by Jacqueline Guidry
A moon snail, facing imminent attack, slides its slimy foot over its shell, thwarting the likely predator, a starfish, which now cannot manage a sufficient grip over the slippery surface to pry open the intended prey. Thus is the moon snail saved.
Julia was drawn to biology by its array of strangely comforting facts, though for some years, she’d had little reason to call upon this information, her attention consumed by product breakdowns, employee statistics, and other data for the five dry cleaning stores she and her husband owned. “Hardly a chain,” she said as they drove home from the Marleys’ brunch where she’d overheard Nathan using the word.
He accelerated on the entry ramp, checked his side-view mirror before merging.
“Chain,” she repeated. “Makes you think of fast food joints around every corner.”
He maneuvered into the passing lane and was soon speeding past other traffic. “Three loops is a chain, a short one.” He swerved to the right to pull ahead of a Volvo that belonged in the slow lane. A grunt of annoyance, then, “We have five loops in our chain.”
“Chain,” she affirmed without further challenge, hoping to ease the pressure on the gas pedal; if anything, he drove faster. Asking him to slow down would prompt a defensive recital—he was a skilled driver (she knew that), he’d never been in so much as a fender bender (not a claim she could make), people driving too slowly caused more accidents than speeders (she remembered that article he’d forwarded). Objects along the interstate blurred, interspersed with occasional bright flashes, a discarded aluminum can, a yellow plastic trash bag, a pocket of purple wildflowers.
She counted exits to distract herself. He didn’t like her eyeing the speedometer. In the distance, the city’s skyline showed in sharp relief against dark clouds. If they were lucky, they’d arrive home before the downpour.
The sky had been nearly as overcast the day Julia announced her engagement. She and Marsha, friends since college, were sipping Malbec at a corner table at Vinny’s in the middle of a slow Tuesday afternoon. “You know what the experts say about women like us,” Marsha had said. “More likely to be struck by lightning than to marry.”
Julia wasn’t sure what she was supposed to make of this. Billie Holiday moaned over her man. Poor Billie. Julia frowned at the stereo speakers across the room. “You could marry tomorrow, if you wanted.”
Marsha, with her thick red hair, now in a short cut hugging her scalp, almond-colored eyes, and full lips in no need of medical assistance to look that way, was gorgeous without effort. Men fell in love with Marsha before introductions. That had never been Julia’s problem.
“Been there. Done that,” Marsha said, “and believe me, lightning is preferable.” She raised her arms, opened her hands in mock supplication. “Lightning gods, do with me what you will.”
Julia smiled and waited for the Marsha show to continue, but the performance was over for now.
“You’ll like being married.” She motioned the bartender for refills.
“I hope so.”
“Not much enthusiasm there.”
Before Julia could respond, the bartender was at the table, replacing empty glasses with filled ones. “More peanuts, ladies?” Though he used the plural, he looked only at Marsha. Even in the faded light of the bar, her skin glowed.
“My friend here’s getting married.”
“Married?” He glanced at Julia, surprised. Plain, straw-colored hair. Plain, brown eyes. A plain, plain face. Why would anyone choose her? But bartenders know better than to jeopardize their tips. “These are on the house, then. Vinny’s contribution to a future of wedded bliss.” He smirked, unable to pretend belief in his own saccharine toast. Still, Marsha raised her glass in a salute. In further honor of the occasion, the bartender replaced Billie with Louis Armstrong who sang of days gone fishing. Lucky Louis. Later, the women had contributed generously to the jar at the corner of the bar.
After pulling into the underground lot serving their condo, Nathan braked in front of the elevator instead of parking.
“Aren’t you coming in?” She tried not to sound hopeful. Neither of them had wanted children and, after nearly seven years of marriage, they were together more than was healthy. When she’d mentioned this and suggested occasional separate weekend holidays, he’d brooded for weeks.
“I want to check the numbers on that new detergent.” He reached for the cigarette he’d light as soon as she stepped out of the car. “We should be seeing some savings by now, if the sales rep knew what he was talking about.” He tamped the cigarette against the console. “More than half the time, you can’t trust a thing those people tell you.” Tamp, tamp. “They say whatever they think you want to hear. Figure you’ll never check, once the deal’s struck.”
“They don’t know you.” She clutched the door handle, knowing better than to leave in the middle of a conversation, despite her growing impatience.
