Killing Time on Bad Dates Until the World Ends
"Not the End Yet" by Nicole Flattery, recommended by Colin Barrett
INTRODUCTION BY COLIN BARRETT
In Nicole Flattery’s unnerving, poignant, viciously funny and casually apocalyptic short story “Not The End Yet,” a woman goes on a series of dates while the world ends. Angela is forty-one, divorced, a teacher, but she is not, as she insists, living in her car: “She knew if someone glanced inside her car, they would think, ‘That woman’s life has gone to shit, and she has been living, like a pig, in her car.’…She didn’t live in her car. She lived in a house. Her car was in a state of disorder, yes, but then again so was her house.” With every additional avowal to the contrary, the impression you’re left with is that, yes, Angela is very much living in her car. I read Angela as depressed, because when you are depressed you might stop performing the base-level conventions required of day-to-day living––such as bothering to get out of your car at the end of the day in order to go to sleep in the bed in your house—until one day, you find yourself, if not quite living in your car, not not living in your car.
If Angela is depressed, it’s understandable, because the world is ending. While the reasons for the apocalypse have to do with us—the murderous landlords and bedshitting tenantry of our planet––Flattery doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts of it, affording us chilling glimpses of the larger collapse. It’s as if the reasons are not worth elaborating because you, the reader, already know the reasons; the world in “Not The End Yet” is ending in as overwhelmingly piecemeal and diffuse a fashion as the world is ending here, too, on this side of the page.
But in the meantime, there is still time to kill. Hence, the dates. Angela’s dates are each uniquely bad, while all the men are composites of each other, inflections on the same spectrum of male cruelty, obviousness and inadequacy. There is the man who sneers at what he perceives as Angela’s artistic ignorance. There is the man who asks her if he can tell her that “’on first read, you strike me as a cold person.’” There is the man who takes her home and “bangs her like he was partaking in a burglary—ransacking the house for something he would never find.”
Part of the genius of Flattery’s writing in this story and throughout her debut collection Show Them a Good Time is that while these stories start somewhere familiar, they do not end there. Whether the monied canyons of Manhattan or an economically-euthanized town in the Irish midlands, the worlds depicted are on the verge of dispersal, and beginning to break back down into their component atoms. These stories have much to tell us about how we live now, about the inherently destabilizing, compulsively extractive logic of late Capitalism, about the psychic toll of having to live in a time when the experts agree the world is more or less ending, and the people responsible are going to do nothing about it. But these stories are also wildly entertaining reads. “Not The End Yet,” like all the stories in Show Them A Good Time, is a story that is both funny peculiar and funny haha. The world is ending, but there is still time. The question remains, time for what? Read “Not the End Yet” to find out.
– Colin Barrett
Author of Young Skins
Killing Time on Bad Dates Until the World Ends
“Not the End Yet”
by Nicole Flattery
The arranged place was not easy to find. Angela drove, her window rolled down. She knew if someone glanced inside her car, they would think: That woman’s life has gone to shit, and she has been living, like a pig, in her car. She imagined the smug satisfaction such a person might derive from the scene: Things are hell for me but I don’t live in my car! The world’s dumb and uneven distribution of sadness was something she had no interest in. Let them have it, she thought. She knew she didn’t live in her car. She lived in a house. Her car was in a state of disorder, yes, but then again so was her house. Except people couldn’t see into her house. If they pressed themselves close to the glass she could simply say, “Shoo, peepers!” and close the blinds. Her car didn’t have blinds. Her car had an overflowing ashtray, a litter of coffee cups, clothes and bundles of colored paper. Her house was in a row of other houses. She wasn’t that invested in it. It was done when that
was the theme––curbing, piping, structure. These days, it was taking her longer to get out of the car and into the house. But, she still did it. The upshot was: her life hadn’t gone to shit.
