by Madison Bakalar
Sara first met Dillon at the Chinese restaurant down the block from her apartment. It was a quiet night, rainy. A Tuesday. The windows were greasy from customers perusing the daily specials pasted to the glass. She had seen him before on the street, in passing. He was sometimes on her train during rush hour, and they’d make eye contact over shoulders, around bags, Sara always the first to look away. They were the only ones in the dining room at Happy Garden, consumed with their own platters of food. After a few minutes, though, he walked over and introduced himself.
“Do you mind? I don’t like eating alone,” he explained, sitting down.
She didn’t know how to say no. “What makes you think I want company?”
“I can leave if you want,” Dillon said, but he made no move to get up and Sara didn’t protest.
Beneath his shirt, a sleeve of tattoos petered out. The lines of vivid blue and red seemed to pulsate in the light. Sara watched him line his snow peas around his plate. He smelled of bonfire, all smoke and sap and pine. She thought of the woods at night, marshmallow in her teeth, the sky riddled with stars. The nostalgia pricked the corners of her eyes. It was her first summer alone in a long time.
The back door of the restaurant banged against the trash cans outside, making her jump.
A man in a stained white apron pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He yelled an order to someone unseen and then leaned back against the doorframe. The smoke drifted into the room, pungent and sour.
They sat in silence for a while. Saucepans clattered in the kitchen. The telephone rang. Sara turned a page in her book, feigning concentration. She had no idea what the characters were doing on the page.
Dillon cleared his throat, leaned in. “I hate to tell you this,” he said, “but you made a mistake.”
“What do you mean?”
“The beef lo mein is by far the best thing on the menu.”
Sara hid her relief behind a napkin. “Sweet-and-sour chicken is a classic.”
“It may be a classic, but that doesn’t make it good,” he said.
“So, what—you’re a food critic?” His messenger bag slumped on the floor next to his chair, no pen or paper in sight.
“No, I just know what I like,” Dillon said, not breaking her gaze.
The line was so cheesy she nearly groaned.
Above the front door, the neon sign blinked the word OPEN in alternating rhythms, the glow flickering across the table between them. It was hard to guess his next move.
“Does your fiancé also like sweet-and-sour chicken?”
The smile on her face vanished. She covered the ring with her other hand so she wouldn’t think of Eli. The diamond was sharp against her palm. “This is just an old trick for when I’m out alone. Obviously it doesn’t work,” she said.
But he wouldn’t take the bait. “You had me fooled.”
Although she’d only eaten half her dinner, Sara pushed her plate away.
“Do you do this often?”
“What, eat Chinese?”
“No, harass strangers.”
When he laughed, it was hard not to join in. Hard not to let her guard down, even a little. His glasses kept sliding down his nose, which was crooked in a way that was endearing. Sara could picture the scenarios: a trip to bat that turned bloody; a fight at some bar with crushed peanut shells on the floor. She wanted to reach out and run her finger along that little knob of bone, feel the break.
“How’d you fuck up your nose?”
“Why’d you dye your hair?”
“I can tell.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Sure I can.”
Sara squinted at him—an impasse. It was a recent development, this new color. After she left the abortion clinic, she walked to the nearest CVS, bought two boxes of hair dye, and colored her blond hair a black so dark it looked purple. Her bathroom sink would be stained for weeks. She liked not recognizing herself in mirrors, doing double takes on the train when the lights flickered underground.
“Because I wanted to,” she said, “because I can.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.”
Sara leaned over to collect her things.
“It looks good,” he said, grabbing her hand. “But—you don’t have any eyebrows.”
It took her a moment to realize what he was saying, the hilarity of it. She covered her mouth, and the laughter swelled in her throat. Oh god, what a mistake. Her eyebrows—how could she have forgotten them? So blond they seemed to blend in with her pale skin. He was laughing now too, deep-bellied.
Outside, the rain had stopped. Under the streetlights, steam spiraled up from the hot asphalt.
“Wanna get out of here?”
