[Image: “Saint Lucy” by Jung Lee]
On Friday afternoon, Meredith meets her friend Marcie at a comfortable little diner halfway between their offices and proceeds with the usual business of catching up. They’re nearly finished with a course of burgers and fries when Marcie announces she has a confession to make. Meredith pauses, sets down the ketchup, and studies her friend carefully. Across from her sits a woman in her thirties who has a sleek haircut, stylish dress, and flashing wedding ring. Meredith observes these facts as a stranger might and braces herself for the kind of disclosure that seems likely to follow.
“You know what I realized this week?” Marcie asks. “Not only have I never done drugs of any kind in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever even been offered any.”
Meredith sits back in her chair and makes little huh sound in her throat. She tilts her head and tries to determine what the right response is. As far as confessions go, Marcie’s is far milder than what she’d been expecting, but it is that very innocuous quality that sets it apart. Anyone can have an affair or commit a murder; innocence is something else. Marcie’s upbringing was by no means puritanical, and it seems this fairly usual thing would have happened to her, as it happens to most everyone else. Meredith is genuinely surprised to discover that, in this way, her friend is less experienced than she is.
“Really?” Meredith asks. “Never? Not once? Not at a party? How is that possible?”
Marcie ducks her head, though they both know her show of embarrassment is just that: a show. Marcie knows some people might be scornful or dismissive of her confession, but she has also discovered something unique about herself, and she can’t fail to be pleased by that.
“Not that I can remember,” Marcie says. “I’ve been wracking my brain, and I honestly can’t think of one time when someone came up to me and asked if I wanted to try anything. I don’t know what that says about me.”
“I think it says a lot about you if you think that’s how it happens,” Meredith says with a laugh.
“How does it happen, though? I’m actually really curious.”
Meredith smiles. “You go to a party. People are having fun. They pull out some stuff, and they offer you some out of politeness. That’s it, really.”
“Well, maybe someday, I’ll go to the right party and it’ll happen to me,” Marcie says.
Meredith lifts her water. “To firsts,” she toasts.
They clink glasses and go on to discuss just what had led Marcie to this realization, which has something to do with the drug tests Marcie’s husband has to undergo at work. Meredith relates her own tame history of indulgence, and gradually, the confession itself drifts aside. It remains on Meredith’s mind, though. She’s glad to have heard Marcie’s confession and to be party to its strangeness. She thinks it’s the best thing, really, that people can still surprise you. But at the same time, she suspects this surprise may also simply indicate a too-narrow understanding of what’s possible in human existence.
Meredith briefly considers as well what confessions she might have to make, and what Marcie think of them in turn. But their lunch break draws to a close before Meredith can decide to say anything, and she instead bids Marcie farewell and promises to meet up again soon. Marcie goes back downtown to her vague and lucrative financial job, while Meredith heads uptown to her hospital. Back in her office, she checks her schedule for the afternoon and finds it to be fairly light, no trips to the psychiatric unit. That makes her happy, as she has evening plans she’d much rather focus on.
For a few hours, Meredith wanders the hospital’s seven floors, going wherever she’s needed. She works as a translator, a position she more or less fell into, but one she’s turned out to be quite good at. Even more unexpectedly, it’s a job that she enjoys. She likes the business of helping one person to become understood to another. Sometimes, in her more romantic moments, she thinks of herself as a person standing at a chasm, the point at which language fails, and being responsible for throwing words into the void as if they were lights, guideposts that allow a way to be found again. She would never tell anyone this, but the image allows her some private amusement.
Her last appointment takes her to the telemetry unit. Her patient there is an old woman who is scheduled for heart surgery and who does not want to be. She’d only agreed to the procedure because her daughter said she would come, but her daughter is missing and can’t be reached. The old woman is still opposed to surgery, furious over being abandoned, and worried about her daughter as well. Meredith sees all of this at a glance. Many of her patients are like this. They travel across the world because they have children or grandchildren who need them, but it is not their world, and they refuse to learn the ways of what will always be a foreign country to them. Language is one of their last ties to home, and far be it for them to relinquish it. Meredith regards the old woman with sympathy and respect. She sits down beside her and introduces herself.
The old woman’s eyes fly open in surprise and then narrow with suspicion. She thinks this is a trick, and she will not be taken in so easily. Meredith asks how she is, and the old woman launches into a litany of complaints about the doctors, the hospital, the loud machines, and the slippers she’s wearing. She continues for some time, and Meredith listens. The doctor at her side is impatient to get on with it, but Meredith is not here for her. She pays attention to what the old woman says, less to the rise and fall of this tonal language than to the need behind the words. She learns about what is bothering the old woman and uses that information to position the doctor to answer that need. It is a balancing act, a task that seems to engage every part of her. She dispenses technical terminology and reassurance and gradually, the old woman relents. Some trust has been established, and finally, the old woman leans back in bed and nods. Her jaw is set, but her toughness, rather than her querulousness, comes through. Meredith smiles and rises to leave. Now that they have reached the place where words are no longer needed, neither is she.
