Illy sat at her desk and stared out the window. The balding lawyer with the orange house across the street was kneeling by the sidewalk, preparing his curbside garden for planting. Illy thought that a good gauge of the health and humanity of a neighbourhood was the number of gardens planted in the no man’s land between the sidewalk and the curb, and it was the reason she’d chosen this apartment building in the first place. Seeing people planting geraniums and basil in that otherwise scraggly stretch of weeds gave Illy a comforting sense of hope in the universe. She vowed to do the same someday, though she was pretty sure hers would never be as lovely as the lawyer’s. Maybe she could just plant Fern out there. She’d probably be happy for the fresh air and pollination opportunities.
Illy had called June and Margaret as soon as she’d walked in the door, drenched and glowing. She’d decided to skip the potential for another bus debacle and had walked home in the rain even though she knew it would ruin her sandals. Rain walking felt a lot more like an artsy movie moment when you weren’t carrying paper and worrying about your hair. And when you had a job. Or at least great job potential.
Her friends had both been loyally ecstatic for her and asked her to repeat all the things she’d said that had made Simon laugh, then agreed to meet for a celebratory coffee after she heard from him the next day. Feeling inspired by her personal victories, Illy had decided to do some writing. So she’d prepared a cup of chai and a plate of animal crackers, ignoring the committee of snobbish writers in her brain who were raising their eyebrows at this decision, and sat at her desk. The rain had stopped, though water still dripped from the branches, catching the light that was just starting to break through the grey blanket of clouds. She was still watching the gardening lawyer and wondering what garish and jubilant colour he’d paint his house next, when she saw Dave and Nancy walking down the sidewalk. Dave seemed to be lecturing Nancy for something and waving his hand around a lot. Nancy was lingering behind him, sniffing at the grass like a passive aggressive toddler. Dave tugged her leash and gestured some more. Illy felt a sympathetic affection for both of them. She wondered what their story was—how they’d met, how they spent their evenings. She realized she didn’t even know what kind of work Dave did. She’d always just imagined him as Nancy’s full-time partner.
Illy slid a new piece of paper into the typewriter and without stopping to think, or even sip her chai, she started typing. Theirs was an improbable union.
“I’m so sorry I have to run. The show is probably already starting and I promised Steve I wouldn’t be late.” Steve’s brother played keyboard in a techno funk band that no one had ever heard of but had just won some prestigious indie music award. Illy didn’t know that people who weren’t in eighties cover bands still played the keyboard , but June insisted the band was actually pretty good. “You know I’m so proud of you and I’d love nothing more than to sit and drink coffee with the two of you for hours, but duty calls. Do I look like I’m trying too hard?” June was wearing a black mini dress with knee high leather boots and a lime green scarf around her neck. Illy was continually awed at the surprises June pulled out of her closet.
“You look incredible. Very techno funky. Give Steve’s dad a kiss from me.” Illy suppressed her laughter. June still had never established a comfortable level of physical interaction with Steve’s parents and alternated between hugging and shaking hands, depending on her mood. She’d even tried the European cheek kiss with his mom one time in a moment of desperation. Illy had laughed at that image for days.
“Bye! Love love!’ June ducked out of the coffee shop. Life with her was a series of grand entrances and exits. Illy thought it was maybe the fact that she was always in a hurry that made June’s life seem so exciting. She made a mental note to test out the theory some time in her own life.
Margaret and Illy looked at each other over their coffee mugs. You always needed a moment of silent transition after June left, a breath or two to remind yourself you weren’t the one in a hurry.
Illy was about to comment on the comparative sex appeal of coffee versus tea when she noticed tears pooling in Margaret’s eyes. “Hey are you okay? What’s going on?” She’d never seen Margaret cry before. She wondered briefly if her purple mascara was waterproof, although thought there would be something rather poetic about metallic purple tear streaks.
“I’m depressed.” Margaret looked at Illy with a hint of fear, as though pleading with her not to burst out laughing or dash out of the coffee shop. Illy just waited. After years of emotional revelation on her own part, she was pretty aware of the most helpful responses. Silence was one of the best. “Not truly clinically depressed, I don’t think. But generally melancholy and discouraged, and well, depressed-ish.” Margaret traced her finger around the rim of her mug. “I hate my job. Louise treats me like a peasant in her fiefdom. I’ve spent four years answering phones and filing my nails and I’m nowhere nearer to my goals than when I started.”
Illy was surprised. She knew Margaret thought about being an editor, but she rarely complained about her job and Illy had assumed her editor dreams were just, well, dreams, and definitely for the distant future. She figured overall Margaret was content to put in her hours for a few years and play the mandolin in the evening. Illy silently asked Margaret for forgiveness, then handed her a napkin.
“Oh Margaret, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize-”
“No, I”m sorry.” Margaret dabbed the napkin around her eyes. “This is supposed to be your celebration and I’m ruining it. It’s just that seeing you so happy and actually heading somewhere with your life-”
Illy held up her hand. “Let’s remember that the job I just got is selling phones. I’m not exactly climbing any corporate or creative ladder here.” Illy had been so excited when Simon had called with the job offer that it had been nearly an hour before she thought about what the job actually was. A few weeks ago the news that she’d be working in a mall kiosk would have left her sobbing.
‘Well, no, but you have a plan. And the phones will help you continue your writing. I don’t have a plan. Just a lifetime of boring phone calls and lonely coffee breaks stretching out endlessly before me.” Margaret was shredding her napkin into tiny pieces and lining them up across the table. She wasn’t crying any more, bu the purple smudge around her eyes looked even sadder to Illy than her tears.
Illy knew that after all the amazing support and advice Margaret and June had given her over the last few weeks, she owed it to Margaret to do the same. But she couldn’t come up with a single idea or hopeful angle on the situation. Instead she just stared at the skinny white napkin line and felt tears welling up in her own eyes.
“That sucks.” It wasn’t exactly a brilliant therapist response, but it was the best she could do in the moment.
“Yep,” Margaret agreed. “It really sucks.”
They sat in silence for a while, sipping their coffee and shredding more napkins.
“So do you think it’s sexier if a man drinks coffee or tea?” Illy glanced up at Margaret across the table, her cheeks still streaked with tears. It wasn’t that she was dismissing Margaret’s dilemma. She just needed some time to think about it. She was pretty sure Margaret understood that, because she looked up and grinned.
“Definitely tea. Everyone drinks coffee, but it takes a man with courage to drink tea.” She scoped out the coffee shop. “Green or Earl Grey would be best. Though I’d settle for a chai guy if I had to.”
Illy sighed. She hoped Margaret wouldn’t have to settle at all. Not for a chai drinker or for a mediocre career. Illy had some serious thinking to do.
Continue Reading: Chapter Twenty-Four