The buzzer rang as Illy dumped a bag of chips into an empty ice cream pail. She had invited Jay over for the evening. He had asked her out three times in the last week and she’d been working every time so she figured it was her turn to show some initiative. As she wiped her hands on her sweats and headed toward the door, she realized she hadn’t even thought about what she looked like. She made a quick detour past the bathroom mirror and laughed aloud when she saw herself. She was wearing the ratty sweatshirt and sweats she’d put on that morning to do an old aerobics routine she found on Youtube. Her hair was lying limp and scraggly across her shoulders in precisely the wet-mop look that kept her compulsively tying her hair up. She wasn’t sure if she’d even brushed her teeth that morning. Not exactly her usual get up for a romantic evening with a handsome man. She couldn’t decide if this was a sign of her deep and meaningful connection with Jay that allowed her to be so comfortable with him, or a sign that she just didn’t care enough to put forth much effort. She squeezed some toothpaste into her mouth out of courtesy and grabbed an elastic from the window sill to pull her hair back. The buzzer rang again. She pushed the enter button with her elbow while she fixed her hair.
“Don’t judge me, girls,” Illy warned her plants. “Not all of us can just spray water over ourselves and look lush and gorgeous.” She hurried back to the kitchen. She hated the awkward greeting at the door, especially at the stage she and Jay were in, where she wasn’t sure if she should hug him or kiss him or just sweep open the door like a butler. It was way easier to just call from another room. “Come on in, I’m in the kitchen.” Illy picked up the chip pail and opened the fridge as Jay walked into the kitchen. “Hey there. Make yourself at home. I’m just getting a few things.” She noticed with relief he wasn’t wearing the silver chain, then remembered what she was wearing. She was in no position to judge appearances.
“Hi. Great to finally see you.” Despite her full hands and strategic fridge position, he leaned around the door and kissed her cheek. “Can I help with anything?”
Illy had to smile. It was just the right gesture. Jay was way more comfortable with social conventions than she was. “Yep, grab some ice for our water, would you?”
They sat on the living room floor, the bowl of chips and a plate of Oreos on the floor between them. Illy had been looking forward to these snacks all day. She grabbed a handful of chips and shook them into her mouth the way her Dad always did. It drove her mom crazy and little chip crumbs always fell everywhere, but Illy didn’t mind. She loved noticing the quirky little ways she was like her Dad.
“So what’s new?” It was how she always started her conversations with Jay. He usually had some work story or racquetball victory to relay which let her relax for a while before needing to come up with another conversation topic. She reached for more chips and leaned back against the couch.
“Well, actually, there is something I want to talk to you about.” Jay stared at the Oreo in his hand. Illy’s head suddenly felt light and wobbly like it did when she used to smoke Marlboros with the Street Fighter on the fire escape. She wasn’t prepared for a serious relationship conversation and hadn’t been expecting it yet, not over chips and Oreos. Not in her sweats. Surely he wasn’t going to propose, but what could it be? Invite her on a roadtrip to meet his parents? Ask her to move in with him? She closed her eyes to steady her head and waited.
“I think you’re really great, Illy. You’re fun and pretty and interesting.” She peeked at him through her eyelashes. He was still studying the Oreo like a rare coin. “But I was wondering if maybe we should stop seeing each other.” He jammed the cookie in his mouth and looked up at her.
Illy opened her eyes in disbelief. Jay was breaking up with her? She suddenly wished she really was smoking so she could buy some time and enjoy the floating sensation for a while. She reached for more chips instead.
Jay wasn’t sure what to do with her silence. “Please don’t be hurt. Like I said, I think you’re great. I just don’t know if we’re great, you know? Like if we’re a very good match.”
Illy tried to sort through the emotions clamouring in her head. She was definitely a little hurt. Like when she hadn’t been chosen for the part of Annie in her high school musical, even though she knew she was a terrible fit for the part. Rejection always stung no matter how inevitable and logical it was. And she was sad, because Jay was becoming a comfortable part of her days and she knew she would miss him. And she was immensely relieved, like someone had finally pulled the sliver out of her finger that she’d been too cowardly to do herself.
She smiled at Jay, a sad sort of resignation smile. “I think you’re right.” She watched him for a while as he chewed his ice, clearly feeling as relieved as she was. “Too bad, though, hey? We’re both such great people.”
Jay laughed and spit the ice shards back in his glass. “Yes, we sure are. But you should find yourself someone a little more beatnik-ish. I don’t think I understood a word of those poems at the coffee house. And I don’t have any black-rimmed glasses.”
“And you definitely need to find someone who plays racquetball. And preferably knows the difference between stocks and bonds.” They both laughed and reached for more chips.
After a few minutes Jay stood up. “I should probably go. I’m sure you have some writing to do. Or incense to burn or something.”
Illy knew he was trying to be affectionate. She passed him his jacket and walked with him to the door. “I do have one question.”
Jay paused with his hand on the doorknob.
“What ever happened to the girl you were dating in this building before we met?”
Jay tilted his head to the side. “In this building? I’ve never dated anyone here before. I hadn’t even stepped foot in the building before Dave bribed me at the bar one night into coming to that writing club thing with him.” He leaned over and kissed her again on the cheek. “Goodbye, Ilia. Good luck.”
Illy stared at the door after it clicked shut, then burst out laughing.
“So he’s not Mocha Man anymore?” June was confused.
“No. He never was. Remember how I never actually saw Mocha Man that fateful morning?” Illy’s phone was lying on the bathroom sink as she leaned toward the mirror and studied her pores. Using speaker phone in the bathroom resulted in an unfortunate echo, but this conversation was too important to just text. “When I saw Jay at the Writers Club I just assumed it had to be him because of his voice or how he looked or something. But it wasn’t. All this time I’ve been waiting for a morning coffee delivery from a poor guy who doesn’t even like coffee. Or mornings for that matter.” Illy squeezed a blackhead on her chin. “I think working in the mall is bad for my skin. My pores look terrible.”
“Wow, I don’t know what to say. About Jay, I mean. I have lots to say about your pores later. Are you sad?”
Illy studied her reflection for a moment before answering. “No. I don’t think so. Well, maybe a little. I’m sad we didn’t have a better connection. But I’m not sad that he ended it. I think we both felt a bit like we had better things to do with our time.”
“This is definitely the most wise and serene you’ve ever been after a break up. Am I not even going to get the benefit of donut hole therapy?”
“As long as you don’t mind if I’m not sobbing, I’m always up for donut holes.” Illy inflated her cheeks for a better view. “I think I need one of those magnifying mirrors that my mother uses to pluck her eyebrows.”
June laughed. “Don’t do it. There are some things you really don’t want to see that closely. I’ll come by tomorrow with donut holes and a great facial cleanser. You’ll feel like a new woman.”
“Thanks, June. You are a constant source of unexpected expertise.”
“I’m honoured you think so. See you tomorrow, and glad you’re doing okay.”
Illy ended the call and stared at the face in the mirror. She noticed that the wrinkles at the edges of her eyes were deepening. When she was little she used to run her fingers gently over those same wrinkles on her mother’s face. Her mother had once told her that while everyone slept, fairies drew those lines around the eyes of the people who laughed the most. Illy had gone to bed dreaming of the day she might have her own fairy lines.
Continue Reading: Chapter Thirty-Eight