Fiction 2015 / Issues / Spring 2015 / Volume 45

I Don’t Belong Here — Christine M. Lasek

       At the Oakland Square Bed, Bath and Beyond, the candle section is right at the front of
the store. With Back to School behind us, looking forward to Halloween, then Thanksgiving into
Christmas, the summer scents like Beach Walk and Coastal Waters have been replaced with
Pumpkin Pie and Hot Spiced Cider—so that when I open the door at 8 a.m., I am met with a waft
of cinnamon. Throughout the course of the day, the festive-cinnamon-smell will work its way
into my hair and clothes, making my bedroom hamper smell, at least until the end of the 75% Off
Post-Holiday Sale.
Even though it has made getting my boys onto the school bus a hassle, I do like the half
hour in the morning before the other team members arrive. I make a clockwise circuit around the
store—starting in kitchenware and ending up in bathroom linens, to see which sections were left
a mess by the closing crew the night before, which areas need to be restocked or dusted, what
signage needs to be swapped out or end caps redesigned. I sip hazelnut coffee from the double-
walled stainless steel tumbler I bought when it went on clearance in July. It has a bright orange
grip—I liked the lemon-colored one better, but by waiting until the last minute, I was able to get
a $20 insulated mug for only $3.99 with my employee discount.
Without the in-store radio playing, which in a few weeks will be all Christmas music all
the time, I can hear the heat rattling in the ducts. The sound reverberates in the ceiling, which is
high and white-painted, with exposed pipes like the ceiling in the Barry Elementary School
Corporate keeps track of what time the alarm is turned off in the morning, so I leave the
house at 7:40, even though work is only ten minutes away, to make sure I am always here on
time, even when traffic is backed up for four blocks with folks trying to get on the expressway.
My sons David, seven, and Gary, nine, stay with Mrs. Sawicki next door until the bus comes at
8:05. Mrs. Sawicki’s wardrobe is made entirely of pastel-colored nylon robes with front pockets
containing safety pins, Kleenex, and crumpled packages of her beloved Doral cigarettes. The
robe she was wearing this morning was pink and had scratchy-looking yellow lace around the
neck. She held the door open for the boys with one blue-veined hand, a lit cigarette smoldering
in the other.
“You know where the TV and cookies are,” Mrs. Sawicki said. The boys trooped into
her vestibule, shedding their shoes and jackets. “You gotta minute for coffee, Amber?”
She always asks, the dear, even though I never have a minute.
“Not today. Thanks for keeping an eye on them.”
“They’re good boys,” she said, taking a drag from her cigarette and ashing it carefully
into the box hedge next to the door. “They’re keeping an eye on me.”
“Is there anything I can bring you after work?”
In return for Mrs. Sawicki watching the boys in the morning, I give her full reign over my
BBB employee discount. I also sometimes run to the drugstore for her during the week–she
doesn’t drive, and her daughter Marcia only comes on Saturday to take her to the beauty parlor
and to the grocery store.
“I saw in the circular that summer entertaining’s on clearance. You still have those
matching plastic placemat and chair cushion sets?” Mrs. Sawicki asked.
“I think the turquoise is sold out, but we might still have some in orange or lime.”
“If you’ve got the orange, will you pick me up four? I put them on my kitchen chairs—
they’re made for outside so they don’t stain. Hold on, I’ll give you the money.”
I shook my head and started for the car. “After my discount on the clearance price,
they’ll be almost free.”
The clearance section is a mess—last night’s closing shift didn’t even attempt to
straighten up before they left. I take a drink of my coffee, which is still steaming hot, and make
a mental note to get Kelly on it as soon as she gets in, and to talk to Vince, the store manager,
about how the closing shifts were leaving the store.
With some digging, I locate the last four orange placemat cushion sets for Mrs. Sawicki
and stick them behind the far register so I can buy them before leaving for the day. They won’t
be very cheap, but I’m glad to do little things like this for her. Before she started watching the
boys, I had to drop them off at school early. Gary and David had to wait for school to start in the
gymnasium, with the other children whose parents worked early shifts. They were given granola
bars and that horrible-tasting orange juice in the plastic cups with foil tops. All of the kids
looked so neglected, and guilt sat stone-like in my stomach every time I dropped them off.