“We’ve used their so-called marvelous product for four months and the results better be there or I’m canceling the contract first thing Monday, ripping a certain sales rep’s commission out of his overstuffed bank account.” He was gleeful, anticipating the rep’s fall as if it were a malevolent foe’s defeat. He sounded the same when he secured an Age of Empires rampart on his laptop.
“Maybe the detergent will be more amazing than promised.”
“That’s what I love about you, Jules. Always the optimist.” He looked down at the waiting cigarette, eager for the first inhale. “Must be the biology.”
This was his theory for any belief or behavior striking him as eccentric—must be that biology degree. She’d laughed politely the first few times he made the comment, but by now the joke was stale, every snippet of humor leached away, though it remained one of his go-to lines. Part of his attraction to her came from those glimpses she offered into another world. She understood that but also understood there was a limit to how many peculiarities her husband, dry cleaning magnate, was willing to tolerate.
Inside the condo, she stepped up to the expanse of glass forming the living room’s north wall. Clouds were darker but still no rain.
Daisy, Nathan’s white Persian, uncurled from her rug next to the fireplace, stretched.
“What’s up, pussycat?”
The cat arched her back, a ridge of hair stiffening along her spine.
“Same to you, I’m sure.”
Daisy was biding her time until Julia left and there’d be just the two of them again, man and cat, order restored.
Julia squatted, careful not to get within range of those claws, to repeat the warning she’d recited dozens of times, though only when Nathan wasn’t around. She felt silly, feuding with a cat, but also liked the secretive nature of the war she waged. “I’m not going anywhere,” she sing-songed. “I’m here to stay. Got that?”
Daisy hissed, a deep throaty sound she reserved for Julia, then sprawled on her rug and began licking one paw.
In the bedroom, Julia removed her shoes and stockings and stripped off her dress and slip, and bra and panties before walking back to the living room window. From her perch on the fourteenth floor, she saw part of downtown and, on clear days, across the river to the north end. Did anyone ever spy her, a naked woman peering down from a complex of expensive condos? A naked rich lady, surely better than a naked poor lady, a condition Julia was intent on avoiding. Not that she’d ever been destitute. Her mother had been frugal and, after Julia’s father died, scrimped, but never to the point of true deprivation. Her father had been struck by a delivery van while in a crosswalk, that last detail adding to the perplexing nature of his death. He’d been following the law, crossing in a walk, so why was he dead? From kindergarten through second, on her first day of school when students were asked to describe their families, Julia said, “My daddy’s dead.” Nothing more. That was always enough.
The first drops of rain smacked against the panes. Julia bent to touch her toes, repeated this thirty times. Primed by those first drops, the clouds released a barrage. Rain battered the glass. She did side stretches, sit-ups, jogged in place. With the darkness and the rain and the fourteen floors, she couldn’t imagine anyone seeing her. Not today.
After exercising to sweaty exhaustion, she collapsed on the carpet. The rain eased but gave no signs of stopping completely and its rhythmic pattering could lull her to sleep, let Nathan discover her naked in the living room, force him to consider whether his wife was the person he knew or an altogether different one. Julia was too careful to let that ever happen. She was ready to thwart discovery, always slipping into the bedroom and dressing quickly when she sensed him close by, in the building, maybe in the elevator, working his way to the condo.
A sea potato begins life swimming, tadpole-like, then devolves into adulthood when it abandons the freedom to meander, metamorphosing into a tubular creature fixed to the sea floor for the rest of its short life. With each pulsing wave, the sea potato sways, forever shocked by what it has become.
Julia closed her eyes, confident she could remain on the floor, undetected for another thirty or forty minutes. Nathan would check the detergent’s stats three or four times, not satisfied until he knew for certain whether he was being cheated.
Given their jobs at the time, they never should’ve met, much less married. What they had was one of those fluke coincidences altering life so completely, a person can’t remember where she’d been heading, the new path assuming an air of inevitability. Yet occasionally, she still missed the biology, which had anchored her life like nothing else.
When she’d entered the reception area at the school district’s central office, he’d stood, eager to please, thinking she was the receptionist returned from lunch and ready to assist him.
“Sorry,” she said. “I teach at Caston High. Biology.” She held out a hand, clearing his confusion as she introduced herself. “A curriculum meeting’s scheduled at two.” She glanced at the wall clock. “Guess I’m early.”
“Me too. Early, I mean.”
“Whenever we have these sessions, people around here wait until teachers start arriving before scurrying around to find a conference room, acting dumbfounded to see us. They remind me of my students—never early and often not on time.” She grimaced. “The district Pooh-Bahs are the ones scheduling these things, so tell me, why aren’t they ever ready for us?”