The car park was deserted, except for a lone, hunched figure resting on the bonnet of a car, in communication with the cloudless night. This moonlit man was Angela’s date. She rolled her tongue absently over her back teeth and watched through the windscreen as he cupped his hands and attempted to light a cigarette. Even as the wind ruined his efforts, he remained unruffled. This, to Angela, was a sign of huge integrity. She smoothed her skirt down over her hips and thighs. She checked her wide-eyed expression. She went slowly about her maintenance. She was older now, forty-one. She would have been unaware of that herself, except people told her. The world practically crossed the street to tell a woman she had gotten older.
“What the fuck is that?” Angela’s date said, gesturing to her car, as she rose gracefully from the driver’s seat.
There was always a moment on Angela’s dates, usually at the beginning, when she allowed herself to think: This guy’s the whole package! As the night progressed, the realization invariably arrived that this man was not a package at all. He was an envelope, an envelope with a bill in it, an envelope she, quite frankly, wanted to put in a drawer and forget all about.
She felt invaded by his judgement but refused to show it. “It’s a Honda,” she said, sweetly.
The restaurant was a basement really, with a damp smell of impending disaster and a neglected feeling. Angela and her suitors conducted all their encounters underground, in this place where the name changed frequently ––letters disappearing, vowels skipping across the brightly lit sign––but the menu remained indifferent to external pressures. She chose this place because it had little or no phone signal. Otherwise, their fingers would be moving across their screens, sloppily swiping. When they swung the front door open, carrying in the heavy, co-mingled scent of perfume and aftershave, the staff stared at them. A teenage boy seated them with a reluctant sigh, as if exhaling was too much of an effort. Two further teenagers, stumbling at a furiously slow pace in true disbelief that anyone would demand service at this time, provided a tablecloth, cutlery, glasses. When Angela and her date (forty-five, salesman, no visible scars) gave their orders, the waiter nodded as if he might be willing to consider it.
Her date held up the menu in his paw hands, the familiar black marker scrawled across several of the selections. She ordered the salad, anticipating the single tomato rolling around her plate.
“So you go on many of these?” her companion asked, reddening. An entry to a dirty joke.
There was a deep silence and they let it labour between them for a moment.
“Yeah,” she replied. She had heard a lot of arguments against honesty in this particular arena, but she disregarded them. “Make them feel special!” her oldest friend advised, but making people feel special required a lot of exertion and alcohol.
Although intimacy made her anxious and, often, physically sick, she had an absurd level of success in securing dates. In one careful photo taken at the wedding of a colleague, she sat beside a pristine table-cloth, her palms clasped like a choirgirl, her grin lopsided and benign. It was pleasant. You would have no problem being stuck in a tight dinner-space, island B&B or tiny house with this woman. You would barely know she was there. Other women engineered their profiles all wrong: too sexy, too obvious, their indecent mouths suggesting a closeness that had yet to be earned. She got a lot of attention for one particular set-up: hair loose, eyes alert. Soft. There was nothing to suggest she had made mistake after mistake after mistake.
“Is it much fun?” Her date (navy suit, tan shoes) fidgeted in his chair.
In truth, she had begun to approach these dates with the same level of clinical excitement as might accompany the scheduling of a dental appointment: the same dim sense of obligation, the same knowledge that a man was going to examine her and decide something was horribly awry. But she forced herself to enjoy it. It was the last good feeling, to look across a table and know someone else was terrified too.
‘Right.’ He nervously scanned the room.
They drank for something to do with their hands and mouths. Angela cursed her gin and tonic. It was impossible to look wise, and to project an air of disinterest in various earthly disasters, while using a straw.
“I said I was stopping after hitting ten,” he said. “One zero. You know, with what’s going on, some guys don’t know how to stop. But I don’t like this. I don’t like superficial connections with people.”
“That’s a shame,” Angela said. “I love them.”
“Angela, I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. I don’t like conclusions, they are dangerous, but may I say something?”
“On first read, you strike me as a cold person.”
She considered this for a moment, as it was not an unreasonable observation.
