If Things Go On Like This
Take the seat. It’s a long commute out of the city, worth the stink eye you get from the man you fairly beat.
Give him the stink eye back. He would’ve taken the seat from you had he been any faster.
Don’t bother trying to take in the scenery, windows fogged with condensation, all those bodies in such a small space. Besides, you know what’s out there—brownstones border the tracks, small square lawns of neglected grass and lines of laundry, sheets and shirts, granny underwear flapping as the train passes. It’s nothing to look at.
You’re better off staring straight ahead like the others, silent, or at your phone. Definitely ignore the thin mustache of sweat and dread that’s formed on your upper lip. Fix your eyes on the window etchings, the names there, kids with keys or knives carving themselves into being.
An absentminded scratch at the mouth is worse than the calculated kind—you know that—and the woman next to you stares wide-eyed as she should.
“What?” you say, but she glances off into the pelvises of the standing. It doesn’t matter—you know what she’s thinking. The hand-san is in your purse, on your hands—spread it everywhere.
So many lost. That’s what someone’s scrawled on the side of the corner store you stop in for rations, a night’s worth of food and wine. Don’t forget the ice cream.
“Is that it, sweetheart?” the boy behind the register flirts. You can tell he’s smiling—in the creases around his eyes—though it’s hidden under his mask. Don’t take it too seriously. He calls all the girls that.
When you get home, take off those goddamned shoes. You shouldn’t have worn heels but you’d had a feeling about today—that it would be an important one—and you’d been right. You sat in the bleachers of the school’s gymnasium with the other teachers, like students at a pep rally, listening as the principal announced the school was closing for the next two weeks. “Just a precaution,” he said, tugging at his tie. In the silence that followed, you were glad you looked nice, though you couldn’t say why.
Don’t forget to change the cat’s water, dump a can of food into her bowl. You have responsibilities, you know, even now, even if she disappears for days, coming in only to eat before slinking back out into the yard. You tried to trap her once, blocking her little cat door with a board, but while you were at work, she tore up the living room in a crazed prisoner’s fit, shredding the couch and curtains, shattering the collection of teacups that had been in your family for three, maybe four generations, a parting gift from your mother when you took the first teaching job that wasn’t in Dubuque, drove days in a rental van until the sky burned brown with the smog of the city and the van sputtered smoke and you rolled into the highway’s shoulder, staring at your phone, knowing there wasn’t a soul in hundreds of miles you knew well enough to call for help.
Occasionally you catch yourself hoping the cat won’t come back, but then, as the days accumulate without a sighting, you start to miss her, haunted by the traces of her scent, her shedded hairs, the feeling that she’s come and gone.
Take the wine to the couch, and God, don’t turn on the news. You know what you’ll find—another outbreak, in another city. The sickness continues to spread. Even before it came to your school the children began disappearing. One by one by one they succumbed, not to sickness but the panic of their parents, and who could blame them? You comforted your coworkers in the teachers’ lounge, offering half-smiles hidden behind your mask, afraid to reach out and grasp hands.
When you wake, it’s to the orange-faced morning anchor. He’s not wearing his mask, but you can see that he’s got tan lines where one’s been, even under the pancake makeup. The news feels recycled, the same as yesterday’s. The anchor says, “Researchers are in a race against time to find volunteers for a new experimental vaccine.” The screen cuts to a video of a group of doctors scurrying around a lab in hazmat suits. “While doctors say the process is safe, volunteers like Carol Lombardi,” a woman lies on her back clutching a juice box and smiling all tired-eyed at the camera, “risk serious side effects including fever, allergic reactions, paralysis,” and he really emphasizes this part, “even death.” They cut to a video of kids playing in a schoolyard—you can tell it’s old footage because they’re not wearing masks—then a ticking stopwatch, then back to the anchor, a wave crest of wrinkles fretting his forehead. “The hope is to get the vaccination ready by November before the temperatures drop and the epidemic really begins to spread.” He takes a deep breath and turns to another camera, the shot immediately shifting to his new vantage. “And how is this affecting the economy? Stick around to find out.” Cut to commercial, two cereal boxes standing off in a Wild West town, bananas in their holsters, a carton of milk dressed like a saloon girl crying onto the shoulder of a spoon wearing a top hat and monocle.
If you’re going to search the internet, laptop hot and churning in your lap, don’t get lost, pulling up page after page about the sickness—symptoms and number of cases, casualties, treatments and precautions. The information is overwhelming, in some cases conflicting, so you switch to social media, typing in your students’ names and hoping. After a few tries, you find one, the eager girl from the third row, one of the first to disappear. You’d caught her cheating on a test once and she’s been trying to win back your good favor ever since. You realize now, looking at her small smiling face that you never forgave her, always treated her differently, watching her carefully and waiting for her to do something wrong again.
Send her a message, remind her to keep up her reading. You assigned The Diary of Anne Frank a couple weeks earlier and you were just starting to gain some momentum when the school closed. The girl’s mood status says bored. Tell her, Anne Frank knows a little something about boredom, and press send.
