Vomit again. Vomit the texture of ground beef and crushed broccoli. Wet and granular, it leaves the grit in her teeth and the acid burn in her throat. She hugs the toilet’s side with her hand and mentally thanks it for being cool and damp. Straining with the final gag, spitting up the bitterness, she waits for the lurching in her stomach to subside. At last, the tension in her muscles succumbs to exhaustion. She rests her head on the hard porcelain and closes her eyes.
Rain drizzles softly onto the city, warm with the night. Beads of water caress the sides and windows of buildings. Their whispers fall through darkness, filling the curves of the empty streets.
1:00 AM. He lies awake. Palms sweat. Another fantasy. In the dark, jagged snores—her side of the bed. Heaves himself up. Grunts. Bathroom, flips the switch. Fluorescent light-bulb, eyes hurting. Takes a piss. Stares in the mirror. The lines in his face. The gray hairs, looking grayer. Sinks into bed. An ache in his bones. Falls asleep. Breathes heavy.
The fluttered pulse of raindrops relaxes. Echoes of water rise and fall, rise and fall along brick and cement. The light is soft, and night eases into morning.
5:30 AM. He gets up early. Makes coffee. Drinks it alone at the table. TV drones, volume low: “Not feeling like the man you used to be? Boost your testosterone today . . .” Shuts off TV. Dresses quietly. Struggles with the tie. From the bedroom, her jagged snores. Grabs briefcase. Keys to the Mercedes. Shuts the door behind him.
The clink of dishes and the smell of cooking oil. In the backroom, she pulls the apron strings tight around her waist and tucks her hair neatly into a bun. She adjusts the nametag, feeling the dig of the letters: Emily. The early birds shuffle in, looking for their coffee and egg sandwiches. Graying men hunch over counters, wearing blazers or bright-orange safety vests. Wrinkled women sag in booths, reeking of perfume. Flipping open her notebook, she scribbles their orders. Wheat toast, fried egg, side of bacon. Coffee? Sure, make it black. (Calories: 330.)
6:00 AM. He orders a bagel. She’s there, serving a table. Her back to him. Black pants, tight on her hips. Swipes his card: $1.39. Hopes she’ll turn, face him. She doesn’t. He grips the bag. He exits, bell jingles. Looks over his shoulder.
A fog melts the morning in a delicate blue-gray. It licks the surfaces of cars and shops, stirring them from sleep.
8:00 AM. Client gives him hell. A bullshit insurance claim. Clears his throat. Lays it out in figures: No, sorry Mr. Sawyer, your policy can’t cover this claim. Client’s fist on the desk. A muscled arm, thick-haired. “What do you know, ya old hoot?” He leans back. Swivel chair groans. Removes glasses. Rubs eyes. Too early for this.
The tinkle of ice cubes and the cool perspiration on the glass. She refills the customer’s glass and goes to clear a litter of dishes. Amy the other waitress, full hair and lips, flirts with a man at the register. She sees his head cock in the direction of Amy’s curves. Steering away from them, she moves behind the counter, fidgeting a napkin over a ketchup stain on her polo.
Gray thaws into the glow of yellow, and the moist breath of fog pulls back.
The hiss of the stove. She takes an early lunch and assembles a turkey sandwich. Tomato, lettuce, American cheese, ciabatta bread. Side of fries. Mayonnaise and ketchup. (Calories: 570.) At the dishwasher, Dave lectures Sean, seventeen, and Josh, eighteen, about making sex jokes at the counters where customers can hear. Sean’s explanation is buried under giggles, “It just slipped out Dave.” Josh’s face strains with a suppressed smile. She eats silently, methodically.
11:00 AM. He files papers. Drinks coffee. Makes phone calls. Boss’s head in the cubicle. “Did you look over the Bingley file yet?” Yeah, just started it—a lie. Boss’s raised eyebrow, a hairy caterpillar. “Make sure it’s done, Jameson, I want a report on it tomorrow.” Boss leaves. He checks his e-mail. Browses the web.
Vomit again. Vomit smelling of grease, salt, and acidized mayonnaise. She keeps the water running in the sink as she kneels beside the toilet, covering the sound. The floor tiles are yellow with dirt and mold. The gush of water and her weak panting cram the employee bathroom. She pauses to spit up the bitterness. Sticking a thin finger back in her mouth, she lets the convulsion of the gag roll over her. More vomit, more foul smell.
The last of the rain sizzles in tiny moans, sucked up greedily by the rays of light.