“I can be likeable if you get to know me,” she promised, silently wondering if this was true or one of those first-date lies she would have to catalogue and monitor. “I just mean I never thought I would become one of those people who enjoys talking to strangers. I never thought my life would swerve off like that, but it has.”
“Tell me about your friends.”
“I have two,” Angela said, boastfully.
She was in possession of one old friend who offered helpful advice like, “Have some self-respect!” Her old friend was full of bizarre ideas inherited from her time in business. She also had a friend in the supermarket. Where all her other friends had disappeared to was a mystery she had no interest in solving.
The silence became quite natural after a while. They ate their dinner to the beat of it.
He gleamed suddenly, as if he had made a discovery. “What music do you like?”
“I like the classics,” Angela said.
“Oh yeah? Me too. Which ones?”
Angela threw open her arms and sang loudly but rushed, rendering the lyrics incomprehensible.
“I don’t know that one.”
Her date’s face was unmoving. And oddly small, she noted warily. It was an awfully tiny face.
“There’s plenty more where that came from,” Angela promised. “I have a lot of CDs in my car. I don’t like the radio so much lately.”
“Nobody does,” he sighed. “Who do you blame for it all?”
“It’s not anybody’s fault. That’s what they say on the radio.”
“I have a few ideas,” he said, edgily. “So what age are those kids you teach?”
“I’m not sure,” Angela smiled. “They are short and move quickly in all sorts of directions.”
Out of Angela’s class of twenty-six children, there were now only nine remaining. She sometimes passed absent students on the streets, riding or being pushed on scooters by their parents. The kids pretended not to know her. The remaining few spoke a language that was not from this planet, a language Angela couldn’t understand. She distributed safety scissors and said, “What’s that?” loudly, to let them know she was on to them, curtail any uprising against her.
“It’s good to have work you enjoy,’” her date announced. Angela thought he looked restless, like he was gearing up to make some class of speech.
“Do you know what sort of man I used to be?”
“I used to be the sort of man who always said, ‘I just need a break!’ But now I’m making money for the first time in my life, selling dating equipment. What do you think of that, eh? You wait twenty years and––BOOM––all the money comes at once.”
“Money is no good when you’re dead,” she intoned.
“I could have a younger girlfriend,” he said.
Angela could tell he was in the early stages of grief for someone he had never known.
“You are probably judging me for saying that.”
“Not at all.” She saluted him from across the table. “It’s a grand historical tradition.” She paused. “Why do you do it anyway? It seems like a base job for a cosmopolitan individual, exploiting people’s loneliness.”
“Cash,” he said. He stared past her, to the front door. “I have gambling debts.” He hesitated. “It’s probably something to do with my father as well.”
“The excuse that never dies,” Angela said. “Something something my father. I swear when the world does end, there’s just going to be one man meandering around the scorched earth saying again and again: ‘I had a bad relationship with my father.'”
“Are you a feminist?” he asked abruptly, as if she might be surprised he knew the word.
“At this stage in my life, I can take it or leave it,” she replied. She lit a cigarette and watched the smoke swirl up towards the splintered ceiling. Witnessing her defiance, one of the teenagers glared at her through the long bar mirror. She was waiting for her date to mention an ex-wife. She wanted to run into the past and scatter these women like birds.
“Were you married?” she asked.
“I was,” he said and looked at her in a practiced, sheep-ish way.
Angela shifted in her seat, preparing for her own declaration. She gazed off into space. “There’s a time in a woman’s life when everyone she is sleeping with is married, then there’s the extended period of time when she may be married herself, then suddenly everyone she is sleeping with is divorced.”
“That’s an interesting theory.”
“It’s just an old saying of my mother’s,” she shrugged.
“Well,” he said, “no one gets off lightly––my dog is dead, my bicycle is destroyed, my life is a bit messed up, to put it mildly. But that’s marriage, isn’t it?” He nodded as if in sincere agreement with himself. “You?”
“I got the car in the divorce.”
He smirked. “Kids?”
