“Whose pants are those?”
I looked down as I said it, the word muffled in the bend of my throat. I pulled up the jeans I had slept in by my belt loops. Beth did not look convinced. She scowled.
I almost smiled when she said it, my face still turned down toward my jutting hip bones.
She snorted in disgust. Her coat was on, scarf dangling in the space between the lapels. My bare feet were cold on the kitchen linoleum. She looked as if she wanted to say something, her lips pursed, words almost bursting through pink lip gloss. But she turned away instead, slamming the door of our apartment behind her.
Beth and I were friends primarily because I used correct grammar in text messages and she always had spare change for the parking meters. We met at the campus health center during college. I was there to lie about my weight and to make sure my blood pressure existed. Beth had come after a cross country meet, bags of ice tied to her shin splints. It’s a wonder we found anything to talk about at all.
I opened the cabinet and pulled out the box of cereal I was supposed to eat for breakfast every morning. I took out three tiny corn puffs and crushed them into dust. I sprinkled them over the tablespoon of milk in the bottom of a clean bowl. I placed it in the sink with a spoon. I poured a cup of black coffee and drank it while I dressed for work.
I ignored the turning heads at the tinkle from the bell on the door. I worked in the upstairs office of City Lights Bookstore and Publishing Company, based in San Francisco. I walked staring at the wooden floor, waving to the cashier before ascending the stairs to the second level, poetry and history, and then again to the third floor, employees only. I nearly tripped over the new book order on the other side of the door.
“Nathan. Why hasn’t anyone moved these?”
I caught myself, barely, and dropped my bag to balance myself. Nathan appeared in his office doorway.
He had a spoon dangling from his mouth, a yogurt cup in one hand and a pen in the other. The pen had exploded. It was dripping thick black ink into a pool on the floor. I stared at it while Nathan looked somewhere over my shoulder. I kicked the boxes into a corner and shook my head all the way to my desk.
“There’s a new manuscript on your desk I wanted you to take a look at.”
Nathan had followed me, still eating out of the cup. My stomach growled when I saw the fluffy pink yogurt. I plugged in my coffee pot.
“Did you read it already?”
“Yeah, I think chapter seven and nineteen need some work but I told the guy you could edit it for next week.”
“That was nice of you.”
“Calm down Jack, I can tell him you can’t if you can’t.”
Nathan called me Jack.
Nathan and I graduated college the same year; I took three years longer getting to the company out of school. Nathan started working, and I went crazy. While he acquired real-life experience, I went to prison treatment. I wandered into San Francisco with a fresh layer of fat and one pair of jeans.
My cell phone vibrated halfway through the first chapter of the manuscript. I glanced at it. Beth.
“Chelsea, it’s me, I’m having people over later.”
“Are you working late?”
“Is it because people are coming over?”
“Try to get out a little early?”
I hung up the phone, turned it off, and set it in a drawer. I opened the portfolio again and read the next few chapters. It was about a tree-girl, a fantasy novel about the struggle between the earth and humanity, being trapped between two worlds. It fascinated me. The beautiful images in the folder brought the author’s world to life, a woman reaching out into the air, cracking through bark and roots, desperate to escape the plant matter that is her body. I rolled my chair to the window, into a patch of sunshine. I closed my eyes and willed my freezing skin to photosynthesize.
There wasn’t any sunshine in prison treatment. I couldn’t take my energy from the natural star of burning gas millions of miles away. Instead they fed me. They kept me until I was fat and bloated from weeks of eating pasta with sauce so thick it was almost solid; they left me to feel my insides congeal, watching the dripdripdrip of IV’s filled with poison sodium chloride. They told me I was anorexic. I told them I was an angel.
When I was in college I would pick up Beth on my drive to school. She lived just outside of Portland; we went to Reed together. One trip Beth hangs over my head whenever she catches me skipping meals:
“How much longer do you think?”
Beth pressed her bare painted toes on the lip of the passenger side window. Sun-baked air blew against her red sunglasses. She looked like Audrey Hepburn.
“I’m not sure, maybe an hour.”
