JOSIE & STANLEY by Lorie Broumand
JOSIE WALKED TO WORK through the heat and the dust of summer. She arrived, dusty, her dark blond hair dripping under a blue gingham scarf. Every feature on her face created a shadow and the many uneven surfaces trapped these shadows; her face was a chaos of lines and streaks and stripes. She wore blunt, woolen skirts that fell in bunches, choking her legs like weeds around a vine. She fought with them in the heat.
Josie started walking to work through downtown, out of her way though it was, because of Stanley. A new coffee shop had opened. It stood out among the old buildings, with their signs like Linen and Wool, and bustled in comparison. Josie had forgotten her tea one day in the cool early spring and walked all the way there, and there was Stanley, and she fell in love with him over the course of several days. She went back again and again, talking to him only in her mind, and badly at that ("What's your favorite color?"). But she learned his moods as if his face and gestures were a handbook. She watched him turn his back and noticed the sway and speed of it; she watched him dip a scoop into ice, his thumb meeting his index finger around the back of the handle, and read the information there: his dissatisfaction, his curiosity. She believed he was capable of great precision and great sadness and the idea kept her up at night. When she overheard him discuss bumblebees with a group of customers, she imagined saying hello. She liked bumblebees more than anyone.
But ordering a cup of tea made her hands shake and she returned to her table as he responded amiably to questions. This smoothie has this sort of fruit inside. That mocha has that sort of bean. The time he took in person remained reasonably small while his presence in her thoughts became greater and greater and more and more horrible. She expected the worst, whatever that might be.
Then a woman in line ordered a latte with rice milk and things were looking up.
But when it was Josie's turn she said, "There are so many milks," not "There are so many kinds of milk," as she anticipated. It was a phrase that resurrected itself in her head spontaneously, regularly, torturing her with the appalling word milks. Her intention to edit it was useless against the momentum of the familiar.
"No," she said.
"I mean, do you like almond milk and no, I don't like it. Do you like soy milk?"
"That does sound like a lot of milks," he said.
He put a lid on her tea and set it on the counter and she took it, uneasy. She thought hard for a fourth milk. She said, "How's your day been?"
"Fine," he said. "How's yours been?" She turned and rushed out.
It was true she believed in not answering questions. Letting a conversation end was a gift to both people. But wasn't Stanley different? And as she walked home she couldn't understand how she'd let herself succumb to the fear; it was the most reckless thing she'd ever done. In misery she covered her eyes as she walked and ran into a post. In misery she walked an extra five blocks, in the sun of all things, which she planned her days to avoid.
At work Josie ate lunch with Caroline. Caroline seemed to hate it as much as she did -- the cumbersome, stifling phenomenon of saying things and then waiting for things to be said. Often they didn't talk and instead sat quietly in mutual irritation.
"I’m getting older and there's nothing I can do," Josie said. She had recently turned thirty and this was on her mind. But the phrase didn't adequately represent her helplessness. The need to impress Stanley was making her nauseated. How tiring to be reminded that one was, in fact, quite ugly. How tiring to observe the limits of one's intelligence. She didn't know what people meant when they talked. She couldn't remember her multiplication tables. It just got worse and worse. And now almost two weeks had gone by. He'd be forgetting her.
"I’m older," said Caroline.
"Your being older doesn’t mean I’m not old." Josie was nearly too tired to lift her jam sandwich to her face and bite it.
"Tell me," Caroline said, agreeably, "how it is."
"I need to change what I’m doing."
"Yes, but what?" Caroline wore her pants belted over the largest part of her stomach, which was large. Her brown hair was in a crew cut.
Josie chewed while images moved through her mind. A sofa sitting in a dusty ray of sun. Old bottles. Sausages hanging from a ceiling. The shadow of a war plane on a summer lawn. Josie would feel a great wash of yearning for something, and the more she tried to identify it, the more she’d see, say, an old iron, its cord hanging off a table. But who was this iron? What was she looking for? By the time she was ready to answer the question, Caroline was eating jelly beans.
"I can’t think of anything," Josie said. "I don’t know what I want to be different but there must be some way of living that’s better." She pictured Stanley as she said this, which was too shocking to admit.
Caroline tried to say "Yes, but what?" around the jelly beans.
"I don’t know."
"Well, that’s a problem."
Josie sighed. She felt the sigh from her feet.