She made a zero figure with her thumb and wedding-ring finger. “So,” she asked and dipped her finger into the surface of her drink, “have you been doing anything?”
“This,” he said, pointing back and forth between them. “A lot of this, interacting with new people.”
There had been a series of bad dates recently. There was the man with a face of deep crevices and dents who, up close, looked rather like the moon. There was another who rested his slithery hand on hers while trying to sell her life insurance. No matter how many times Angela thought That’s not happening again, it happened. It happened and it happened. It was all over quickly, but it happened. Dating was not the worst of it though.
Angela cleared her throat. “I did something else.” She closed her eyes, as if preparing for confession. “I stole a cat.”
“There has been a cat hanging around the school grounds and, today, I bundled it up under my coat and took it home. It did not belong to me in any way,” she grinned, “but now it does.”
“Firstly, it had a great look. If sunglasses were an option for this cat, he would have been wearing them. I have always been weak for that sort of coolness. Also my principal told me if it was still there by the end of the week, he was going to cook and eat it.”
“Jesus Christ, that’s disgusting.”
“It is,” Angela said, “but that’s him all over. It’s his nature. He’d do it because the world’s ending and he can. I would use the word ‘lunatic’ to describe him. First day, he separated all us female teachers into two groups. He didn’t say it but I could see his mind working: the women he wanted to sleep with, and the women he considered good teachers.”
“Which group were you in?”
“Neither.” Angela gestured for a second drink. “But you should have heard the arguments in the staff room: he wants to lick me up and down, he wants to mentor me. I eat lunch in my car a lot.” Angela was suddenly passionate. “You know, there is a lot I will tolerate in this life, and a lot I have tolerated, but the cooking and eating of a cat to prove you’re a tough guy is not a pursuit I will entertain.” She looked down at her napkin, surprised by her sudden outburst.
“Have you named the cat?”
“That’s a gorgeous name.” Her date looked at her with warmth. “Angela, I got you wrong. I apologize. You’re a kind and considerate woman.”
“Stop,” she said stiffly. “I have some interesting qualities too.”
“I never thought I would meet a nice woman, let alone another animal-lover.” He paused. “I don’t want to paint her in a negative light, but my ex-wife murdered my dog.”
“I guessed that.”
“Imagine that bathroom in there,” he pointed to the restaurant bathroom, “normal bathroom, tiles, bit of mould, nothing spectacular.”
“I can see it.”
“Now picture it with blood everywhere. That was how it was. A disappointing sight.”
“I’m sorry,” Angela said.
“What was up with your ex?”
“He was non-violent. He didn’t murder anything, as far as I know. All in all, an agreeable man.” She paused. “Do you like clever people?”
“You would have liked him then. He wasn’t clever at all. It wasn’t a big deal like people make it out to be.” She looked at him. “Not that he was an imbecile either.”
“What is it all for, Angela? Sometimes, when I am selling them the damn equipment I want to say, ‘Don’t bother,’ but I can”t because of the money and the commission.”
“I have an old friend who thinks it’s for companionship. Someone to hold your hand at the end, that sort of thing.”
“I don’t like the sound of your friend much,” he said.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “She’s not great. It’s terrible when you get old enough to dislike your old friends.”
She glanced down; her salad was gone. She had no recollection of putting that fork in her mouth. Her body was always making decisions independent of her.
“Angela, would I be correct in saying we have a deep and profound connection at this present moment in time?”
“You wouldn’t be too far off.” She pondered. “Would you like to sit in my car with me for a while?”
When they stood to leave, the teenagers gathered in a circle and unenthusiastically waved them off. As they settled the bill, the man interlaced his fingers with Angela’s. One of the serving boys made a discreet retching face at this display of middle-aged affection. In the car park, her date said, “Look, the stars are low,”––and they were.
In her car, they sat in silence. Her date rested his feet impolitely on the dashboard. He looked like a monarch, surveying his kingdom.
“You know that number I gave you?” Angela asked.
“Your telephone number?”