“That’s bureaucracy for you.” He sat again.
“You’re here for a job interview?”
“Sort of.” He explained he was waiting for his appointment with the director of facilities who awarded the yearly cleaning contracts for uniforms worn by maintenance personnel in every school in the district. Nathan wanted that contract. Really wanted it.
She glanced at the door, expecting others to show any minute.
“You like teaching?” He tilted his head toward her, looking curious. Later she’d wonder if he’d been genuinely interested or just juicing himself up for the interview to come.
“I’ve always liked biology.”
“Knowing stuff.” She stared at the wall clock, wondering where everyone was. Had she entered the wrong date on her calendar? She looked back at him before announcing, “Rats can tread water for three days straight.”
“No kidding,” he said.
“Woodpeckers, big ones, peck 12,000 times a day.”
“Gives a new meaning to knock me out.”
Was he making fun of her? If so, what of it? “An electric eel generates over 600 volts, enough to paralyze a horse.”
“No way. A freaking horse?”
“I swear.” She was rolling now. “There’s a frog smaller than a fly, a squid with an eye the size of a volleyball, a whale with a tongue that weighs as much as an elephant.” Julia expected the same oohs and ahs she got from students when she dropped one of these gems in class.
Instead, he asked, “Tell me, you really like your job?”
She considered, feeling no obligation to rush an answer. “Most days, it’s all right.” The description, even to her own ears, was too lukewarm to come from someone who enjoyed her work.
“Me, I love what I do.” He launched into a story of the small inheritance he received from a great-aunt, of how he’d always wanted to own a business, of how the dry cleaners came available at the right price. Years back, during college, he’d worked summers at a cleaners though not at that particular one. He’d run the presser, serviced customers at the front counter, done various odds and ends around the place. Not that he knew all there was to know about dry cleaning when he bought the business, just that he knew something. After owning the operation nearly three years, he knew a lot more.
The whole time he spoke, his fingers curled and uncurled. Julia had to force herself to look away from those hands, intrigued as she was by so much movement. “You’re fortunate,” she said. “To have found a job you really love.”
He folded his arms, a hand tucked under each armpit. “It’s the owning part I like,” he confessed. “The cleaners was just there. Available. Could’ve been a grocery store, a sandwich shop. Anything. All that mattered was when five o’clock rolled around, I had the key to the cash register.”
“You wouldn’t like teaching.”
“Teachers aren’t in charge of anything these days, not even of what we teach.” She pointed at the satchel holding her lesson plans and curriculum folder. “We’re all supposed to be on exactly the same page. Exactly.”
“Boring,” he said, stringing out both syllables.
“Tell me about it. We have these confabs to make sure no one’s deviating. What? You’re on page 232? We’re all supposed to be on 247. Hurry up, hurry up.” She clapped her hands in mocking imitation of an administrator’s demand for action. “Who cares if the class is really into mollusks, wants to explore everything with a shell? So what?” She pushed back a cuticle with her thumb. She needed a manicure but didn’t think he’d noticed.
“I haven’t told anybody this.” He scanned the room as if the office harbored recording equipment to catch visitors’ secrets. “I’ve got my eye on another cleaners. Oak and Seventh. You might’ve seen it, driving to school.”
She shook her head.
“It’s not far from Caston is why I thought you might’ve noticed.” He pushed closer to her. “Truth is, I have more than an eye on the place. Truth is, we sign papers tomorrow.”
Why did someone preface statements with “truth is” or similar expressions? Did that mean the rest of what they said was sprinkled with lies?
“I’ll have two then. Two stores.” He stood again and began pacing in the narrow area between the receptionist’s desk and the coffee table with its scattered assortment of education magazines no one ever read. “I’ll need a manager, someone on site to make sure things are running right. I’ll be in and out, but I can’t be two places at once.”
“No one can,” she agreed pleasantly.
He came to a sudden stop in front of her. “You,” he said.
“Me?” She pointed at her chest in a gesture easily taken for self-accusation.
“You’d be perfect. The perfect manager.” His enthusiasm rose with each word.
She protested, said she knew nothing about running a dry cleaners. Every objection only fueled his excitement.
“I’m a great judge of character,” he said, “and I know you’d like it.” He reached into a breast pocket for a business card. “Promise you’ll think about it.”
She studied the card, edges gilded to stand out wherever it was placed. “I have a teaching contract.”