Mrs. Sawicki might smell like cigarettes and Ponds cold cream, but she always has Stella
Doro breakfast treats and she lets the boys watch morning cartoons until the bus stops in front of
the condominium complex.
At 8:30 on the dot, Kelly walks through the sliding doors. Her bright blue, collared shirt
is untucked and both of her eyes look bruised.
“You all right?” I ask.
“You look nice today, too, Amber,” Kelly says and then yawns hugely. “What a terrible
thing to ask.”
“You look like someone punched you in the face twice.”
“Oh. It’s makeup. It won’t come off more than this.” She tries rubbing at the skin below
her eyes with her shirt, which leaves grey smears on the sleeve but doesn’t lessen the bruised
I head to the back room to open the safe, Kelly trailing behind me to retrieve her till. “I
didn’t think you wore makeup.”
“I do when I go to City Club. What what!”
“The one in Detroit?”
“Is there another?”
“I can’t believe that place is still open. Kids were going there when I was in high school.
They used to have a midget in leather doing a trapeze act over the dance floor.”
“They still got that on Wednesday nights.” Kelly rakes her fingers through her short hair.
She normally spikes it, but today it lays soft and flat against her head. “Last night was Heaven
or Hell night—I went dressed as a devil with black pleather pants and red sparkle devil horns.
Me and Stace were out until three. It was wild.”
Stace is Kelly’s girlfriend. The two are students at Oakland University in Rochester, but
rent a house in Clawson. I have only met Stace a few times, but I work with Kelly every
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Kelly is earning a degree in Women’s Studies. When I asked
her what she planned to do with her degree after she graduated, she told me she would continue
selling housewares, but would have the credentials needed to be offended by how they were
“How can you work on four hours of sleep?” I ask. I key in the safe code and sit back to
wait the three minutes for it to open. “I didn’t even do that when I was your age.”
“You were a mother of two at my age. Speaking of, you’re coming tonight, right?”
Kelly and her housemates are throwing a “we don’t have air conditioning and it’s finally
cool enough for us to invite people over” party. She’s been planning it for weeks, raiding the
clearance section for the last of the mismatched graduation party supplies.
“I don’t know, Kell. It’s been a long week.”
“Hey! You said you’d come. The boys are with their dad—you have no excuse.”
“Aren’t I a little old to be going to a college party?”
When the safe beeps, I pull out the tills and start counting the cash in each one, checking
the totals against the log from the night before.
“Look, I know you think you’re some old lady, but you’re only twenty-seven. Stace
invited some nursing students that are your age.”
I count the money out loud, waving my hand at her to get her to stop talking. I am going
to lose my place.
“I’m not going to stop talking until you say you’ll come. Five. Sixteen. Forty-seven.
I record the till amount in the log, thrust the till into Kelly’s hands and say, “Fine. I’ll
come. Just shut up.”
She smirks and starts toward the backroom door.
“Oh, and Kelly,” I call after her. She turns. “Apparently a tornado went through
clearance last night. Can you start there?”
“Aww, shit.”

* * *

       I count out the second till and bring it to the front. As soon as Shana arrives, I will have her start a register, but I know she will skirt in at the last possible minute. When she does arrive, her white button-down shirt is tucked into her belted khakis, her makeup is artfully applied—no hair is out of place.

       “Sorry I’m late,” she says, which is her mantra. “Car wouldn’t start.”
It is always ‘Sorry-I’m-late-fill-in-the-blank.’ She’s sorry she’s late because she couldn’t
find her keys, because the alarm on her phone didn’t go off, because her cat got sick and puked
in her shoe.
“No problem,” I tell her. “You’re on register two this morning—the till is already in
there and counted.”
Shana and Kelly used to date, which makes these Friday morning shifts when we all work
together tense. Shana seems to be taking the break-up harder, and is inclined to sulk and get
quiet when she and Kelly have to spend too much time together.
I have developed a system to keep everyone happy on these Fridays—Shana works the
reg and Kelly stays on the floor, except when things get really busy, like during the eleven to one
lunch rush. It works—Kelly is methodical and plows through tasks one at a time. The entire
store will be cleaned and stocked and ready for the weekend before the night crew even arrives.
