Newly trimmed nails painted with baby-shower-pink polish were attached to gold ringed fingers, which were attached to a smooth-skinned hand that picked up the duffel bag on the curb. The owner of the manicured hand, a young-looking mother who suffered from the slow toxins of time and an unfaithful husband, was waiting on her daughter to speak although she did not want the daughter to speak. They were standing in a highly public place and the mother was afraid that the daughter would blurt out something abominable, terrified that the daughter would call out her enemy by its medically-officiated name. The mother did not want to drop her Stepford Wife smile. The smile felt as familiar as her three coats of Rum Raisin lipstick applied in the morning, right after she brushed her teeth. As soon as the corners of her mouth drooped, she would feel the white heat lash of guilt. It would trigger an outburst unfit for the austerity of her New England peers.
Her daughter was not a dumb girl and although the mother believed that her child was beautiful in a way that needed a double-take to appreciate, her daughter was not a pretty fool. She had learned to read earlier and faster than the average child. She racked up awards and recommendations from teachers that seemed to agree: this child is gifted and needs to released into the world of Bigger and Better Things like baby Moses floating down the river in his little basket. They sent her off into the great blue yonder and she came back, ghostly grin and riddled with bullet holes. Despite the daughter’s propensity for absorbing knowledge, college had broken her down. Her daughter, the one who had sent a titter of disapproval among the residents when she’d rejected the gleaming Ivory Towers for Spelman, had flunked out.
The daughter was twenty-two and had never felt the metal skin of a pocket-sized pistol let alone considered enlisting in the service. She wasn’t entirely sure why she’d royally fucked up but she wasn’t naive enough to dismiss the how of it all: drinking as a method of social glue, drinking as though alcohol could summon the magic of a fairy godmother that would turn her into a princess. The drinking ripped open the portal to Wonderland; the daughter wobbled over the edge of a black hole. Her ambition to succeed liquified. The future and the past were of equal distance. It was getting harder to care about the pursuit of knowledge when the immediate junkie need for pleasure squeezed her windpipe. Sometimes, on the nights that she wasn’t tucked in the bed of her fraternity brother plaything (never a boyfriend, always charming nightcrawlers who drained her in the dark), she would walk the grounds in order to slow down the symphony that clanged in her head. It all became a huge chore, as boring as all the times her mother had dragged her to Sunday service.
Soon the daughter did not fear the unknown. Red ink slashed across her papers, the stern faces of gravelly-voiced professors that couldn’t remember her name, the books she never bothered to crack open. She stopped speaking to her roommate because everything the girl said dripped with den mother concern. The slipping grades, the missed assignments, the afternoons spent ditching a lecture only to wander around like a scarecrow without its head. She couldn’t believe that she was actually living.
Mira knew that her mother was disappointed, even ashamed that her daughter, once branded a shoo-in for rags-to-riches prosperity, was no better than the townie kids who fed on the lean glory days of adolesence. But there was nothing Mira or her mother could do now.
The lumpy bag was stuffed with shirts and leggings and skinny jeans that squeezed even Mira’s ankles, in addition to Hanes socks and underwear sold in ten packs at the discount store. A big box was being shipped to the house as it wouldn’t fit in Mira’s mother’s coup.
“I got you a job,” Mira’s mother said. She put on sunglasses. She needed a prop, a distraction, something to undermine the warble in her voice. She didn’t take cues from silver screen starlets of yesteryear; she was a pop star diva who loved and loathed the spectacle of her own persona. She thought of herself as larger than life in order to be larger than life.
“I told you that I didn’t want to work this summer,” Mira muttered.
They were still standing in front of the train station and people maneuvered around them, the groups splitting like rattled molecules pressed underneath a microscope slide. Mira wondered if one of the strangers in the crowd could have been her friend, the phone operator, the woman who had picked up her call at the suicide hotline. The woman had the kind of voice that acted as a gradual tranquilizer, wrestling a caller’s hysteria and desperation into logic. The woman had probably saved her life and she would never really know.
“I got you a job at the Gap in the outlet mall. You start in a week,” Mira’s mother continued. Mira didn’t know how this was possible, but her mother kept an equal amount of friends and gentleman admirers on retainer. Someone must have done her a favor.