12:00 PM. He files papers. Makes phone calls. Deletes browsing history. Spam e-mail: “The only ED tablet clinically proven to both work up to 36 hours and work in some men as fast as 15 minutes…” Checks the clock. Shuts off monitor. Bathroom stop. Takes a piss. Washes hands, fixes hair.
The whine of the door as she comes out. Amy is standing there, her foot tapping: “Jesus, how long does a girl have to wait to pee?” Sean, seventeen, says: “Don’t make her feel bad, when it’s a big one there’s no holding it back.” Josh, eighteen, makes a That’s-what-she-said crack. Everyone laughs, even though they think it’s stupid. She laughs too, full and loud and loose.
12:05 PM. At the urinal, Will from IT. Crooked grin, yellow teeth. “How ‘bout them Sox, Jamey-ol’-boy? Almost died watching that last inning, know what I mean? Hey, Jamey-ol’-boy, whatcha sprucin’ up for, got a date with the wife today?” He says nothing. Tap water on. Wet sausage fingers. Combs hair back. Straightens blazer. Struggles with the tie. Fluorescent light-bulb, gray hairs look grayer.
A sting of heat nuzzles against the traffic of on-foot commuters, heavy and feverish.
The chatter of the lunch crowd. Women stand in heels and dress shirts, low-cut to show the shine of their skin. Espresso, caesar salad. (Calories: 403.) Rowdy twenty-somethings cluster together, donning college gear or yoga pants. Chicken salad (Calories: 219), tuna melt (Calories: 350), french fries (Calories: 312), diet Coke (Calories: 1.3). Graying men sag in booths, wearing blazers and ties.
12:30 PM. He sinks into the booth. Feels its plushness. Watches her. Her slim figure. Her smooth face. Her name: Emily. She comes close. His heart beats wild.
Windows sweat with the press of humidity.
The rustle of a notebook and the click of a pen. She recognizes the lines in his face, and remembers to take her time: old eyes that wander from the menu, raspy voice that’s slow to work. His eyes are sharp on her, and with a sting she recalls the ketchup stain and the fray of hair falling from her bun. A mess, he thinks she’s a mess.
12:31 PM. She stands over him. Palms sweat. Her white polo, snug against her breasts. What can I get you?—her tingly voice. He grips his knee. A tremor in his hands. Chicken sandwich on rye, please. Tomato and lettuce okay?—scribbles in her notebook, a silky hand. Yes, that’d be fine. Anything else? Catches his breath. Anything else? No, nothing else. She’s gone. A sinking in his chest.
The clink of dishes in the backroom. She hangs the order, listening to Dave grumble “I love you” to his wife on the phone. Amy emerges from the bathroom in a mini dress, hair slick and lips glinting with red. She fidgets. Her face is seen, and she is asked if something is wrong. Nothing, she frowns, absolutely nothing.
The wet grip of heat releases slowly, and the streets sigh with a cool breeze.
2:00 PM. He files papers. Drinks coffee. Checks his e-mail. Client on the phone. Another bogus claim. Lays it out in figures. Will passes the cubicle. Jamey-ol’-boys. Bingley file under his finger. Circles it on his desk. Palms sweat. Another fantasy: her silky hands running through his hair.
After-school crowd, screaming kids and fussy parents. The clang of dishes and glass, the stench of cooking oil and grease. Her head throbs.
5:00 PM. Wife kisses his cheek. Asks about his day. About work. About dinner. No to dinner. Had a big lunch. Sinks into the couch. Grunts. His back to her. An ache in his bones. TV drones, volume low: “Because just one 200-milligram tablet a day can provide 24 hour relief for many with arthritis pain . . .”
Vomit. The color of mucus, bile, and little white pills. Spitting up the bitterness, she stands and flushes the toilet. She watches the diffuse of faint fluid as it spirals with water. On the bottom of the porcelain, it forms a pale stain. She yanks her shirt off. Flinging it into the sink, shivering in a bra, she runs water over a red smudge. (Calories: 5.) In the cold white of the bathroom, she washes silently, methodically.
A velvet darkness blankets the streets. Night rests heavily on the city, fading into sleep.
A native of New England, Emma Moser is an MFA candidate at Southern Connecticut State University and an editor to Noctua Review. In addition to running a blog, Antiquarian Desiderium, Emma has published extensively in multiple genres, appearing in Sweatpants & Coffee, Cheat River Review, and others Emma lives in North Carolina and is writing her first novel. She also listens to an abundance of Baroque music.
Sharon M. Paster is a visual artist and art teacher based in Fort Lee, New Jersey.