“Yeah. If you are going to use that number the best time is between 5 pm and 8 pm because that is after school and before night.”
“What do you do at night?”
“I go to the supermarket,” Angela said simply.
“Is it…nice in the supermarket?”
“It’s a good time,” Angela said. “I have a friend there.”
They both stared out the windscreen.
“Angela, I want to take you home. But before I take you home, can I tell you something?”
“Men are after me. Threatening men I encountered during my gambling period.” He slouched dramatically in his seat. “I would like to spend the night with you but I don’t want to put you in a bad situation. In truth, I’m being blackmailed and I’m being followed.” He let out a long, weary sigh and ran his hands over his face, as if the blackmailing would be okay if it weren’t accompanied by the following, and the following would be fine if it weren’t accompanied by the blackmailing.
“I have never dated a man who was being blackmailed before.” She paused. “We can take my car if you think that will throw them off?”
He glanced around Angela’s car. “We will take mine, I think.”
He took Angela home and banged her like he was partaking in a burglary––ransacking the house for something he would never find. Angela was confused, but alive. This could be it: the last neck they clawed at, the last post-coital conversation, the last beautiful excuses they ever made.
The morning came while she was still feigning sleep. Before the sun even lit across her body, he was back on his dating equipment. The man was determined he was not departing from this planet with Angela’s cursed face as his final conquest. Fair enough, Angela thought. These were testing times and she was recently big on forgiveness. It was being pushed heavily on the radio. Sometimes, she left these situations feeling something near happiness. Leaving was such a non-event. You turned a doorknob either to the left, or to the right. Leaving was the same everywhere.
That night, she took her usual trip to the 24-hour supermarket. She strolled around, swinging her wire shopping basket, the empty aisles opening out in front of her. She used to come here with her ex-husband in the sunny days of their courtship. They placed healthful items in baskets, their bodies slyly touching as they strolled. Now, the cashier girls wandered around, indifferent, as if this supermarket wasn’t once the site of a Great Romance. She said, “Oh, girls, I just want you all to be so happy,” and tried not to cry. That particular Saturday, she watched the artificial rain falling on the vacant spaces where the greens used to be displayed. She admired the labels: their verve, their refusal to stop selling themselves even in the direst circumstances. She put in orders for exotic fruits, fruits that would never pass her lips, and the girls wrote them dutifully down, avoiding her gaze.
The restaurant was a basement, really, with a damp smell of impending disaster and a neglected feeling. Inside, the waiters kept their jackets on over their uniforms, expecting to be called away at a moment’s notice. There were only two waiters left from the previous staff of six. They hugged the menus to their chests, as if in possession of ancient secrets. The windows were fully covered. Angela and her date (forty-seven, artist, no visible scars) had just been to the theatre. Theatre wasn’t something she normally did––and the imminent end of the world wasn’t the time for trying new things––but, regardless, they attended the theatre. They had sat on a long, hard bench, their knees touching, then not-touching, then occasionally touching again at moments of dramatic seriousness. The touching was electrifying to Angela. It gave her a powerful rush to the head. The play didn’t do much for her at all, at all.
“I’m not sure,” Angela said. “I didn’t get it.”
“What didn’t you get?”
“All of it, it has to be said.”
There was one other couple in the restaurant, young and disturbingly beautiful, their smiles wide and postures primed as if in constant pose for a photo. They glanced over as Angela and her date began to raise their voices.
“That’s a very ignorant point of view,” her date said.
“It is, I agree. My own ignorance is my business though, and I don’t feel the need to explain or justify it to anyone.”
“Didn’t you like the way their naked bodies symbolized their vulnerability in the face of the end of the world?”
“And the dancing as the earth opened up below them? Their bravery? Their joy? Didn’t you like that?”
“Angela, I don’t want to put pressure on you but if you didn’t enjoy and appreciate that play, you’re not going to understand me, fundamentally, as a human being.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
The surlier of the two waiters approached them and set down their near-empty plates. Angela’s date suddenly began grabbing at the dinner items as if to speed up the process.