“I don’t want to. I can’t deal with people. Angry customers make me nervous,” Mira confessed.
While attending Spelman, Mira had tried to keep a part-time job. She lasted a day. She was supposed to be a hostess at a popular sports bar and restaurant. Customers were constantly demanding that she speak up.
What did you say? I can’t hear you! Louder, please! Are you a girl or a mouse?
The manager was too friendly, sleazy Vegas entertainer friendly, methodically rubbing her arm when issuing an order, placing his hand gently on the back of her neck, pads of his thumbs pressing into her spine. She messed up a reservation and the irate man with the hair plugs and his much younger date were stoned-face at the off-key tinkling of her nervous laughter and her stuttering hands. At the end of the night, the manager called her into his back office and almost wouldn’t release her tips, saying that he’d give her the money if she kissed him. Naturally, the word “kiss” was a kinder euphemism.
Mira was finally able to claim her rightful tips and she didn’t kiss her manager. She left feeling like she’d done what he’d wanted her to do and more.
“You have to do something while you’re here,” Mira’s mother said.
“I can’t do it. I won’t do it.”
A week later, her mother was watching as she backed the car out of the driveway, the brake gears grinding, and then maneuvering down the street and to the outlet mall. On the way to her new job, Mira found an old package of Parliaments wedged between the driver’s seat. She used the car lighter, got the cigarette going, then sucked hard.
Working retail was no different than working at the restaurant. Sometimes the people were nice. They actually handed her the money and didn’t throw it on the counter. They genuinely appreciated her help. These people did not get offended by Mira’s cool as aloe voice or her forced smile or when she forgot how to ring things up. They noticed when she made the effort to put on makeup or braid her hair. They looked at her with pity because they felt better about themselves. They were not stuck behind an outdated cash register, listening to the same Pitchfork-approved indie rock on repeat, wearing Gap brand khakis and button-downs. They were not making minimum wage, passing the days in the same predictable manner only to go home and wonder: what was the point of leaving bed?
Other people were not as nice. These people were usually the repeat customers. They didn’t shoot for the sale racks. They believed that the stockroom was a self-replenishing vault of every color and every size and every style of clothing and didn’t understand why their demands could not be met. They often told Mira to smile or looked at her lack of laugh lines and her apple round cheeks and wondered if she was old enough to be working there. Old men asked how long she’d been in the country and didn’t seem to believe (or want to believe) she’d been born and raised in New England. Old women asked if she had a boyfriend and then demanded to know why she was single.
On her breaks, she wandered down to the food court and bought a burger and fries from the Burger King dollar menu. She’d pick a corner table and then study the day’s flock of shoppers, iPhones pressed to their ears, children dragged along like sacks of potatoes by stay-at-home helicopter Moms who could not decide if devoting every fiber of their time, energy, and being was a satisfying sacrifice. The same security guard always lingered by the food court entrance doors, bony chest puffed out, staring at Mira every few minutes as though instead of eating, she were waiting for an expensive drug exchange. Eventually, irritation called for release and when they locked eyes across the room, Mira opened her mouth to reveal the chewed up hunks of burger and bread. The guard stopped watching her soon thereafter.
One Saturday night, a twenty-something male came into the store, accompanied by a male friend. They nodded at her in acknowledgement. Mira wasn’t blind to the fact that they were both attractive. They were both dressed in jeans, sneakers, and tank tops. The friend had black hair. The soles on his shoes flapped with each step. The twenty-something male, gifted with green eyes that made it easy to manipulate those around him, stayed anchored in the front of the store while the friend drifted to the back. Green Eyes glided his way over to Mira, who was standing behind the register, folding striped shirts out of boredom.
“Hi,” he said.
She looked up and then back down at the shirts.
“Am I bothering you?” he asked. He smiled.
“No. Not at all. Can I help you with something?”
“I’m good. Just waiting for my friend.” They both turned to look at the friend, who was inspecting the denim wall with intense concentration, index finger tapping his chin.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you working here before. You just start?” he wondered.
“Yeah, a few weeks.”
“So when you’re not working here, what do you do? Do you like to go to the beach?”
Mira’s pessimism took a flying leap off a cliff. Maybe, just maybe he would ask her out? Although she had very much wanted to experience at least one date, she’d never gone on a date while at college.
