Sarah had never even kissed anyone on the mouth, but she thought she didn’t like sleeping alone. As she dozed off, she could hear Margaret puking in the bathroom, and Jeremy murmuring to her before the toilet flushed.
On Tuesday morning, Sarah kept her face under the itchy afghan long after the alarm had gone off, watching sunlight filter through the loops of pink and orange wool. She was drenched in sweat. Only when the phone rang and her mother shrieked, “Sarah!” did she pull her head out. The air in the room felt cool in her wet hair.
“Phone, Sarah! I mean it.”
The beige cordless on the nightstand was smudged with grey. “You up?”
“I’m up, yeah. What?” The bedside clock said eight-eleven, too late for a shower.
“I’m making sure you’re up, Sar. If you’re late again, Kief’s gonna fuckin’ make you into gravy.”
“I won’t be late. I’m up.” Sarah scissor-kicked the blankets onto the floor, covering the clean laundry, the lamp, her grade 11 biology text.
“How are our fertile friends?”
“I don’t know. She’s still here, that’s it.” She swung her legs over and sat up. Her head felt hot and heavy, filled with melted candlewax.
“Ok, one problem at a time. Get moving. You should be on the bus already.” There was a click, a moan of dialtone.
Sarah was tempted to put her uniform on over her t-shirt and shorts, to avoid being naked, but people—at least Kate—would notice the lumps under her chef’s jacket and white-and-black checked pants. She stripped down to her panties and bra, then dressed, shivering.
Everyone was at the kitchen table for some reason, drinking tea and eating whole-wheat bread out of the silver Wonder sack. Jeremy was reading job ads aloud in a voice like Jerry Seinfeld’s, only not funny, and Margaret was retching quietly into an HMV bag. Sarah’s mom sat blinking at the wall, drinking her tea. Her mother had to be at work at nine, too. “Who was on the phone?”
“…to transit freight to and from stations and hub facilities, as well as pickup and delivery of skidded freight… What, skidded, like, slipped?”
“It means on skids, those wooden flats that hold freight, Jeremy,” their mother said, then took a sip of tea. “Sarah, you gonna eat?”
Jeremy muttered through crumbs, “I…I guess I could do that. You don’t have to lift them yourself, right? They let you use a…a…”
Margaret coughed, then spat.
“No.” Sarah sat down on the bench beside the door to do up her sneakers. They had once been white, but now they were gravy-coloured. “Just Kate.”
“At this hour?” Her mother reached into the bag. “Forklift, probably.” She handed a slice of bread to Sarah. It crumpled in her hand like a Kleenex.
“Good morning, Sarah,” Margaret said in a wavering voice “I—I’m sorry, sorry, about all this.”
Jeremy put the paper down and patted Margaret’s knee without looking at her. “Yeah, morning, Sar.”
Margaret looked so pathetic, sad and fat and clutching her sack of vomit, Sarah couldn’t even answer.
Margaret wiped her mouth and tried to smile, but it went wobbly straightaways. Jeremy kept looking at the paper. Sarah’s mother raised her mug and tipped it against her lips before realizing it was empty. Sarah squashed the damp bread in her palm and fled.
Sarah had never seen Margaret’s parents’ house, but she was sure it had a lawn, two stories, shutters and eavestroughs painted to match. She was sure Margaret’s family didn’t eat dry bread for breakfast, not even the week before payday. When Margaret started dating Jeremy, she would tell Sarah about horses and manicures, and Sarah was happy enough to nod and smile and imagine. Now that Margaret had gotten pregnant and kicked out, nobody really talked to her anymore, barely even Jeremy.
Two blocks hot walk to the bus stop and a half hour’s ride west, until the roadside was mainly blank and the bus almost empty. The back of the cafeteria was still under construction though the place had been open a month. Staff had to pick their way through mud to the door, then down the long employees-only corridor where the lights were always shorting out. Between the walk-in fridge and freezer were the punch clock and a mirror hanging from a nail. Sarah stopped there, took a hairnet from her back pocket and started trying to push her hair in. She had a lot, and every time she seemed to get a good bunch in, she’d go to tuck in the last couple curls, and the whole ’fro would spring back out again. She could feel tears starting her throat.
“If you won’t shave it, at least put it up in a bun. This is torture.”
Everything startled Sarah, but not Kate’s voice. “I don’t have the skull shape. I wouldn’t look like you. I would look like a tall toddler.”
“Only hotter,” Kate said reflexively. It was what she always said when Sarah made fun of herself. “How you doing?”
“Oh, you know, bursting into tears every twenty minutes. You?”
Kate did look good, all cheekbone and jaw, just fuzz on her skull. She punched herself In, then Sarah.
“I’m not ready.” Sarah turned and more hair tumbled free. “Leave it.”
“Keif just notices what’s on the card, not what you actually do. You gotta be on time on paper.”
“That’s lying.” Sarah’s voice was thin; she found it hard to even hear herself over the hum of the fridge and freezer. The hairnet slipped out of her hands, onto the onion-skin-strewn floor.
