Public figures

Unreturned messages left with the governor’s office: three. Freedom of Information Act requests: two. Dissolution of tenuous and unrewarding relationships with a member of the opposite sex: one. Deaths of beloved pets: one.

In a long list of regular and predictable disappointments, the final one actually hurt.

Luke left the station at 9:30 p.m. on Friday evening after wrapping up a long day of hounding city officials about violations of the discharge permits of three municipal wastewater treatment plants into the Anacostia River. No one wanted to talk about it, least of all Luke. But he’d suited up again, put on his purple tie and knocked on doors, waited outside their offices until their “meetings” were over. They had to come out sometime.

He went through the motions on automatic pilot, pretending to be a reporter, because that was his title, on the day that the veterinarian put Linus, his best friend of eight years, to sleep. And now he was driving home to an empty apartment where the fridge was stocked with craft beer and a bass guitar was propped in a corner.

He turned on the television for company and saw his own face, heard his own voice, like fingernails on the chalkboard. Did it ever go away? Of all the things that made him want to roll his eyes, all the prepackaged lines they fed his camera and microphone all day long, it was the sound of his own voice that still made him cringe most.

Last week, he was at Hannigan’s at 6:30 p.m. when two girls from a journalism class he had spoken to at American came over to talk to him. He’d regaled them with stories of crime and punishment, of fighting authority … and winning. They giggled over beers until one of the girls had to go.

He mentioned to the other girl – Madison, maybe – that he might be there again the next day, same time. She never showed.

Luke grabbed a beer and stared at the litter box. He would send a message to Sara.


“What happened?” Sara replied.


“Oh no. I’m sorry,” Sara responded.

“And Vanessa.”

“Why Vanessa?”

“I ended it,” Luke replied. “I’m tired of having an email girlfriend.”

“So stop having email girlfriends,” Sara replied.

“It’s not my fault.”

“You have to ask a woman out. Then you have to spend time with her. You have to make time. You have to seal the deal, not ‘hang out,’” Sara wrote.

Sara should know about sealing deals. She’d married at 25 and had two kids with a man who traded in a weekly column he wrote traveling the country on a motorcycle for a job as a school teacher. And now Sara wanted to do the same. She told everybody who would listen that she’d gladly surrender her press badge and skinny notebooks for a smartboard and class discussions on symbolism. How could someone stand the sameness of that life – the predictability of doing everything according to some predetermined lesson plan?

“I can’t ask women out,” Luke wrote. “I can’t do it.”

“You can hassle the mayor about why they didn’t release the names of the companies violating the city’s recycling ordinances, but you can’t ask a woman out?”

Damn it.

“Luke, you don’t want a wife and kids. If you wanted them, you would have them. It’s that simple,” she wrote. “You lack nothing but motivation.”

He wanted Sara’s abuse. That’s why he’d messaged her. He often felt like Wilbur talking to Charlotte – he was a hapless barnyard male and she was a calculating female whose every message was loaded with meaning both obvious and obscure.

She was like all lifestyle writers – soft on the outside and hard on the inside. She’d chosen her job because she wanted to get paid to write about restaurants and musicals and spas. No surprise then, that she hadn’t settled easily into motherhood. But children were one thing. Sara would never spend her time stroking a cat because she’d get hair all over her black clothing.

He was like all investigative reporters – tough on the outside and sentimental on the inside. All the probing questions and exposes were there to cover up the fact that he felt too much. When everything was a scandal or a tragedy, you had to make yourself invulnerable to all of it.

But Linus.

“Write something about me,” Luke wrote to Sara, who liked to amuse herself by writing short stories and haikus. “I want to know what to do.”

Surely, Luke thought, asking to be made into a character in one of Sara’s short stories would be cheaper than therapy and more helpful than seeing a psychic.

“Sure thing,” Sara wrote back.

The next day, he had an email from Sara with an attachment. He opened up the attachment and read the story. It was a disappointment, a patronizing story about a lonely bachelor who adopts a blind cat.

Luke had rather hoped to be immortalized as a sports reporter who dated bikini models. Those were the kinds of public figures he found really interesting.  

He made his way into the kitchen and looked for his coffee. Today was the day he and Amir were supposed to try to poke around in a bunch of EPA databases to see which overpaid bureaucrats owed back child support. He hoped Amir had a better handle on that stupid coding than he did.

Weeks passed. Vanessa never called or emailed. Luke was beginning to think she had never existed, that he had imagined the whole relationship. What the hell? He had driven to Richmond. He had paid for dinner. Twice.

The litter box sat untouched with a clean bed of Fresh Step inside. Luke gathered up Linus’s toys and put them in a corner. He would buy new toys. Those were Linus’s forever.

Then he drove to the animal shelter and walked through the door. The girl at the desk had curly auburn hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes.


The girl who had too much

I was playing Candy Crush on my phone when Kylie texted me and asked if I wanted to go to the mall with her and her mom. I said yes and Kylie said they’d come get me in half an hour, so I went downstairs to get some money from my mom. She was with a client.

“Mom?” I said, standing outside the curtain.