“Yes,” she replied, not second-guessing, not painstakingly weighing the odds like she was wont to do. They spooned their leftovers into oyster pails and stole packets of soy sauce from the tray. When he pushed open the door, they were swathed in the humid July air.
“I live across the street,” he said, helping her jump the puddle of water that had collected by the curb. His glasses fogged up in the sudden heat, and when they reached the stoop, she took them off his face and rubbed the lenses with the tail of her blouse. She placed them carefully across the bridge of his nose, as if it might break again.
Inside the lobby, Sara studied the mailboxes, guessing which surname was his. They climbed the stairs, listening to the sounds of a guitar riffing in an apartment on the second floor.
“It’s a bit of a wreck,” he admitted before jamming his key into the lock, and it was. A bicycle by the front door, beer cans crumpled on windowsills, cassette tapes stacked by the loveseat, their ribbons hanging limp like spaghetti. Books on Indonesia splayed open in the kitchen, a fishbowl gone cloudy on a shelf. She curled up in the crook of the couch, watching as he shuffled around the apartment. He grabbed two beers from the fridge and then turned on the television and turned off the lamps. She pressed the cold bottle against her cheek.
Onscreen, a documentary about whales was playing. They sat for a while enraptured, watching as a volunteer threw pail after pail of water onto a beached whale, whose black eye blinked helplessly. Dillon told her that he used to live on the West Coast, working in a shack along the Pacific Coast Highway that rented out surfboards to passing tourists. And how, on a clear day, before the sun clipped the trees to the east, he’d spot the whales breaching, their tails slapping the water. One time, he counted at least sixty of them, their gray bodies bobbing in the roiling surf.
Dillon moved closer, his leg against her thigh, while she tried to place him in California. She imagined him with skin a rich brown, barefoot, his Boston accent mellowing out, the syllables loosening under the rows of palm trees that swayed high above his head.
“How long were you out there?”
“Almost a year. My brother went to college, and I just kept going west. I hitchhiked all the way across the country. Figured if I had the chance, why not take it? I wasn’t tied down to anything, anybody.” He looked at her when he said this, the blue of the ocean reflecting off his glasses, obscuring his eyes.
She hooked her fingers into the collar of his shirt and pulled him close. The documentary came to an end, the credits playing while images of whales swam across the screen, the room filling with a smooth, aquatic light.
When it was over, when they were lying breathless in each other’s arms, his fingers twined in her black hair, she began to cry, but he didn’t notice. Downstairs, his neighbor picked out the tune to an Oasis song. Dillon’s breathing slowed. His head lay heavy on her chest. She counted the water spots on the ceiling until the tears dried on her cheeks.
The baby was a mistake, but of course it was. She was twenty-two and on her own for the first time, her parents living in some sleepy Iowa town half a country away.
His name was Eli. He was an architect, working for a company in Cambridge that renovated old buildings. They’d known each other since college, when his hair was long and his wardrobe consisted solely of checkered shirts and cargo shorts and shoes made out of rope. He was always drawing. It was an impulsive tick. He’d sketch wherever they went, his notebook overflowing with images of bridges and churches in thin, black ink. On the bus, in the car at stoplights, on her forearm at a football game, his pen trailing parallel lines that bled into the pores of her skin. They were crazy about each other, and her mother smiled in that knowing way when she brought him home for Christmas.
After college, Eli moved to Massachusetts, and they tried the long-distance thing for a while. But Sara migrated east before the first frost, the streets of her Iowan town empty without him. She accepted a job as a math teacher at a school in Newton, filling her days with hexagons and linear diagrams and proofs.
And soon Eli began drawing the house they’d live in one day, pages and pages of imaginary bungalows, with turrets and sweeping front porches and gardens that tumbled out toward the curb. He’d mail them from Cambridge to her apartment—the old-fashioned way, she’d always joke. His penmanship was sloppy. Her address was a garbled swirl of letters, but the drawings were pristine.
Eli’s family was deeply religious. They went to church three times a week. Before Sara met Eli, she’d never been, not even for holidays. But she attended services with him because she thought that’s what he wanted. She found comfort beneath those vaulted ceilings, her finger following each Bible verse, singing along to the hymns. She took communion every week, but she never told Eli she didn’t believe.
