“What do you think?” she says, shoving her phone in my face. It’s a picture of a shirtless man with distinguished abs, a chiseled jaw, and bright blue eyes accentuated by his fluffy brown hair.
“What do you think?” Mavis repeats. “Isn’t he so hot?” she pulls the phone back to herself so she can revel in his apparent beauty.
I shrug. “He has a face,” I say, turning back to my biology homework. Which layer of skin is the deepest?
She frowns. “You always say that. Why are you so boring?”
“I just don’t see people as hot,” I use my monotone voice. Maybe she’ll get the hint and stop talking about it.
She doesn’t. “That’s sad. You’re really missing out.”
Subcutaneous tissue, I scribble in the blank next to the question.
“Here, look at this one,” she says as she launches her phone at me again, this time with a picture of Zendaya on the screen.
“Pretty? You just called one of the hottest women on the planet ‘pretty’!”
“Mavis, you know I can’t tell the difference between someone being hot and being pretty.”
She continues scrolling on her phone, settling further into my couch. “It’s your sheltered childhood.” It most certainly was not. I was not that sheltered. I just had more important things to worry about than if the boy stupid enough to fire pepper spray in the back of the study hall was attractive.
“Don’t worry,” she chuckles. “You’re only 19. You’ll find someone before you graduate. I just know it. Heck, I’ll wingman for you!”
Now I make direct eye contact with her. “But what if I don’t want to find someone?”
“Oh don’t be silly, Nat! Everyone wants to find someone! That’s what makes you human!”
Trapped in a cage, a carnival barker beckoning people to view the loveless woman, an apparent oddity. Men jeer, women scowl, and children stare in awe at the monster.
“Let’s just get back to work. I have a GPA to maintain and no lover is going to help me do that.” I push the circus image out of my head and return to my worksheet. She rolls her eyes and keeps scrolling.
“What do you mean you’re going on a date with him?”
Doris flaps her arms hysterically in an attempt to shush me. It doesn’t work.
“You can’t go out with him. I won’t let you!” My overprotective instinct is kicking in. I sound like my dad.
“You’re just jealous,” she pouts.
“Oh please. You know that’s not anywhere near the truth.”
“But Stuart is really nice. He said he likes my eyes.”
“I guarantee you he has tried that line on several women before you. Doris, please. He’s not worth it.”
“Nat, would you stop being so cynical for five seconds? You’re not the one going out tonight!”
“But I will be the one who will have to console you after he inevitably breaks your heart.” I’m not cynical. I’m practical. And, practically speaking Doris, dating this man is a bad idea.
“Well, part of life is getting your heart broken. That’s a risk I have to take to find a person who loves me.” But I love you. I love you and all our friends. Deeply, passionately, steadfastly. Isn’t that enough?
I look into her eyes, and they clearly show she is smitten. Her logic has given way to hopeless romance, and nothing I say will change that. Love, you didn’t do right by me. Rosemary Clooney, White Christmas. Count your blessings instead of sheep.
I sigh. “If it starts going south, I’ll bail you out.”
She throws her arms around me and jumps with a gleeful smile. “Thank you!” She’ll never listen to me. But my love for her will stay regardless.
I unlock my dorm door, set my stuff on the living room table, and why is there a man on my couch what is he doing here?
“John, this is my roommate Natalie. Nat, this is John, my boyfriend,” Clara says with a smile. She’s sitting next to him on the couch. His arm around her shoulder. A smug grin on his face. I can tell. I always can. His smile would look genuine if his eyes weren’t filled with mockery. He’s laughing at me. I stole your friend. Your love is now worthless to her. Now you can’t even rest in your own home without the reminder of how broken you are, you loveless woman you.
“Nice to meet you John.” My monotone voice greets him. To her credit, Clara catches it. She frowns at me. Please be civil, her eyes say. I nod and decide to make a tactical retreat to my bedroom.
When I hear our front door open and close three hours later, I pop back out.
“Is he gone?”
“Yes, Mom.” Ignore it. Push past it.
“I thought we had agreed to alert each other when we had guests over, especially male guests.”
“I’m sorry, he kinda just showed up. I opened the door and he was there with flowers and takeout.”
“Did you tell him where you lived? Did he stalk you? If he doesn’t live in this building how did he get in here?” How is she okay with this?
“He didn’t stalk me. A friend of his lives here and crossed me in the hall once, so he let John in when he’d said he wanted to surprise me.”
A tall man cloaked in shadow slinking in the hall in the dead of night. Hiding in the closet. Our closet. A Cheshire grin, he’s got a knife, it’s in the air, I push Clara out of the way and—
“A week now.”
“And you thought that gave him clearance to be in our apartment?”
“Like I said, he snuck in.”
“And you don’t see that as creepy? A red flag?”
“It was cute!”
“There are people out there who believe Jeffrey Dahmer was cute!”
We argue. I’ve never had an argument with any of my friends like this. I’m actually angry. That’s not normal. But my anger is born of fear. Fear for her. Clara says once I get a boyfriend, I’ll understand. I retort that it will be a cold day in hell before I let a man put his hands on me. Her horrified face puts an end to my anger, and I’m back in the circus cage.
I run to my car and cry for forty-two minutes. I come back inside and apologize. She doesn’t need to apologize—I forgave her immediately, because that’s what I do for people I love.
“I’m never getting married,” I declare to my mother.
She looks up from folding laundry. “You’ll change your mind someday.”
“I don’t think I will. I know I’d be a horrible mother, and an even worse wife.” The idea of raising noisy germy creatures is unappealing already, but the pressure of preparing them for life without traumatizing them would kill me. And I have too many flaws to settle and be a housewife. I can’t cook, I can barely call the doctor for myself, and I always forget to clean my apartment. No, the only person who should have to live with me is me.
“I want grandkids,” Mom says.
“That’s what my sisters are for.” One has a boyfriend already, and the other has had three crushes in four months, so her romantic inclinations already work better than mine. I’ve already told them I’m going to be their kids’ cool wine aunt.
“But you’re such a sweet girl, Natalie. It would be a waste if you didn’t settle down with a husband. Trust me. You’ll meet a guy that will bring you so much joy you can’t help but wish to spend your life with him.”
“But I’ve never dated, never had a boyfriend or even a crush. I’m 20. I should have felt something like that by now. But I haven’t.”
She hands me a stack of towels. “You will soon. You have to. It’s what makes us human.”
And the circus barker is back and laughing over my shoulder.
“But isn’t familial or friendly love enough?” My voice whimpers against my will. “I love you, and I love my friends. Surely that type of love is enough?” I don’t know why I’m saying this to my married mother. I already know what she’ll say.
“Romantic love is different. It fulfills you in a way no other love can. And humans are naturally inclined to seek out that type of love. If you don’t feel romantic love, then you’re missing out on an integral part of your humanity.”
Come one, come all! See the loveless woman! Isn’t she absolutely detestable? Her own mother doesn’t believe she’s human!
Doris needs our help, a text from Mavis reads.
Cassandra standing in terror, crying out to the Chorus, shrieking how she will die once she enters the house. Prophesying the death of Agamemnon. Violence, blood, vengeance. No one hears her. No one believes her. I don’t have to ask what happened. I change into a cozy hoodie, grab some instant hot chocolate packs, and prep my mom purse.
Be there in ten, I reply.
When I get there Clara is sitting on the bed, hugging the sobbing bundle that is my wonderful, kindhearted Doris. Poor thing.
Clara looks at me. Don’t you dare say it, her eyes say. Wasn’t planning on it, my nod replies. I’m not one to boast bitter victories.
Doris now notices me. She hiccups and reaches her arms out to me. The mattress sinks closer to the floor as I sit on her other side and clutch her to my chest. My heart aches for her. She brought this on herself, my logic says. But my compassion and devotion ignore the logic.
“I’m so sorry, darling,” I whisper. She sobs harder, her tears soaking into my hoodie. Woe to the man who broke so pure a heart. If I ever lay eyes on him I will break his spine and fashion his skull into a cereal bowl. “He doesn’t deserve you, okay? If he comes anywhere near you again, I’ll kill him. You got that?” she nods. She knows I mean it. Because I love her.
A few moments later Nora and Katie show up with pints of ice cream. We curl up and the six of us watch The Office, and my soul feels light and fluttery at the realization that everyone I love and trust is in the same room right now.
Albert and I meet under one of the giant maple trees. He’s slightly out of breath from sprinting across the quad, but he’s smiling at me. It feels nice.
“You wanted to ask me something?” I ask.
He nods. “Yeah, I did.” He straightens back up and clears his throat. “Natalie, as you know we have been friends for six months now.”
“Uh huh.” We met near the end of the fall semester at a Super Smash Bros tournament. I kicked his ass in the final and he was a very good sport about it. Then this semester we’ve been sharing a literature class. I smile, remembering our witty banter making our classmates laugh, grabbing coffee while we work on our essays, walking to the cafeteria together. He’s the first guy friend I’ve ever had.
“And I’ll be honest, I’ve really appreciated getting to hang out with you.”
My smile widens. “I have too!” Images pop in my head. Him and I watching movies, late night drives, hanging out. A strong hug when I’m sad. A shoulder to rely on. An equal. Someone who cares about me the same way I care about him. Finally reciprocated. I want him in my life. I want to devote myself to him like I do all my friends. Take a bullet for him. Pick him up from the club at two in the morning when he’s drunk. Buy him ramen when his card declines. I love our friendship, and I want to keep loving him like that.
He takes a deep breath. “And that has lead me to realize something about myself.”
“Okay?” I’m getting a little bit confused now.
“I. . . I love you.”
“I’ve had a crush on you since we worked on that presentation together.”
“And I wanted to just tell you this to clear the air and maybe see if you felt the same?”
No God please no!
He notes the look on my face. “What’s the matter?”
A man approaches the cage with a key. Inserting it in the lock, staring at me expectantly.
