Illy felt buoyant as she knocked on Simon and Sally’s door. She was wearing her favourite striped cardigan—the one she had salvaged out of her dad’s thrift store bag and thought of as her portable comfort zone. June had convinced her to wear earrings, which she almost never wore because they betrayed her stance against beauty by adornment. But June had pointed out that Illy had a nose ring and wore bangle bracelets, so it was a false and hypocritical stance anyway. Illy shook her head just enough to feel the dangling wooden earrings graze her neck, invoked all of June’s confidence, and watched the door swing open.
Illy froze. It was Jay. He had both his arms stretched wide and a goofy grin on his face as though he was welcoming his favourite frat buddy into a keg party. Illy didn’t know what to do. She stared at his forehead to avoid eye contact and racked her brain for one of the witty and mature greetings she and June had practiced. None were forthcoming.
“Uh…you coming in or what, Spacey Lacey?” Jay wiped at the spot on his forehead that Illy was staring at.
Had he really just called her Spacey Lacey? This was all wrong. “Actually, no. I was just checking to see if the meeting is on, which I guess it is, so I need to run back up to my place and grab my things. I’ll be back.” Illy spun around and jogged down the hallway. She knew jogging was a little ridiculous but she didn’t care. She needed to regroup.
As soon as she was in her apartment she dialed June’s number. No answer. She tried Margaret. No answer. Where were her friends in her moment of greatest need? She tried tapping her shoulders with her arms crossed, brain activation style. Breathe. Think. Tap.
What had just happened? She’d been feeling so confident, she loved the poem she’d written, and she was wearing great earthy earrings. How had one moment in Jay’s presence morphed her into this pathetic puddle of awkwardness? Why had he answered the door anyway? And why had their first real interaction involved her being called Spacey Lacey? Breathe. Think. Tap.
Illy tried not to feel betrayed by her friends’ silence at this moment. She realized that she already knew both June and Margaret were busy this evening and weren’t in fact involved in a grand conspiracy to leave Illy alone and helpless. She tried to imagine what they would say to her. Margaret would be proud that she was tapping her shoulders and would tell her to follow her dreams or something equally cheesy but inspiring. June would roll her eyes, tell her Jay was the one who should be feeling like an idiot and remind her that she looked gorgeous. And her mother, if Illy would call her in this moment, which she never would, would scold her for being so silly and tell her to march right back down there and make some friends. And to bring snacks. The truffles! Illy was relieved that she’d actually forgotten something, grabbed the plate from the fridge, and attempted Writers Club Entry Round Two. Armed with chocolate and her mother’s loving but stern voice ringing in her ears, she walked back down the hallway and knocked on the door one more time. She knew she could do this.
No one answered the door, so Illy stood there in the hallway a while, truffle plate balanced on her hand like a waitress. She never knew the right protocol for these moments. Should she assume they hadn’t heard her knock and try again a little louder? Or take the closed door as a hint that now was not a good time and someone would come answer as soon as their opening guided meditation was over? But if she just stood at the door, it would seem like she was lurking around and eavesdropping. She had unintentionally done that too many times at other people’s doors— thinking she was being polite by waiting before her second knock, while inside she could hear her neighbours shouting at each other about dishes and in-laws. One terrible time in university she’d even knocked at a classmate’s door only to realize with horror that he and his girlfriend were having sex just inside the front door of their condo. Although she’d known the only logical thing to do was to escape immediately and come back another time, she’d been frozen by the knowledge that she’d driven all the way across town to return the books she’d borrowed and didn’t know when she’d catch him at home again. So she’d stood there on the doorstep, knocking gently in three minute intervals. They never did hear her and she eventually gave up, leaving the books in the mailbox which she realized later she should have done from the beginning. She still cringed every time she thought of it.
“Chocolate delivery?” Illy spun around. Penny Loafer Danny was standing behind her as though waiting in line to get to the door. She wondered how long he’d been standing there.
“Oh, hi. Well, yeah, sort of. Just waiting for someone to answer the door.” Illy stared at the plate like an amateur candy ventriloquist.
“I think we can probably just go in.” He reached around her and pushed open the door. “After you, Bearer of Chocolates.” Illy smiled and walked in. It was a definite step up from Spacey Lacey.