After dinner you get an itch to go out for something other than ice cream. Might as well put on a dress, fetch a new surgical mask from the junk drawer.
The bar you go to is nearly empty, the bartender ancient, wearing a tie and suit vest, his mask pulled down around his neck, a long thin cigarette dangling from his lips. A woman and three men play pool, laughing every time one of them makes a bad shot, which is often. You sit at a corner booth, slipping a straw under your mask to sip at your Tom Collins, wondering why you bother. It’s too hard to meet people like this. They could be ugly under there, missing teeth, hiding cold sores. You should have gone to the movies.
Hit the can before you leave. No sense in making an extra stop on the way home. Only, when you push the bathroom door open, you run face first into a man’s wide back, his leather jacket slick as if it’s sweating. You stumble away from him and apologize in a tiny strangled voice that couldn’t possibly be your own. He lets out a low groan, and then you hear the soft breathy sighs of a woman. Her leg, you see now, is coiled around his, a pointy heel dangling from her big toe. That’s when you see the man’s ass, bare, pants at his ankles, and you’ve got to move faster than that!
The uncomfortable full feeling in your bladder is not going away, so you’ll just have to stop at the supermarket. The teenager working the register looks away from her magazine just long enough to flick her chin in the direction of the bathroom. She looks so bored you want to die.
When you’re done, you barrel out of the bathroom, wringing your hands with hand-san, up your wrists, on the exposed parts of your neck and face.
Do a little shopping. It’s the perfect time, no lines, little chance of contact. Halogen humming overhead, soft jazz on the speaker, you wheel a shopping cart away from the contorted group near the register. There’s one guy in the cereal aisle reading the nutrition content on the back of a box of oatmeal and a woman in the produce section lifting the bottom of her mask for a whiff of a grapefruit. A teenager pushes a wide filthy mop, ears hidden under giant headphones. At the front, the girl sits behind the register filing her nails. You think of high school, that kind of loneliness. It’s a little like that.
The guy who’d scrutinized the oatmeal beats you to the register. You pick up a glossy women’s magazine, headlines announcing: The best eye shadow shades for summer and how to tell if your man is lying just by looking in his eyes. You have to hand it to them; they know how to turn anything into an opportunity. Pretty soon you’ll be seeing designer masks in a variety of shades and patterns. You can see it coming, if things go on like this.
The automatic doors part and a man ambles in, his mask decorated with a drawn-on smile. He approaches the girl at the register like he’s got a question. Busy running items over the scanner, she doesn’t notice the gun he’s pulled out of his pocket and pointed at her temple. When she finally turns to see him, she lets loose a horror movie scream, raising her arms to shield herself. You watch all this as if from a great distance or on TV, clutching the women’s magazine tight against your chest.
“Quiet,” he says, “open the register.” The drawer dings open, the girl’s shaking hands hovering over the money—it doesn’t look like much. The man tells her to put it in a bag. She looks at the bags hanging near her hip and you can almost hear the reflexive question in her mind, Paper or plastic?
“Plastic, please,” the robber says and you grunt out a nervous laugh. You shouldn’t have done that. His eyes lock on yours before you shift them to the floor.
“Evening ma’am,” he says like he’s John Wayne or something. The checker takes up a plastic bag, thrusting the money into it. When the register is empty she holds the sack out and the robber takes it.
“You,” he points the gun at the shopper in front of you, cowering between your cart and his own, “stand up.”
You watch as he gets to his feet, bowing his head to make himself smaller, whimpering, “Please don’t kill me.”
The robber holds out the plastic bag. “Your wallet.” Then he turns to you. “Yours too, little lady.”
You hadn’t realized it, but you’re still holding the women’s magazine to your chest. Drop it, you fool! Fumbling, you’re fumbling through your giant bag, your fingers finding everything but your wallet, until finally—finally!—it’s in your hand and you practically throw it into the plastic sack. Smiling eyes on you, he says, “Thank you for shopping,” and is gone.
Don’t wait for the police. While the others are huddled together reenacting the event, sneak out the automatic doors. It’s so easy just to disappear; you almost feel invisible.
By the time you get home, your cat has already eaten her dinner and stalked off. You drop to the couch, pull your laptop onto your legs, folded underneath you. Your email blazes with a message from your student.
its so nice to here form u! im not sick or anyhting just bored! can u die from that? i haven’t started ann frank but I saw the movie. mom watched with us and she cryed for HOURS hahaha! she’s totally freaking out, thinks the world is gonna end. what do you think? i think we’ll be fine.
You try to see past all of the grammar and spelling errors to the girl, sweet, funny, and most importantly, okay. The relief hits you in the shower, a freezing effect, standing under the spray so long it goes cold. In bed, sheets sticking to your damp body like a second skin, you let yourself sink into the middle-of-the-night quiet.
In the early morning, when the sky’s begun to glow and you can hear the sparrows shaking the tree outside your window, you feel your cat’s soft steps on your comforter. Don’t move; don’t even breathe. She circles until she’s found the perfect spot, the rumbling in her throat as you stroke her, neck to stomach, neck to stomach, until you are both dead to the world.
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