Illy had her hand on the light switch. Eyebrow Ring had her hand on the corner of the counter that lifted up to become the kiosk door. They both were staring at the intercom speaker on the ceiling, waiting for the proclamation from the mall gods that the stores were closing and they were liberated from their box. She knew Simon would not be impressed that they’d put away all the display phones and shut down the computer before the stores were technically closed, but it looked like Eyebrow Ring was in a hurry too and not about to report their misdemeanour this time. Illy knew she should really refer to her co-worker by her real name, and it should have been simple to do since they wore name tags. The problem was that Eyebrow Ring clearly had a stockpile of name tags because she was always wearing a different name. Early on, Illy had called her Sarah a few times feeling it was a pretty safe assumption since her name tag said Sarah, but then the next time they’d worked together she’d been Lotta. It was all rather weird and confusing, although secretly Illy was a little jealous. How fun to be able to try on different names according to your mood. Not to mention the fascinating study you could do on how people treated you differently according to your name. She wondered if there were certain names that got Eyebrow Ring the most sales. Probably not Lotta.
“So are you flipping the switch or what?” The girl currently known as Allison was glaring at Illy across the counter. Apparently she’d missed the announcement. She turned the lights out then set the security alarm. SarahLottaAllison waited till Illy had grabbed her bag, then they both did the elaborate escape and lock-up ritual necessary to avoid setting off the alarm. Illy hadn’t even finished turning the key before Eyebrow Ring—it really was the simpler label—disappeared around the corner.
Illy took off her name tag and pulled out her ponytail as she hurried toward the exit. She and Jay were meeting for coffee—or Coke—at a little cafe near the mall. She was surprisingly excited. They hadn’t seen each other in a while and Illy had been compiling a mental list of his likeable qualities. She was determined not to give up on an otherwise great guy because of her unrealistic expectations. She liked to think Fairy Falls had been a turning point for her, her moment of epiphany when she’d realized that she was always looking for something sensational when the real beauty was right before her eyes, just a little smaller and less garish than she’d been expecting. Jay was the first benefactor of her new enlightened approach to life.
The first thing she noticed when she saw Jay sitting in the cafe was that he was already half done his Coke. Then she noticed he was wearing a thick silver necklace with his v-neck t-shirt. She felt her enlightenment crumbling. Did men still wear necklaces like that? And v-necks?
Illy sighed and flopped down in the chair across from him.
“Hey Illy. What’s the matter? Tough night for the cell phone industry?” He slid a mug across the table toward her. “I ordered you a latte. With brown sugar. I figured you’d need some immediate nourishment after all those hours in the blue box.”
Illy was shocked. He’d ordered her a drink and knew exactly how she liked it. He was being thoughtful and maybe even verging on romantic. “Thanks, Jay. That was super sweet of you.” If she tilted her head up a little, she could look at his eyes without seeing the chain. She took a sip of the latte, which was lukewarm by this point, but still delicious, and smiled at him. “So what’s new?”
Illy studied him while he talked—something about a big new project at work that was giving him lots of overtime pay—and tried to imagine spending the rest of her life looking at his face. His features were a little lopsided and his eyebrows were definitely more unruly than she’d prefer, but he had a gentle and easy look about him. Kind eyes. Well-proportioned nose. Nothing sensational, but the new Illy wasn’t looking for sensational. She decided she could handle the face. But the conversation was another matter. How was it that with some people conversation came so easily and was so interesting, even if it was just about stretch marks or Oscar nominees, while with other people it felt like mild torture, like her blood was being drained through a syringe in her foot? Jay, unfortunately, usually fell in the syringe category, although she couldn’t figure out why exactly. Whatever the reason, it didn’t seem fair that mind-numbing conversation should have to be part of her realistic expectations pledge.
Jay appeared to be finished with his work story and was chewing the ice from his Coke, then spitting the crushed pieces back in the cup. Illy knew this was her opportunity to raise the interest factor on the conversation to a more fascinating, or at least tolerable, level.
She took a deep breath. “Hey, if you could eat supper in any country in the world, where would you go?” These were her favourite kinds of questions. Sometimes she lay awake at night thinking of quirky questions, just so she’d have a good stockpile if she ever found herself at a boring dinner party. She figured this qualified.
“What?” Jay spit out another mouthful of ice shards.
“It’s just a hypothetical question. Like, where’s your favourite kind of food from, but you actually get to go there to enjoy it.”
“But not really?”
“Well, no, you don’t really get to go there right now. I’m just wondering where you would go if you could.” This definitely wasn’t counting as the great conversation she had intended.
“Do I have to pay for the meal? And the airplane?” To his credit, Jay was genuinely trying to understand the question; he just was missing the entire point.
“No. It’s hypothetical—Look, I’ll go first. If I could eat a meal in any country, I would go to…” The truth was Illy had already thought of at least six different countries she’d love to visit for the food. She also spent her nights preparing answers to her questions. “Japan. Grocery store sushi is already delicious. I can’t imagine what it must taste like in Japan.”
“Not to mention all the free fortune cookies,” Jay added.
Illy wasn’t sure if that was meant to be a joke, but she really hoped it was and chuckled a little as a sign of confidence in his knowledge of the world. “How about you?”
“Mexico, I guess, for a huge pile of nachos and great beer. And really hot salsa.”
Illy nodded in tacit agreement, even though she was pretty sure the kind of nachos Jay was imagining weren’t very authentically Mexican. She wondered if he chose Mexico because he was still concerned about paying for the airfare.
Continue Reading: Chapter Thirty-Five