For my mother, and all the souls she loved before.
She smokes a cigarette after her morning coffee. Her hair is cropped short and wet from a shower. She takes the back door, so as not to be caught by Dr. Wilson. I keep the door to my office open, just for her. As she walks by I inhale deeply. She smells like Marlboro Reds and sugar. She saunters past my desk without a second glance and I don’t have the courage to say, “Good Morning.”
My wedding ring digs into my palm; diamonds are secretly sharp. I twist it so that they face the world and the sunrise streaming through my window causes them to glint and glitter. I take a sip of my latte, let the creamy mixture swish in my mouth. The work day goes slowly. I answer a few phone calls and help patients settle their dental claims. Outside my glass office door, patients flood in and out, dutifully following the Dental Assistants in their dark blue scrubs. Sandy at the front desk laughs at a patient’s joke.
“I’m going to call some insurance companies,” I tell my supervisor, Alice, in the jet black pencil skirt and red silk blouse. She always wears silk blouses. She nods at me while taking a gentleman who refuses to smile into the conference room.
When the side office’s door is closed, I feel safe, like I’m in my cocoon. Our marketer, Spencer, is out of the office this week at a dental conference, which means this space is all mine. I toss my long hair into a sloppy bun and dial the 800 number for the first insurance. Our little corner office is walled off on three of our walls, affording a certain level of privacy not available to anyone else. Spencer has left not one, not two, not three, but four dirty coffee mugs that held black tea, green tea, chamomile tea, etc. I scoot them over to make room for the claims that I have completed. An agent finally answers my call. I go through claim after claim after claim.
Four hours passed quickly and Sandy startles me when she raps on the door asking to go to lunch. I gather my pile of documents to be faxed and statements to be mailed. I make myself at home at Sandy’s station; her chair is still warm. I snag a chunk of envelopes from Sandy’s desk drawer and the office return address stamp. Once again, I spread out, right to the invisible border between Sandy’s desk and Alice’s desk. “Hey, lady, no encroaching,” she jokes and tosses me a grin. I teasingly bump shoulders with her as Ada walks up. She looks more composed than she did this morning and her perfume of cigarette smoke wafts to the reception desk. A mother and her ten year old follow her; Ada smiles at the child. My heart beats louder than it should.
Vaguely, I hear Alice is on the phone and I wave the caravan to my station, “How did today go?”
“Hi, Sabrina, this is Lila. She received her child hygiene visit with me before her exam with Dr. Wilson,” she smiles at me, or maybe just politely, “Which went very well.” She hands me the routing slip, an 8”X11'' print out detailing the dental codes and patient info as I log into Sandy’s computer. I stumble and mistype my password. When I look up, Ada’s still smiling at me. I clear my throat.
“Do you need anything?” Ada asks expectantly and I shake my head before turning my attention to the patient. Ada marches back to the exam rooms and I find myself watching her go over the patient’s shoulder.
Alice rolls herself over to me in her leather seat as soon as she ends her phone call, “Are you good? Did somethin’ happen with the patient?” I shake my head and take out the huge roll of stamps. She leans in closer to me, eyebrows furrowed, when a patient walks into the office clutching his jaw with a distressed look. She dutifully turns her attention to him while I do my best to shake off my encounter with Ada and twist my wedding ring nervously. Ada’s smile lingers in my mind as I finish stamping the envelopes and pop them in the outgoing mail slot.
“How did the big birthday weekend go?” asks Alice. She pretends to help me clean up Sandy’s station.
“Fine,” I tell her as I bend down to collect the trash can from beneath the desk.
“Did he get you anything special?” she sweeps up the pens I have scattered all around because I notoriously misplace the one I was just using.
“Um, yes,” I touch the pearl earrings I am wearing now.
“Oh, yes!” she coos, “They are super pretty. Do you love them?” Alice, the hopeless romantic, who hasn’t gotten any kind of jewelry from her boyfriend of seven years. Cindy, who always asks how my marriage is going because she thinks I have a perfect one.
“I do,” I tell her. She grins and nods happily while helping the new patient who just walked in.