The old woman is taken away, and Meredith goes out into the hallway. She sighs and rubs the back of her neck. The old woman’s attending doctor comes out as well and stands beside her.
“You were good with her in there,” the doctor says.
It has taken some effort for the doctor to admit this, but Meredith gives the doctor a look she’s always giving doctors.
“Take good care of her,” she says.
She returns to her office and finishes her logs. It is just after 5:00 p.m., and she is free to go. All day, there has been a cheerful little countdown in the back of her mind leading to this moment. Very soon, she will go to a movie with a man she’s been seeing lately. It’s a simple and thrilling plan. It gives her purpose and buoyancy as she leaves the hospital and merges with the prolific Friday crowd. There were many years when this was not the case. She used to walk around in the evenings and look through the windows of restaurants and wonder how people could be so lucky. How was it that they were able to sit and talk to another person over a meal? It was the most out of reach of her fantasies, and now she’s had two such opportunities in one day. It’s almost too much to believe.
When she reaches the subway station, though, she searches her bag for her wallet and realizes with growing unease and irritation that it is not there. Her hope is that she took it out for lunch and neglected to put it back. The oversight, in addition to being an annoyance, is an aberration for her. She attributes it to her true preoccupation over seeing this man again, and allows herself a moment of intense and rueful exasperation before turning back.
The detour is minor, but it has the effect of separating her from the expected flow of her life. The faces she sees are ones she would have missed if she hadn’t made her mistake, and she finds herself glancing at them now as if they have some special significance. She is gripped by a feeling of observational expansion, an enlarged sense of possibility.
Back at the hospital, she quickly finds her wallet. It’s on her desk, exactly where she must have left it. She shakes her head at herself, places it in her bag, and departs again. She steps into the elevator, joining the two nurses already inside. They are whispering to each other in fierce, hushed tones, and Meredith gradually realizes they are discussing the recent death of a patient. There had been a young doctor, careless, impatient, who didn’t know what she was doing, and the patient had suffered for it. They agree on this fact, nodding to one another, almost seeming to savor the inevitable suffering of the ill and weak. Meredith thinks of her patient that afternoon, the old woman. There’s nothing to indicate the nurses are talking about her, but it is possible, and the mere possibility is poisonous.
Meredith exits the elevator without confirming the name of the patient in question. The setting sun is reflecting off the windows of the building across the street, and the light has transformed the lobby into a blinding tunnel. Before her eyes adjust, Meredith can see people only as shadows crossing back and forth against a luminous background. In this glow, she makes her way outside. She thinks a hospital is where people sometimes die. She and everyone else know that, and they all carry the sorrow of it as best they can. Her sadness retreats as she approaches the subway. Once there, she swipes her card smoothly, almost with a sense of accomplishment, and descends to where the trains are waiting. The one she needs is on the platform, and she rushes to board. The doors beep close behind her.
The car is filled with its usual array of riders, but Meredith studies them with heightened interest, still full of the odd sense that her unintended detour may allow her to see something special. Her gaze wanders and then settles on three boys sitting across from her. They are young, high school age perhaps, and give off a strong sense of visitation. Meredith wouldn’t be surprised if this were their first time in the city. They have the aura of people pretending to know where they’re going, and she finds that rather charming. They could be a display in an exhibit on what it means to be young.
In terms of appearance, the boys are all very different. The boy on the left is by far the plainest and most animated. He has ungraceful features, either too large or too small, and wears gold-rimmed glasses that lend his face some much-needed sparkle, never mind that they are hopelessly out-of-date and do not suit him in the least. As he talks, his voice rises and falls in jagged peaks, and he gestures widely as though he has no other way of commanding attention. He has a hopelessness about him, a clownish appeal.
“No,” he’s saying, “you don’t get it. We were in London. We were on vacation. This family used to live across the street from us, but they moved away, and we hadn’t seen them in five years. And they just happened to be on the same platform as us. How crazy is that?”
“Really crazy,” the second boy says in an indulgent drawl.
This boy is of another order entirely. He has a princely quality about him; his hair is brushed back from his forehead in a careful wave and his clothing serves to emphasize the slim lines of his body. It is this boy the first is clearly exerting himself toward, and the second boy takes such devotion as his due. They agree on the necessity of this, at least for the moment.
