I muffle a wet cough with my fist and step inside Franklin’s Variety Store looking for something to relieve congestion, sinus pain, a sore throat, achy head, runny nose, and coughing. Symptoms of an ugly end to an eight-year-long relationship. Or the flu.
Tarot cards in different patterns are in aisle five with Formula 1 race car model kits, pop star posters, modeling clay and sets for collecting rare stamps and coins. Jeffrey didn’t have any hobbies. This may be the one reason for our break up. A lack of common interests. Things to talk about besides my job and his. How many liposuction stories could I listen to?
Furniture is in aisle six. A Chippendale highboy, payment for a prescription drug bill run up by an unemployed police chief’s wife, rests beside a low glass-topped wrought iron table surrounded and topped with plaster animals. The highboy story is a rumor, and likely true. A chandelier has been in residence as long as the highboy. Beneath it is a crate of imported sugar bowls. Everyone, including me, steps reverently over the rolled up mosque-size prayer rug.
Other religious artifacts are grouped together. Rosaries, a painting of the Buddha, a Florentine crucifix, an olive wood mezuzah and Shabbat candles. Jeffrey is Jewish. I could tell my friends that we broke up over religious differences, but everyone knows I have no religious affiliations. I would have adopted some for a baby, but Jeffrey wasn’t sure we were “into” kids.
A whole aisle is dedicated to stationery. I think about writing Jeffrey a note. The problem is what to say. “I’m glad you’re happy now,” seems appropriate, but not in good taste considering he can’t be happy. He loves his cat. Now missing because of me.
Moth-proof fur-trimmed coats are at the end of the aisle nine, tucked between a collection of fuzzy peach covers for the toilet seat and used books including one called What the Odds Are: The A-to-Z Odds on Everything You Hoped or Feared Would Happen. I pick this one up and put it down in favor of yellowed copy of Coping with Difficult People. I should purchase this for my desk at work. Instead, I troop to the front of the store and the cashier, “Do you carry throat lozenges and a sinus spray that isn’t habit forming?” I ask.
The teenager sports enough silver trinkets to pass for an arcade gypsy. The bracelets tinkle as she idly straightens a display of plastic whistles marketed for use over the telephone in response to obscene calls. “Have you tried aisle six,” she offers hopefully.
“Been there,” I say and survey the cigarette display. Near the display case, someone’s tacked the winning entry in the local high school’s “Smoking Stinks” poster contest. A burning cigarette hangs off the lower lip of a squinting, surly teenager. I read the caption. “Smoking is not as cool as it looks.”
“Aisle eleven?” the cheerleader says with a certitude that makes me a believer.
In aisle eleven, large cans of Hawaiian Fruit Punch share space with packets of wild rice and non-caffeine teas. I jostle past teenagers who travel in packs for strength and mutual protection from past-their-sell-by-date adults like me. I give up and head for a huge rack of the latest issues of women’s magazines. I pay for half a dozen, throwing in a metal tin of cough drops, a travel-size-packet of ear swabs, a lurid purple feather boa, and a pack of cigarettes.
When the gallery where I work calls to see why I haven’t shown up, I give the marabou boa around my neck an extra turn and tell Darlene, “It could be chicken flu.” What’s a marabou anyway? A glorified ostrich?
You mean “bird flu?”
“When have you ever been near live birds?”
I light a cigarette. The first puff sears my lungs. “Darlene, I’m getting that you really enjoy this power you have over me. I’m in the country. I was visiting my aunt.”
“I thought you were spending the weekend with Jeffrey.”
“Yes, but my aunt is in Paris or Amsterdam or in Europe somewhere with my uncle who likes to travel. They went to Turkey last year. I’m sure I’ve mentioned my aunt.” I detect a note of skepticism in the silence that stretches between us. Remember? She bought an inn with a petting zoo in the back. With sheep and goats for little ones who want to commune with nature up close and personal but in a non-committal way.”
Darlene isn’t interested.
“It’s not for everyone,” I say.
“Will you be in tomorrow?”
I mash the cigarette into the lid of the cough drop tin, pluck a copy of Jane from a tower block of magazines and open it to “The Five Questions We Always Ask.”
“Darlene, what secret urge do you have but never act on?” I don’t tell her mine is to kill Jeffrey. “Humor me. I’m sick.”
Darlene says nothing.
“Okay, that question’s too prosaic. How about, ‘What’s the worst you’ve ever screwed anyone?’ And this isn’t a sexual question.”
It surprises me to hear her stop to really chew this one over. “I don’t want to say,” she finally says.
I don’t either. “Okay, who is on your ‘celebs to make out with list’ right now?”
“Ah, that guardian of culture.”
“Wait! Are you reading Jane?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Before you ask about faking an orgasm and my one coveted superpower, tell me who they interviewed this month? No, never mind. Isn’t Jane a tad young for you?”