“I. . . I’m sorry, Albert. I love you, but as a friend.” I truly do. Please accept this love. This love is enough right?
My heart breaks.
The man throws the key across the room and storms out, and the barker looks at me with a wicked grin.
“But I really love hanging out with you!” I quickly say. Stay with me please. I love you, friend. “I just. . . My studies are super important to me, I need to keep them my main priority.”
He frowns. “Yeah, it sure was a priority when we were hanging out.”
He turns and starts walking away. “Sorry, I have to go now. Thanks for everything.”
And the circus barker whispers in my ear, “Once and forever the loveless woman.”
“Am I broken?”
Nora pops back around the corner. “What?”
“Am I broken because I don’t understand normal love?”
“What do you mean ‘normal love’?” She reenters the room and sits next to me on the couch.
“Romance. I’ve never understood why a person would want to devote their life to only one person when they can devote their life to all their friends.”
Nora shrugs. “A romantic partner is special.”
“Is it so special that if I don’t feel it or want it, I’m less than human?”
She thinks for a moment. “No,” she says resolutely.
I turn to her. “I don’t believe you.”
She frowns. “Why not?”
I scoff. “You have a boyfriend. All of our friends are dating. Even Doris got over her heartbreak and moved onto another man! You cannot tell me that romance isn’t important.”
“You’re right. I can’t.”
“Well there you—”
“But I also can’t tell you that it’s more important than other types of love. And I certainly will not tell you that you’re broken for not wanting it.”
“Natalie, you not being interested in dating doesn’t make you broken. It makes you you. You give so much of yourself to the people you care about, and your ability to be content with your friendships is so inspiring.”
“Really?” I cannot believe what she’s saying.
“Yes! Your passion, your level of care, your honesty, your loyalty! You are such a wonderful friend, and such a blessing. You give me and the rest of our friends so much, and you make it so obvious you love us in the way only you can! You’re always there for us, and I love you for that.”
My world stops.
A woman runs up and punches the circus barker.
Natalie stares at my shocked expression. “What? What did I say?”
“You. . . love me?”
Her face looks puzzled. “Of course I do. You know that, right?”
My face turns red. “Well, yeah. But you’re the first friend to use those words.”
We sit there in awkward silence. Then she leans over and hugs me.
“I love you so much, Natalie. You are the best friend I could ever ask for, and I hope that you know that you bring so much joy to all our lives, and I thank you for being in my life.”
The woman grabs the cage door, rips it open, and pulls me out.
And now I sit, a loveless woman, but not in a way that matters.
Spoiler Warning if You Haven’t Seen the Play Emma’s Child
Spoiler Warning if You Haven’t Seen the Play Emma’s Child
He enters the newly haunted room,
a baby blue bear
in his hands.
His eyes beads of hope,
his stout arms reach out
to offer hugs of apology and promise,
his soft fluff yearning for
a child to nuzzle and call his own.
She turns to him with tears,
and he knows
he’s too late.
He comforts his wife
and the bear falls
to the floor,
forgotten and alone
in a room of mourning.
To You, Three Years from Now
namesakedly optimistic of you.
My successes and trials have been
in your name—I’m running so
you can fly.
still triumphantly single, yes?
Married to our art,
lover of all, tethered to none?
Do we have a house yet?
No matter. Just please know
I’m thinking of you
and for you
I’m doing my best.
To You, Three Years Ago:
your namesake. In this dark
it may seem all lost, but
the light of you will burn
until your last breath, which
is not tomorrow like you think.
twenty years old now. And I
look back on you with
pity, and yet fondness too—
I will protect you. I’ll take your hand
and lead us to joy.
Throw My Hat in the Ring
Color is something.
You expecting me to say things like
red is fire
orange is warm
yellow is joy
green is smooth
blue is thick
purple is jazz?
Everyone else has said
everything that can be said about color.
Everyone else has made
all the metaphors and similes—
I can’t add anything new.
So I’m gonna shut up now.
Lack of Interest
"Are you sure?" he whines as he chases after me. I hasten my pace, desperate to get back to my car.
"Yes, Devin, I am very sure."
"But Maggie, it's a Valentine's dance! You can't go to a Valentine's dance without a date!"
Now I whip around and stare down his snooty little face. "And where did you get the idea I wanted to go to that dance in the first place?"
He quivers as he spits out a forlorn "Please?"
I laugh. "Absolutely not. No thank you, not interested, have a good day, bye" And I'm out the door.
An Arrested Cardiac
I think my heart is broken—
it’s not feeling well. It’s not
stepping in other people’s shoes
or seeing from their point of view
like it used to. Its fire
has been encased in a sheen
of ice—bizarre, unwanted,
uncaring. Numb. The ice is
bitter and piercing. Angry? I’ve
never been so angry before, and
not for so long.
I’m not sure what brought this about—
I have some theories, but
they don’t explain the whole picture.
And I’m not sure how to fix it.
But I must fix it. Or else
the fire will dissipate
never to return