Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3857 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

The Encounter

Jennifer Nissley

The most ridiculous thing happened to me at the coffee shop yesterday. I only went there to get some work done, because it’s virtually impossible to be productive when your downstairs neighbors have started one of their obnoxious home renovation projects. I think they’re putting in a new bath tub or something this time. Except it’s not one of those simple bath-fitter things that you just pick out of a catalog and pop into place. No. This is an extravagant do-it-yourself endeavor. I know because it involves saws. Evidently, my neighbors think that a bathroom cannot be properly renovated unless the new fixtures are constructed in the fucking kitchen.

I cannot wait until Kat finishes her residency so we can buy our own house in the country somewhere. I want our property to be so isolated that we have to drive into the next county to find our neighbors. In fact, I would be perfectly content if our nearest contacts were the chickens in the coop out back. I really don’t fucking care at this point—I just want out of this city.

Sometimes when I’m pacing the apartment, stalking inspiration, I’ll take a moment to consider the gilded antique globe in our bedroom that Kat picked up at a flea market. Then I take my thumb and blot out where I imagine Albany (vulgar, soulless place!) would be located on this cartographer’s half-assed conception of North America, if he’d even be able to draw New York properly.

I first started to hate Albany when its hospital took my girlfriend away from me. We used to be able to spend every night together, and nearly every weekend, when she was still in medical school. But now that she’s a resident, well, I have to admit that I’m starting to forget what she even looks like. The twelve-hour shifts aren’t even the worst of it; I can’t even tell you the last time we were able to make love and truly relish the intimacy. Kat says she’s too exhausted, now, for anything but a quick tumble.

I’ve almost gotten used to showering alone, eating alone, writing alone, but I will never get used to actually being alone. This Sunday is supposed to be Kat’s first day off in a month, if she can convince her supervisor that she won’t be needed. I remain hopeful, even though Kat hasn’t mentioned it for a couple days now.

But the story of how I came to hate this city, and how I’ve all but lost my girlfriend to it, is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell involves what happened to me yesterday, after Kat rushed off to yet another thankless shift at the hospital. I couldn’t take the neighbors anymore, those inconsiderate fucks, so I crammed three books and my laptop into a backpack and made the four-block trudge through ankle-deep snow to the Raspberry Café, that little place on the corner of Eagle with the giant bay window. Kat and I used to go there all the time. Sometimes we’d order mocha lattés, but mostly we’d just sit and talk. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been there; I’d certainly never gone alone.

I wasn’t feeling social, so I found a secluded table in the back, well away from the gaggle of pseudo-intellectuals posing on the more centralized furniture. I ordered a coffee from a waitress with pretty decent tits and extracted my laptop carefully from my backpack. While I waited for it to boot up, I fished out my books and stacked them from thickest to thinnest, carefully checking to make sure that each one was aligned perfectly in the middle of the other.

Satisfied, I opened a blank Word document and locked eyes with the blinking cursor, contemplating my options. But while half of my brain was straining for inspiration, the other half was preoccupied with scrutinizing the college kids lounging on the sofas across from where I was sitting. There were five of them: two boys, three girls. One of the girls appeared to be telling a story, and was gesturing dramatically while the others laughed along, sipping their coffee confections. I observed them for a minute or two before fixing my gaze upon the handful of stragglers at the counter, none of them noteworthy, save for a honey-blonde in a loud floral skirt, an unusual choice for wintertime.

I was admiring her profile, enchanted by the great height of her cheekbones, the smirk of her immaculately rouged lips as she eye-fucked the dessert display, when I realized, to my absolute horror, that I knew this woman. It was that look on her face that I recognized, except the first time I saw it we were horizontal; I remember thinking, half-dumb with sleep, that I’d never let myself forget that look.

In hindsight, this might not have been such a good idea. I mean, you never expect to see people from your past unless you’ve deliberately arranged to meet, but that’s practically never how Life works. Life in fact does not “work” at all, it just happens, and Time trundles obliviously along because Time frankly does not care about the crazy fucked-up shit that Life exposes you to. You’re supposed to take it all “in stride,” as the saying goes.

Yet I couldn’t help but feel distinctly out of stride right then, at this hapless intersection of Life and Time, so I ducked, literally, to avoid it, sinking lower and lower into my chair until I felt confident that she wouldn’t be able to see me over the sizable dimensions of my computer screen.

But alas, that was when the waitress returned with my coffee.

“Are you all right, Lily?” she asked with insufferable sweetness.

“Yeah, I was just…stretching,” I answered, cringing. She must have gotten my name off my debit card; it was worse than being outed, because she said it so damn loud that the woman I’d been trying to avoid turned around and saw me slouching there. My petrified expression had to have been what set off the memory. A woman like Breanne Garrison never really sheds her predatory instincts.