Sandy returns from lunch and I walk past the exam rooms to the time clock in the break room. Ada is slumped in one of the cloth seats tucked against the break room table. She is furiously typing on her phone. “How’s your first week going?” I ask.
She doesn’t look up, but as I reach for the silver handle to the third door in the office she says, “It’s been OK. Just kind of a lot.” I spin around and look at her. Behind glass panes lie dark brown eyes with dilated pupils. The whites are red rimmed and her bottom lip trembles. My hand leaves the door handle and I rush to her side.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I say, my cold fingers on her bicep which is radiating heat through her scrubs. She shakes her head vigorously.
“No, no, I’ll be fine,” she wipes at her eyes angrily like they’re at fault for the tears and beet red cheeks.
“Are you sure, there’s um,” I stutter and take a seat uncomfortably in the seat next to hers so I can catch her gaze, “A um, coffee shop on the first floor. My treat.”
“Can I smoke a cigarette?” she asks like a child requesting a cookie. I nod eagerly and lead her down the stairs, passing the insurance office next to ours briskly. She stares at her feet in beaten up Converse that used to be white, but are now a dingy gray, avoiding my nervous glances—trapped on that first step, me four below her. I look at Ada like the Statue of Liberty looks at New York. She meets me and we take the last eight steps together.
The first floor of our building is designed to be a large lobby for all the businesses, not just ours. We head inside the coffee shop. Due to the lunch rush, we take our place in line and admire the art on the walls. “Which one is your favorite?” I ask.
Ada’s dark brown eyes go big as she ponders the question. “I like that one,” she points at a photo of a wooden pier as the sun sets. The sky is a deep violet-inky black at the edges. The pier is haunting; it holds secrets. You can hear the waves crashing on the beach. Some part of you expects to gaze up at the full moon, the sky full of stars.
We’re brought back to reality together and laugh when the barista expectantly asks us for our order. I choose a Chinese chicken salad and a large, vanilla latte iced. Ada ponders the menu, her left hand picking at a hangnail on her right index finger until it bleeds. She shakes her head.
I say, “It’s my treat,” while smiling and dramatically place my credit card on the counter.
“I just don't really drink coffee,” she says.
“So have tea,” I say and she stares at the huge blackboard before her. “The chai is really good,” I tell her in a softer tone when the woman behind us taps her foot impatiently. Ada nods and the barista adds a medium chai to my order and runs my card. She zooms over to the coffee station and prepares our food. My salad knocks around in its plastic home.
We take our beverages to the blue tables outside. There are only two so I was happy to snag one. The diamonds on my wedding ring shine and shimmer in the July sun. I feel Ada’s eyes on my shoulders as I shed my blazer, revealing bare shoulders, and I find a blush creeping into my cheeks. When I look at her, she avoids my gaze by fumbling with the wrapper on the straw.
“So what happened?” I ask her. Ada takes a huge sip of her drink as I add my topping packet to my salad and shake vigorously. This makes her smile more.
“I guess…” she begins, “Is he always like this? So…”
“Who?” I ask, “Dr. Wilson? Yes.” I laugh at her and smile affectionately. “It all takes us a bit to get used to him. He sent me out on errands when I first started and I cried in my car every week because I always got his coffee order slightly incorrectly,” I regale her with my own horror story from when I first started and I note with satisfaction that she cracks another sheepish grin. She sips her Chai. “Give him time,” I say, reaching for her hand and clutching its cold, trembling fingers. She sends me a smile, but it’s different from the one from the office. I am left at the table as she stands to smoke a cigarette by the smoker’s pole and head inside.
The next morning, I come into my office to find a small card on my keyboard. It’s handmade with frayed edges. On the front is a little bird, a robin, with a large, red breast. His small black head is tilted at me, one beady eye peeking into my soul. I pick it up and read in beautiful calligraphy: Thank you, A. I unpin the black and white photo of me in a white veil kissing my groom like a cake topper, move it six inches, and pin the card to the corkboard to the left of my desk so I can see it front and center.