Shana, on the other hand, is infinitely patient with the guests, where as sometimes Kelly has to
fight to keep her temper.
It’s a good day—a steady stream of customers that almost never gets too heavy, which
keeps Shana from becoming complacent, but allows Kelly to stay on the floor.
“Things got a little dicey at the end of the lunch rush,” I say to Cindy, the closing shift
manager. She is counting the tills for the night crew that will start to trickle in between 3:30 and
4 p.m. “The stupid registry kiosk went haywire again.”
“What is with that thing?” Cindy says, popping her gum. She just got married over the
summer, and the gigantic diamond on her left hand sparkles sharply in the fluorescent lights.
“You know it pooped out last Saturday, and I spent the entire afternoon just running back and
forth from the back printing out registries. Everyone was pissed off. Sucked.”
“Well, the guy has already been out to fix it, and I was able to print a test one. I only had
to print two from the back, but it was still a pain.”
“How’s everything else?” Cindy initials the logbook and closes the safe door. I help her
carry the tills to the front of the store.
“Good. I had Kelly on the floor all day, so the place is restocked and spotless. You guys
will probably need to hit candles, clearance, and frames before you go, but everything else
should be set for tomorrow.”
I think about mentioning how destroyed clearance was when I got in this morning, but
decide against it. Cindy is nice, but she can get nasty when confronted head on—Vince gets paid
the big bucks to deal with it, and I’m tired.
“Awesome,” she says, closing the register drawer with her hip. “I love closing after
“Do me a favor and check me out?” I ask. I pull Mrs. Sawicki’s cushion sets from behind
the counter.
“That’ll be $31.80,” Cindy says after typing in my employee number. “Don’t you live in
an apartment?”
“Yeah—they’re for my next door neighbor.”
Kelly emerges from the back room. “You. My house. 8 o’clock,” she says, shouldering
her purse. She has a smear of dust across her cheek. I had her Windex the bathroom fixtures
area—the yuck on some of the soap dishes was almost an inch thick. While I was wrapping a
wedding shower gift, a large glass Mikasa platter that the bride hadn’t registered for, I could hear
Kelly sneezing, even over the guest explaining that her “nephew’s fiancée registered for black
dishes. Who’s ever heard of black dishes?”
“I’ll be there with mom jeans on,” I say, walking out of the store after her.
I look back to see if Shana’s heard our conversation—she is removing her apron and
stuffing it into her purse, but judging by the way she is resolutely not looking in my and Kelly’s
direction, I guess that she’s heard every word.
“You don’t own mom jeans,” Kelly says. She unlocks her car door and gets inside.
She’s right. I joined the Barry Elementary School PTO while the boys were in preschool
and first grade, but I got so sick of the nasty looks from the other, older mothers, that I only did it
for one year—despite being an excellent ice cream social organizer.
“Hey!” I knock on Kelly’s window, and she opens her car door. The power windows on
her powder blue Lumina haven’t worked in years. “What should I bring?”
“Seriously? It’s a college party, Amb. If you don’t like keg beer, bring whatever you
like to drink.”
“So don’t bring a tray of deviled eggs?”

* * *

       It’s a little after 4 p.m., but already the sun is going down. It hasn’t yet taken on that
brittle quality Michigan sun gets in winter, and still cuts warmly through the chill air, gilding the
leaves that have begun to change color but still cling tightly to their trees.
I always feel weird driving home on these Fridays. Every other day I would be rushing to
pick David and Gary up from latchkey. There are a lot of kids that attend the Barry Elementary
after-school program—their friends’ mothers who don’t have to work volunteer. They give the
kids apple juice and carrot sticks, organize kick ball games, and even help Gary with his long
division, which he is hating passionately. I figure it must run in the family—I hated long
division, too.
But on every other Friday, Doug-the-ex-husband picks the boys up from school and
keeps them for the weekend. Sometimes Kelly and I will get dinner or go out for drinks, but
more often than not, I spend that time alone cleaning up the house, doing the grocery shopping,
and catching up on laundry from the week. Two little boys make a mountain of dirty clothes.