It’s the third boy who has doubts. He regards his two friends from under hooded eyes, taking in their behavior, calibrating his own unease, weighing whether he should speak. He decides to let it go, but his eyes continue to dart around, taking in what there is to see. Meredith has the curious impression that life will be difficult for this boy. Something in her flows out toward him. She wants to know where he’ll go and what he’ll make of his life. She’d like to meet him years later and say, I saw you on the subway once, what has your life been like since then? A faint and misplaced ache starts in her chest. What does it mean to care instantly and so much for a stranger’s future happiness? This recognition is itself careless and impossible. She will never know more about him than she does in this moment. He will go and she will go, and in the end, this is how one life touches another.
Meredith reaches her station and exits. When she’s back on the street, she begins to ponder in a more serious way what she will say to the man when she sees him. Marcie’s confession is on her mind, and she entertains the thought of what he might think about it. He always seems to have some unique take, some particular and personal perspective that will puzzle her and please her. He has that kind of brain. It leaps and bounds, roaming and romping over territories unimagined to her. More than anyone she’s ever known, she wants to know all the workings of his mind.
She passes a mirror on display in a shop widow, and the three boys seem to be looking out at her. She had noticed them, but they had not noticed her. They are oblivious with youth, of course, but if they had seen her, what would they have seen? A nondescript woman, perfectly ordinary, just like everyone else. She’d be a colossal bore to them and nothing more.
And if she had told them Marcie’s confession, what would they have thought? They might have been scornful, dismissive of this lack of experience, unaware that a lack of experience is also an experience. What is wrong with her? they might ask. It would be a chance to count themselves superior, as comparative near-experts in the art, the illicit. Meredith can imagine all of this, but she can’t quite imagine what they would think of her own confession. What would they think if they heard that a woman in her thirties who has never been offered drugs of any kind has recently gone to lunch with another woman in her thirties who has yet to manage the act of having sex with anyone?
There. Now that is her secret. Meredith almost laughs, because that is what it is, isn’t it? It’s a joke, a punch line, rich fodder for raunchy comedies. It’s all of that, and it’s her life.
There are reasons for it, of course, none religious, and none perhaps sufficient to explain the long loneliness of her life. She is not so disinterested and not so unattractive that people would naturally assume such inadequacies for her. But there had been other difficulties. There was shyness, an awkward air, a permeating quiet that somehow formed an unbreakable barrier between herself and others. She doesn’t know why this is, why these flaws were unforgivable when others were not, but it was her experience that they were.
All the same, they were not insurmountable. As she grew older, she cared less about it. She made some friends, Marcie among them, found a job she liked that involved, of all things, the ability to speak for others. Her fears eased into a kind of tentative acceptance. Some of the anxious embarrassment and despair remained, of course, but she no longer thought of herself as a person inherently lacking. It was a fact, nothing more. It lived alongside her job, her friendships, her joys and sorrows; a part, not a whole. These days, despite nervous laughter and unavoidable blush, it does not discomfort her as much as it had in the past.
And then, somehow, she had met this man. He had spoken to her, and it had seemed to her that the world had finally opened. Something in her, long clenched, loosened and fell away. Since meeting him, there are days when she will stand still on the streets of New York, caught up in the memory of something he has said. She will smile, in public, at nothing, because of him. It is an unseemly display, but one she can’t help. That this could have happened, to her of all people, or to anyone at all, much less to everyone at some point in their lives, seems to her out of every improbable thing to be the most improbable of all.
She is almost at the theater now, but as she crosses the street, she hears the piercing screech of a car’s brakes. She falls back immediately, her heart leaping. She has been afraid of accidents recently, beset by the notion that her recent happiness is the kind the universe is often unkind to. But she is careful and deliberate, and she waits for the car to pass because she has waited quite long enough. She continues on her way and the theater soon comes into view. She does not see the man, but she trusts that he will be there. She thinks she will tell him about Marcie, but she doubts she will reveal her own secret. It’s possible she should, but it’s the last thing in the world that seems to be truly her own. In any case, it may no longer be relevant in the near future. As she arrives at the door, she spares a moment to wonder what revelations of his own this man might have. She is curious but not worried. She is sure they will be neither greater nor less than hers. She amuses herself with the possibility that he may even have one that exactly matches her own.
Franny Zhang‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Solstice Literary Magazine, Mount Hope Magazine, Five on the Fifth, and The Avalon Literary Review. She is Content Lead at a medical-legal nonprofit and Managing Editor at Solstice. In addition to her short stories, she is writing a libretto based on several Chekhov stories for a chamber opera. She has an MFA from Columbia University and a BA in Psychobiology from Swarthmore College.