Darlene, my boss, is a Princeton graduate 10 years my junior. This places me squarely in my period of decay and decline. Soon, I’ll be clipping coupons and stocking up on Depends. This must be why I don’t understand the slogan on Drew Barrymore’s tee-shirt: “Politics is like sex. Protect yourself.Vote.” What does this mean? Vote to have sex? Vote not to have sex? Keep a condom handy when you head for polls manned by ancient people with phlegmy voices and dry loose skin on the back of their hands?
Darlene is telling me how much she likes the new resident artist at the gallery, a vaguely French guy with an urban edge. “Working with him as an exhibiting artist this summer should be a lot of fun. He’s so innovative and has incredible PR. He’s got his finger on the pulse of the city.”
“Isn’t that expression a tad dated?” I say.
“You’re in a foul mood. Did something happen?”
A story about Pam Anderson grabs my attention. Nothing about Pam Anderson is intrinsically interesting, but I am about to learn about the men who sucked her soul dry. “Gawd, isn’t that something we could all relate to,” I say with a sigh worthy of a martyr.
I thumb to the next page. I can’t tell Darlene that Jeffrey has a problem with commitment, and that I took revenge for finding him with his hand down his receptionist’s blouse by driving his cat to the country. “I could win a free trip to Alaska,” I announce, cheered by prospect of a vacation to any port of call.
“No! Pay attention, Darlene. It’s mine to win. I haven’t won it. When I do win something we can break out the champagne and tap dance on the table.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
My doctor isn’t half bad looking. With more hair and a flatter stomach … I close the magazine. The young woman on the cover of Allure looks like one of those new party girls referred to in Jane, a group of college co-eds being wiped out by a drug epidemic. I’m sick of doctors and not interested in drugs. It’s a good sign. I care about something.
I decide I like the heavily eyelinered vampirish girl smiling from the cover. She’s not exposing canines, but I can imagine those teeth two inches long like the fangs on a stray dog or a fox. Do they have foxes in the country? “Darlene?”
“I haven’t asked the question yet. Are you reading my mind?”
“No.” I hear her laugh.
“Is it possible to find comfort in a C-cup?”
“How would I know the answer to that?”
“Never mind. Thanks for calling. I mean that. I’m going to lie down now.” I disconnect the call and read an article about making “easy snuggly pillows” out of your ex-boyfriends’ “comfy old sweaters.” It didn’t occur to me to shred Jeffrey’s clothes. I didn’t take anything from his apartment except for Bingo. A stupid name for a nice, indoor, declawed, helpless-in-the-wild cat. I hate myself because the receptionist wasn’t the first of Jeffrey’s indiscretions. There had been clues. A cigarette butt with tiny pink marks in the shrubbery outside his townhouse. An extra wine glass in the sink. Long blonde hairs in the shower drain. If Jeffrey had two cats, they’d both be fox bait. I am me. A spiteful cat killer. I hate Jeffrey.
I turn the page and find a recipe. Jane is not Good Housekeeping, and this isn’t a recipe for a bread pudding or the perfect muffin. It’s for a Vodka Red Bubbly. I don’t have “Cranberryraz” vodka or cranberry juice. I’m not in the mood to open a bottle of champagne or whip up a batch of simple syrup. I close the magazine. “You are not silver, gold, or platinum,” advises the ad on the back. “You are you.”
And you should find that cat, I finish. I’d already spent two hours tramping the side of that road yelling, “Bingo!” at the top of my lungs. Cats don’t listen.
I call Jeffrey and thank God he doesn’t answer. Neither does his receptionist. I’m certain they’re off together pursuing sexual congress on an examining table, paper crinkling, what’s her name working hard to lower her panty hose, Jeffrey fumbling with his zipper. When was the last time I’d made love with reckless abandon? “Jeffrey?” I say to the answering machine. “I’m sorry.”
The line clicks open. “Sorry? For what?” his voice demands.
“Temporary insanity. I’m deeply ashamed of myself.”
“I knew you’d come around.”
“Are you home?” I ask.
“Yeah, why? You coming over?”
“Is Bingo there?” I ask hopefully. It’s not possible, but why can’t I dream for a miracle?
“What does the cat have to do with a booty call?” Jeffrey sounds harassed, like this conversation is going on too long.
Worse, he doesn’t realize his cat is missing. “Goodbye, I say.” “You’re ending this?”
“Bingo,” I say.
I disconnect the call and fire up my laptop. Not for lovebrowse.com, metrodate.com, or getiton.com. Not for singleswithscruples.com, animalpeople.com or even greatexpectations.com. I search for local animal shelters. There’s no hope for Jeffrey, but I’ll be happy with Bingo. He and the man of my dreams are out there somewhere. The hunt is on.
Adele Polomski is a writer who lives and works in Ocean County. She has a masters in English and is working on a novel.