The girl wouldn’t commit to a coat.
Her fingers skittered across the rows of dress coats, each one a miniature version of the latest in women’s clothing. Pausing over a leopard print coat with a wide waist belt, she fingered the woolen fabric. But her eyes had already moved around the corner, preparing to head down yet another row of merchandise.
Nell felt thwarted by what was clearly a rare act of generosity. The cold realization that she hadn’t heard from her best friend Lucy in over six weeks prompted a long, hastily written e-mail. After detailing the absurd number of hours she had been had been spending at the office, Nell apologized profusely for getting out of touch (even though it had been Lucy who had cancelled their last lunch date). Later Nell wondered why she had been so apologetic. The interval from when she had last seen Lucy was not actually anything out of the ordinary; Nell and Lucy’s weekly lunches had long ago turned bi-monthly and then monthly with Lucy cancelling frequently in favor of doctor’s appointments, dance classes and play dates. Nell knew that mandatory employee lunches, conferences and most recently “Body Boot Camp” forced her to cancel on Lucy almost as often, but these were obligations that she simply could not get out of.
Nell ended the e-mail by insisting that they get together some Saturday afternoon so that she could buy Edie a dress coat. Since Edie had started going to a Jewish school, she tended not to have as play dates on Saturdays and she was unlikely to have a doctor’s appointment either. Nell would have to go to the earlier class of “Body Boot Camp,” which was too bad because the instructor wasn’t as rigorous, but that would have to be fine for one day. Five days later, when Lucy finally replied, she wrote that she was unsure if Edie needed a dress coat—wasn’t her pink parka perfectly good enough? But Nell remained insistent and after two-and-a-half more weeks, they finally settled on a Saturday afternoon to take Edie to the mall.
After treating them all to mango smoothies, Nell ushered Edie into the girls’ section of Nordstrom and told her that she could have any pea coat that she wanted. Edie paused, intent on capturing the last dregs of her smoothie with her straw. Finally satisfied, her eyes scanned the store for so long that Nell found herself counting the number of freckles splashed between her earlobe and her lower neck.
“But none of them are green?”
Nell had been confused, but Lucy had known instantly what she was talking about.
“Pea coats don’t have to be green hunny, they are just a style. It means it’s going to be fancier looking than your pink parka. Isn’t it nice that Nelly wants to buy one for you?”
Nell considered adding that pea coats were traditionally dark blue and worn in the navy even though now the term referred more generally to a woman’s dress coat. But she caught herself, sure that such information would not interest Edie in the least. Was it normal for a six year-old to still think pea coats were a food?
An hour-and-half later, the three of them were still in the same girls’ section, still looking at the same four rows of coats. Something about the look on Edie’s face suggested that she was not actually looking at the coats—she seemed much more interested in the physical sensation of the fabric running through her fingertips.
Nell glanced at Lucy, wondering if she cared at all how long this was taking, yet Lucy was buried deep behind iPhone, seemingly oblivious to the time-cost of her daughter’s indecisiveness.
A series of stray strands formed a copper halo around Lucy’s head. Perhaps it was just the fluorescent lighting of the store, but it seemed as if, in the nine weeks they had been apart, Lucy’s hair had grown a little less red. Nell’s eyes moved to Lucy’s angular face, across her full chest, and down her torso to a single roll of fat that lingered uncomfortably above the waist of her jeans. After four years of endless meals in the dining-hall, daily visits to the gym, and drunken dance parties, Nell had learned the details of Lucy’s body better than her own. But now, now something felt strange.
In the years that passed since college, Lucy and Nell’s lives diverged in many fundamental ways: Lucy married, had a baby, and quit her job—not in that order. Meanwhile Nell had surpassed the 60-hour work week, tried dating women after giving up on men, and found that her biological clock did in fact exist —not in that order. But unlike many of her co-workers who had reconciled themselves to the fact that they had lost touch with their friends from college, Nell had always prided herself in the fact that she and Lucy had stayed just as close.
With a lack of anything better to do, Nell grabbed her own iPhone, but quickly stuffed it into the pocket of her purse after the flashing screen read “New Txt Message: Mom.”