Spencer swings into the office clutching his mug tightly between his bizarrely long fingers. He sets down his leather briefcase and spins in his chair to face me before asking, “Are you nervous?” I shrug, despite my beating heart, despite my sweaty palms, despite my chattering teeth. “You’ll do fine,” he says while quickly signing into his computer. My appointment with Alice is at 8am. I take a deep breath and begin my work, waiting for her soft knock on our door.
I follow Alice into her conference room office 10 minutes later. It’s at the center of the lobby and faces the front desk. All glass walls. The proverbial fish bowl. She shuts the door and indicates to me to sit. Her shoulders rise with her first breath as she says, “So, Sabrina, it’s October and we are excited to be jumping into yearly reviews with you. Let me start by saying thank you for agreeing to be the first one.” She winks at me before asking, “How do you think this year has gone for you?”
I am prepared for this question and rattle off info. I breathe a sigh of relief when she smiles. “The one thing Dr. Patterson and I would like to note is we’d like a softer tone of voice from you when speaking with patients,” she says gently. Her voice fades as she gives me ideas.
I am left across the table swallowing the lump in my throat. I glance down at my wedding ring to remind myself why I put up with it all and say, “Absolutely.”
She nods and scrawls a note. I stand and shake her hand before walking back to the office. Spencer is waiting for me. He raises his eyebrows and I tell him how it went. He smiles, “They always have to find something.”
The rest of the morning passes and I relieve a red faced Sandy for lunch. When I peer into the fishbowl, I see Ada’s cropped hair sitting across from Alice. I try to see if it’s going well. I can’t tell and Dr. Wilson brings up a patient. I finish my checkout as Ada exits. She makes a beeline for the break room so the jury is still out.
I am on the phone with a patient confirming her hygiene visit with bubbles in my voice when Ada places a sticky note on my desk. In her lovely handwriting is a simple message: dinner tonight? My treat. I see fear, anxiety, and sadness in her calm, deep brown eyes and I nod at her very quickly. The dark circles swirl beneath them like storm clouds.
I look for Ada when I head to lunch and even shoot her a text which goes unanswered. After work, I spot her leaning against her little white Civic in the parking lot at the end of the day. I hop in and turn on the radio. Three months of friendship has bought me my own pre-programmed station. We ride in silence.
It’s a ten second drive to her apartment and I follow her up the stairs. The pizza she ordered us is waiting on the stoop. She unlocks the door and we walk in. There’s a single light on in the living room. I flick on the kitchen light as she grabs plates and wine. She pours us each a full glass. My slice melts in my mouth at first bite. “So,” I say.
“Mmm-mmm,” she shakes her head at me, “Let me have this.” Her eyes roll back in her head dramatically and I burst out laughing. “Better than an orgasm,” she whispers and winks at me. I suddenly feel hot and shed my jacket.
“What happened?” I ask. My question bounces off the white walls of her home. It wanders down the hall to the second bedroom I have never been in.
Ada shrugs and finishes her first glass of wine. We eat the rest of our meal while dancing around the yearly reviews with talk of my dog, her cat, my sister, her brother, college, life before Dr. Wilson. “Mine didn’t go well,” I offer. The statement chases after my previous question, landing side by side with it.
“Beanie,” Ada moans. “Just drop it, ok?”
I force a smile, “Don’t leave.”
“Haven’t gotten the job yet.”
“But you interviewed and it went well.”
“Haven’t gotten the job yet.”
“But you will,” my voice cracks. I toss my pizza crust on my plate and slump in my seat, placing my elbows on the counter and my face in my hands. I stare at the smooth, white surface to avoid her gaze, to keep the tears at bay. I feel her cold fingers on the back of my hot hand and I take a deep breath.
She cups my cheek through my palm, “Come with me.” I gaze at her like the way she once looked at me. That day feels so far away. She dances down the dark hallway and waits for me in front of her own doorway. She looks giddy. Ada opens the door slowly. As I step closer, I see that it’s a pitch black room. When she turns on the light I am surrounded by birds.
She has created a gallery.