“Don’t do that,” she instructed, “that’s his paid employment.”
The artist whipped out his napkin and produced a pen. “Angela, what is your ex-husband’s address?”
“I would like to send him a card in the post, just a small token, to show him his hard work didn’t go unnoticed. I believe people should be thanked for the duties they have performed in this life and you must have been a handful.”
“I was,” she agreed. “I was like a long day’s labor in the sun. You would emerge disorientated and physically exhausted, but stronger for it.”
His hand hovered excitedly over the napkin, as if planning exactly what to write inside his card.
“I’m sorry I don’t know his address. I know he lives alone in an apartment but I couldn’t tell you which one. It’s a block of apartments with other men who live alone.”
Her date leaned backwards and performed a waving motion with his hand, as if trying to communicate with Angela’s ex-husband from a distance. “What age are those kids you teach?” he said, through a mouthful of lettuce.
“I don’t know,” she said. “They are short and move quickly in all sorts of directions.”
Her date (wide-legged jeans, shirt from a disco decade) looked desperately at the young couple across the restaurant as if wishing to signal his immense distress.
“You know what I didn’t like about that play?” Angela didn’t know how to let things go.
“The way it was about the end of the world. Doomsday stuff. That felt obvious to me.”
“But that’s what is happening right now. That’s life,” he said, and the way he emphasized life made Angela want to throw her knife and fork at him. She would have done it too, had she not been nervous of the ire of the waiters.
“Yes, exactly. It’s happening. I don’t need to see it on stage.”
“I don’t think you like art, Angela.”
“Maybe I don’t,” she said, thoughtfully. “I think I’m too anxious to spend long periods of time looking at things trying to figure out what they are.”
“You know what else I think you don’t like?”
“Nudity. Oh God, you’re just like my ex-wife. A prude––exactly like her. I bet if I got naked right now you would have a problem with that.”
The young angel-boy leapt out of his seat and dashed to his girlfriend’s side. He placed his hands over her unbelieving eyes as Angela’s date began unbuttoning his shirt. The waiters let him get to the third button before they intervened. There was a brief bout of wrestling before Angela’s date, out of breath, fully-dressed and furious, sat back down.
Angela exhaled a long, delightful plume of smoke. “I”m having such a nice time,” she said. “After dessert, would you like to sit in my car with me for a while?”
In Angela’s car, they listened to the radio. Two men with the wild intensity of actors were shouting about disease and rising sea levels. One of the radio presenters said he had been having bad dreams, the other said he hadn’t been sleeping at all. Finally, the more innovative of the two screamed, a thin piercing sound that rattled Angela’s car and further reduced its life span.
“These people shouldn’t be allowed on the radio,” she said.
As the presenters listed out the odds for the human race––which were not favorable from what Angela could tell––her date made to kiss her. She turned away at the final moment.
“Would you like to see a picture of my cat?” Angela inquired, as a token of peace.
“No,” he replied, sulkily.
Without a further word, he stormed out of the car, slamming the door behind him. She watched through the windscreen as he ruffled his hair and popped the top button of his shirt, creating a bedroom look. When the young couple emerged from the restaurant, he stopped the boy and offered a high-five, as if to celebrate his incredible sexual success in the car.
Angela thought: I’m never coming to this restaurant again. Never again.
The restaurant was a basement, really, with a damp smell of impending disaster and a neglected feeling. The waiters hung around in stained vests, helping themselves to drinks from the bar. Music Angela had never heard before was being piped through the speakers: loud, explicit and full of pushy directions. “Get low,” this music advised and the waiters obliged by limboing underneath the entrance to the wooden bar. Each limbo was followed by a supportive whoop from a fellow waiter.
