by Zahra Barnes
I clutched my temples and squinted at Jack through my headache. Admiring his sculpted torso eased the pain slightly, although it had been hard to completely shake the constant pounding ever since Marian had given me my marching orders.
After I fled the scene, I’d rushed to my apartment, packed a bag, and hightailed it to the airport. I was on standby for an insanely expensive flight (part of which my parents thankfully covered, further reminding me that I was just playing at being an adult) for almost 12 hours until I finally got a ticket. When I turned on my phone after we’d landed, Jack’s “Dinner. Tomorrow night. Yes?” text pinged through. I’d explained the situation as well as I could in a text message, and he’d called me. We hadn’t stopped talking since.
As soon as my flight from Columbus had landed at JFK, he’d rung me up and told me to take a cab to his place. His treat. Now, after spending the night there (without having sex, because even when I’m coming apart at the seams, I still know what I’m doing), I was telling him the details about my stay at my parents’ place in Ohio. We had to do something in between all the making out, heavy breathing, and rolling around in his blessedly massive bed.
Saying sayonara to New York was the only thing that had kept me from going full-on batshit and storming into Grey & Boehm, demanding the one available position be returned to its rightful owner: me. I was bent on spending the holidays wallowing in my bafflement, surrounded by wrappers of Snickers Ice Cream bars and texting Marley the most unhinged of emojis. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t having it. After two days of waking up past noon and moping around the house like a ghost, my father barged into my room, puffing into a bleating vuvuzela that had been the bane of the 2010 World Cup. He’d been so tickled by them that he’d gotten one himself. I came out of my slumber much like you would expect a bear who had been rudely interrupted from her hibernation to. Once I realized it was just my dad, my frightened roar hitched in my throat and I clutched my covers around my head, mortified that I shared his genes.
“T-izzle!” He’d heard someone refer to Taylor Swift as T-Swizzle and now I couldn’t stop him from using what he definitely thought of as a clever take on the nickname for me. “Time to get up! There’s a whole world out there, just waiting for you to take it over!”
“Daaaad. Please. I’m trying to sleep.” It came out more like “puh-lease, I’m trying to suh-leep,” so transported I was back into my teenage years.
“You’ve had enough sleep. Now it’s time to get movin’.”
My dad Clarence had always been a go-getter. He’d had to track down my mom after getting a glimpse of her at a Vietnam War protest, after all. That hadn’t been an easy feat. An electrical engineer with a surprisingly goofy side, I couldn’t have asked for more in a father. But at that moment, it took everything in me to remind myself of that.
“Let her rest a bit more,” my mom had said, sidling up to my dad in the middle of my childhood bedroom. She was wrapped in a cozy cashmere sweater, looking for all the world like the woman who had picked me up every time I’d fallen off my bike and listened to me blubber about boys when I was a hormonal teenager. As they discussed me like I wasn't there, I stared up at Justin Timberlake’s face. It adorned my ceiling as part of an *Nsync poster I’d shamelessly kept up throughout senior year. I wondered if he and his ramen noodle hair had ever had to return home during a quarter-life crisis.
“Sharon, she can’t take life by the horns when she’s hanging out in bed! She’s got to get up and take a look at the personals. Just respond to any and everything.” How a man who knew anything about Taylor Swift could think the personals would be a good place to find a job mystified me.
“I know, but she’s had a shock. Give her some more time to recover.”
It certainly had been a shock. At times I felt numb to the fact that I’d actually been fired. Others, I was reminded of it with searing clarity. Still, I hauled myself out of bed, my mom’s very subtle reverse psychology working like magic. Talking about me like I was an invalid was an easy way to prod my already bruised ego and send fiery tenderness flaring up beneath the black and blue. I didn’t want to be weak. She gave me an encouraging smile and hustled into the kitchen, where she had been cooking like mad to prepare for us having family over.
Oh, yeah, did I mention that? I’d just been fired and fled to my childhood home with my big-city-girl tail between my legs, right at a time when my entire extended family was descending upon our home for the holidays. Brilliant.
“After that, it was a lot of explaining to my dad why I couldn’t just confront Liv again with a ‘look here, this is serious’ voice and telling my mom there’s no way I can schedule a meeting with Marian to explain,” I said to Jack. “And then of course, dealing with my relatives’ questions.” I cringed as I remembered the awkwardness.