Standing all day, Josie thought more about her body than her mind. It was a gift. My fingers, she’d think. My knees. The joints of my hips. What do other people do to protect themselves from the worry? There they were, rafting rivers and singing karaoke. Going camping and attending barbecues and talking about it. She wondered if it worked. She stood on her feet and thought about her hands and toes and bones.
After lunch, customers go through Josie's line and she's so quiet that when she says "How are you today?" they don't hear her. It's like this every day. Sometimes her boss says "Speak up!" and she'll shout "Hi!" until a few customers later she forgets. Today the store is full. People are coming out the seams. When there's a minute's lull, Josie stands very still and thinks, I can sing him. But she can’t. She starts by humming one note, then another, and then she's singing Mary Ann, sifting sand. She tries to draw him, her finger against the counter, but she can’t. She doesn’t know what he looks like. He has: Long arms? Dark hair? Red hair? An overt asymmetry in his features? Something like that. She knows his frame: thin, rectangular, hinged. She knows his stride: a wide-stepped, self-conscious stride. She knows the way he tilts his head backward, to the side. His head is always at an angle. His nose might be too large for his face. His jaw might be too slight. She wants to curl into his lap and become small like the smallest mouse.
On the way back from break, weaving her way through the terrible crowd, Josie walks by Caroline, who is naturally loud when she speaks but equally reluctant to, and she is singing, and the song is about Josie: I've a weary kind of feeling/Like my time has come and gone to waste.
On a Friday after work Josie decides she's ready. She's growing worse in the heat, uncertain in his absence. The walk to the coffee shop is made difficult by dark clouds, which sit very low and drop bits onto her head. She touches her head but the bits have dissolved. She peeks into the hardware store window to check her nose; she's convinced it has turned blue with woe. Instead her pale eyebrows disappear into her red face. She continues her walk. Stanley is the source of all her misery. Stanley is the world's ruin. When she reaches the coffee shop she stops, though she's told herself not to, and says the alphabet as quickly as she can. She starts to go in but the "T" holds her back; it always takes her off guard because it comes so late; she'd best start from the beginning (ABC). She rushes through the door. He looks at her with such familiarity that she goes right up to him, aggressively, nearly running, and says "Hi." It's a demand and she doesn’t mean it to sound this way. But seeing him is such relief.
"Hi," Stanley says.
She looks at him and smiles, widely, all her teeth showing, lines around her eyes. She can’t help it. She says, "I need toilet paper."
"We’ve got a half a roll back there," he says and points to the bathroom. "Half of that is on the floor. If that doesn’t bother you."
"Well, maybe I’ll wait. I just remembered I need to buy some."
"I like toilet paper. It takes care of all your household needs."
"It falls apart quickly," says Josie, shaking her head. Happiness courses through her.
"It's cheaper than kleenex or paper towels so you can use more," he says.
Josie waits for herself. There's something to say about all this, an observation that will establish her value. But she stands silent with her inabilities echoing in her mind. A child is swinging on a tree outside, and the clouds are moving quickly, which is awful, and she has to work on Monday. The moment has changed, changing her with it; the unidentifiable, bursting joy that caused her to talk about toilet paper has disappeared. It seemed to come from him, as if he'd infused her with it with a look, but now he's ordinary again. Ordinary, and far too handsome, and unnecessarily tall. Josie waits, feeling sicker and sicker. She feels her face turning green, then yellow and purple and checkered -- all sorts of atrocious things. She says, "What’s new?" in a whisper.
Stanley leans on the counter, toward her, and she leaps back in alarm. He doesn't seem to notice. "I have a headache," he says. "It’s so bad I think it’s trying to tell me something."
"I’d take it for you if I could."
"I wouldn’t want you to. There was a bird outside my window, screaming at me all morning. I hold him responsible."
"Maybe he’ll take the headache for you."
"But is a bird head big enough for the headache?" She realizes with horror that she's spoken aloud. "I’d take it for you if I could," she says again without meaning to. She looks at her hands.
"You’re very sweet," he says, and she can't look up to assess him. Two people have come into the shop and Josie steps aside. The people ask about muffins and savory breads and flavors for hot chocolate. He moves quickly, leaning, bending. He is wearing his crisp white shirt and black dress pants, like a businessman, here in this coffee shop. She opens the door to leave and he holds her gaze too long.
At lunch the next day, Josie watches Caroline to gauge her mood. She says, "Have you fallen in love much?"