When Angela and her date (fifty, fruit and vegetable man, one faded scar running across his cheek) entered the restaurant, one of the waiters embraced Angela like she was a cousin who reminded him of carefree memories from his childhood. Plaster and dust from the ceiling littered the abandoned tables. A sign, in sloppy teenage handwriting, read: “Only Dessert Available.” At a table nearby, sat a shabby-seeming couple and their young daughter, sharing a single slice of chocolate cake.
“This place is usually wall-to-wall sophisticated people,” Angela told the man.
The waiters, out of unquestioned routine, threw them two dinner menus. Angela shouted across to them, “This fellow isn’t my date.”
Her date raised his head in alarm.
“He’s more of a guest,” she explained. “He’s employed in the local supermarket.”
The waiters ignored her.
“It’s not always easy to recognize people out of their work uniforms,” she said. “You look nice.”
“How is the school coping?” The fruit and vegetable man shredded his napkin nervously. He glanced at the waiters as if to find an answer to the apocalypse in their unruly behaviour.
“The staff room,” Angela shook out a cigarette, “is pure farce at this point.”
“What do you get up to in there? I’ve always wanted to know.”
A few days previously, the end date named, one of the older teachers had taken to wearing a veil––a wispy, fluttery piece of fabric that obscured her hunted face––as a gesture of mourning. Soon, she had amassed followers, a group of impressionable teachers who moved in a slow pack wearing makeshift veils fashioned from household materials. “We just listen to the radio, eat sandwiches,” Angela said. “Think regretfully about our lives.”
“Great!” he said. “I just want to inform you this is a date.”
“It is. I have seen you around the supermarket and I always thought I would like to show that woman somewhere nicer than a supermarket––like a museum. We don’t have much time left but would you like to go to a museum?”
“I like the supermarket,” Angela said. She pictured the hideous fluorescent lighting, the disappointing stock, the scowling staff in their polyester fleeces. “I think some of the happiest moments of my life have taken place in that supermarket.”
“You would look good walking around a museum, I think.”
She ignored the compliment. “So,” she said, eyeing up the rotating desserts, “have you been doing anything?”
“I prayed.” He perked up at the memory of his brief interaction with God. “I also lit a candle in a church.”
“Wow,” Angela said, in genuine awe. “I stole a cat. I didn’t necessarily steal it. I just looked at it and it came with me. I don’t consider myself a sexually aggressive person but it’s possible I seduced that cat.”
The little girl at the next table over vomited chunks of chocolate cake across the tablecloth. She carefully wiped her mouth, as if in preparation for a second round.
“I’m sorry,” the mother announced to the waiters. “She’s just nervous, I”m sorry.”
The waiters nodded in unison but made no move to clean up.
“That’s one of mine,” Angela said. “She’s been doing that a lot lately.”
“She’s in your class?”
“I’d rather not,” she said. “They don’t like me so much, the children.”
“I imagine you are a good teacher, Angela.”
“Oh, I do my best,” Angela said. This was true, maybe once. She had kept a close eye. There were still accidents on her watch, of course. A scratched elbow, a stone that had to be wrenched free. The children would rest their bodies on her lap. They would rise up then, recovered and forgetful. At the end of the day, no matter what she did, they left with whoever came to collect them. Children could be as breezy and carefree as adults.
“Today, I had to write ‘China: Wiped Out’ on the board. Doubly underlined.” She managed a weak half-smile.
“How did that go?”
“Lots of questions: ‘Why are we still here, teacher?’ ‘How do you spell that, teacher?’ That sort of thing. The afternoon dragged right on.”
“It’s hard to know how to fill the time,” he agreed.
At the other table, the little girl was crying, clutching her stomach with one hand and attempting to eat the remains of the cake with the other. Her parents observed her, their hands flat on the table in front of them, skillfully avoiding the vomit.
The fruit and vegetable man watched the family for a moment before turning back towards Angela. “Have you been in contact with anyone?” he asked.
“Me neither. My ex-wife, she would just disappear.
Even when she was there, she wasn’t there.”
“My ex-husband lives alone. He lives in a block of apartments with other men who live alone.”