Back in her apartment with the same series of twenties intended for Edie’s coat folded in her wallet, Nell felt inexplicably exhausted. She tried to remember what she was supposed to do that day—she knew there was something. Many things in fact.
Who names their kid Edith? At least she goes by Edie. But Edith? Really Lucy? Really?
She checked her phone. “2 New Txt Messages: Mom.”
Consumed by a sudden wave of hunger, Nell tossed the phone on the couch and began to open the IKEA cabinets of the kitchen. Her eyes scanned over the bag of black beans, the cans of “SlimFast,” the box of “Kashi Go Lean.”
She opened the fridge—Diet Coke, spinach, and tomato juice.
Then the cabinets above the sink—a can of chickpeas, a can of black olives, a can of kidney beans.
After checking the fridge once more, she quickly turned back to the first cabinet, pushed the “Kashi Go Lean” aside, and grabbed the bag of tortilla chips that was hidden shamefully behind it.
Biting into the first chip, Nell leaned back on the counter, enjoying the rush of salt. What was the use of hiding something if she herself had hid it? One of Nell’s old roommates used to eat her food and then put it back somewhere else. Thank god she finally had earned enough to afford her own place.
Moments later, guilt and a mild stomach-ache had replaced the chips. Nell opened the fridge again, vaguely hoping that there was something in there that would make it better. She settled on a few swigs of tomato juice, consoling herself that at least she was in-taking vegetables.
Vegetables never used to be a priority, but in college chips and salsa were viewed as a key food group, especially when secrets needed to be told. Sitting cross-legged on the dorm-room floor, Nell remembered that they had eaten more then three-quarters of the bag before Lucy finally put down the jar of salsa.
“I think I’m pregnant.”
Nell was so tired. For a long moment she stood motionless as her to-do list warred with her deep desire to take a nap. Finally she decided on checking her e-mail.
The sleek, silver body of her MacBook pressed into her narrow torso as Nell shifted aside some cushions in order to lie back on the couch. She noted that her abs seemed to be somewhat firmer, glad that “Body Boot Camp” was paying off given its price tag. Just as she was logging into her work account, she was struck by a strong urge to get the awful taste of tomato juice out of her mouth. Running into the kitchen, she shoved aside the black beans, and wrapped her fingers around a slim box of Trident Spearmint. Back on the couch she quickly stuffed two sticks into her mouth and turned back to her e-mail. Her inbox was open only long enough for her to realize that it was entirely full of unread messages before an insistent tone turned her attention to a small blue “f” in the corner of her screen. A quick click on the tab revealed the blue and white background of facebook. No friend requests, no new messages, no wall-to-walls. The tone must have been from an event invitation to her coworker, and sort-of friend Cindy’s baby shower.
Nell wondered why Cindy, who was always so impeccably dressed in the office, would choose such an unflattering photo. A huge Chicago Cubs sweatshirt stretched over her already gigantic stomach, making her look, if possible, even bigger. She wore grey sweatpants and her highlighted blond hair hung in a low ponytail under a boy’s ski hat. Her husband—who was also blond and who looked liked he enjoyed nothing better than watching the Cubs on TV with a six-pack—had his arm around her. Yet his body was slightly tilted in the other direction, almost as if he didn’t want to get too close.
Nell quickly clicked through Cindy’s latest photos, trying to see if they were similarly unappealing. Yet they were the same Cindy she was used to: hair straightened, face perfectly made up, wearing some brand-name outfit that almost matched too perfectly, but not quite. Perhaps just because she was having a baby, she thought she didn’t have to care? Nell promised herself that when she had a baby, she would still care. But then she reminded herself that such thoughts were largely inconsequential. “When” had too long ago turned to a big “If.”
Lucy was on chat. It seemed she was on chat all the time these days. Lucy claimed that being a stay-at-home mom was utterly exhausting and from the looks of it Nell was in vehement agreement. Yet Lucy still seemed to have vast amounts of time to spend online. Nell ran her cursor over her name, trying to formulate in her head a message that would bring some sort of satisfying conclusion to the day’s shopping trip. But then the little green ball next to Lucy’s name was replaced by a light gray sentence, “your message will be sent straight to Lucy’s phone.” Nell exed out of facebook. Whatever she might think to say could not possibly be that immediate.