On their third anniversary, the night he proposed, he reserved a table at an expensive French restaurant in Washington Square. He paid for two tickets to see the Boston Symphony. He rented a suit and tie. During intermission, he got up to use the restroom, and she surprised him in the hallway on his way back to his seat. They fucked in a utility closet, the sound of violins stealing beneath the door as the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” began.
A few weeks later, she told Eli the news. They were walking down a quiet tree-lined street, the brownstones all honey-hued from the afternoon light. She watched his face pale. He dropped her hand and walked a few yards away. And then, suddenly, he had other plans: A last-minute presentation that had slipped his mind. An errand to the print shop that had to be done before it closed. She couldn’t remember the lie. He was apologetic, out of breath, but he promised to call. Sara spent the rest of the afternoon riding the train, to and from the city, her knees pressed against her chest, trying not to cry.
For weeks after that, she didn’t see him. The drawings stopped. He claimed work was keeping him busy, that his cousins were in town. Finally, he admitted that he needed space. His guilt was palpable over the phone, a twinge of blame when he uttered her name. So, she dealt with it quietly, her roommate Morgan driving her to the clinic and back, and then she quit her job at the school in Newton.
After that first encounter, Sara and Dillon met at Happy Garden every Tuesday, pretending they were strangers. The owner rolled his eyes when he saw them walk in separately. Over the course of two months, they worked their way through the menu, swallowing moo goo gai pan and Szechuan bean curd with a ferocity that verged on obsession. They’d sit at different tables and critique the paper lanterns and the penny whistle music emanating from the speakers, claiming it sounded oddly Celtic. They’d stand by the fish tank, naming each guppy and dropping grains of rice into the gurgling water.
And they’d always wind up back at his place: in the living room, the bedroom, eating their leftovers naked on the comforter, fighting over which Stones record was the best.
Whenever Dillon asked her about herself, she always lied. It was innocent at first, this deception—the line between a fling and commitment a little too uncertain for the truth. She kept him at arm’s length, and then it became all too easy to continue the ruse, to make up this whole new life story without having lived it. Sara gave herself a sister, a stepdad. Indiana instead of Iowa. English instead of mathematics in college. She liked having her own secrets, holding them beneath her tongue like a Jolly Rancher until she could no longer contain them, until her whole mouth was red from the dye.
Eli used to analyze her every change in countenance, asking her constantly how she felt, what she was thinking of, if she was cold. It was exhausting. Dillon, on the other hand, would be indifferent one day—off the grid for hours on end, absorbed in his own thoughts, almost aloof— and so present the next that it felt like she was the only person in the world. She was a character in his periphery—close but not fully in focus, not fully there until, suddenly, she was. It was intoxicating. The apathy only ever crept in late at night, once the thrill of connection wore off, long after she went home.
August bled into September, and Sara found herself moving in with Dillon, the transition so seamless it felt like fate. They lugged her belongings up the hill and fit her life into the holes in his apartment.
Her roommate Morgan was perplexed, concerned even. She texted a few months later, hoping to catch up, but Sara ignored her, severing all ties from that time in her life.
Dillon was gone for most of the day, off in Chelsea doing construction work he despised. It was mindless labor: ripping out sinks and hurtling a sledgehammer into asbestos walls. Tearing down apartments that reeked of cat piss, and tearing up carpets that were so dry-rotted the material disintegrated in his hands. He’d come home with Band-Aids on his knuckles, his hair hoary from installing sheetrock. She’d sit on his lap and run a warm rag over his face, mopping up the grime that blackened his pores.
It was meant to be a part-time thing, something to pay the bills while he applied to school. He had dreams, beautiful ones. He wanted to do research, travel abroad, work in the fields of France with nothing but a pick and a spade and vineyards that stretched into the horizon. But he got sucked in. The money was good, and he contented himself with planning trips on the weekends: camping in the White Mountains when the leaves turned golden brown, a snow-covered cabin in Maine for a few days in early spring, Cape Cod before the summer crowds clogged the beaches.