Mrs. Sawicki opens the door on my second knock. She has traded her pink nylon robe
for a flower-printed house dress, the kind with pearlized snap buttons like my grandmother used
to wear. Where does she even buy this stuff?
I hold up the bag. “I have your seat cushions!”
Mrs. Sawicki opens the door, and the earthy smell of cooking cabbage and tomato sauce
rushes out.
“Ah, you’re too good to me,” she says, taking the bag. “Come in. You hungry? I am
making golumpkis to heat up tomorrow for lunch when Marcia is here. Stay for dinner.”
I waver on the porch. When I don’t have the boys to cook for, dinner usually degrades
into a Stouffer’s lasagna when I’m feeling industrious or chicken shawarma takeout when I’m
not. My stomach rumbles.
“Golumpkis sound great,” I say and follow Mrs. Sawicki inside.
The television in the corner is turned to the four o’clock news, a feature story about the
hottest pet Halloween costumes.
“Costumes for dogs. What next?” She turns the television off.
I follow her into the kitchen, which is laid out exactly like mine, with a dinette set against
the far wall. Mrs. Sawicki’s table and chairs obviously aren’t from Target—the Formica table is
trimmed in chrome. The four matching chairs have chrome legs and are covered in mustard-
colored vinyl cushions. On the wall over the table is a large framed photo of Mrs. Sawicki with
a man, shot in the 1970s—Mrs. Sawicki’s hair is pale blond and teased into a compact beehive,
and she wears a voluminous pink blouse cuffed tightly at the wrists. Mr. Sawicki has thinning
dark hair and a dark mustache, wearing a shirt the same shade as his wife’s under a maroon
polyester suit.
Mrs. Sawicki tears open the plastic on two of the cushion sets. One of the dinette chair’s
seats has been patched with duct tape, and Mrs. Sawicki covers it with the bright orange plastic
cushion before inviting me to sit.
“Is that a picture of you and your husband?” I ask as she bustles around the kitchen,
setting the table with paper napkins, spooning the steaming cabbage dumplings onto Corelle
plates trimmed with brown flowers.
“Yes, that is my Oskar. We had that taken for our tenth wedding anniversary. Look at
how young I was!”
I know her husband passed away several years ago. After my divorce, the boys and I
moved into the complex, and I met Mrs. Sawicki’s daughter, Marcia. She was shoveling and
salting Mrs. Sawicki’s walkway while I was scraping off my car for one of my rare Saturday
shifts. I introduced myself, and Marcia explained that she was there caring for her mother, who
had lived in the complex alone since her husband’s death in the early nineties.
I want to ask Mrs. Sawicki how her husband died, but I don’t know how, so I say instead,
“I hope the boys didn’t give you any trouble this morning.”
“No, dear. They are good boys. So quiet and well behaved.”
I snort, but the truth is, sometimes they are quiet. Eerily so. Just this morning, while
Gary was packing his homework into his book bag, I was sitting with David at the kitchen table.
We were both eating bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios, and David was staring out of the doorwall
while he chewed.
“Mommy?” he said, turning his solemn eyes on me. They were brown, like his father’s,
and big for his little face. They were also perpetually ringed in dark circles.
“Yes, honey?”
“What would you do if me and Gary died?”
I was so startled that I breathed in a partially-chewed Cheerio and had to cough it up,
scaring David so that his eyes grew enormous.
“What would make you ask a question like that?”
“It’s just, who would take care of you? You and Daddy don’t live together anymore. If
me and Gary weren’t here, you’d be all alone.” David had abandoned his Cheerios, which were
starting to bloat in his cereal bowl. His bottom lip trembled.
I knelt next to his chair and hugged him. “You’re right. So I guess you and Gary better
be extra careful to make sure nothing happens to my special guys.”
Just then, Gary walked into the kitchen, a half-eaten Strawberry Pop Tart in one hand, his
backpack in the other.
“What’s going on?” he asked, spraying crumbs as he spoke.
“Nothing,” I said over David’s head. “Go put your shoes on.”

* * *

       Mrs. Sawicki pours me a glass of milk, and I try not to laugh—I haven’t drunk milk with
my dinner since I was eight years old.