I picked a pace vehicle, a car to follow so I could let my white knuckles have a rest. I picked a driver with a severe case of I’m-a-douche-bag-who-drives-a-shitty-Nissan-and-doesn’t-use-blinkers syndrome. I don’t know if the accident actually had anything to do with him or his blinkers but I recall that California license plate with a taste of bile in my throat. I remember seeing him slip into the next lane and wondering briefly if I had fed my cat before I left home. I told myself I didn’t have a cat. I had never had a cat. I hated cats. And then everything went dark.
Beth’s screaming brought me back into consciousness. I turned my head against the headrest to look at her. Her smooth smooth legs were bleeding, covered in tiny cuts and flakes of broken windshield glass that glittered in the sunshine. The red sunglasses were on the floor, cracked and covered in blue shards. Her eyes were black with running makeup and when she looked at me my stomach clenched in agony. The airbag was still pressurized against my chest. I could feel the blood from my nose dripping onto my new button up. I told my mother not to buy white.
Her voice sounded far away, covered in a buzzing from the rushing pressure in my ears. I read her lips more than I heard her. My eye lids were heavy so I let them close, sealing with the moisture my tear ducts made to remove dust particles. The sun felt so warm on my face, even through the stinging. I soaked the heat up and stored it in my bones. Maybe I could take it out later, when I needed it in wintertime. I couldn’t hear Beth anymore. This must be what Beethoven felt like.
When I moved into Beth’s San Francisco apartment after treatment, she told me she had one rule. I assumed it would be that I had to maintain some kind of diet and when she told me what it was I regretted my assumption that the entirety of the universe revolved around my insanity eating disorder.
“What is it?”
“No lying, Chelsea.”
Beth looked at me with a reproachful stare. Clearly there was some intense scene she had planned out in her head months earlier. Clearly my response was not following the script.
“I promise, Beth. No lying.”
“Yeah, whate-. You’re welcome.”
My shrink therapist told me to be more empathetic towards my friends. I remembered to ask him what empathy meant. I forgot to ask him how to do it. I got my job at City Lights after I ran into Nathan at Borderlands, the fantasy bookstore on Valencia St. He recognized me before I noticed him, sitting in a corner, piles of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett stacked around me in a moat circle.
I looked up from The Science of Discworld and stared at pleated khaki pant legs. I knew who it was before I looked up at him. He was taller, if possible, and his black hair waved in renounced care down to his blazer lapels. He was a San Francisco hipster if I had ever seen one. He looked at the jacket of my book.
“Jack Cohen fan?”
“Well, Jack, would you like to join me for ice cream after you’ve sorted through your collection?”
“How about coffee?”
I set the manuscript down again when my coffee machine beeped at me to take away the steaming glass pot. I took a mug and the portfolio with me down to the main store and sat at a cafe table, people watching out the storefront. I read the author’s brief bio on the cover page:
Born in New York City, Brandon Keller attended Marquette University and received a Masters Degree in writing and literature. He lives in San Francisco with his dog, Dutchy, and his fiancee. Apple Tree is his first novella.
“How do you like it?”
Nathan materialized in the faux wrought iron chair across from me.
“Don’t be a bitch.”
“I’m not, I like it, actually!”
I stood up and snatched the pile from Nathan’s outstretched hands. I was known to be a harsh critic, and usually deserved what he had said, but for once I wasn’t being sarcastic.
“Sorry, then. Don’t leave, come on.”
Nathan looked up at me, his brown eyes wide and complacent. Like a deer. My hair stood up on the back of my neck and I pivoted so fast I almost hit a shelf with my elbow.
“I have a lot of editing to do.”
I half ran, half tripped up the stairs, the soft tips of my ballet flats offering no cushion as my toes smashed against the wood.
My apartment was dark, the hum of the refrigerator breaking the silence. I slipped off my shoes and crept past the first bedroom. I could hear Antonio Jobime playing. Beth must have someone over. I smiled to myself, projecting a list of comically awkward breakfast scenes as I brushed my teeth and pulled on sweatpants before booting up my ancient dell. I stayed at my desk, editing Apple Tree, until two in the morning, when I rolled myself up in down comforter and drifted off to sleep, my dreams filled with tree-women and cages.