My mom’s a massage therapist and an aesthetician. She gives people backrubs and facials. She’s a workaholic. When she’s not with a client, she’s mopping the floor or doing laundry. We hardly ever go to the mall. She says I don’t need anything from there. So when Kylie or somebody wants to take me out, I always go. But I have to bring my own money.

“Can I have twenty dollars?” I asked.

“I thought I just gave you twenty dollars yesterday,” my mom said calmly. My mom doesn’t show her true colors when she’s with a client. If she had been mopping, she would have really given it to me. I knew I had her pinned.

“Yeah, but I spent that at the movie. I’m going to the mall with Kylie. Her mom is picking me up.”

“Look in my wallet,” my mom replied. “Take one twenty dollar bill. No more.”

I got into my mom’s purse, took the money and stood at the door waiting for Kylie and her mom to pull up.

At the mall, Kylie’s mom told us to meet her at the food court after an hour and we would all eat lunch together. Kylie and I went in Hollister and tried on jeans.

“You should get a pair,” Kylie said.

“I don’t have enough,” I told her. “I only have twenty and I need that for food.”

“You can’t keep wearing those jeans from J.C. Penney,” Kylie said. “Not cool. Boot-cuts are so last year. You need skinnies.”

Kylie always wears cool clothes. Sometimes I try to copy her outfits and then she gets mad at me so I don’t know why she gives me hassles about my jeans. I’m fourteen, but my mom buys my clothes. I can’t wait until I turn sixteen. I’m going to get a job so I can buy my own clothes.

I told my mom that’s what I was going to do and she said it would be a waste and that I should focus on school. She said she got a job when she was in high school and then she spent all her money on clothes and food and her car and she didn’t get really good grades and she didn’t go to a good college. Actually, she didn’t finish college.

But I don’t see how it hurt her in the long run. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and my dad runs a building supply company. They met when she was working in sales, but she became a massage therapist after she had me. She also sells essential oils. She says if I want, I can sell the oils when I’m sixteen and old enough to be a rep. But she doesn’t want me to work at the mall.

My mom says she still does what she did in high school – works all the time to pay for food and clothes. She thinks if she had studied harder, things would be different and we would take vacations at the beach every year. I hope we can go next summer.

 My grandma is taking my cousin Stella to Disney World for her Sweet Sixteen. Stella doesn’t even want to go. Stella and I look a little bit alike, but she’s taller and bigger than me. She’s tall and plain with brown hair and brown eyes. I’m small and plain with brown hair and green eyes. If I put on mascara and do my hair, I can look pretty. Stella doesn’t like makeup and purses and stuff like that. She reads all the time. When she comes to my house, she just picks up a magazine. She won’t talk. She doesn’t like me. She thinks I’m dumb.

When I asked my grandma if she’s going to take me to Disney World when I turn sixteen, she said my mom and dad can probably take me. She says they can do it if they really want to. Stella doesn’t have a dad because he left when my Aunt Krista was pregnant. My Aunt Krista lives in an apartment with Stella and she works as a nurse’s aide. Sometimes Aunt Krista asks my mom for money and my mom tries to give it to her on the sly. But when my dad finds out about it, he yells at my mom and says that’s why she has to work all the time and she shouldn’t complain if she’s just going to give all her money away.

I think my mom just likes to complain. She loves making money. She loves rubbing people’s feet and talking to them about their pores. Most of all, she loves the gossip, attention, and her Coach purse. When I asked her to get me one, she said when I’m older. She complains so no one thinks she’s having too much fun.

Once she got into a fight with my grandma because she was going to hire a housekeeper. My grandma told her she was spoiled and she ought to clean her own house. My mom said she didn’t have time. My grandma said, “You have plenty.”

But I’m not going to be like my mom. That’s what Kylie doesn’t understand. One time last year I wore a pair of skinny jeans from Hollister with a flannel shirt, a scarf, ballet flats and big sunglasses just like Maya Kenning and her crew wear every day. Maya didn’t like my new “look” and she got one of her friends to write “poser” on my locker. I don’t want attention. I’m not like my mom. I’m like Stella. And I don’t want to go to Disney World, either.

The ghosts

Sara walked in to see Tom serving noodles, bologna sandwiches and fruit to Hailey and Kyle, who were seated in front of the television. Tom avoided eye contact with Sara as he made his way back into the kitchen, where he began dishing out a bowl of the venison stew he had prepared for himself in the crockpot the day before. Sara didn’t care much for venison.

It was the end of the grading period at Tom’s school. Tom was always insufferable at the end of a grading period, when half of the teachers were inevitably running behind, despite thinly veiled reminders issued daily during afternoon intercom announcements about report cards.

 “How was your day?” Tom asked as he sat at the table and began eating the stew.

“Boring,” Sara said, carving off a slice of the dairy-free carrot cake she had prepared over the weekend with tofu cream cheese icing. It wasn’t as good as real cream cheese, but Hailey was allergic dairy products, so Sara had improvised. Sara thought how it would be a neat experiment to see how many days she could go without eating a hot meal.