Nell stared at the gloomy New York City skyline outside her window. The tip of a tall, thin office building stuck out from behind a slightly smaller, more rectangular one. She thought it looked like some sort of hat.
A sudden vibration beneath her sparked momentary confusion, before she quickly realized that it was just her phone.
“3 New Txt Messages: Mom.”
Nell reached overhead and hid the phone behind the lamp. She then read every single e-mail in her inbox, but failed to reply to a single one.
“I’ll just read the New York Times then,” she said out loud. Often when Nell felt like she was not getting anything done, she viewed reading the news as a justifiable use of her time. She felt distinct pride at being caught up on current events and especially enjoyed making informed comments to her older, male co-workers. Yet in truth it was the opinion’s pieces that actually interested her. Her eyes skimmed over an article titled “One’s a Crowd.” The subtitle read: “As Societies get richer, more people choose to live alone. But surprisingly, they become more social.” Nell read on.
“The mere thought of living alone once sparked anxiety, dread and visions of loneliness. But those images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space. Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization—all prized aspects of contemporary life.”
Nell, who was beginning to think this was a pretty good article, read on.
“In fact, living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities. Compared to their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures.”
Nell scrolled back up to check the author of the article— Eric Klinenberg. In truth it really was not all that well written. When the article moved into a discussion of divorcees and widows living alone, the words began to blur. She did not remember shutting the computer and hastily dropping it on the carpet. She did not remember falling asleep.
The blue numbers on the digital clock blinked oppressively at her. It was dark. Fragments of a dream lingered uncomfortably on her consciousness. She lay on the couch, paralyzed as confusion gave way to an onslaught of thoughts, clouding her brain.
Startled by the realization that it was 6:51—22 minutes had already gone by—Nell vowed to get up when the clock read 6:55. But then it was 7:03. The minutes seemed to be blinking by at the speed of seconds. At 7:11, Nell finally heaved herself up on her elbows.
Groaning loudly, she fumbled for the light switch. Her eyes rested on her phone. “4 New Txt Messages: Mom.” Without thinking, she quickly clicked the miniature envelopes open.
The first read: “Did u send the thanku note?”
The second: “Wht r u doing 2nite?”
The third: “How r u?”
The fourth: “Call me.”
She was not going to call her. Her mother would ask if she was going out. Specifically she would want to know if she was going out with any men. She would not say it in those exact words. She would say, “are you going out with any ‘special friends?’
Shifting aside the dresses that were now too big, Nell finally found the Parent Trap in a box labeled “past,” among three other boxes in her closet labeled “bedding,” “dishes,” and “future.” Nell had considered watching the 1961 version on “on Demand,” but quickly dismissed the idea. She knew old movies were more cultured, but frankly she had never liked them. Anyways, something about Edie’s freckles had made her think about Lindsay Lohan. Not the drug addict with drippy mascara and a bad fake tan, but the bright-eyed twelve year-old, with envious red hair and an adorable smile.
As the opening scene revealed Haley—the twin from California—struggling with her camp duffle, Nell felt a sudden sadness for this girl and the woman she would become. Ever since she could remember, Nell had always been inordinately jealous of child prodigies. But one too many stories like Lindsay Lohan’s had complicated that jealousy.
As the film progressed, Nell pushed all images of overdosed pop stars aside and let herself fully sink into what was admittedly a deliciously cheesy story. After the scene where the twins are first shocked by their uncanny resemblance, Nell was struck by a sudden memory of the first time she’d seen this movie with Lucy. As the credits rolled on the screen, Lucy had grown visibly concerned.
“Where’s the other girl who plays the twin?”
Nell had laughed, not surprised, but always moved by Lucy’s naiveté. A brilliant physics student, Lucy brain seemed selective about what concepts it liked to master.
“There’s only one of them. They split the screen for the shots when you see both of their faces. Or they use another actor if you can’t see both faces, like if they’re hugging or something.”
The two of them had sat silently for a long time afterward, Nell absorbing Lucy’s heavy disappointment. As a young girl, Nell used to pretend she had a twin who looked exactly like her. No one, not even their parents, could tell them apart. There was something distinctly comforting about the notion that there were two of you with which to experience the world.