“Well, I am sure they are a comfort to you,” she says. “I miss hearing children’s voices.
My son John and his wife aren’t able to have them, and I don’t know if Marcia will ever get
married. ‘Ma,’ she says, ‘I have hundreds of furry children.’ She’s a vet, you know. How do
you like the golumpkis?”
“Very good,” I say, and begin cutting into my third cabbage roll. Doug’s family is
Polish, and his mother makes golumpkis—but they aren’t as good as Mrs. Sawicki’s. I always
thought they were bland because they needed salt, but now I realize that they are bland because
they lack any kind of spice. Mrs. Sawicki’s tomato sauce is speckled with herbs, and I can taste
herbs in the beef and rice filling, as well.
It has been years since I’ve eaten Doug’s mother’s cooking—when things between Doug
and I started to go south, that was the first thing that went. Doug’s family receded, we stopped
attending holidays. In our final year together, the only time his mom and dad saw the kids was
when Doug took them over on the weekends without me. The whole thing was so unnatural and
dumb. It’s easy to not miss it.
“Can I get you another one, dear?” Mrs. Sawicki asks, reaching for my dish.
I drink the last of my milk and wipe my mouth with my paper napkin.
“No, thank you.”
I can’t believe I’ve eaten three of the big cabbage rolls. I hadn’t eaten anything since my
baked ziti Smart Ones at eleven this morning, and I was hungry. But the rice, beef, and milk sit
heavy in my stomach.
“I should go,” I say, rising. “A friend from work is having a small party tonight and
invited me. I need to get ready.”
“Thank you for keeping this old woman company,” Mrs. Sawicki says. When she gets to
her feet, both of her knees creak, and I remember that Gary once said Mrs. Sawicki sounded like
his dad’s house settling in the night. I’d chastised him, but he was right.
“Thank you for dinner. And as always, if you need anything, I am just next door.”
“I know, dear. Thank you.”
The stab of guilt I feel when I walk across the tiny yard to my own door is not unlike the
guilt of leaving the boys at school in the morning.

* * *

       I shower and stand dripping in a towel before my closet. It feels decadent—when the
boys are home, showers are rushed affairs, and I always bring my clothes into the bathroom with
me. I got a small raise when I was promoted to weekday manager, and I am hoping the extra
money will be enough to afford a larger place. I’d love for Gary and David to have their own
rooms, and I would really love to give the boys their own bathroom. A while ago, I stopped
buying my shampoo—the boy’s kids’ shampoo is thick and bright green like slime. It makes my
hair smell like watermelon bubble gum, but at least it’s easy to comb.
“What should I even wear to this thing?”
I half-expect one of the boys to ask “What thing?” and feel lonely when no one answers
In the end, I choose a pair of dark jeans and a green-and-white striped sweater that Kelly
complimented one night when we went for drinks. She asked me if I got it from Forever 21 and
was amused when I told her it was older than my kids. I keep my makeup simple, just a little eye
shadow and mascara, blow-dry my hair, and grab my canvas jacket before heading out the door.
It’s full dark, but in the glare of the porch light, my breath billows in white plumes. It’s
definitely cold enough for an un-air-conditioned house party.

* * *

       Kelly and her roommates rent a house just off Main Street in Clawson, behind where the
old Ambassador Skating Rink used to be. The neighborhood is a grid of streets, dilapidated
houses with white or blue or yellow siding spaced evenly apart and already decorated with
carved pumpkins and fake spider webs.
Kelly’s house is the most decorated one on the block. I recognize last year’s Bed, Bath
and Beyond products—purple house lights, those Jell-O-like window clings shaped like orange
pumpkins, whites ghosts, and black cats. There is also a giant pumpkin on the porch which
someone has carved to look like the Joker’s face from The Dark Knight.
From the street, I can hear music coming from inside, muffled, as if it is oozing out
through ill-fitted window panes and the cracks around the door jamb. Stace answers the door
when I knock.
“Amber!” she says, pulling me inside the house and shutting the door behind us. “I’m so
glad to see you.”
It’s a strange greeting from someone I have only hung out with a couple of times. The
hall is warm. I shed my jacket, but I can feel sweat gathering on my upper lip. “Thanks for
inviting me.”