"No." Caroline remains focused on her sandwich and grapes and the black coffee in her paper cup.
"Have you ever?" Josie tries to appear nonchalant; the topic has just occurred to her.
"I wouldn’t do it now."
"Why not?" She is waiting to talk about Stanley.
"I have enough to worry about."
"What do you mean?" When Caroline doesn't answer, she becomes impatient. She says, "What do you mean? What do you mean?"
"Oh how do I know?" Caroline has one of her looks -- a combination of things, all of them unpleasant, like frustration at being driven from whatever was in her head, frustration with Josie for her idiocy. "You get all worked up over the strangest things."
Josie’s sandwich is zucchini and spinach and she holds it, surprised. How odd; for a moment talking about Stanley seemed like a reasonable thing to do. A feeling of helplessness overwhelms her, causing her to say, "I worry about missing things when life is over."
Caroline says, "Sure, who doesn’t?" But she is eating her grapes too loudly to understand.
Josie says, "Do you think it’s worse if you’re in love? Missing things when life is over, I mean?"
And Caroline says, "Of course," but Josie doesn't think she can possibly understand.
All these thirty years and Josie isn't any closer to knowing why life bothers her so. She imagines looking into her brain the way she might look at a map. What bliss it would be to clearly read the information in front of her: to understand the physicality, the superficiality, of what pretends to be the very essence of self. Ah! See. This neurotransmitter has skipped, thus, across this synapse, and caused me to suppose, falsely, that time is a sea of misery. The purpose of this serotonin is to make me believe that dying is a sea of misery, that life is a sea of misery, that the sea is a monster, that the sea is everywhere. How silly I see I am, now that I see.
It would be simple like that. But would it work. Josie tries to translate the little she understands about her consciousness into the comforting language of her brain, just a brain, going about its day to day affairs the same way her feet do, her spleen. And it doesn’t work. She looks at her mother’s face and sees the way the cheekbones sag under the weight of the worry; she looks at her father’s hands and sees how the knuckles have tripled in size with the worry. She sees it in her memories of grandparents and aunts and uncles. She sees a worsening in herself and wonders what it is that has infiltrated their lives and left others alone. Do I have diphtheria? she says aloud, thinking that would explain it. A disease can survive through generations; it can shape a family, creating their uniqueness, insuring it. She thinks, A disease could explain me.
The next day Josie wears a green dress. The sun's metal fingers uncoil into her apartment. She sits with her feet folded beneath her, drinking black tea until she’s sweating. She turns on the television and a man sings a song about rewiring homes. Orange light falls in stripes on the wall. Maybe it isn't true, and maybe love for a person is as satisfying as love for a sandwich: something that can be fulfilled in a lifetime. Maybe it doesn't make life sadder, but better. When she finishes the tea she walks to the coffee shop, afraid. A summer tumbleweed trips over her foot.
The store is quiet and Stanley gets her tea without saying a word. The knobbiness of his shoulders hides a great worry, but not from her. She wants his long, bony arms around her, rocking her to sleep. She would absorb his sadness for him like a bird head would absorb a headache, like a bird head would, like a bird headache.
"What’s new?" she says.
Josie waits for him to return the question but he doesn't and she gives her answer anyway. "I’m trying to think of how my life could be better." She has rehearsed this line but it doesn’t sound the way she wanted it to. "I’m trying to think of how my life could be better," she says, hoping it will come out differently a second time.
"What have you come up with?"
"Nothing. Does that mean I like everything the way it is?" She stations herself at the counter, toying with a display of chocolates, hoping he will lean toward her as he did the last time.
"Sometimes I'm bored," she says in an effort to explain her skepticism, but it isn't what she means.
"Maybe not being bored is asking too much."
But boredom isn't the problem, only what she wants the problem to be. Stanley is holding his hands together, grasping one with the other, unaware how spectacular they are.
"What do you think?" she says.
"These scones are older than I realized." He holds one up. "They're very dry."
Behind the smell of coffee is something else, something sweet, and it makes her think of tea cakes with cherry centers, in strange buildings, on fall afternoons: an experience she's never had yet longs to relive. She tries again. "Idaho has more fire lookout sites than any other state." She works this into conversation with Caroline regularly but now stumbles over it. "I could be a fire lookout in Idaho. I saw a show." They are very tall up there, and alone, and to want to be one seems a great blessing. "They're very... tall," she says.