“I’m not asking you to break your contract. What kind of businessperson would I be if I asked someone to break a contract? I’ll make do until you come on board in July or August.”
She hesitated before tucking the card in her wallet.
“So you’ll think about it? Consider the possibility?”
As the receptionist opened the door and stepped into the room, Julia nodded. No harm in thinking about possibilities.
Their first dates hadn’t felt noteworthy, nothing so significant as turning away from one life and reaching for another. Yet from the beginning, she appreciated how Nathan embraced his work. Just talking about dry cleaning delighted him. While teaching was acceptable most days, it never filled her with anticipation for what each hour might bring. Though he’d denied the significance of the business he owned, she speculated on whether the chemical-laden environment contributed to his fervor, whether she might pick up that on-edge quality herself. When they’d eaten at every decent restaurant in the city, vacationed in the Cayman Islands and San Francisco, and celebrated holidays together, marriage had seemed preordained.
All of that led to this rain-filled day, to naked exercising, to slowly losing, one by one, the bizarre facts she once shared with ninth graders who paid attention only when teachers offered something odder than their own behavior as bait. The Goliath Frog. Was its home Africa or Asia? The Alaskan Wood Frog. Able to revive itself after being frozen for how long? A week? A year? Once, she knew all this and much more. Biological facts she’d thought would be in her head forever were abandoning her just as she’d abandoned them. How could she have anticipated being master of fewer certainties than those freshmen? Soon, all she’d know would be the price of detergent and the seasonal variances of electricity bills at five dry cleaning stores.
A lobster replaces a lost eye with an antenna, a more valuable sense organ; tragedy transforms into triumph. A predator draws too close and the lobster jettisons a claw, diverting its foe and escaping, the sacrifice an insignificant price for survival.
Julia jumped up at the first ring, hurried to the bedroom to grab a robe before answering, as if the caller might see through the receiver and discover her naked on the other end of the line.
“I thought you’d want to know what was keeping me,” he said.
“You’ve been a while,” she said.
“Looks like the sales rep knew what he was talking about. Truth is, we’ve saved more than he promised.”
“Good.” Profit thrilled her husband like little else.
“I want to check the numbers again.”
“To be sure,” she said.
“I’ll be home by 6:30 or 7:00, and I’ll pick up Chinese on the way.”
“Record the golf game, why don’t you.”
She heard papers being shuffled. “Golf game,” she repeated. “Right.”
“Well, okay, then.” He hung up and surely must’ve missed her farewell.
Rain intensified again, the torrent obliterating everything in its path. Julia hugged the robe around her and slouched against the living room window. When was this storm playing itself out? The second ringing didn’t unsettle her as the first had. Did he want her to record another program?
“Marsha here.” Her voice was breathless, as if she’d also been exercising. “I have news. Something you should know.” She paused. “Julia?”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“You have news, something I should know,” she parroted.
“Are you alone?”
“Until 6:30 or 7:00.”
“Perfect. I’m coming right over.”
“What’s the big mystery?” Julia often found Marsha’s penchant for the dramatic entertaining but not today. “Just tell me.”
“In person.” Her voice was less breathless though still not normal. “Driving in this kind of weather doesn’t bother me either,” she said, cutting off any concern from Julia. “If you don’t mind, I’ll be there in a jiff.”
“Of course I don’t mind.” Why would she mind a visit from an old friend, someone who knew her as well as Marsha did? “Give me half an hour. I was about to step into the shower.”
She listened to the dial tone as she watched the rain before hanging up and heading to her bathroom. She really did need that shower. With the temperature knob twisted to the hottest tolerable setting, she brushed her hair and let the room steam up like a sauna before stepping into the stall. Needles of water pricked as she shampooed with generous handfuls of soap, followed by an equal amount of lavender conditioner. Nathan admonished her not to stint on what she wanted. He was a generous man, never stingy in sharing his bounty. They’d arrived, he liked to say. Julia understood this was intended to remind her of his accomplishments. Not that she was ever in need of reminders. She saw her past, in the main, too clearly some days, glimpsed hints of possible futures as clearly.
By the time Marsha rang from the parking garage, Julia was dressed and a kettle simmered on the stove.
“I hate having to say this.” Marsha combed fingers through her hair, now shoulder length and loose. “Believe me.”
They sat next to each other on the sofa, Julia mentally timing the teapot brewing on the coffee table.
“I’ve heard something. Something you should know.” Daisy, purring her friendliest welcome, rubbed up against Marsha’s foot. The cat, like the rest of the world, would’ve chosen Marsha.
Soon Julia would remove the tea ball, place it on the saucer next to the pot, serve her friend, her very good friend. Hadn’t they graduated from the same college? Belonged to the same sorority? Settled in the same city? Yes to all of that.
“It’s about Nathan.”
“I forgot the honey.” She hurried to the kitchen.
A person can take just so long to pour honey into a Waterford creamer. Julia took that time and longer before having no choice but to return to the living room.
“You might already know this,” she began eagerly.
Julia poured tea, handed over a cup and saucer.
Marsha absentmindedly added three demitasse spoons of honey. “This might be old news.” She took a single sip before returning cup and saucer to the table. “But you’ve never mentioned it and I thought if you knew, you would’ve said something.”
Julia held her cup, waited.
“Don’t ask me how this came up. I couldn’t say for sure. It was a Sertoma luncheon, one of those statewide affairs where people are thrown together willy-nilly. I called as soon as the speaker finished.” She paused, maybe expecting praise for such promptness, but Julia said nothing. “I was seated next to a woman from Springfield and we started talking about spot removal. Who knows why?”
Julia stirred her tea.
“Anyhow, this woman knew Nathan years ago and said he was married to someone else then. Did you know?” Now she didn’t bother pausing for a reaction. “Married with two boys. They’d be grown now or nearly so. Did you know Nathan’s a father? Two sons.”
“Nathan doesn’t like children.” The grandfather clock chimed five.
“The woman was positive.”
“And I know my husband, don’t I?” She smiled, but her lips were stiff, uncomfortable at any hint of sanctioning this conversation. “She mistook him for someone else. That’s all.”
“Still. Two children.” Marsha bent for her cup, changed her mind. “There’s more.”
“Isn’t there always?”
“This woman, I wrote her name and number for you.” She placed a sheet of notepad on the sofa, between the two of them. Sheridan Hills was printed in a neat black scroll across the top margin and below that, numbers and a name were scrawled in green ink. “Vanessa, this woman, said there were a couple of arrests. Knockdown drag-outs between Nathan and his wife, his other wife. He was hauled off a few times, though Vanessa didn’t think he spent any real jail time. In some parts of the country, a man can beat his wife senseless and people don’t think any the worse of him.”
“Nathan never beat anybody.” She kept stirring her tea, though the tiny dollop of honey had dissolved immediately.
“What else could it be?” Her eyebrows lifted, daring Julia to offer a more reasonable alternative. “Why else would he get picked up in a paddy wagon and trucked to jail?”
“Nathan has never lifted a finger against me, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I didn’t think so.” She lifted her hair from her neck then let it drop. “You would’ve said something.”
“Not a single finger.”
“I thought you should know is all.”
Julia walked to the window. Some time during the conversation, the rain had stopped. Now a thick fog rolled in from the river. From where she watched, the line of demarcation between fog and clear air was distinct, a line straight enough to have been measured and marked by mathematicians, not biologists, never known for exactitude, only for arresting trivia.
“I’m not trying to cause trouble.” Her voice was breathless again, as it had been on the phone.
“Before I married, you predicted I’d like it. You hadn’t, but thought I would.” The fog, progressing, reached the farthest of the downtown buildings. “Remember?”
“You were right.” She turned back to Marsha, still on the sofa, cup in hand. “I do.”
“I thought you should know is all. If it were me, I’d want to know.”
“Know what?” she asked brightly before rushing on. “We’ve a dinner engagement tonight. I should be getting ready.” She patted wet tendrils at the nape of her neck.
“Is that a hint?”
She smiled, this time with ease, and felt as she had when she’d decided to quit teaching, join the business, marry Nathan. The exhilaration of release.
“Call me next week.” Marsha rose. “We’ll grab lunch.”
“Sure,” she lied again, easily.
After Julia latched the door shut, she picked up the slip with its name and phone number and returned to stand at the window. If Marsha looked up right now, she’d see her. In a moment, the window and the entire building would be engulfed by fog, invisible to the whole world. Marsha better look fast or she’d miss Julia at the window, staring down at everything below her.
Nathan wasn’t arriving for over an hour. She crumpled the paper in her fist and decided she had time for a luxurious soak with scented bath salts and a glass of something. Cognac? She might wash her hair again, pour shampoo until each strand was individually lathered. As Nathan reminded, she could have anything she wanted. Anything at all.
In the kitchen, she poured that glass then dropped the balled up paper into the compactor and listened as it was crushed against everything else she’d already discarded.