“Lily!” she exclaimed. “Lily! Holy shit, is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” I affirmed, smiling meekly. I glanced nervously to where I thought the waitress was standing, but she’d already flounced off, completely unaware of the massive armful of shit she’d just dumped into my lap.

The thing is, Breanne Garrison is not at all like other people from my past. Occasionally I’ll run into someone I used to know—at the grocery store, for example—and later on I’ll consider it one of that day’s little blessings, to have confirmation that an old friend is doing all right. Kat is into stuff like that; counting your blessings, I mean. The hospital is so hectic that she takes a moment before bed every night to write at least three things about her day that didn’t completely suck.

But I’m not as optimistic as my girlfriend, and I could tell, as Breanne started to approach, that she had already begun to calculate ways to confuse and hurt me. Breanne feeds off confusion and pain. Why, for example, was she wearing a skirt in the middle of January? That was confusing. And how had she managed to stay so achingly beautiful, when I feel like the past seven years since undergrad have done nothing but corrode me? Not to mention how just seeing her red, smiling mouth again made me think of what it used to do to me…and what I would do back to her in return.

That was agonizing.

And yet there was nothing I could do; in a matter of seconds, the grinning bitch was sitting across from me. Her smile seemed almost genuine, but then again, Breanne had studied acting in college. She’d wanted to be on Broadway then, but I suppose that never ended up happening. How devastating for her. And to think that I’d once supported her endeavors, and helped her read her lines, and piled on the encouragement even though I knew, I just fucking knew, that there was no way in hell she’d ever manage to become famous.

Yet it seemed to me like weathering all that disappointment had just made her even more beautiful. How was that even remotely fair?

“Holy shit,” Breanne kept saying. “Holy shit. This is surreal.”

I smiled at the word. “Yeah,” I said, my mouth dry. “I guess it is. How are you?”

“Fan-tastic!” Breanne exclaimed with her characteristic over-use of emotion. “I mean, I’m really great. What about you? Have you got any work?”

Have I got any work.

I’m sure she said that just to provoke me. She must have remembered how fastidious I was about grammar. Christ, I used to stay up late editing her papers for her. She wasn’t much of an actress, but she really wasn’t much of an academic, either. She had always been smart in other ways, sniffing out my insecurities and twisting them until I bled.

“Yeah, just freelance stuff.” I said. I briefly considered elaborating, but I figured she wouldn’t care that I had been contacted by the editor of a local rag to write an article on downtown’s oldest restaurant, except I’d found the story dull, and had been procrastinating shamefully.

Not to mention, and this is weird for me to admit, but I was actually more interested in talking about Breanne. I wanted to sit still and listen while she wept out her tale of failure; I wanted to gloat, and take comfort in my modest success, while those woe-filled words dripped from her pretty lips. I wonder how low she’d felt when she finally realized that her life’s ambition was wildly, laughably impractical?

I told myself I’d rather have an absent girlfriend than an unrealistic one. And she theoretically wouldn’t be absent anymore, come Sunday. We’d have twenty-four whole hours to catch up.

“So…” I began, idly turning my coffee. “What brings you to Albany?”

Breanne looked a little mystified at my question. “I’ve lived here for about a year now,” she said, smirking. “But since you asked, I work in real estate.”

Somehow, knowing that we lived in the same city was infinitely more disturbing to me than the randomness of the encounter itself. The notion that we might accidentally meet like this again tomorrow, or yet again, even three weeks or a whole month from now, was terrifying as hell. What if Kat was with me the next time we stumbled upon each other? I’d never mentioned Breanne to her before, and…oh, God, she wouldn’t understand.

How was I supposed to explain someone like Breanne to Kat? I couldn’t just say, “Behold, my first love!” and expect her to go for it. I’d told Kat about my previous girlfriends; she knew all about the painter, Sasha, and Cammie, who used to pull my hair so hard in bed that my eyes would water. Then there was Morgan, the woman I’d been seeing when I met Kat, whose heart I broke, deliberately, because I told myself that Kat was all I’d ever need to be happy.

Yet here I was, mere inches away from the first girl I’d ever loved, and she was still so damn beautiful. I thought back to the night she broke up with me, when I’d laid my head in her lap and sobbed, begging her, please baby, don’t do this. Please, I love you, only to have her stand up and brush me away like a crumb.

I nearly killed myself for her.

I swallowed and glanced out the Raspberry Café’s famous bay window at the filthy heaps of snow piled along the road. I figured I might as well attempt a joke.

“Maybe you’d have better luck selling houses in Siberia.”