Josie remembers her face, suddenly; she remembers her body. Here she is again, a person after all. She hopes he notices not just the lines and shadows of her face but the deep green designs in her eyes and the perfection of her nose when she has her head turned, just so. She turns her head but can't calculate the angle he’s seeing.
"It's an idea." He smiles and she feels it as clearly as a hand around her wrist.
"You can borrow it if you like," she says.
"Maybe," he says. "But I'm not really in the mood to be a fire lookout right now."
"My birthday is in two days,” he begins.
"Your birthday is tired," she says.
He doesn't know what to make of this, so he nods.
"Your birthday," she says, more urgently, "is tired."
"Well..." he says.
"Years are very tired," she says. "They are long and fast." In trying to summarize the particular character of disaster that taints an unexceptional afternoon, she has lost track of the conversation. "Afternoons," she says, "are long and fast. They're very difficult." She sees recognition in his face, but he turns to address the wooden slats of the blinds in the window behind him.
"Turning forty isn't so bad," he says, shrugging in apology for having taken them down this road. He sees it now, the desolation in the face of awareness -- awareness of the passage of time, of a tired birthday, of an inaccurate memory of cherry in an inaccurate building. Her expression shows him all this, and he does not want particularly to see it.
"The problem is that time is tired," she says, persisting.
"But these are much better," he says, as if in continuation. He holds up a chocolate cookie. "Please have one, on me."
"Well," she says, and she unintentionally holds the "L" for what feels like an hour. "Time is tired. I mean that time is very disappointed. I mean that time running out is sad when there’s something you want that you can't have because you don't have time." The sentence has taken even longer than the L. She hurries to make up for it. "I don’t like that at all, but just running out, I guess I just don’t know, I think, maybe it’s okay that it runs out so quickly. What do you think? What does time do inside a disease? I really don’t know."
"Please have one on me." He reaches his hand across the counter, the cookie underneath it. She is a mess. Her wool collar has gnawed a ring of red around her neck. The misery has brought out spots on her forehead. How different she was, weeks ago, ordering her tea, her slender fingers dignified at the clasp of her coin purse. He regrets having ever spoken.
"Do you like ice cream?" Josie says. She doesn't think he's moved but he seems farther away than she remembers.
"Yes," he says, not thinking.
"Let me buy you dinner for your birthday."
"Ice cream for dinner?" he says, and he tilts his head. But a look of dismay is overtaking his face.
"I like to get ice cream afterwards."
"Well," says Stanley, and he is shifting his legs as if they are too long to contain, "thank you but, I think I’d better not." Josie feels a wash of pain go through her chest. He looks at her as if he wants her to know something without him saying it. But how is she supposed to know?
"Oh, alright," she says. She waits. "Would you like to go out some other time?"
"Thank you, but..." He is anxious, fidgeting, trying not to glimpse her nubby green cuffs from the corner of his eye.
"Alright," she says.
Josie buys soft, padded shoes for work. She sits in the aisle, trying them on, and begins smiling. The part of the brain that creates the smile will interfere with the part of the brain that creates the sadness: the receiving cells will be confused, the emotions canceled. She feels the same; she lifts her hands to her face and realizes she isn’t smiling at all.
At lunch she says to Caroline, "My feet are the happiest part of me."
"That’s good," says Caroline. "Your feet are the most important part of you."
Josie builds a tower with her sandwich, yogurt, and pudding. She carefully rolls individual berries in dark chocolate coats onto a napkin. Caroline monitors the berries with a disapproving look. She leans back in her chair and folds her arms. "You've been happy lately," she says. "Until today."
"Hm." Caroline squints her large eyes into nothing.
"I’m not happy and I’m glad." She wants to emphasize the gladness she feels at her lack of happiness, but she's started eating a berry. The forward jerk of her head falls short, its meaning unclear.
"Is that a rash?" says Caroline. She leans over and places a hand on Josie's mottled forehead.
"No," says Josie. Her mind is on her feet. Her mind is in her feet, exploring the middle toe. Perhaps, after all, that middle toe feels crowded. The toe's lack of comfort will infect her afternoon. She pokes a finger into the side of her shoe but can't reach the toe. She leans her head back to rest, and Caroline starts humming, and it sounds pretty and very far away.
LORIE BROUMAND is a librarian. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Confrontation, SmokeLong Quarterly, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Whiskey Island. She plays guitar, hurdy gurdy, and Tetris. Her latest project is a novel about an insect.