After all, what live-blooded young man would want to ask out a ghost?
“Uhhh-uhhh. A lot of stuff. I like to make jewelry sometimes. I like to listen to my records. I like the beach. I like to just float on my back and drift off.”
Mira thought this was somehow the wrong answer; this was the type of guy who probably wanted some grinning beach bunny with perfect tan lines and could spike a volleyball like a bullet and never got sand wedged in her suit.
“That’s cool, I can get down with that. I grew up in California so I like to surf. You guys don’t really got any good waves around here,” Green Eyes said.
“Surfing? I’ve tried surfing a few times,” Mira lied, hoping it would make her appear cooler. She folded and refolded the same shirt.
The friend suddenly appeared at the register. He was empty-handed.
“Hey, they don’t have what I’m looking for. Let’s go,” he commanded.
Green Eyes smiled and then shrugged as though she were an unlucky customer at the county fair that had just missed the last shot at the bottle-throwing game. Green Eyes bowed like an impish court jester and then they ambled out of the store.
The next day, her manager called her into the back after she’d punched in. The manager, who eerily resembled Martha Stewart, had watched last night’s video surveillance footage. Green Eyes had played the lookout while his friend swiped a few shirts, a belt, and a package of boxers. Mira did not cry when she was fired on the spot. She did not get a chance to defend herself or argue. She wasn’t even sad that she’d lost her job. She was only sad that she’d believed that Green Eyes thought she was pretty enough to ask out on a date, rather than an excuse for an easy scam.
Mira’s mother was not happy. She made that clear the moment Mira walked in the house. Cabinets banged open and shut. Her feet were suddenly cement bricks bruising the hardwood floors. Mira’s mother refused to listen Mira’s stuttering explanation, branding her as “irresponsible” and “boy crazy.”
“Is this why you flunked out of school? Too busy chasing boys?”
Mira was ordered to go to her room. The minute she opened her mouth, her mother grabbed her forearm and squeezed and dug her nails into the skin. Mira’s mother was several inches shorter than her daughter but in that moment, the wisp of a woman was an Amazonian marvel, ruling with a Medusa glare. When Mira was younger, she resented the fact that she was thoroughly her mother’s daughter; an impeccable carbon copy of dark hair and thick eyebrows and almond eyes reserved for the glamorous villain of a big-budget telenova.
“I’m so disappointed with you right now. You. Don’t. Think! You better get your butt up to your room and start looking for a new job,” her mother declared.
Mira didn’t think this would be a useful solution to the matter at hand but she obeyed. She went up to her room and took off her shoes. Ten minutes later, after she placed the needle in the groove of her Betty Davis record, she was crying out of frustration, battling a spitting alleycat of emotions she didn’t dare further provoke.
With each day that passed without a job offer, Mira’s mother fretted.
“Have you been following through? Have you called any of these places to make sure they got your resume? Why haven’t you heard from XYZ?”
Mira didn’t have an answer. Mira’s mother interpreted this as laziness. Mira was caught between desperation and agony: she was almost sure that she was desperate enough to take the first job that made an offer, agony that her pride would kick in at the last minute and snatch away the opportunity.
After a month of not receiving any appointments for interviews, Mira’s mother tailored a chore list for her daughter. Mira didn’t complain. But at night, she would soak for hours in the bathtub until she was shivering and waterlogged, her anxieties exhausted, her thoughts weightless satellites.
“What are you going to do? Sit and mope?” her mother wondered over breakfast in July.
Mira’s mother had taken the time to get up and make bacon and pancakes but the bacon was soggy in the middle and the pancakes had clumps next to the burned chocolate chips.
Mira made sure to clear her plate and drain her glass of orange juice.
Mira bought a brand new X-Acto off Amazon and patiently waited the 5-7 business days.
On the seventh day, she made her choice.
When Mira woke up on the eighth day in a hospital bed, her stomach was screaming. Her throat tasted like soot. Her body felt like it’d been smashed against the grill of a mack truck.
Her mother was talking to a woman in scrubs. The tone of her mother’s voice was not one forged from cruelty but from exhaustion and disbelief and horror and repulsion. But the words themselves were back-to-back punctures to her heart, the implication of the question a jackhammer to an already cracked skull.
“Thank God she didn’t have the sense to do it the right way, right?”
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.