Breanne’s snorting laughter jackknifed through me. I winced and took up my coffee, suddenly unable to give a damn that it was still a bit too hot to drink. The truth was, I wanted to bolt. I would have fled the second I’d noticed her trying to seduce the desserts, if it weren’t for the cacophony that awaited me back at my apartment. I couldn’t think about all this heavy shit anymore. I had an article to write, a girlfriend to wait at home for.

“It’s really not that bad,” Breanne was saying. “You see, the tri-city area is actually pretty desirable. From a real estate perspective, I mean. You just have to take into account…”

While I sat there, half-heartedly listening to Breanne’s monologue about the limitless potential of the capital region’s real estate, I began to imagine what my Life would come to resemble if Breanne managed to claw herself back into it. Kat would most definitely leave me. I’d have to drop the freelance work and take up a desk job or something similarly mundane, just so I could maybe still afford the hell-hole where I’m living now. Breanne would move in, and we’d fight every night, perhaps in the morning sometimes as well. And we would make up for all the screaming and physical brutality the same way we had when we were in college: we’d fuck each other delirious.

I was contemplating all of this, blanching by the second, when the waitress with the boobs materialized at our table again to ask whether Breanne wanted anything. She ordered an iced coffee—naturally, she would require something cold to drink in this freezing weather—and a piece of chocolate pie.

Breanne waited for the waitress to leave before resuming the conversation. “What it basically comes down to,” she summarized, “is that people can’t get enough of these old brownstones. It’s better than down in the city, anyway. The housing there is so over-priced.”

“Why’d you leave the city?” I asked. “I thought you were going to be an actress.” I pretended to wipe my lips so the napkin would cover my smile. I knew, of course, what she would say.

Breanne dropped her gaze and began to pick at something on her skirt. I awaited her confession patiently, enjoying the look of pain that was just now starting to creep into her eyes, and feeling pleasantly warm all over with vindication.

“Actually,” she said, her voice rather tight, “I got divorced.”

“You what?” I blurted. She looked at me, fluttering her exquisite eyelashes in a vain attempt to wave away her tears, but I couldn’t say anything to comfort her because I wasn’t actually feeling any sympathy. So I just stared at her, and kept staring until the click of the plate being set between us by the waitress finally made me blink.

Breanne thanked her quietly.

“Y-you,” I groped for the right words. “But, you’re—“

“I know,” she interrupted. “I am, Lily. I know that now for sure.”

I said then, without thinking, “So you’re saying…” but then I stopped myself because there was no subtle way to articulate the one question I wanted so badly to ask. Apparently, she hadn’t been so sure of her sexuality when we were in love with each other, and fucking every night. And here I’d been under the impression that relishing the taste of another woman’s cum was a sure sign that you were gay.

“I knew I was gay when we were together, Lil,” Breanne said. The waitress had brought us two forks; she offered me one, and I took it, mechanically. “In fact, I’ve known I was gay since I was a little girl. It’s just so hard, you know?”

“You think so?” I wondered. “That’s odd, because so far I’ve found it so fucking pleasant to be a social pariah.”

The acerbity of my tone made her wince. “You know I didn’t mean it like that,” she said.

“No, I know,” I replied, relenting a little. “It’s just that…we broke up so suddenly. Right before graduation, remember? God, Bre, I could have fucking killed you. I thought my life was over.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Breanne said dismissively. “Clearly, your life was not over.”

I decided to ignore the glaring irony of her calling me dramatic.

“Well I realize that now,” I snapped. “But when I was twenty-one, yeah, it sure fucking felt like it.”

“Do you have anyone now?” Breanne inquired, loading her fork with whipped cream.

“I do,” I said promptly. “She’s a medical resident.”

“Wow,” Breanne sounded impressed. “That’s nice. I guess she takes good care of you, huh? Doctors your wounds.”

“Yeah,” I said, forcing a smile. “She’s wonderful.”

“I had someone,” Breanne volunteered. Her gaze shifted downward again as she added, “I miss her like hell. I think she’s the one who finally convinced me about myself.”

“You’re the one who convinced me,” I said, quietly.

Breanne couldn’t say anything—her mouth was too full of chocolate pie. But she could have said something once she’d swallowed, if she’d wanted to. We sat silently, almost wearily, while Breanne decimated the remainder of her pie. When she decided she was finished, she laid her fork down and pushed the plate toward me.

“You can have the crust,” she said. Her right eyelid did a little skip that was almost a wink, but not quite. “I know how fond you are of finishing things off.”