Sara got a job at a florist shop in the South End, arranging bouquets of flowers and potting overpriced succulents in flimsy plastic cartons. Contenting herself with the geometry of chrysanthemums and measuring out triangles of cellophane. She came home with soil beneath her fingernails, her black hair tied back with twine. Every evening they’d neglect their potted plants on the windowsill to spite it all.
It was startling to discover that she was unrecognizable from the person she was last year. No church on Sundays, no weekly phone calls with Eli’s mother. She and Dillon avoided museums and art galleries, preferring amateur poets in dive bars and cookouts with his buddies from work. She had developed his habits, his taste for veal. She liked the smell of his cologne and the haphazard way in which he lived his life: bedsheets undone, crosswords half-finished on the table, his irascible mood when she won at cards. They wandered the city aimlessly, always keen on trying something new. Italian pastries in the North End, dark roast coffee in Maverick Square.
Yet they always wound up back at Happy Garden, the employees slipping them extra fortune cookies each time they came in. They thumbtacked the fortunes beside the front door. Dillon joked that their luck would never run out.
Eli found out where she was working through her old roommate and showed up on a slow afternoon on Halloween. He caught her unaware, when she had slipped into the back to steal a few bites of her lunch, and when she came out, she dropped her sandwich on the floor.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
When she picked it up, the bread was speckled with potting soil. A tongue of cheese wagged mockingly out from between the lettuce.
“Why haven’t you returned my calls?” His eyes roamed around the store, all along the tile floor, as if he half expected a baby to come crawling out from behind a fern.
“I got a new phone,” Sara said, tossing the ruined sandwich into the trash.
Eli leaned against the counter, gulping her in. “It’s so good to see you, Sara. I’ve missed you.”
He was no different from the last time she saw him. Same slipshod haircut, same nervous smile. He was wearing the tie she bought him the first Christmas they were together: midnight blue with white lines dissecting the fabric.
“You had a lot of time to think about it.”
Eli cleared his throat, ran a finger along his collar. He tried again: “You quit your teaching job. How come? I thought you loved your kids.”
She laughed at the irony of this. Sara hadn’t thought about her students in a long time. Only in dreams did they visit her, their faces all melding into smaller versions of Eli or herself, and she’d wake in a cold sweat and have to walk out onto the porch to calm her nerves.
“What happened?” he said, still waiting for an answer. “That isn’t like you at all.”
“It’s been a year, Eli. A lot of things change.”
He looked to the door as if hoping someone would walk in and dispel the tension. “Yeah, I guess they do,” he said, studying her face more closely. “You dyed your hair.” He reached out to touch it and, realizing his mistake, let his hand fall to the counter between them.
“I like it better this way.”
He watched her for a while as she moved around the shop, sweeping the floors. His agitation made her nervous. When he caught her by the arm, she shook him off and backed away.
“What do you want from me?”
“Nothing, I just—” His mouth hung open, uncertain. “When do you get off? There’s a coffee shop around the corner. I passed it when I got off the bus. I really think we should talk.”
“What’s there to say? I’m with someone else.”
This seemed to dismantle him, and she watched the hopeful glimmer vanish from his eyes. He drifted to the front of the shop.
“I have some of your things,” Eli said. “If you want them back, give me a call. My number’s still the same.”
He opened the door and then changed his mind, crossed the shop in a few strides, and shoved a piece of paper into her hand. “Or, if you’ve forgotten.”
Sara listened to his footsteps retreating on the sidewalk. She didn’t have anything left of his. All those drawings she burned on the roof of her old apartment building, the ashes catching in the wind.
She unfolded the paper, her fingers shaking. He’d drawn a sketch of a time machine in blue ink. His number and the words “I’m sorry” were scribbled at the bottom of the page.
That night, Dillon came home with a strained muscle in his back and a few broken ribs.
He had fallen from some scaffolding and was lucky to be alive. The fractures weren’t serious—hairline, he’d said, squeezing her knee. But he couldn’t work, at least not for a few weeks. He was optimistic, joking as he sat up in bed, his chest swaddled in cotton wraps to pad the bruising.
