even get to taste it. After that she moves onto gin. You watch the liquid in her glass disappear, sip by sip.
There is an art to mixing drinks for Miranda.
The first step is to notice that her drink is getting low. You must do this before she does. Otherwise, she will make one herself, and that would be bad.
The second step is to reach out and touch her shoulder gently, saying, “Baby, do you want me to top you up?” You must say this very softly, because if you say it too loudly she will remember how much she hates the braying loudness of your voice, and that would be bad.
The third step is to take her drink somewhere she can’t see it. The kitchen, for preference. If you mix her drink in front of her, she will stop whatever she is doing to watch you, wanting to be sure that the right amount of alcohol goes into the glass. (The right amount is always more.) If you do not put the right amount in, she will be unhappy, and that would be bad.
The fourth step is to carefully measure out a fourth of what you would ordinarily put into a glass of that size, the smallest dribble of gin doused in tonic water and a generous wedge of lime. You must wait a few extra seconds—enough to make it seem like you have put more into the glass than you did—before stepping back into the bright light of the living room, offering the drink like a fizzing bouquet. If you do not wait a few extra seconds she may realize what you have been up to, and that would be bad.
The fifth step is to watch her as she takes her first sip. Her heavy-lidded eyes will close a little, and she will hum deep in the back of her throat. It is not until you hear this that you can relax, because you have gotten away with it. You must get away with it. If you do not get away with it, she will wait until you get home to confront you about it. She will hold her tongue until the bolt on the door slides home with an audible click, and then she will turn around and look at you with her heavy-lidded eyes, and each step she takes as she walks towards you will fall heavy and loud, and that would be bad, that would be very, very bad.
The two of you walk home from the party. The sky overhead is thick with stars, and you try to pick out constellations, but you only find Orion and Cassiopeia before giving up. Summer is coming, but it isn’t quite here yet, and there’s a hint of frost in the wind as it blows through your thin party clothes, making you shiver.
“It’s such a beautiful night,” you say, and look to Miranda for a reply. What you see makes your stomach clench with sudden nausea. She is walking stiffly, her mouth tight with rage.
“You made a fool out of me,” she says. Both fists are clenched.
You can’t say what? or huh? or how? That will only make her angrier. You try to match your pace with hers. You breathe as quietly as you can.
“That drink,” she says, her voice growing louder with every syllable. “That drink you made me at the party. There was hardly anything in it. I asked you to make me a drink, and you gave me water. Why?” This last she barks at you, and a dog in the distance barks back in sympathy.
“There was gin in it,” you say, and wince at your own stupidity. (Always agree.) Her eyes narrow as she turns to look at you.
“You think I’m an alcoholic,” she says. “You think I’m just some drunk who can’t be trusted not to embarrass you. You think you’re better than me because—what—you work at a goddamn library? I know. I know what you’re thinking. You and your fucking shirts.”
This is the last thing she says to you for twenty minutes. You let yourself trail behind her a bit, dread hardening into a bitter lump in your throat. When you get to the door of your building she doesn’t hold the door open for you, doesn’t even wait for you, just thunders up the stairs to your apartment. By the time you get there yourself she’s already poured herself a tumblerful of gin. She stands in the kitchen and drinks it, her eyes locked on your face.
You are so tired. You have been tired for so long.
“I have to pee,” you say. This should be the part where you say that you’re sorry (always apologize) and ask her what you can do to fix it, how you can make her happy, but you just can’t tonight. Kicking off your shoes and leaving them on the welcome mat, you turn down the hall to make your way to the bathroom. Your face looks old, melted, like a wax doll left too close to the fire.
When you emerge, Miranda is at the other end of the hall, the gold of her hair deepened by the light that burns above her head. The tumbler is empty now, and she is swaying slightly in place.
“I’m going to bed,” you tell her, and she smiles. It isn’t sarcastic or mocking; it’s the same smile that got you years ago, grabbed you by the throat and wouldn’t let you go. The one you see when you close your eyes and wish things were like they used to be.
She smiles. Then she throws the tumbler at you.