Three-quarters of the way through the movie, Nell paused it to get a sip of water. On the way back to the couch, she lingered by the window, enjoying the gentle click of the ice cubes against the tall glass. Outside it was snowing and the buildings had sunk indiscernibly into the hazy shadows. A single street lamp glowed orange.
The movie will end with a happy family reunited. The twins will admit they switched, chase away the evil fiancée, and get their parents—Nick and Lizzie—back together. There would be a long kiss if she remembered correctly. She should probably just turn it off now. Avoid the sourness of predictability. Yet back on the couch, she wrapped herself in a fleece blanket, and immediately turned the movie back on.
Nick: “I made the mistake of not coming after you once Lizzie. I’m not going to do that again no matter how brave you are.”
Lizzie: “And I suppose you just expect me to go weak at the knees and fall into your arms and cry hysterically…c’mon Nick what do you expect? To live happily-ever-after?”
Nick: “Yes, to all the above. Except you don’t have to cry hysterically.”
Lizzie: “Oh yes I do.”
The kiss was fantastic. Rather wet and intimate, especially for a kids movie. As the music swelled, Nell quickly brushed a tear from her eye. The kiss shifted to a final wedding scene, and Nell was forced to wipe her eyes again. And again. Soon she was full out crying, not just a lot of tears, but loud, obtrusive sobs.
The sound came from deep inside of her. It was almost unrecognizable as something that could be emitted from a human. Nell couldn’t tell whether she was actually upset, or just shocked by her own reaction. She truly did not remember the last time she had cried.
Suddenly she stopped. Her whole body tensed up. She felt sure someone was watching her. She wrapped the blanket more tightly around and her whole body shook once. Then she was crying again.
A heavy bout of shame gave way to a memory of the last time she had cried this hard from a movie. Nell had been eight years-old and had just gone to see the movie “Hairspray” with her mom and her mom’s friend. She loved it. Afterwards she remembered singing and dancing to all the songs. That night though, lying in bed, the scenes replayed over and over in her mind. When she came to the scene with the final kiss between Tracy and Link, she suddenly started having trouble breathing. She felt inexplicably fragile, as if there was something that she had that she wouldn’t be able to hold onto. She cried and cried until her mom came and held her. She held her and rocked her and Nell cried for a long, long time. Nell wished her mom was there to hold her now.
Pressing her wet cheek against the faux leather pillow, Nell willed the day to end. The realization that her tears had stopped gave way to a certain disappointment. Crying hadn’t exactly felt worthwhile, but it was all consuming. The digital clock blinked 10:30pm, an hour that combined with her recent nap rendered falling asleep impossible. The hours stretched unwillingly in front of her.
Her eyes fell on the shiny black enamel of her phone, resting conspicuously where she had flung it halfway across the room. The phone seemed to exude a certain energy. Not a warm, friendly energy, but something discernibly hostile. More than three hours had passed since she had last checked it. Surely someone had tried to call or text her by now. As Nell hurried across the room, she felt her heart beat with anticipation. Her thumb expertly slid open the “unlock” button to reveal the neat rows of applications. No text messages. No missed calls. No voicemails. Nell stared at the phone for a long moment, almost expecting it to vibrate to life before her eyes. Yet the phone remained despondent.
Absentmindedly she clicked through her recent texts, past her mom’s, to one from Lucy apologizing for being 15 minutes late to the mall. Nell could count on one hand the number of times that Lucy had actually been on time for something. For some reason she had always found it endearing. Now she just felt vaguely annoyed. Her thumb hovered over Lucy’s name before she clicked on it and quickly typed out a message.
“Hey, has Edie ever seen Parent Trap? actually just watched it again tonight. First time
since college, remember? I think she’d love it!”
Then she went back to her mom’s name and pressed the small phone icon. It was a little late to be calling, but chances were her mom and dad would still be in bed reading. After several rings, her mother’s voice gave a disjointed “hello.” Nell was reminded how strange she found it when people answered the phone with a hello that sounded like they didn’t know you, let alone recognize you as their own daughter. Nell’s own “hello” made up for the lack of enthusiasm she felt on the other end.