She made a zero figure with her thumb and wedding-ring finger. “Well one actually,” she admitted, “but he died. Do you mind me saying that? Not really died,” she corrected herself, “got away from us early.”
“Did you try again?”
“He wanted to. I was scared.”
“Scared of death? That’s natural.”
“No,” Angela said, “scared of everything else.”
“My ex-wife used to say I wasn’t ambitious,” the man explained. “Afraid to progress from the fruit and veg section, but I explained it was just because I really liked fruit and vegetables and I wasn’t going to fight it any longer.”
She laughed. “Do you know what I find amazing about this world? What I will miss? How you can wander around looking like other people, but not really be like other people at all.”
“In what way are you not like other people?” The fruit and vegetable man gestured determinedly at the dessert tray.
“The child didn’t like his surroundings, that’s what the doctor told me,” she said. “Like even a fetus couldn’t bear to spend time with me.”
“What did you do?”
“I screamed, ‘Look around, moron, who does like their surroundings? I wouldn’t rush myself to get here either.'”
One of the waiters, sweating heavily, chose this moment to slop the unappetising carrot cake in front of them. They took a fork each.
“Do you think that’s small? Being a woman who screams in a doctor’s office?”
“Not at all.”
“It’s not something I had planned for myself.”
They both took huge mouthfuls of cake, crumbs spilling indelicately on the table.
“So, what music do you like?” Angela asked.
“I like the classics. The oldies.”
Angela threw her arms open and sang loudly.
“That’s one of my all-time favorites. I love that one,” he said. “So tell me how you met your ex-husband?”
The family stood up and, without discussion, the girl bundled up in her father’s arms, left the restaurant. Their exit brought in a blast of cold air and a quick glimpse of the outside space. The car park, the street lamps, the fluorescent restaurant sign––soon they would be gone. And then the restaurant itself, and whatever followed after that and after that. It would all go.
A wail silenced the restaurant. A teenage body lay unconscious on the floor. The waiters gathered cautiously around their brother, as if shocked by consequences at a time when there weren’t supposed to be any consequences.
Angela stared directly at her guest. “I had wanted him to stay, you know,” she said. “But I didn’t know how to say that. That one word seemed like a big word. I couldn’t find a way into it. And I was afraid of what might happen if I even tried.”
He sat up straight, smiled wanly in her direction.
“Don’t look too delighted,” she said. “I took him to the cleaners in the divorce. Got the car and everything.” Her guest put down his fork, struggling for the words like a man who has spent a long time without company, living alone in an apartment complex with other men who live alone.
The car dealership was on the outskirts of town. She expected to find it abandoned, but no––through the windscreen she watched the man behind the counter swinging gloomily on his swing chair. He had the look of someone who might have debated wearing a cowboy hat to hawk his goods, but was persuaded out of it by a sensible person aware of cowboy hats and what they could do to a man’s reputation. The tinkling bell announced the arrival of Angela––a tall woman, a handsome woman, a woman with a cat peeking out from underneath her coat––and the counter-man’s disappointment was plain. He would not be able to tell Angela what he told men: that cars brought a certain type of life, a certain type of woman, a certain type of insane luck. Angela just wanted to sit in a car for one last time, enjoy the new car smell, and not feel fear or disappointment. In the window of the car dealership there was a convertible rotating sleekly in defiance of all the outside decay.
“How much is that?” she asked.
The man, his belly swinging bountifully, spread his arms out wide, a move Angela suspected he had been practicing in new and used cars during his downtime. It was a clear and direct arm-spread: it said, “Angela, you are going to love it. You probably dismissed the sports car experience at some stage, we all have. You probably have thought––that’s not for me. But you’re going to adore it. Every last bitter second.”
Angela fitted snugly in the leathered front seat and Screechy mewed appreciatively. It was a car that could make a singular impression. Yes, Angela thought, as she exited the car dealership, that’s smooth. On the radio, the announcer said we should be frightened, very frightened, and Angela looked at the sky: a fantastic scene of pinks and reds.