If my aunt wasn’t asking me, “Where’s that nice man you brought around last year?” (as if she really needed to hear about the Grant-Sophie saga), my uncle’s lecherous manchild bachelor of a friend was nudging me and asking if he could treat me to a Never Ending Pasta Bowl at Olive Garden. Then there were the countless “how’s the job?” questions I had to field. My entire family had been so proud that I’d left the nest of Ohio and gone on to make a life for myself somewhere else. Now I was back, opening presents under the tree in a festive onesie and getting drunk on moscato with my parents, who sandwich-kissed my cheeks when the clock hit midnight to usher in 2015. I felt like I could easily make a cameo on the new season of Girls. That realization alone was horrifying.
My parents had tackled my unemployment in very different ways. My father, ever the pragmatist, worked his scientist’s mind over every possible solution to my Grey & Boehm problem. He understood how much it hurt me to just walk away from something I loved so much, but I wasn’t sure I could fight it at this point. When I expressed that I felt bad for Liv and her predicament with her father’s health, he shook his head gravely.
“That is not how I raised you to be, Tessy.” Him calling me by my childhood nickname made me ache for a time when my biggest decision was whether I wanted dino chicken nuggets or fish sticks for lunch. “Of course, you should care about that on a human level. But would a man factor that in after an injustice in the workplace? I can tell you right now: he wouldn’t.” He urged me to confront Marian or Liv, or even sue the company. “If you play your cards right,” he said as he jiggled his Tevas at me. “You can win this.”
My mom took a different tack. She saw this as a chance for me to pursue all the activities I’d loved as a child instead of just get another arts event planning job. It was only in her 40s that she’d left her job in office administration and launched the interior decorating career she’d always kept on the back burner. “Every door that closes is a golden opportunity!” she said in a mishmash of idioms that could have been written on a motivational poster of a kitten hanging onto a branch or a pebbly beach with dolphins in the background.
Jack laughed when I mentioned that, so I kept going.
“She spent half the weekend telling me how much I loved swimming growing up. ‘You should be a swim instructor!’ I don’t think she knows I haven’t even gotten my feet wet at a pool in months. I can’t shell out big bucks to join Equinox. But I humored her,” I told Jack. I wasn’t going to repay her stuffing me full of quality Southern food by stomping on her delusion that her wayward daughter would right herself when she set foot on a gritty New York sidewalk.
“Of course you did! I would expect nothing less. Listen, I have to get to the library, but I have an idea.” He grinned mischievously, and I broke out in goose bumps. Given the many ideas he’d had over the past night about how to make me feel like I’d lost my mind without even taking off my underwear, I was intrigued. “What do you think about just getting away for a weekend?”
Warily, I tried to dull the spark of excitement that erupted inside me. Was it too soon for a getaway? “What do you mean?”
“You said yourself that you have enough savings to get you through the next few months. You can handle a weekend away before you throw yourself into the job-hunting grind.” His eyes flickered with excitement. “How about somewhere in upstate New York? We can hide away at a little bed and breakfast, and there are some amazing hikes. I just want to help take your mind off things.”
I remembered the moment when I’d bent over to zip my bag before my parents took me to the airport to come back. My pants had split right down the middle. I could definitely use a hike. Emotional binging had formed a devious team with stress eating and wreaked absolute havoc on my body. I was going to be one of those new gym people everyone rolls their eyes at and thinks will be gone by February, but for my own sake, I knew I had to get active. Some leisurely hikes would be a good place to start. As long as Jack was in front of me, I could just focus on his butt and be like one of those rabbits that has a carrot tied in front of it. They’ll hop forever just to get a nibble.
“What about school?”
He waved it away like an afterthought. “It’s a slow time for me. A weekend away won’t be a big deal. I can just front-load and get a ton done before we go. What do you say?”
As low-budget soap opera-esque as it was, I felt like the city I’d always loved had turned its back on me. New York had seemed like the perfect place to toil away at my dreams. It was where I was supposed to shed my first skin before growing into my competent, adult final form. The hustle and bustle had been all the adrenaline I’d needed to move through the street like a whippet, carving out my slice of the pie. Being in the city without a job made me feel unmoored, like I could pull a thread somewhere on my body and just unravel completely, ending up as a useless pile of ratty yarn. I knew escaping from the city was technically just running from everything that scared me, but it was so tempting to dress it up as a romantic getaway instead. All of this mess, deciding whether I would confront Liv or Marian or even someone higher-up at Revel, would still be waiting for me when I came back.
Sensing my uncertainty, Jack continued. “We could make sure to book somewhere with a fireplace and maybe even a jacuzzi. Think of all the spiked hot chocolate we could drink. I’ll bring the marshmallows…” he trailed off and cocked his head at me.
I pushed him back into the pillows, feeling energetic for the first time since my pulse had gone wild when I’d rushed to my apartment from Grey & Boehm to pack my things. I straddled Jack and pinned his shoulders down, then asked the all-important question. “When do we leave?”