“Yeah, Kelly bet me five bucks that you were going to wimp out and not come. Let’s go
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing, and instead follow Stace through the front hall
and into the kitchen. People I don’t know, mostly women, are clumped in groups and talking
loudly over the music. There’s a keg in the corner next to a stack of white plastic cups printed
with black graduation hats.
“You want a beer?” Without waiting for an answer, Stace weaves her way to the keg and
starts pouring me one.
The too-foamy beer is one of the lights, either Bud or Miller, but at least it’s cold. When
I nod thanks, Stace continues through the kitchen into the dining room. The table, pushed
against the wall, is covered in a paper cloth that matches the cups. The girls used plastic trick-or-
treating buckets to hold regular potato chips and Kelly’s beloved Cool Ranch Doritos. There’s
also salsa in a bowl shaped like a skull with the cranium removed, cheese cubes stabbed with
cocktail swords, and, on the floor next to the table, a giant washtub filled with floating apples.
“Bobbing for apples?” I ask.
Stace shrugs. “It was Kelly’s idea. She didn’t want to do a costume party, but it’s pretty
much a Halloween party, anyway.”
Kelly is kneeling in front of a laptop connected to the stereo, fiddling with the music
selection. She’s wearing a pair of tight jeans that cut into her sides and her tight black t-shirt is
riding up.
“Amber’s here. You owe me five bucks!”
Kelly gets to her feet, her chest and face red with alcohol. She puts her arms around
Stace’s waist and says, “I’m a little short on cash. Can I pay you in some other way?” Kelly
leans in and kisses her girlfriend deeply, a closed-eyes open mouth kiss like in the movies. I feel
uncomfortable, like I shouldn’t be there, or they shouldn’t be.
I’ve worked with Kelly for a few years. Gary and David call her Aunt Kell. We’ve hung
out in bars, and once, we went to a sketchy dance club in Pontiac, but I’ve never seen this side of
her. Even when we are talking about her relationships, she skirts the issue of sex.
When they disentangle, Kelly turns to me. “You having a good time?”
“Well, I just got here, so, you know, I haven’t tongue-kissed anyone yet,” I say.
Kelly smiles. “There’s still time. Come on, I’ll introduce you to some people from
All of Kelly’s school mates are women, and I guess that most of them are also lesbians—
girls with their arms around each other’s waists, or standing with arms touching. There is one
attractive couple wearing tank tops and jeans, their hands in each other’s back pockets, like a
black-and-white Calvin Klein ad.
The girls are discussing a feminist philosophy class they’re all enrolled in. Apparently
the instructor is having the students read a novel written by Mary Wollstonecraft, which half that
group is pleased about, and the other half of the group doesn’t like.
“I have nothing against the works of Wollstonecraft, of course. But why are we reading
Maria? It’s a philosophy course. We should be reading A Vindication.”
“No way,” pipes up one-half of the back-pocket couple. She is a diminutive blond with
thin wrists and long fingers encircling her beer cup. “Maria weaves in all of Wollstonecraft’s
views of the British monarchy. I can’t wait for Professor Jackson to pick it apart.”
I drink my beer, enthralled. In some ways, it is exactly how I had imagined college
parties—twenty-somethings standing around drinking keg beer and talking about the books
they’ve read. I have nothing to add. But then, even if the conversation turned to movies or TV
shows, I wouldn’t be much more prepared—unless they watch Phineas and Ferb or have seen
The Croods in the theater.
“Professor Jackson taught the feminist poetry class last Spring,” Kelly says to me. She
twinkles her fingers around her earlobes and I vaguely remember Kelly talking about one of the
new professors in the department, who always wears long silver earrings that brush her shoulders
and tinkle when she walks, but I can’t remember if Kelly liked her or not—so I just nod my head
and finish my beer.
“Can I get you another?” Kelly asks, reaching for my cup. She just misses it, and grabs
on to my sweater sleeve instead.
“Ah, sure.” I place the cup in her fingers.
As she walks away, it’s as if her friends suddenly notice I’m there.
“How do you know Kelly?” the blond with the delicate wrists asks me.
“We work together.”
“At the hotline?”