Kate sighed so deeply her belly puffed under the chef shirt. “C’mere, I’ll do it.”
Sarah scrabbled on the floor. “I can do it, I just need—“
Kate snatched the net and shook out the gunge with one hand. With the other, she took Sarah’s hair and twisted roughly it into a bun. A few strands stretched, broke, but Sarah didn’t say anything. The hairnet went on smoothly, more or less. Kate tapped Sarah on her spine. “You’re done. You’re on the clock. Get to work.”
Breakfast sandwiches sold early, and the customers stuck with toast and jam grumbled. Then a coffee urn jammed, which meant it had to be dumped out and valve dismantled. Plus Sarah and Kate had to make deli trays for lunch meetings, rolling glistening pink ham and white-freckled salami into cylinders.
It was 11 before Sarah could start on lunch specials. Kate was on ketchups, but after Sarah had only produced six chicken-avocado wraps in twenty minutes, Kief said condiments were less important than the food people paid for, and sent Kate to help.
“You’re pissing him off, Sar. Next time, warn me you’re fucking up so I can help before he sees. You know? Cause you’re pissing him off.”
“I know. I gotta get my head in the game.” A piece of avocado squirted out the end of a wrap.
“You sound like Jeremy. You been talking to Jeremy?”
“Uh…no, not really.”
“Did you even ask how far along she is?” Kate dotted avocado pieces down the middle of a spinach tortilla.
“How far along? You sound like somebody’s great aunt.”
“”Riiightt…ok, but did you? Cause if she’s gonna end it she’s gotta do it before like, three months or something.”
“End it. Yeah. I dunno.” Kate’s sandwich was a smooth green phallus while Sarah’s was lumpy and leaking salsa. “I don’t think me asking will decide much.”
“The whole situation is so fucked up. It sounds like no one’s deciding.”
Sarah couldn’t picture the abortion or the birth. Either way, a white hospital room: Margaret pale and serious under a sheet getting a whole other life pulled out of her. And now Margaret was drained of her powers, her A’s and smiles, her Glamour dogeared to haircuts she thought might look good on her friends, even her ability to keep down her breakfast.
The next wrap rolled more smoothly, but then Sarah realized she hadn’t tucked the ends in and had to undo it. “Shit.”
“Chill. We got a little time until lunch rush.”
A small gravelly throat-clear made them turn. A woman with a sharp bob and shiny silver glasses was standing beyond the stainless steel counter. Sarah kept Saran-wrapping her deformed wrap until the thing was a baton of shimmering silver. Kate would, she knew, eventually go deal with the woman. Except then Kief yelled from somewhere, “Katy, you gonna take out this garbage or are we gettin’ a health violation?”
Kate jerked her gloves off by the fingers. “Katy. Vomit.” She stormed away.
“Excuse me? Hi? I need a turkey and cheese on honey wheat? Toasted.”
Sarah’s hands shook as she peeled off her gloves. Nonspecials were actually much harder than specials. She stuck slices of gritty bread into the toaster, wondering what she’d done with the piece her mother gave her. She got a plate and the corn chips.
The customer had been glaring at her Blackberry until she heard the crinkle of the Tostitos bag; then her eyes rounded childishly. “Oooo, chips!” The tiny screen buzzed in her hand.
Only a few chip-triangles fell onto the plate, plus crumbs. Sarah searched for a new bag until the toaster pinged. When she applied the chicken the woman thumbed her keypad and said, “Sliced thinly, please,” without looking up.
“Uh.” Sarah flapped a chicken slice. “It comes in the package, just the one thickness, er, thinness. I don’t know how to get it thinner than this. I mean…”
“Oh.” The woman flushed behind her glasses. “Of course not. I was thinking of the deli. Of course, of course.” Sarah put the chicken in the bread, watching the woman rummage her tweed torso for something. They had reached the optional-toppings stage but the woman was muttering into her phone—“not Sunday, Monday.”
Finally, after waving each garnish in turn (drops of brine flying off the pickle slices), watching for the nod or shake, Sarah finished the sandwich. Kief was bumping around in the back as if he was monitoring her. She passed the sandwich over the counter.
A man in a blue shirt gift-wrap tight over his belly approached.
“Can I help who’s next?” Sarah said, though it was clear who was next.
“Yeah, uh, I’ll get the, uh, egg salad—”
“Excuse me, miss?” The woman had returned, mouth a tight bow.
The man kept ordering his pickles, no onions, and Sarah listened, feeling it safer.
“I said, excuse me, miss!”
“I’m sorry, sir, one moment. Yes?”
Suddenly the woman flinched, as if she hadn’t thought Sarah would actually turn. “I don’t mean to be…I’m— There aren’t enough chips here. And they’re all smushed.”
“There are chips.” She pointed at the woman’s plate.
“Um,” said the woman. “Like four.”
The egg-salad guy and the woman were both glaring. Sarah managed to reach across the counter. But the woman didn’t hand over the plate, using it instead to gesture at someone. “She has twice as many chips as me. And she’s already eaten some.”
Sarah realized that she hadn’t said, I’d be happy to get you some more, only thought it. She took her hand back; she couldn’t say anything now because tears were haloing the light in the caf, a sob in the back of her throat.