 “Mr. Preineke is getting remarried,” Tom said.

“Wow,” said Sara. “That was fast.”

Their neighbor, Mrs. Preineke, had died a year earlier.

“He must be one of those men who needs a woman to validate his existence,” Tom said.

“Not like you?” Sara asked.

“No,” Tom said, dropping his spoon into the bowl with a resounding clink. He got up and carried his dishes to the counter.

In the other room, Hailey and Kyle were fighting over what to watch next on TV. Tonight was a bath night. Sara hated bath nights, but because it was the end of the grading period, and because she had an energy reserve stored up from sitting in meetings all day, not really paying attention to much of what was said, she planned to execute the procedure alone, allowing Tom some much-needed down time.

Kyle was first. Sara filled the tub with water and helped him out of his clothing. “Wait,” Kyle exclaimed before sitting down in the water. “I need my Scooby Doo towel.”

“What?” Sara asked.

“My Scooby Doo towel. I won it at school. When you put it in water it turns into a towel.”

“Where is it?” Sara asked.

“In my backpack,” he said.

“Tom,” Sara yelled down the stairs. “Tom, can you look in Kyle’s backpack for a Scooby Doo towel? … Tom!”

Moments later, she heard footsteps climbing the stairs.

“Yes, dear?”

“Can you go downstairs and look in the front pocket of Kyle’s backpack for the Scooby Doo towel, please?”

“As you wish,” Tom said, turning and descending the stairs.

Moments later, he reappeared with the towel, which Sara unwrapped for Kyle to immerse in the water.

Once Hailey was in the tub, Sara closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall as Hailey prattled on, talking to her ponies and water toys.

“As you wish,” Tom had said. It was a line from “The Princess Bride.”

Sara remembered the night they had watched the movie together on A&E. It was when they were coworkers, before they had really started dating. A bunch of people from the office had gone out together after work and somehow Tom and Sara ended up alone at his apartment watching reruns.

The day after they had watched the movie, Sara was late to a staff meeting. She sat down beside Tom, who was wearing suspenders. He had discreetly reached over and pulled a piece of lint from her black pants, throwing it on the floor.

“Mommy,” Hailey said, “come here. I need to tell you a secret.”

Sara leaned over and Hailey screamed in her ear before bursting into laughter.

She must have learned that from Kyle. It was far too obnoxious for a preschooler to come up with on her own.

Sara thought about “The Princess Bride” and Tom in suspenders pulling lint from her pants. She was still in love with that Tom. It was a bit like being in love with a ghost. But, she thought, as she wiped what she hoped was dirt from a bathroom stool, it was probably better to be in love with a ghost than not to be in love at all.

Sara herself was something of a ghost. Everything she did – what she wore, what she wrote, even what she ate – had more to do with circumstances than her own preferences. Her favorite foods were pizza and cake. More specifically, Sara liked pizza with REAL cheese, not the rubbery vegan cheese she used on the pizzas she made at home for Kyle and Hailey because of Hailey’s allergy.

Wasn’t pizza everyone’s favorite food? It must be, Sara thought, because it was served at every single social gathering for kids. It was too bad that when Hailey ate it, her skin broke out in itchy patches, prompting people to ask Sara what was wrong.

As for cake, Sara alternated between making her own dairy-free cakes and cupcakes and letting Hailey indulge in the colorful confections shared by her classmates and peers on a regular basis. She did not want Hailey to be THAT KID – the one other parents were afraid to invite to parties because of her allergies.

Sara had invited all of Hailey’s classmates and their parents to stop by their house while trick-or-treating on Halloween night for cider punch and dairy-free cake. Filled with empty-nesters eager to hand out candy to cute kids, Sara and Tom’s neighborhood was great for trick-or-treating.

Sara had not considered the long-term ramifications when she planned her wedding on the holiday ten years earlier. When she met Tom, they were both aspiring writers particularly fond of ghost stories. Sara’s favorite was “Wuthering Heights.” The idea that an obsessive love could endure beyond death, that anything could endure, was, Sara thought, the ultimate romance.

They were married in a candlelight ceremony at a little old Presbyterian Church on Sleepy Hollow Road. Sara’s bridesmaids were thrilled that they got to wear black gowns which could be used again for any formal occasion. The entire wedding party had red roses.

At their reception in town at the Hamilton Hotel, bare branches decorated with twinkling lights stood in crystal vases filled with rocks. The wedding cake was red velvet with chocolate ganache.

On their tenth anniversary, Sara made a dairy-free red velvet cake with chocolate icing. On top, she placed two smiling wax ghost figurines purchased from the Dollar Store. The cake was a hit with everyone who visited them on Halloween night, including Mr. Preineke and his fiancée Helen.

She seemed like a nice lady, Sara thought. Helen and Mr. Preineke had met while working together for the EPA. Her husband had died of a heart attack three years ago.

Mr. and Mrs. Preineke had been married for 40 years. Sara wondered how long Mr. Preineke had loved Mrs. Preineke, how long he had loved her ghost, and whether or not he still did.