I know that every other Saturday, Kelly volunteers for the Haven 24-hotline, taking calls
from abused women. Stace volunteers there, too, which is how they met.
“No. We work together at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.”
As soon as I say this, something changes—it isn’t as tangible as a facial expression or a
shift in posture, but it’s something. Like the light suddenly dimming or the temperature
ratcheting up.
“Don’t you feel like all of those stores carry all the same stuff?” This is the girl that
didn’t want to read the Wollstonecraft novel.
I don’t know what she means. Linens ‘n’ Things had been our closest competitor, but
they haven’t had a brick and mortar store in years. I shrug.
“It’s just, everyone buying all the same spoons, all the same teapots. Stores like Bed,
Bath, and Beyond are contributing to the homogenization of America,” the girl continues, her
twenty-year-old face scornful. The other twenty-year-old faces all nod in agreement, and I get
mad. It feels like a personal attack.
I want to ask, “How the hell should I know? I’m just a store manager!” or “So! What’s so
wrong with everyone owning the same spoons?” Instead, I say, “Well, Bed, Bath, and Beyond
keeps my kids fed and gives me health insurance, so if that’s what you mean by homogenization,
then I guess, yeah, they do contribute to it.”
That shuts them up. One of the group even gasps, but whether it is from my obvious
anger or the mention of my kids, I don’t know. Either way, I weave my way back to the kitchen,
looking for Kelly. I want to tell her that her friends are jerks and that I’m leaving, but she is
nowhere to be found.
I feel a hand on my arm, and turn to see a man holding a cup full of keg beer. He is one
of only a handful of guys there.
He smiles. “Believe it or not, they didn’t mean to be rude.”
“Excuse me?”
“The girls back there. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with them. They’re
okay so long as you don’t take anything they say seriously. The name’s Michael, by the way.”
Michael looks as out of place as I feel—he has big, workman’s hands speckled with
freckles. His strawberry blond hair is short and he wears a tidy beard.
“I’m Amber,” I say. The adrenaline has stopped pumping and I realize that I am
sweating in earnest.
“Can I get you a drink?” Michael asks.
“Actually, I think I need some air.”
Michael nods, and leads the way—through the kitchen to the hallway and out the front
door. The night air needles through the weave of my sweater, chilling all the places that have
just been sweating. I take a deep breath.
“I was in class with a lot of those girls last semester. A few of them talk first and think
second. It’s easy to be in college and have opinions about things you don’t understand,” Michael
I am reminded of a few years ago, when I was still on the PTA of Gary and David’s
school. I was doing some dishes and watching the boys play in the backyard through the kitchen
window. Out of nowhere, Gary smacked his brother upside the head with a wiffle ball bat. The
bat was cheap plastic, and besides being stunned, David was unharmed—but the behavior was so
disturbing that I dragged Gary inside the house, yelled, and then made him sit at the kitchen table
until dinner.
He was furious, and I could see him get angrier as I ignored his harrumphing and chair
leg kicking. Finally, Gary turned an imperious face to me and said, “Don’t you think you’re
over-compensating because you’re a young mother?”
I had been in the middle of coating chicken tenders in crushed corn flakes prior to baking,
when I paused, the tender in my hand dripping egg wash back into the bowl.
“What did you say to me?” I asked. I could feel my pulse beating in my throat. I watched
Gary go still, eyes large, realizing that he’d made a mistake.
“Nothing,” he mumbled.
“That’s what I thought. Now shut up until I say you can move.”
I knew Gary was only repeating something he’d heard from one of his friends’ mothers,
or from one of the women that volunteered in the lunch room. And as the chill evening air cools
the sweat from my face, it is clear that the girls from the Wollstonecraft conversation are no
different–repeating something that they heard someone else say in order to sound smart.
Michael pulls a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and offers it to me. I
shake my head and try not to smile. He smokes cloves.
“So, you took classes with those girls? Does that mean you’re a Women’s Studies
major?” I ask.
“English,” he says and lights one of his cigarettes with a plastic lighter. In its flickering
light, the shadows in the hollows of Michael’s eyes deepen, making him appear, momentarily,
ancient. “I took feminist poetry to meet girls.”
For the first time the whole night, I laugh. “How’s that working out for you?”