As soon as she entered the living room, Illy began presenting the truffles around the circle like she was introducing a new boyfriend at a family gathering. They were a big hit and the plate was empty before Sally even began the meeting. Beaming from the success of her Make Friends Through Snacks strategy, and determined to not repeat the bean bag chair fiasco, Illy sat down on a metal folding chair between Dave and The Whistler. The confidence she felt from such a solid and elevated position was deflated a little by the fact that she couldn’t remember The Whistler’s name. She knew she should ask as soon as she sat down, but Dave and The Whistler were in the middle of a conversation about Monarch butterflies in the area, which Illy had always been fascinated by but never actually discussed with anyone. By the time the conversation had a lull in it, Illy knew she had passed the socially permissible window for asking someone’s name. She’d have to ask Sally sometime when The Whistler wasn’t around. It was her own inability to remember people’s names that had instigated her habit of introducing herself too many times. She wanted to make sure no one else was caught in the awkward position of not being able to ask her name, so she tended to over-introduce herself. June said it made her sound ridiculous, but she did it anyway out of compassion for her fellow conversationalists.
“Welcome back everyone.” Sally looked around the room with such tenderness that Illy couldn’t believe she’d ever accused her of razor-laced bananas. She vowed to block the entire kickboxing encounter from her memory forever. Although Goth Terrorist Sally definitely did make a more interesting character than Friendly Nurturer Sally. Maybe she could make them alter ego twins or something.
“First, thank you to Ilia for the delicious chocolates.” She paused for some scattered applause. Illy chewed a hangnail on her thumb. “Tonight I’m hoping we can go a little deeper and actually offer some suggestions or critique of each other’s writing. All offered in a helpful spirit, of course. We’re trying to get better here, not competing for the Pulitzer. Who wants to go first?”
As she scanned the room, mentally predicting who would be the keen first volunteer this week, Illy noticed Jay slouched on the couch beside Simon. She had been in the room for more than ten minutes and had totally forgotten to notice Jay. She wasn’t sure if she should be proud of herself for the attractive aloofness this must have conveyed, or ashamed for not being more aware of the man who could possibly be her life long partner. Jay was clearly also going for the aloof look, although it was verging on rude indifference. His chin was down on his chest and his legs were splayed out in a V that seemed to take over half the room. He didn’t appear to have heard Sally’s welcome. What had happened to the enthusiastic Frat Boy at the door? Illy willed herself to look away and focus on what Dave was saying. He had been the first volunteer and was already reading from the young adult novel he was writing about two cats journeying through Morocco.
“Quick, Rashid, follow me! I smell a fish market…”
Illy tried not to roll her eyes. She knew she should listen so that she could offer some helpful criticism but she just could not take animal fiction seriously. She’d had a boyfriend in high school who insisted that Watership Down was one of the great literary masterpieces of all time, but after three pages of talking rabbits she’d returned the book to him, insisting that The Velveteen Rabbit was the last and only talking animal book she could take seriously and she’d leave Watership Down for pre-teen boys. Her boyfriend had just glared at her and held the book to his chest like it was in fact his beloved pet bunny, and that was the beginning of the end of that relationship.
Dave finished his excerpt and the rest of the group began discussing the setting of his novel, debating whether Casablanca was too cliche and if he should risk using a lesser known city. Illy watched Jay who still hadn’t moved. He wasn’t even trying to engage in the conversation and looked like he might be asleep. He must have had a difficult night. Or maybe he was going through some emotional crisis that his societal conditioning didn’t allow him to express in a healthy way. Maybe he and his girlfriend had broken up. Illy wished she could show him that she cared by at least giving him a sympathetic smile or head nod, but she couldn’t very easily get his attention with his eyes closed. Maybe she could get up to use the bathroom and trip over his feet, just to determine if he really was sleeping.
She cleared her throat as an unassuming segue to getting up from the chair, and everyone turned to look at her. “Oh, I was just—” she paused, then leaned back. She may as well get this over with. “I was just going to read next if that’s okay.” Illy was worried that the Casablanca discussion hadn’t been over since she hadn’t been paying attention, but Dave had set down his notebook and was smiling at her so she figured it was safe to proceed. “I wrote a poem this time. Which I don’t usually do, and I know I’m not a good poet or anything, but well, it was just sort of for fun.” She was talking way too fast, which made her sound frantic and guilty, but she couldn’t slow down. “It doesn’t really have any profound meaning or anything, it was just, well, for fun.” Illy begged herself to stop saying “fun.” Also to breathe. Why was this all so difficult? She reached up to rub one of June’s earrings like a lucky rabbit’s foot, which made her smile and even take a breath. Jay still hadn’t moved, but everyone else was looking at her and nodding like little Grandmas at her piano recital, so she unfolded her paper and began to read. “Stars on velvet, crystal breaking. Just another Thursday, the underworld’s waking.” She looked up to make sure everyone wasn’t escaping for the bathroom. They were still there. She was doing it. She was reading a poem to a group of funky and interesting people and they were actually listening to her. She couldn’t wait to tell June.
Continue Reading: Chapter Eighteen