The tumbler shatters on the floor in front of you. You freeze, afraid that a shard will make its way up into your foot if you move. Miranda there, watching you, her hand dangling loose and empty at her side. She is still smiling, but you see a different edge to it now, hard and glittering, like cut glass.
She walks towards you slowly, bends down suddenly enough to make you flinch. When she straightens, she has the largest shard of glass in her grip. It is mostly the thick bottom of the tumbler, but with a long, curved piece of the side still attached. Like a talon, like a hook. She holds it with the pointed end of the curve facing out.
No, not holds, you think. Wields.
The bedroom door is to your left. You have never moved as quickly as you do when you jump over the pile of broken glass and throw yourself through it, slamming it shut behind you. Your heart thunders in your chest as you reach up and press the button in the doorknob that locks it. It’s always held before, but will it now, when you need it?
The room is dark. The apartment is quiet. Then you hear a scuffling noise beyond the locked door, the sound of moving feet, the thump of fists on the door.
“Open. Open. Open. Open.” That one word is all she says, over and over, in a voice that doesn’t change in volume or emphasis. She sounds like that toy you had as a child, the one that looked like a calculator and said things if you spelled them right. It ran out of batteries eventually. You can only hope that Miranda will, too. The beat is slow and steady, the kind of noise that seems like it will never stop. The sound of the end of the world, you think, and that is when you let the tears come even though it’s against the rules, sobbing and sobbing and hating the sound of it paired with those pounding fists. Your eyes ache, your nose runs, you want so badly to go to bed, but you know that you can’t, not now, not with her battering the door with her pale, slender, hands.
And suddenly the chanting and pounding both stop, and you hear a muffled thump from the hallway. An eerie silence takes hold of the place. You sit there for a moment, catching your breath, and then slide cautiously back from the door. Slowly, remembering every horror movie you have ever seen, you press your face to the floorboards and look out through the crack beneath the door.
Miranda’s feet are still in view, bare and miraculously free of glass. As you watch, her toes twitch, and you hear the kind of low murmur that only comes from people who are either asleep or about to be. She has passed out on the floor in the hallway,
On any other night, this would be your cue to haul her into bed, turn her on her side, and place a bottle of aspirin on the bedside table. But not tonight. Tonight is the night you pull the backpack out from the back of the closet and tiptoe out of the apartment, one eye on her prone form as she drools and snores on the hallway floor. The piece of glass is on the ground beside her, fallen out of her slack and open hand. You worry she’s faking it, that she will leap back into action when you step over her, but she doesn’t, and you close the door behind you when you leave.
Did you hear the one about the girl who fell in love with another girl and then realized that the other girl wanted her dead?
Never mind. It’s not all that funny.
You can’t go stay with your sister, because she isn’t speaking to you. You can’t go stay with your mother, because she lives on the other side of the country. You can’t go stay with your father, because he’s dead, and anyway you hated him. You can’t go stay with any of your friends, because you stopped calling them when Miranda told you she didn’t like them. You can’t go stay with any of your coworkers, because you don’t know them well enough, and because you are embarrassed. You can’t go stay at a hotel, because you can’t afford it. You can’t go stay in a women’s shelter, because they will laugh you away at the door. (You do not know this for certain, but you can picture it: their eyes narrowing as you tell them the name of the person you are running from, their mouths pursing with derision as they tell you that this is a place for women in crisis, sweetie, not some sad lezzie having a lover’s quarrel. There are women in here whose men have beaten them, kidnapped them, tried to kill them. The other day one of them tried to barge in here and set his girlfriend on fire, had the gasoline and matches ready to go. Is that what you’re scared of? That this tiny woman, this blonde waif with wrists you can encircle with two fingers, will come in here and try to light you up? Then stop wasting our time.)
Your hands shake as you scroll frantically through your contacts, looking for her number. The phone seems to ring for a thousand years. Finally, a bleary voice on the other end says, “Hello?”
You take a deep breath, count to three, close your eyes.
“Hi,” you say to your supervisor. “Can you help me?”