“Well, most of the girls in the class were ALSO interested in meeting girls—but it was
okay. Kelly’s cool, and I like most of her friends. And the professor was interesting—she
focused a lot on the history surrounding the work.” Michael blows the smoke away from where
we’re standing, but I can still smell it—like smoking a cigarette made of cotton candy.
“Sounds interesting,” I say.
“You go to Oakland?”
I shake my head. “I’m not in school.”
“Is that because of your kids?” Michael asks. He takes a seat on the porch steps, the
wood creaking under his weight. I pull my jacket on and sit beside him.
“Sort of. I got married right after graduation and we started a family right away.”
“You’re married?”
Inside the house, the music changes—the song is quieter but familiar, and I strain to
listen. It’s Radiohead, a band I first heard when I was in high school, while driving around in
Doug’s mom’s Taurus, going to football games or staying out until 4 a.m., drinking coffee at
Ram’s Horn. Before David and Gary. Before I needed Doug to be anything except present.
“I love this song,” I say.
Michael turns towards the door, trying to listen. “What is it?” he asks.
“I don’t know it.”
Of course he doesn’t—the song’s twenty years old at least.
A gust of wind blows down the street, picking up leaves, yellow and brown, and
plastering them against cars and the sides of houses. I feel old and tired.
The song ends, replaced by something louder that is completely foreign. “Yeah, I should
go,” I say, rising to my feet. “If you see Kelly, will you tell her thanks for me?”
Michael gets to his feet, too. “Is it your kids?”
“They’re with their dad this weekend, but, I just need to go.” I start down the steps,
heading for my car.
“Would you like to go get a cup of coffee or something somewhere?”
I think of those cups of Ram’s Horn coffee and almost smile. The Ram’s Horn isn’t even
there anymore. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, can I call you sometime?”
I stop on the sidewalk and turn back. The conversation feels foreign, like watching a
movie I have never seen before. I am trying to figure out Michael’s angle. “Why?”
Michael’s features are dim and blurred in the purple glow of the houselights, but I think
he looks sheepish. “Because you’re pretty.”
That’s not what I was expecting. It’s been awhile since someone has called me pretty.
“I’m old enough to be your mom.”
“How old are you?”
Michael flicks his cigarette away and walks down the steps. “My parents are way older
than you. They’re at least thirty-two.”
I got a sick feeling in my stomach, which must have shown on my face, because he
quickly adds, “Hey, I’m kidding. My mom would have been ten years old when I was born.
Look—you’re nice. I like you. Let me take you out sometime.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve got an idea. Just wait here a minute, okay? Don’t leave yet.”
When I nod, Michael turns and races down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. I
watch as he unlocks a car a few houses down, rummages around in the front seat, and then jogs
back to where I am standing. In his hand is a scuffed jewel case, which he gives to me.
“What is this?”
“It’s a band I like called Of Monsters and Men. I stuck my number inside, so you don’t
have to feel pressured. You can listen to this CD, then ask Kelly about me, and once you’re
convinced that I’m a pretty great guy, you can call. Okay?”
“What if this music stinks, or Kelly tells me you’re a jerk?”
“Then you can use it as a coaster. But you shouldn’t. It’s a good CD. And you should
call me.” With one last smile, Michael walks back toward the house.
Frost glitters on my windshield, and as I wait for the car to warm and melt it, I put
Michael’s CD in the player. The band is nothing like Radiohead—tempo sped up, hopeful
instead of mournful. I realize as I pull onto Main Street that I have already decided to ask Kelly
about her friend Michael when I see her at work on Monday.
I take the slow way home, through Clawson into Troy. I have the window rolled down—
it’s so cold that it makes my hands ache, but I enjoy the sound the rushing wind makes, and the
crisp smell of autumn carried with it. I think about next weekend, when I’ll have the boys at
home with me. Maybe there will be enough leaves in the yard to rake into piles that the boys can
jump in.
When I pull into the driveway, I can see that Mrs. Sawicki’s house is dark. My own front
window looks bright in comparison, from David’s hall light, which he assures me he no longer
needs but won’t let me unplug. The yellow glow, spilling out onto the front lawn, looks warm
and reassuring.

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