The woman was staring. “Are you…ok?”
Sarah only got as far as “I—” and even that was obscured by a hiccup. A tear escaped her left eye, but when it was passing her nose she inhaled hard and slurped it in.
“Hey, nevermind. I was just being silly.” But the woman was still there, still staring, so she still wanted something.
Sarah reached mutely for the plate, but the trimmed, no-polish hand pulled it back. “Should I get someone?”
The thought of Kief—his curls plastered to his forehead, his polo-shirt damp, face flushed with irritation—was too much. Sarah fled.
Her pants already had avocado and jam on them, so it didn’t matter that she sat on the bathroom floor. It was dirty, but she didn’t think any of her fellow employees would actually piss on the floor. After about 10 minutes sitting under the papertowel dispenser, Sarah got her breathing under control, though she knew she wouldn’t have been able to speak quite normally. She wondered if anyone noticed her absence, and then realized the woman with insufficient chips had probably told Kief everything. She knew she should go out to apologize, to show Kief, the bob-haired lady, and Kate that she was all right.
Thinking about Kate was what made Sarah tip sideways until her head rested against the base of the toilet and her left shoulder blade in something wet. Yet Sarah half wished for Kate’s inevitable knock. She was hoping, a little, that Kate’s clean common sense could jog her loose from whatever held her to the floor, whatever held her mother to boiled noodles and non-complaint, the whole household dusty and grey, with mold behind the bookcase. Sarah and Kate had been friends since kindergarten and Kate had never understood, but sometimes she could help anyway.
And there was that firm voice from beyond the door. “Sarah?”
Sarah lay still and spooked, as if she had summoned her.
“It’s Kate, Sarah. Kief’s doing orders with the greengrocer guy. Lunch is over.”
Shocked that she’d wept or slept through the whole lunch rush, Sarah stood and opened the door.
Kate inhaled as if she were about to blow up a balloon. “What happened? What did that lady say to you? After you went, she looked like she was going to cry, too.”
Sarah slurped snot up her nose and tried to breathe evenly. She stared at the domed ceiling light—dozens of dead flies in the nipple of it. When she turned back to Kate, Kate’s small blue eyes were trained right on Sarah’s forehead, like gun sights.
“Is the reason I haven’t been fired yet is that Kief is scared of the ladies room?”
Kate flinched and peered more deeply at Sarah’s face. Then she abruptly sat down, legs accordianning her onto the floor. “If you have a good excuse, like the customer was giant bitch, you won’t get fired.”
“I— No. She was average. I just had a meltdown, is all.” The words after average were watery, breathless. She lay down again, limp, beside Kate.
Kate’s eyes narrowed even more, pale slits with the light of the fluorescent tube reflecting in them. “Can’t you just…just…get it together?”
Sarah tried for another deep breath but there was the weight of a sob resting on her lungs and she didn’t get much. “No.”
Kate’s eyes were motherly and bright, unlike Sarah’s blank, exhausted mother. “Of course you can. It’s like at school—English is hard so you study more, lacrosse is hard so you train more… We’ll, like, practice and shit. I’ll be the mean customer and—”
“No, Kate, I can’t.”
“We’ll do it at my dad’s, Sary, I know things are fucked at your place right now. It’ll be fun—we can drink the beers in the garage—he forgot they’re there.”
“Kate, it’s like—” Sarah thought about how she couldn’t tell Margaret that it was appalling to puke in the kitchen, even if you did use a bag and not get it anywhere else. She thought about how no one in her family could say that out loud, and that was why Margaret would have that baby: because no one could take that cruel decisive action to rip it out of her belly and send her back to school and horsebackriding and real life. Sarah suddenly saw every test she never studied for because she needed to lie on her back and count ceiling cracks, and Jeremy dropping out of school for that catering job and the crack in her mother’s voice when she announced everyday sadness like bills in the mail or running out of salt.
She shut her eyes against the hot white light and the nipple of bugs. “It’s not the job. Practicing work won’t help. It’s me.”
“Keif is gonna be here in a minute, Sar. What are you gonna tell him?”
Kate was her best friend, and they had done everything together, Kate and Sarah, Sarah and Kate, kindergarten to grade 12, next year. So long trying to run faster, not cry when she fell, be smarter, not cry when she failed, get the boys to like her, not cry not cry not cry. Kate always wanting her to be better, more, different from how she was. It was a relief to think she would stop all that now, stop trying. But opening her eyes to look at Kate’s hopeful smile and shiny skull, it was so hard to think how to tell her.
Rebecca Rosenblum’s fiction has been short-listed for the Journey Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the Danuta Gleed Award, long-listed for the Relit Award, and she herself was a juror for the Journey Prize 21. Her collection, Once, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and was one of Quill and Quire’s 15 Books That Mattered in 2008. Her first chapbook, Road Trips, was published by Frogs Hollow Press in 2010. Her second collection, The Big Dream, is forthcoming from Biblioasis in Fall 2011. Her blog is www.rebeccarosenblum.com.