“Hey mom! how are you doing? So sorry I never responded to your texts. Just been so busy tonight. Oh um…are you with other people right now?”
“Yes darling, Billy and Cindy are over, we ate the most delicious antelope. A splurge, but your father insisted on buying it. Anyways, so glad to hear that you are doing well. I’ll call you tomorrow, love you.”
The sudden click caused Nell to choke back a sudden residual sob, but she didn’t start crying again. Grabbing her computer, Nell settled back on the couch, placing her phone under her bottom in order to feel it vibrate. It had been a long time since she had last changed her facebook status, over 12 hours in fact. Her figures tapped lightly on the keys as she debated what she was going to write.
Just had girl’s night complete with Pizza, Pina Coladas and the Parent Trap!!! Can’t believe the movie made me cry lol.”
Nell’s lips turned upward slightly in satisfaction. She was sure to get plenty of “likes” from this and probably some comments too. Most people didn’t envision her as someone who cried.
Nell, who could have sworn she heard her phone vibrating, reached down to check it, ignoring the knowledge that she would have physically felt the buzz of a new message. The empty screen mocked her despite the recognition that Lucy was probably busy with Tim right now. Tim was not Edie’s real dad, but had been a father to her ever since Edie would have been able to remember. On weekends he and Lucy liked to put Edie to bed early and cook elaborate multi-course meals for themselves.
An hour-and-half had passed (the majority spent stalking exes), and Nell could hardly believe that she saw neither a single red message alert offsetting the blue of facebook nor a single yellow message alert offsetting the black of her phone. Nell had cheated. She was only supposed to go on her exes profile pages once a month, but she figured that since she had not had a chance to look at all ten of them last time it was ok. Her chest was starting to hurt.
After a quick google images search, she attached two pictures of Lindsay Lohan with the comment “Lindsay Lohan THEN and NOW” to her status.” She then started absentmindedly clicking through her old profile pictures with her right hand. With her left, she slid the open the “unlock” button on her phone over and over. Her eyes flitted from the pictures (usually a close-up of just her) to the empty phone, then back to the pictures. She clicked faster and faster; the faces seemed to morph into each other, but the smile stayed the same. At some point, the tears returned, but his time they were silent. She licked her lips. This time the salt didn’t taste good.
“ANYONE STILL AWAKE?!?!” she hammered into the keys. She stared at her status until the tears rendered seeing anything impossible. Her chest was hurting more and more. Wiping her eyes, she deleted the entire status and pressed hard at the off button on her keyboard before quickly scooping up her computer and her phone, running across the room, and dropping both into the empty trashcan.
Back in the closet, Nell shoved the dresses aside and grabbed the box labeled “past” before running back into the living room and dumping the contents all over the carpet. Old journals, scrapbooks, cards, play bills and travel souvenirs littered the floor. Lying on her back, Nell held each item above her head and looked at it for a longtime before falling into a dreamless sleep.
Sunlight filtered through the window. Nell opened her eyes and then immediately shut them, letting bursts of blue and green dance against her eyelids. She reached up and brushed away the crust that had congregated at the corners. A fossilized reminder of last night’s tears
She had forgotten to close the shades. As she heaved herself off the ground, she was aware that her whole body ached, yet she didn’t really feel tired. Outside the snow had draped a perfect blanket over the world. Even the office building looked sort of pretty, with the snow rimming the edges of their windowpanes. She decided to keep the shade open.
Her thoughts flashed back to the day before. She had trouble remembering why she had cared so much about buying Edie a pea coat. A pink parka would be perfect for building a snowman, or a trip to the ice-skating rink. Perhaps she would call up Lucy and see if she and Edie wanted to do something outside in the snow. They would almost certainly be busy, but it was at least worth a try.
A familiar vibrating sound interrupted her thoughts. It was probably her mom. She definitely would have to ask her about where they bought that antelope. Reaching into the trashcan for her phone, Nell couldn’t help but grin.
“Lucy, I’m so glad you called. I was just going to see if you wanted to…”
The voice on the other end of the line interrupted her. It was not Lucy’s, but a distinctly younger sounding one.
“I’ve decided on a pea coat. I want the purple one.”