I cracked an eyelid. Beth stood in my doorway, hair damp and shoulders stiff in a blue robe.
“Jason made eggs, want some?”
“Sure, I’ll be out in a minute.”
I shuffled around the apartment until I found myself acceptable enough to make a kitchen appearance. Jason, Beth’s overnight companion, was standing in front of a frying pan, oil hissing like a gas leak. He put a pile of eggs on a plate and offered them to me in a silent greeting. I waited until he left the kitchen to dump half of them back in the pan, the other half in tupperware, grab a travel mug of caffeine and run out the door. I threw the ancient container in the dumpster on the way to work.
I dropped the edited manuscript on Nathan’s desk without looking at him. I wasn’t expecting him to be in so early and it irked me that he had arrived first. I think anything he did irked me.
“Thanks, Jack. I’ll tell him it’s done, you didn’t have to do this in one night you know.”
“I got into it.”
“I think you drink too much coffee.”
“Mind your own business.”
Brandon Keller brought his novella back a week later, in person, to meet his editor. I was not pleased.
“You’re being irrational, Jack. How do you edit without the author?”
“E-mail. We live in an age of technology. I shouldn’t have to see anyone.”
Brandon Keller opened the door to Nathan’s office. I kept my back to the door, trying to plead with Nathan through some kind of psychic eye language. He wasn’t having it.
“Mr. Keller, your editor, Ms. Chelsea Sarver.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Sarver”
Brandon held his hand out. I self-consciously shook it, watching his eyes cringe slightly at the temperature of my skin. I must have felt like a cadaver.
“Please, call me Chelsea.”
We went over my notes most of the day, breaking only for coffee and the restroom. Brandon was pleasant to work with, quiet, reserved, everything his writing was. He was older than me, maybe by ten or fifteen years, and his eyes were slightly yellowed around his green irises, like parchment paper. He reminded me of my grandfather. I slept on the futon in my office that night.
“Thank you so much, for everything. I’ll be in touch.”
Brandon shook my hand the next morning, warm from holding my ceramic mug. I smiled at him, even though I had a strange sinking feeling of despair. The Apple Tree was leaving. I had grown irrationally attached to the manuscript over the past week and seeing it leave, even with my editing, was a sad affair. I swiveled my desk chair back and forth slowly in front of my window, closing my eyes and wishing I was in my bed. I felt weak and lethargic, my bones aching from the futon and too much coffee. I pressed my palms flat on my hips, smiling just a little at how much they stuck out. I jumped when Nathan spoke from the doorway.
“Well Jack, looks like you get to leave early today.”
“We got off early today.”
“Oh, I forgot. It’s Mike’s birthday, isn’t it?”
Mike was our manager. His wife always made him participate in some overly festive birthday celebration that he came in complaining about the next day. He brought leftovers in to the office; no one felt sorry for him.
“You didn’t eat today.”
“Is that rhetorical?”
“Okay, okay, I’ll eat something.”
I scowled as I reached up for the box of fat-free saltines (60) on the highest shelf in the pantry. Beth crossed her arms and scrutinized me covering each cracker with a tablespoon of peanut butter (190). I forced my mouth around each one. Beth disappeared and returned with an index card.
“Go to this address after work.”
“What? What is it?”
“What are we in the mafia? What is this Beth?”
I followed her instructions, feeling mildly ridiculous for doing so, and ended up at Katherine Brooks, Psychologist M.D. I stared blankly at the converted victorian townhouse building. I chewed the inside of my cheek for almost fifteen minutes until I looked back down at the index card. Beth’s writing was loopy, almost cursive but not quite. It was bubbly in places, almost like it should be in pink pen with hearts as dots. Normally I would be furious at her attempt to force me into something like this. But right now, looking up at the faded pink shutters and off-white paint job, I didn’t feel anything. She didn’t trick me into getting into her car, or drag me by my wrist down the sidewalk. I walked here. And I can go inside or turn around. I folded the card into quarters, placing it in the middle of my clammy palm. I walked up the path and into the waiting room in an adrenaline rushed haze, my heart beating so fast I was sure it could be heard, pounding against my rib bones. I signed my name on the waiting list, sat on a smooth plastic chair, and selected a trashy tabloid.