“When did it happen?” she asked, sitting cross-legged beside him.
“Why didn’t you call? You know I would’ve dropped everything.”
“I did,” Dillon said, “a few times. Your phone was off.”
Sara tugged the elastic out of her hair. It must have been when Eli was in the shop. His sudden appearance had left her out of sorts for the rest of the day. She had mopped the floors, cleaned the windows twice, and packaged all the orders for the next day. It was seven o’clock before she realized the time: two hours past closing. Outside, people were flitting past in Halloween costumes, heading to house parties or bars once the sun set.
“I’m so sorry. I should’ve been there.”
He reached for a bottle of pills on the bedside table and dry-swallowed a few white tablets. “Will you get me something to eat? I’m starving.”
“Are you mad at me?” she asked.
He shifted his weight, wincing. “How could I be? You’re here now. That’s all that matters.”
Sara ran across the street without a coat, the cold stinging her skin. On stoops and windowsills, pumpkins gawked at her, tealights flickering within. She ordered two bowls of wonton soup, a plate of beef lo mein, and extra egg rolls. The line was long, and the woman behind the counter was slow ringing her up. By the time she returned, Dillon was fast asleep, his glasses skewed on his face.
So, she ate in the living room in the dark, watching Nosferatu with the music on low. Orlok stared at her through the screen with wide, unblinking eyes, his body erupting in flames at daybreak.
All night, people stumbled drunkenly up the hill, shattering beer bottles in the street. She stretched out on the couch and placed her hands on her stomach, wondering what it would have been like to let something grow there, just beneath the skin. Wondering what it would have been like to care.
Over the next few weeks, Dillon became irritable, frustrated by his immobility and the pain shooting up his back. He snapped at her when she asked too many questions and when she didn’t ask enough. She started sleeping in the living room, giving him room to spread out on the bed. She took a second job at a bakery on Tremont so they could pay rent, waking up before sunrise to glaze donuts and pipe strawberry jam into their soft bellies. More than once, she was late after falling asleep on the train, the conductor yelling at her when they reached the end of the line.
When Dillon was let go from the construction company, he spent the next few nights roaring drunk. She poured the alcohol down the drain when he hobbled back to bed, but his friends always brought him more. His supply of OxyContin from the doctor never seemed to run out. He wasn’t getting better, was skipping physical therapy appointments. They spent a lonely Thanksgiving and Christmas together, Sara calling her folks on the twenty-fifth and telling them how much she wished she could be home. She put on a good face, but she cried in the shower every morning, the circles deep-set under her eyes.
In January, Sara met Eli on her day off. She was anxious and kept glancing over her shoulder, expecting Dillon to materialize and sucker punch him in the jaw.
Eli had been dropping in once a week at the florist shop, edging his way back into her life little by little.
They were playing a game: Who would be the first to mention the abortion? He apologized half a dozen times—but always in a vague and cryptic way. It was as if he thought that, by not talking about it, he could erase that part of their history entirely, begin anew. He complimented her, commiserated with her, used his charisma to weasel out a laugh every now and then. He talked about his future plans or ruminated on when they first got together, hoping to remind her of better days. The past year was a blank page, inconsequential, verging on taboo. His realignment of reality was maddening.
At the clinic, she used up half her savings to pay for the procedure and then bled for two weeks straight. When she called out of work for a few days, dizziness plaguing her, the principal at her school berated her over the phone. She didn’t know how to scrub out the memories and pretend they didn’t change her.
So, she was cautious around him, letting him do most of the talking. Over time, their conversations became easier, her anger wearing down in the face of his dogged persistence. What was left was just a dull kind of sadness—over what could have been—the kind that never went away.
When Eli asked again if he could meet her, she didn’t say no. And truthfully, she wasn’t sure what she was doing here. But Dillon’s brother was in town and had promised to keep an eye on him while she was gone. It was nice to get out of the apartment, if only for a few hours. He had become intolerable.
“I got a job in California,” Eli said. “It’s at a big firm in San Francisco. Ninety grand a year, health insurance, 401(k). I move in a month.”
“Sounds like a good gig.”
“It is, but I’d be leaving a lot behind.”
The silence hung like a guillotine blade between them. She could feel his gaze on her but refused to look up. Their coffees grew cold.
“I want you to come with me,” he finally said. “And before you say anything—yes, I know you’re with someone. But I still love you. I’m in love with you. I don’t see how we couldn’t make this work.”
She could think of one very big reason.
“And besides,” he added quickly. “You kept the ring.”
“Because you didn’t talk to me for a year, Eli. I assumed you didn’t want it back.”
He tore apart a packet of Equal, the grains of sugar spilling across the table. He couldn’t keep still. “I regret that every day,” he said.
Their breakfast came, but neither made a move to eat. Despite the recent snowstorm, the café was busy, the weekend crowd rambunctious and loud. The air was rich with the smell of blueberry scones fresh from the oven.
Eli was watching her, hopeful still. The pull of the familiar was hard to resist, but she knew how this would end.
He walked her back to the train station, the snow crunching underfoot. Eli put his arm around her, and she let him. She pressed her nose against his coat. They walked down into the warm mouth of the subway and stood on the steps. A group of college students brushed past, their voices echoing underground.
“I don’t want you to go,” she lied, her words almost inaudible when the next train came screeching through.
When he was back on his feet, Dillon started working at Happy Garden. No lifting bags of rice or the trash cans out back, but he was adept with a wok, his dumplings always perfectly crimped. He worked nights and Sara worked days, and suddenly they were hardly talking, seeking each other out only in sleep, their bodies yearning for warmth when snowflakes stuck to the glass.
She had been seeing Eli secretly for the past few weeks. She lied and told him that she’d broken up with Dillon. She lied and told him that she loved him still. He was putty in her hands, his enthusiasm so sincere it was painful to watch. To feel so loved again, so wanted by him, was a peculiar kind of hollow.
She’d been thinking of it a lot lately, the baby. It was always a girl. Sara imagined her with blond curls and Eli’s smile. She would’ve been christened in a snow-white dress in a church back in Iowa, Eli’s parents looking on from the front pew. She would’ve run through the fields behind her childhood home. Or maybe they would’ve stayed in Boston, settling in some suburb with a park and a farmer’s market that sold acorn squash and bouquets of eucalyptus on the weekends. Growing old together on the B line, carving their initials into the trees along the Charles.
Eli was out there now, somewhere in the darkness, waiting for her downtown so they could catch their red-eye to California. Her suitcase was still buried in the closet, her clothes folded in neat piles in the dresser. Sara sat on the couch and ignored his calls, drinking whiskey until her head hurt.
Across the street, the restaurant was crammed with people, the neon sign blinking up at her obscenely. Dillon was working a shift, spearing orders and calling out an endless tally of numbers. He wouldn’t get off until after midnight, after which he would walk down the hill toward Cleveland Circle, where a buddy of his tended bar on the weekends. He would throw darts and slink in around 2 a.m., smelling of beer and fried rice.
That afternoon, in passing, she and Dillon had gotten into a fight: a full-fledged, glass-thrown-against-the-wall quarrel. Over what, she can’t recall. She was out of breath from yelling, her heart racing. A neighbor called the cops. Fifteen minutes later, they stood in the lobby of the apartment and spoke quietly to the officer, aghast at themselves. She sat out on the balcony for the rest of the day, avoiding him. When Dillon left for work, he didn’t say goodbye.
A quarter past midnight, she walked over to Happy Garden, slipping on the icy sidewalk out front. They had decorated for Valentine’s Day, red paper hearts hanging from the ceiling tiles, just out of reach. The dining room was empty. A lone employee nudged a vacuum cleaner around the restaurant, his phone glowing in his hand. When he turned away from her, Sara darted across the carpet and into the kitchen, unseen.
The smell of hot oil hung heavy in the air. She spread her palms out over the grill and suspended them just above the surface, letting the heat warm her skin to the point of pain. The lights in the dining room went out. Through the alcove, she caught a glimpse of the other employee locking the front door.
Dillon was washing dishes in the back, up to his arms in suds. She heard the clang of a pot against the industrial sink, the sharp squeak when he twisted the faucets closed. He was probably drying his hands on his apron and checking the time. A plastic container filled with fortune cookies sat on the counter before her. She unwrapped them one by one, broke the cookies in half, and tugged out the skinny slips of paper.
“Jesus Christ,” Dillon breathed. “You scared the shit outta me.”
She didn’t turn toward him. Out on the street, a car revved up the hill.
“What’re you doing here?”
“I was thinking we needed some luck,” she said ruefully. “But these aren’t any good.”
Dillon sighed. He took off his apron and tossed it on the counter. The fortunes fluttered to the floor, sticking to the linoleum.
What she wanted was for them to box up some leftover Chinese, go back to their apartment, and chart a new path forward. She would tell him the truth for a change. And he would go to physical therapy, get a better job, go back to school if he wanted. They would whisper these promises to each other, their fight and the fallout a wrinkle easily smoothed.
Instead, he led her into the dining room. They sat against the aquarium, the thrum of it vibrating up her spine.
“You know, everything happened so fast,” he said. “Moving in together, getting hurt, losing my job. The past few months have been fucking awful.”
There was a dryness in her mouth she couldn’t explain, a pounding in her ears. Overhead, the fish mouthed o’s against the glass. She wanted to cup her hands into the water and drink.
“All of it?” The question came out as a whisper, and he didn’t hear.
“And it’s not anything you did,” Dillon continued. “I think it has a lot to do with timing and circumstance. I haven’t been able to give you what you need, and that’s not fair.”
Her palms were sweaty. She extricated them from his grasp and clutched her knees to her chest. She was on that train again, riding to and from the city.
“Please just say it.”
Dillon ran his hands through his hair. He inhaled deeply, loitering in the in-between. But then his face changed. Something was off: an acrid smell in the air, a quiet crackling.
He was on his feet before she had time to process what had happened.
Through the alcove, an orange tongue of fire licked the wall behind the stove and crawled up toward the exhaust vent. The fire extinguisher misplaced, Dillon picked up an oily hand towel, which spread the flames further.
Time moved languidly, as if she were underwater, as if she were seeing everything in slow motion. She was in the doorway, watching black smoke choke the ceiling tiles. She was pulling Dillon away from the stove, his shirtsleeves on fire. She was shoving open the back door, the heat like cotton in her throat. She was in the alleyway, across the street, on the curb a hundred yards away, crying.
The stars overhead disappeared. Far away, a fire engine wailed, its emergency lights blinding her when it turned the corner, blaring its horn. People were running out of their apartments, shouting inarticulate things. Dillon sat her down on the sidewalk and then ran back toward the restaurant. She lost sight of him in the crowd. The smell of charred wood and singed carpet clung to her hair. Someone knelt beside her, asking if she was all right, but she shrugged them off. She walked past the horde of gawkers and all the cars jammed on Beacon Street to the crest of the reservoir.
The Chinese restaurant lit up like a torch in the night. She stood in the snow and imagined the vats of sesame oil exploding, the green awning flaming up and melting the icicles that encrusted the roof. She imagined she’d get a call from Eli once he reached the West Coast, the message in her voicemail curt, his disappointment unmistakable. She imagined there’d come a time when the memory of those hours would rush back to her in detail. But for weeks afterward, if anyone asked, she couldn’t recall if Happy Garden had burned all night or all week.
Madison Bakalar is a writer and managing editor based out of Austin, TX. Most recently, she won the 2020 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. She also had two of her short stories published in Cellar Door, the oldest literary journal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her MFA in fiction from Emerson College, where she wrote “Happy Garden.” She spends her free time caring for kittens at the animal shelter, training to be a yoga teacher, and eating way too many tacos. She’s been writing (and dreaming of being a writer) since she was in middle school. If she knows a little less about photosynthesis, that’s why.