I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. I twirl in the room and imagine the calls of the Toucan, the exclamations of the parrot, the tweets of the yellow canary in a silver, shimmering cage. Ada stands in the doorway, watching me, “Which one is your favorite?” I turn on my heel to face the artist. In this light she glows. At this moment, I meet Ada all over again. Blood courses through me as I reassess the room. I spot the piece, hung on the wall in the far right corner. It is tucked beneath the window. His eye peers at me. His head is cocked to the left. His breast is full and a deep, rich red.
I walk across the floor covered in plastic. I am drawn to him. I hear her voice in the background, “I thought you’d pick that one.” Her body is warm near mine. Maybe it’s the wine. I crouch down and look at him closer. His feathers bled together from where I was, but upon closer inspection I see the detail she has created. I reach out to stroke his wing. There is some part of me that sees the wedding band on my hand.
Ada kneels next to me as I say, “I recognize him.” My eyes remain glued to the bird as she laughs. I feel her cheek next to mine, feel her whole body tremble as she takes a seat next to me. I swallow hard and take a quick gasp.
“Take him,” she says. My fingers wrap around the edges of the canvas and I pull it close to me before taking a seat next to Ada. She leans in close, lets her fingers brush across mine as she scratches softly at his beak. That’s when the dam begins to break. One tear smears his tail feathers, another turns his face into a black-gray blotch. Upon seeing my sin I cry harder.
Ada wraps her arms around me and my shoulders quake.
And my heart aches.
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I loved the subtlety of this one - so much left unsaid; so much hopeless longing. There are some really beautiful lines here - like Wendy, I love the part about the painting of the pier with the description of the sea and the sky, and other favourite lines were “diamonds are secretly sharp” (you can read such a lot into that) and “My question bounces off the white walls of her home. It wanders down the hall to the second bedroom I have never been in.” (Loved the personification in this, but also thought the reference to “the second bedroom I...
This has a powerful vibe of "forbidden love". The narrator doesn't even mention it out loud, just flirting with the idea, and it's all the more powerful given she's weighed down by a marriage she's lost interest in. And then, before there's a chance of anything really happening, it's already ending. Ada is moving on - not out of cruelty, but out of necessity. The unfulfilled longing the narrator feels, is crushing. I get the sense Ada knows, and things go unsaid because it's unrequited. The dreams of the women are at odds, as the narrato...
Great writing. I see how Ada won her affection with her confidence by the end of the story. And I liked how a lot of things are unsaid, and you didn't explain what's wrong at home but we can feel it in her other interactions. The parts where you highlight the MC's emotions really shine. Good work;)
I really enjoyed this unique spin on an office romance story. Love the opening paragraph, especially the directness and simplicity of the first sentence, it really brings you immediately into the story. You gave this a bit of a dreamy feel with the inferences to a bad marriage without outright stating anything, and the connection with Ada which is again shown without really being said. I really like that in a story, where there is things to read between the lines. All your descriptions are so good too, very vivid and help create the scene ...
Amanda, I really enjoyed reading this! My heart got heavier as the story went on, parallel to the narrator. I loved the first paragraph, so many senses and feelings packed in there. And I was just at the Statue of Liberty last week, so I could immediately picture this image of looking at the city!
Hey Amanda. Noticed you posted your story early this week, and I thought I'd pop in and see what you were cooking up, especially when I spotted the LGBTQ+ tag. Gave it a read and I've got a lot of thoughts coming your way. I hope you don't mind me reusing my comment formatting from your last story. What I enjoyed: There was some great imagery throughout. The first paragraph in particular is really masterclass stuff. Great way to draw a portrait of Ada when we don't even have her name yet. Kept me invested, made me want to know who this woma...
Such great writing, Amanda, truly! The longing in this piece is so thickly layered and multi-dimensional. And your descriptions, just amazing and perfect. My favorite, absolutely, and it was a difficult choice: "The sky is a deep violet-inky black at the edges. The pier is haunting; it holds secrets. You can hear the waves crashing on the beach. Some part of you expects to gaze up at the full moon, the sky full of stars." WOW bottle that and sell it, it's magical! I loved this story, and it's one of those that will really stay with you. Than...