Working Backwards

by Janni Raychuk

 

We meet again at Kara’s party. I see Her sitting at a table, fiddling around with her phone. When She looks up at me, her eyes betray reticent recognition and a little bit of anger. She is early. She is never early. “I was in the area. Finished dinner ahead of time…figured I might as well show up now.” I excuse myself and head to the bathroom.

 

The tension lessens as everyone arrives. I hug Kara, her boyfriend, and all the acquaintances I hadn’t seen since last year. I order a Jack and Coke, hold the Jack, haha. Kara feels vindicated, but so do I. Arwa corners me, but only because she feels obligated to. “Arwa, last time I saw you was…never.” We laugh and discuss the educational pursuits we haven’t pursued yet. I turn away for a moment and for a split second, She and I make eye contact. She averts her gaze quickly and I return to the conversation with Arwa, which is headed nowhere, but we both know this and five minutes later we wander away from each other.

 

I’m talking to Jess and her boyfriend, Paul, but Jess is somewhere else. I know she’s not in love. I know that when she drives down from Toronto and has to choose between New York and Pennsylvania, she hesitates for a moment, then turns left. She and Greg spend the night together, then she drives back to New York to attend Kara’s party. She ignores Paul and pays more attention to me than is warranted or appropriate, but who am I to judge? Paul is too naive to know the difference.

 

In the middle of conversation with Jess, someone tugs at my hair. I turn around and Olya makes a hand-to-mouth motion. I do have cigarettes, and we head outside. Little do I know, She is outside too. The two of us smoke while She shuffles her feet against the concrete. “But you took LSAT lessons. You did well. I should go to Kaplan or something.” I smirk. “It’s not about lessons; it’s about speed. Solve practice questions. Develop your own strategies. Me, I work backwards. I always have. That’s the only way I passed high school math.” She and Olya look down at their shoes. I make sure to blow smoke in the opposite direction. A couple nearby furrow their brows, but I don’t know them so it doesn’t matter. Olya asks Her about work. Same old, same old. The front of the bar looks like a brownstone you’d see somewhere in Park Slope. I crush the cigarette with my heel. “Back inside?” Olya assents and She says nothing.

 

A pleasant looking Indian man accosts me. He offers me a sip of his drink; I politely decline. Arwa joins us, and the three of us talk about international travel. I’ve never stepped foot outside the U.S. The two of them wax poetic about Thailand. While she’s talking, he stares at me. Arwa notices and gracefully steps away to another group of friends. I tell him about the past three years of my life, except for the parts I’m resolved to never, ever mention. He finds me charming, and he is charming. He does not interest me in the least.

 

Kara’s boyfriend is carrying in the cake he bought from a nearby bakery. We all take a slice. I’m sitting at a table with Kara, her boyfriend, and a few other people, while She stands around having a conversation with people she doesn’t know. As always, She grabs their attention immediately. They are rapt. She is charming. The cake is delicious.

 

Someone taps my shoulder. I tell Olya that it’s a bit too soon to have another cigarette, but she insists. I lean against a lamppost. She tells me that her boyfriend cheated on her. The worst betrayal imaginable. She tells me that for the past three months, she’s been extremely depressed. Sometimes she cries uncontrollably. Her mother has no idea. Her boss sends her pictures of his cock. Sometimes she thinks about ending it all, but what good would that do? “You want to be a therapist…so what do you think?” “I’m not a therapist yet, but I think you should see one.” She scoffs and tosses her cigarette. “I’m sick of meeting men online. They just want to hook up.” “So meet them somewhere else, then.” For a moment, I feel bad for her and lean in for a hug. She presses her face against my coat. Her shoulders heave up and down. “I don’t know what to do anymore.” I stroke her hair a bit. She rubs her nose against my shoulder, sniffs a bit. “I feel like I have to buy you a drink.” I chuckle and politely refuse.

 

Back inside, She is posing for photographs with Kara and the others. Kara sees me and pulls me in for a picture. I stand behind Her, careful not to touch her blouse. When we all stand around to appraise the photo, we agree that it’s worthy of posting on some social media site. The Indian man approaches me and asks for my number. The numbers I recite are not my own. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. He leaves the bar triumphant.

 

At about 12 or 1, we all decide that we should head home. There is a gigantic hug good-bye. I do not touch Her. We all walk in separate directions, except for me and Her. She takes giant leaps down the stairs to the subway platform. I watch as her hair gently sways with every step. I walk into a bar.

 

Janni’s favorite hobby is writing. If you want to contact her, do so at jraychuk1@gmail.com

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