I watched, a little shaken, as she stood to leave.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’ve got a house to sell,” she said. “But I’ll see you around, right?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. I stood up then, too, because dyke custom dictates that two former lovers have to embrace at the conclusion of a run-in like this, if only to ensure that the awkwardness lingers until the very end.

“Oh, here,” Breanne said, removing a card from her purse and pressing it into my hand. “It’s my business card. Give me a call sometime, okay? I should be free Sunday.”

I snatched my hand away and stuffed the card into my pocket.

Then she said, smiling, “It was good seeing you, Lil.”

And I replied, “You too, Bre.”

I sat down slowly, deliberately turning my face to the wall so Breanne wouldn’t be able to wave at me or catch my eye one last time when she walked past the bay window, a move that she’d probably already calculated.

I let a few minutes elapse like this, my face right up against the wall like I was punishing myself, until I felt like trying to write again. I opened up my laptop and arched my fingers over the keyboard, ready to pound this damn article out already, only to find myself wrung dry of motivation.

Above all, Breanne had always been such a motherfucking leech. I couldn’t let her do this to me again. I had to regroup. Begrudgingly, I finished the rind-like crust she’d left me, its dryness stopping up my mouth like ash.


Kat arrived home sometime around ten o’clock that night, approximately four hours after I’d officially given up on writing my article. I was sitting on the couch, pretending to watch TV. She came up behind me and draped her arms over my shoulders, but she smelled sour, like the hospital, so I got up and walked away.

“Baby?” she asked, following me into the bedroom, “What’s wrong? Did you have a bad day?”

I had to laugh. “I’m not sure.”

I watched in the dresser mirror as Kat pulled off her scrubs.

“Well,” she said. “What did you do?”

I turned around. She was naked now except for the pale cotton panties she’d taken to wearing lately, instead of her usual black lace.

“The neighbors were making a racket, so I went to the Raspberry to work.”

“Oh, I love that place!” Kat said. She lay on the bed while I wandered slowly about the room, undressing in segments. My mind had been on spin cycle ever since that morning; even the simple act of removing my clothes required great deliberation.

“So,” Kat said, “did you finish your article?”

“Yeah.” I was too busy searching our absurdly tiny closet for a spare hanger to realize that I’d lied.

“Really?” Kat twisted around to face me, her brown eyes gleaming with interest. “That’s great! Do you think they’ll like it?”

“They’d fucking better, or else you’ll have to pay my portion of the rent again this month.”

I wasn’t finished undressing, but I went and sat down next to Kat anyway, fitting my hand snugly between her thighs. She grinned and whipped over onto her back, so I began to stroke her belly, smiling in appraisal of her curves. She is a goddess, undoubtedly. Fuck Breanne and her colorless limbs; how had I ever let myself miss them?

I relished Kat’s sigh as I ran my hand over her breasts. Breanne’s simply did not compare.

“What are you grateful for today?” I asked.

“Well, Mrs. Giuseppe didn’t try to pull out her colostomy bag like yesterday,” she said thoughtfully, “and I think I might be getting Sunday off after all.”

“You did?” I lurched to my feet. “That’s great.” I’m sure I didn’t sound like I believed it.

“Where are you going?” Kat reached out and snagged me by the back pocket, pulling me back onto the bed, into her arms.

“I missed you,” she said, nuzzling her face into my shoulder. I groaned as she slid her hand into my jeans, but she quickly withdrew it, grinning like an imp as she flicked my zipper. “Did you miss me?”

“You know I did,” I said, unzipping. “I miss you all the time.” I closed my eyes with a sigh, mad for her touch. She started to oblige, then hesitated.

“Oh, what’s this?” I felt her draw something out of my pocket.

My eyes snapped open as she read, “’Breanne Garrison, realtor.’ Who’s that, Lil?”

“No one,” I said. Thinking quickly, I added, “You know that big window at the café? I was sitting next to it, and she came up and asked if I was a fan of that kind of architecture.”

It was the most productive moment I’d had all day. To my relief, Kat giggled. “What a pick-up line.”

I laughed along, if somewhat hollowly.

“Did you want to keep it?” Kat asked.

I shook my head, plucked the card from her hand and tossed it behind me. “I only want to keep you,” I said, taking her face in my hands. “Now kiss me.”

I lay awake later with Kat slumbering in my arms, my head too jammed with thoughts to let me sleep. Carefully, I extracted myself from Kat’s embrace and got down on my hands and knees beside the bed. I probed the carpet until I found Breanne’s card, which did not take long, for I suppose she guided me toward it, in her wickedest bedroom whisper. Over here, Lily. And then, Good girl, as I reached under the night stand and closed my hand over it, felt it grinning in my palm.

—Previously published in Contemporary World Literature (May/June 2011)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury