Repeated Mistakes

Here’s the story so far…        

Some sugar-induced courage

  “See, I told you he wouldn’t be in.”
Dayne looked around the empty department nervously. Natasha didn’t get much out of him on the car ride there. Only that Professor Winters was still helping his wife cope with her cancer, and still being “needy for attention,” as Dayne put it.
       “Do you want to leave him a note? You know, to show your concern.”
       “I don’t understand how you can be so cold, Dayne.”
Natasha had already made a mental note to ditch Dayne as fast as she could. He kept scratching his neck and breathing heavily in annoyance, as Natasha pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled down her number.
       “Jesus, don’t you think he’d be a little freaked out? Call girl stalking his office?”
Natasha ignored him and proceeded to slide the note under the door.
      “What’s it say?”
Dayne was visibly irritated, searching around as if hiding from imaginary students. The halls were completely deserted. Natasha sighed.
      “It says, hope you feel better – call me whenever you need someone – love Dayne.”
His face glowered in resentment and he grabbed Natasha’s arm quickly while leading her away from two students, far down the hall, who were casually strolling toward them.
      “Oh my God, I was kidding Dayne.”
They rushed the narrow steps of the university’s main entrance, Dayne pulling up his coat hood on a clear night. As they reached the car Natasha continued to cross the street.
     “Where are you going?” Dayne yelled, an elderly woman pausing mid stride to watch the commotion.      
     “You just don’t get it, Dayne.”
Before he could make another excuse for her to ride with him, she stepped onto a cross town bus.
         
Natasha had avoided the topic with her father since after the funeral.
He didn’t want to talk – or maybe she didn’t – but either way, the delicate balance maintained itself with ease; each person dancing to their own beat and pretending it was alright to think about her all the time, and never say her name. Natasha had to try.
     “I wonder what mom would say about us eating spaghetti left over’s four days.”
He didn’t move his eyes from the TV. Some hockey game played vibrantly on-screen and he sat defeated from exhaustion. He never really bothered with Natasha’s life anymore; after all, Kirk hadn’t called or seen her in a while, and she didn’t spend much time at home.
Natasha left it at that. Her father coped so well with the situation at the time, smiling and sending well-wishers to his wife’s bedside. He never asked for anyone to console him, Natasha knew what he was going through and was lucky to have Kirk for the late night crying. Cancer’s a bitch.
      “I’m sure she’d be happy to know we enjoyed her cooking so much.”
Natasha cleared the plates, as her father fell asleep in front of the television.

     “Okay, let me get this straight, you’re telling me you broke J&S policy?”
 Mariel chewed loudly on week old gum balls. Natasha gnashed on hard taffy. The two stood casually in Mariel’s stuffy office, now laden with surveys and a few badly hidden McDonald’s wrappers. They hadn’t bonded over sweet treats for some time and it had been a while since Natasha ventured a floor below for candy, but today required some sugar induced courage.
      “Mariel, you’ve got to understand. Mr. Winters is, he’s –
     “A figment of your fucking imagination. I don’t care about breaking policy – hell I do it all the time.
Natasha couldn’t help but stare at Mariel’s crocs, now on their last legs from overuse.
      “I just don’t get your fascination with old strangers.”
      “Mariel, his wife is dying of cancer. It just seems, it seems like I need to be there.”
      “But you don’t. Oh and why the hell did you tell me about this?”
      Natasha was already leaving for the door.
       “Because I’m going to do it again.”
     
      Natasha called once a day for the first four days and twice on the fifth.
     Maybe he didn’t notice the note on the floor. I should have stuck it to the front. Should I call reception?
    
When she tried that, the office said he was teaching and to leave a message. But she wanted to get him. Over a week passed when Natasha decided to leave it for a while. Maybe he wasn’t calling because he was caring for his wife? Perhaps Natasha could meet her before things got too bad, before she was too weak, before the final days set in –
     
“Uh, Tash. Mr. Elder is on the phone.”
     
She picked up before realizing Mariel was referring to Dayne.
     
“Hey Natasha, how are you?”
      “Just tell me what you want; I’m certain you don’t care for the answer.”
She couldn’t help it. The infatuation she felt for Dayne, her handsome and charming literary kindred spirit, was lost when he opted to only care when he had the time. And for a single man with not much on his plate, he had very little.
      
“I know what I said was wrong, and you probably won’t believe me, but – Kevin spoke to me about you.”
Natasha’s throat seized, she caught herself nodding for him to continue – then let out a groggy whimper. “Kevin?”
      
“Professor Winters. Anyway, he said he’s interested in meeting with you”
        “Great!” Natasha squealed a little too enthusiastically.
       “But, he wanted to wait until after the funeral.”
She stopped. Mrs. Winters had already gone? Was Natasha even ready to help someone else pick up the pieces?
      
“When is it?”
       “It hasn’t happened yet.”
Natasha let out a sigh of relief, but Dayne’s breathing got heavier.
     
“Don’t you see? He talks about her like she’s already gone, like he wants her gone!”
      “The man is hurting. It’s clear as fucking day.”
The pause was necessary, Natasha grabbing her raincoat while Dayne shuffled about his office or home – she didn’t know either.
      
“Just promise me one thing, Natasha.”
       “I can’t do that Dayne.”
        Another heavy breath.
     
“Just leave him until he calls you.”
After he hung up, Mariel stopped by Natasha’s desk to drop off surveys for the following day.
      
“I take it Dayne didn’t handle the news well.”
       “I didn’t tell him.”
Mariel rolled her eyes, but waited for Natasha to gather her purse.
      
“Are you sure you really want him to teach you?”
       “Mariel, Professor Winters is going to love me.”

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Old Man Winters

Here’s what’s happened so far.
At the start of our Cereal here, Natasha met an interesting man through a survey call. He was only known as Mr.Winters, and after an hour long call, he touched her heart – but did he feel the same? …

“She straight up comes up to me and gives me a God damn hug!”

Natasha found herself screaming erratically into her phone, while Dayne quietly took in her rant. After the accident, she was introduced to Kirk’s charming new girlfriend, Gabrielle, who begged “Tash” to “please, call me Gabby.” It was the most awkward passing of license and blame.

“Yeah I’m so sorry Tash, I totally wasn’t looking, Kirk was tickling my leg…”
“So you’re paying my damages then.”
“Um, yeah I guess so eh”

The rain didn’t cease.

“And then she giggled Dayne. Giggled!
“Sounds like an interesting night Tash.”
“ And you sound tired, what were you up to this evening?”
“ Watched a new episode of House, and I definitely fell asleep in the process. I’m sorry love, I would’ve picked up your calls.”

All fifteen of them. Tash’s father was out with the guys and unable to drive, and Mariel didn’t expect her trusted employee to lie, especially about weeknight dinner plans. Well Mariel should have known, Tash could only compliment her dry homemade muffins for so long. And so the call was made.

“You’re fucking with me Tash, Kirk’s GIRLFRIEND?”
“I wish it was some lame ass prank on myself, just come get me.”

The ride home was suffocating. Mariel couldn’t stop bringing up the “irony” and the “way the world works, eh.” Natasha couldn’t fathom morning rides to work with her, but didn’t turn down the offer.

“Good episode of House?”
“Huh? Yeah, it sure was. I’m just such an old guy, I passed out.”

***

The morning car rides with Mariel gave Natasha the stage to rant. She went on about “who is this Gabrielle girl?” and “how the hell could she call me Tash!” But she couldn’t help it, nothing else was going on for her – really. 

“Mariel, I’m actually freaking out. Did I blow it? I shouldn’t have brought up Kirk.”

It was day 15, she had stopped calling after day three. This was not going to be another desperate attempt. She did nothing wrong – it wasn’t her fault that Kirk interrupted her perfectly acceptable coffee dates with a perfectly respectable and sensual older man…

“Tash, I’ll let you head out early to stalk your elder prey. Just get your calls done please.”

Natasha had been dealing with autopac and telling the story to everyone she knew, that even her easy job was suffering. In truth, she didn’t know what Dayne was to her, a boyfriend? Sure they shared a lovely dinner together, but after that it was all on-the-fly coffee shop chatter. But she needed that; it was something Kirk could never do.

“Good afternoon, may I please speak with Mr. Winters.”
“Speaking.”

Natasha froze. It couldn’t be who it sounded like.

Dayne?”
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry sir, my name is Isobel from J&S Market Research. You’ve helped us on a previous survey regarding local arts programs. Do you have a moment to answer a short questionnaire on downtown nightlife?”
“I’m sorry Isobel, but I couldn’t give a shit about so-called downtown nightlife.”
“Have a good rest of your day, sir.”
“And I hope you never call me again.”

The man hung up. Natasha knew the name, and started searching through her desk drawer, finding the paper. The last time she spoke with Mr. Winters, Mariel left a note on her table; Natasha had written clearly,

 If you think your day is bad, his wife is dying of cancer. Things can always be worse than having a douche-bag ex.

She dialled out.

“Did you seriously just call me back? You dumb, little –
“I remember you Mr. Winters. Your wife, how is she?”
“What? How do you guys find this information?”
“Sir, you don’t remember. My name is Natasha and we had a conversation while you waited in the hospital.”

Natasha was sweating. She had just infringed on company policy – she called back a number that had asked to be removed from the list. She had to play nice with Mr. Winters.

“Natasha… You sure sound a lot like Isobel.”
“I lied. Look, Mr. Winters, I’m not trying to get you to do the survey, I’m genuinely asking how you’re holding up.”

There was a pause on the line. Natasha could hear background chatter and multiple footsteps, but it wasn’t a hospital. Then she heard in the distance, “Dr. Winters! I need to ask you about Monday’s mid-term …”

“Well Natasha, it’s not going well. I have to go, I’m sure you’ll forget all about me soon enough.”  

He hung up again. Natasha picked up her stuff and walked out.

She waited at the bus stop for fifteen minutes, the wind cool for early June.  Mariel would give her shit no doubt, but Natasha was so rattled by Mr. Winters cruel tone, was this the same man? She knew that his wife was dying; he was without any support, and… he was a professor. Winnipeg is small, she could find out soon which university he was lecturing at. And it would be easy enough; he was doing intercession courses.

Just then a car pulled up in front of her, a smiling Dayne in the driver’s seat.

“Natasha!”
He smiled from ear to ear. As though this reunion was an event he never imagined possible.
“Hi Dayne.”
“Hop in, I’ll give you a ride home.”
“I’m not going home. I’m going to the university.”

 Dayne got out the car, and walked around to open the passenger door.
“Just because chivalry is dead, doesn’t mean I want your lame attempts at CPR.”
“Stop being so stubborn Tash. Just get in. I can drive you, whether home or to the university – which one is it by the way?”

Natasha had no idea where to start for Mr. Winters. Or whether what she had heard was even accurate.

“Do you know a Professor Winters?”
Dayne’s face froze and he looked hard at Natasha.
“Tash, he is a horrible man. What do you want with him?”
“Forget it.”

Natasha could hear the bus waiting at the lights before the stop. Dayne needed to move his car.

“Get in the car.”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“I bought a bus pass and I intend on using it.”
“Tash –
“It’s been fifteen days and I’m supposed to just drive off with you?”
“If you get in the car,” Dayne sighed heavily, “I’ll answer your questions about Mr. Winters.”
Just before the bus reached its stop, Natasha got into the passenger seat.

*

He’s like, a Real Man

So it was supposed to be the first day of school but due to unfortunate circumstances, ahem a water main break, our day was cut short. Also, many friends and loved ones of mine are feeling a little under the weather, so I figured there’s nothing like a bowl of cereal to get you feeling good! (or least qualm the boredom). 

See what’s happened so far, here.

"The guy is older than me!"

   “We just sat and discussed short stories for two hours. Can you please tell me where in Starbucks we could have possibly had sex?”
    It was a Monday afternoon. The snow and mud looked like slushy poo outside, and Natasha still hadn’t been promoted. But mainly, it was sad that Natasha’s boss had officially become her only confident since meeting Dayne at the bookstore. And Mariel wouldn’t let up about the attachment.
   “Tash, I think you need to back off this guy. How about we go to Joey’s after work, like a uh, girls night.”
     Mariel, in her khaki’s and crocs had no idea what the inside of a chic chain restaurant looked like. Let alone the social importance of wearing any other shoe than crocs.
    “That’s alright, I promised my dad I’d have dinner with him tonight. Wants to know more about my elusive man.”
      It was true, Natasha had shied away from sharing the whole truth about Dayne with friends and family. Except Mariel of course, who really knew far too much for any self-respecting boss.
      It started with the night after they met. Dayne Weston, as he introduced himself formally, had taken her to a nice restaurant – nice being a place that Kirk could only afford on commission. He didn’t hold back on the compliments and Natasha even noticed how terribly strange – and vulnerable – that was for a man on a first date.
       But Dayne was really a man. As in a 41 year old man.  
       “The guy is older than me!” shrieked Mariel, who in all respects is not that old. She’s 35 and cranky about it. But nonetheless, her response was the first Natasha received after telling his real age. And it was more than she could take. He wasn’t quite double her age, but he was only seven years off. 
      So for anyone who asked, he was a respectable 37.
      Dayne told her that he owned a house outside the city in St. Adolphe where he would go on weekends. He was a university professor, and so stayed with a fellow professor during the term, and dabbled in different courses in the English department, mainly first year. Tash blushed in embarrassment, feeling as though she probably resembled most of his students.
      But he was truly engaging. In his listening, his writing, when he told stories. All they had done for the past month or so was meet in coffee shops and  talk. Simply discuss  ideas and revel in bratty literature talk that only the true English and History nerds take pride in. He let her borrow his copy of Nixon in China, which wasn’t half bad. She taught him how to text message properly and that annoying, illegible, short hand was not a necessary feature.
     So it was no surprise that after today’s shift, a message sat in her inbox.

    Last night was great. You have such wonderful insights, you’re truly a well spoken, beautiful, woman.

      Yeah, there is no way to short hand that. 

      Natasha had lied, she wasn’t having dinner with her father.
      She was driving on her way to the Gas Station Theatre to watch her friend Hayley perform in a theatre class production. The two had been friends since middle school, when they were a part of the reading club, which consisted of two people. She felt she owed it to Hayley; they had really drifted apart when Kirk came into the picture. She made the decision to keep the night about her friend, and didn’t bother mentioning the show to Dayne.  Yet she wanted him to know that she was indulging in an evening of Shakespeare, just to showcase how refined her tastes were.
     As she waited on River Avenue to take a left turn, thinking about how she could word her text message in old English, she noticed Dayne in the nearby Starbucks. Or at least someone with a remarkable resemblance to him. He was sitting across from an attractive older woman (well, older than Natasha anyway). She clung onto her coffee cup as though it was her life source, and looked around nervously. A fine red scarf was wrapped around her head, like a cover up for a bald head. Natasha’s mom had worn so many like it.
     HONK!
    
Natasha looked at her rear view and noticed the truck’s headlights before it crashed into the back of her yellow Neon.
   
      “Hello, hello, are you alright? Oh Jesus, Tash!”
     She was dazed, having been jerked forward and launched into the curb, her car’s wheels still pointing left.  Natasha noticed that the couple who was sitting in the window had left. Then she noticed Kirk, staring at her like an idiot.
     “Hey now Tash, don’t be mad. It wasn’t me who crashed into you… it was my girlfriend.”
     
*

Helen of Winnipeg

     What’s happened so far here.

     “Dad I’m fine, honestly. Just getting books, love you.”
      Ever since the almost fatal encounter with Kirk, Natasha’s father suddenly learned how to dial out from a cell phone. Whenever she wasn’t at work, check up calls from Ronald streamed in at one hour intervals. Even during her tests to make sure everything was, ahem, in the clear, he called the reception desk four times. To her relief, Kirk’s indiscretions had not left her marked.
       Natasha needed to get out of the house for a while, indulge in some history. Modern fiction was becoming too perverse for a classics purist and once again, J&S cut down hours.
       Natasha took the elevator down to the lower level  used bookstore at The University of Winnipeg.  
       “Hi, would you like some help?”
        A twenty-something stared back with a beaming smile.Natasha cringed, is that what all first years look like?
        “No, just browsing.” But the girl looked disheartened. “Where’s the history section?”
        The store was tiny like an airplane is initially, gradually becoming comfortable with time. She read the blurbs and most of the first chapters to gauge whether to splurge, and buy ten books, or reread one intently.
            “Ah, you’re a Peloponnesian girl.”
            Natasha gasped slightly in surprise. Right beside her was an older man wearing a lightly striped dress shirt, accessorized with an arm load of wartime historicals.
            “Oh yes, sure love those Spartan men.”
            He laughed back with a familiar chuckle, picking the book from her hands and gently caressing the spine.
            “I bet you’re thrilled to be learning the entire history of this war, far too many similar battles for my taste.”
            “Oh I’m not a student.”
            Why had she confessed? There was nothing shameful in being learned without the price of tuition. Was there?
            “Well, I admire your pleasure reading then.”
            He smiled once more as he held the book towards her. Most of her reading material matched his with the exception of Nixon in China, which probably happened when he was a kid.
            Natasha stepped up to the cash counter and the gentleman joined her.
            “Can I see your student card?” the cashier, who was also the store helper, grinned eagerly.
            “I, uh, I don’t have one.”
            “Here, use mine.”
            The older man extended his arm past Natasha, holding a beige card.  Seven books were scanned and a three digit total mocked her silently.
            “I’m sorry, I need to downsize my purchase.”
            Before Natasha could even lift a finger, the man, who had positioned himself closely beside her, pulled out a credit card.
            “No, I can’t let you do this. It’s not for school. Please,” She turned to the beaming cashier, “don’t let him pay.”
            “Sorry, already swiped.”
            She winked at the gentleman and scanned his pile of copy cat spines once more. He had just spent a half month’s rent on books for a complete stranger. Obviously prices had changed since she went there, how could she have forgotten that all those pages add up in dollars?
            “So I never got a name. Although Helen could suit you well.”
            “Oh no, it’s Natasha.”
            “Well it’s nice to meet you. I’m Dayne.”
            Natasha didn’t know what to do from here so she continued walking. He matched her, and side by side they strolled to the front lawn before she caught on to his Helen comment.
            “Thank you?”
            “My pleasure?” and then he laughed with a smile that displayed his matured mouth. God, he had to be at least in his forties.
            “Sorry, I didn’t mean for the questionable inflection.”
            Who was she?
            “That’s okay. I do apologize though for buying the books. I’m afraid they were my Trojan horse.”
            “Oh.”
            “I’m hoping that a gift would get me through the door, and perhaps dinner tonight would be next.”
            “ah, um, yes please. I mean, sure.”
            He chuckled once more and leaned in to jot her number down on a notepad from his pocket. Natasha smiled, no one used paper anymore.

Curb Appeal

Continued…

“Thanks, that makes this meeting entirely unnecessary.”

    “Okay Mariel, I’ll see you Friday.”
     When J&S wouldn’t change the scheduling, Natasha played along. No sense in begging to be overworked and underpaid.
     “Hey Tash, are you feeling okay? How are things now at home?”
      Natasha had let it slip to Mariel the day she arrived a surprising half hour late. Her father had accidentally tripped the power and that had defaulted her alarm clock. It wasn’t embarrassing to be living back at home, it was just alarming how much she had depended on Kirk – and the obnoxious nature of J&S booking solo ten-hour shifts.
    “For the last time, I’m doing fine. I even bought a gym membership to pass the days I’m not here.”
    “No I know. It’s just –”
    “I’m not sure you do. Everyone just thinks I’m this weak woman who has been given the once over by her boyfriend.”
    “Listen! I know, it’s just that –”
    “It’s been three months!”
    “Natasha just hold on a sec –”
    “I’m so tired of this shit.”
     Without hearing Mariel out, Natasha stormed through the office door. She will hear about it two days from now, her next shift. Mariel will say that even though she understands the frustration, she has to tell head office about the incident. Write up some fucking paper on how Natasha promises to behave better and sign it.
    When she spotted her car on St.Mary’s road, Natasha finally realised what Mariel was trying to tell her. To warn her. There, in all his rock star glory, stood Kirk Nyles. She had assumed that seeing him again would mean an Intense Emotional Reaction – to the point of physically harming someone. Instead, Natasha’s fist clenched but no hint of frustration betrayed her facial composure. Walking forward she hoped to avoid him but it was futile, the driver’s side was held hostage by passing traffic.
    “Hey, listen I – ”
     HONK
     The little yellow neon hooted in response to the lock button being crunched in her fist. Natasha stood still and smiled.
    “You know what I hate worse than an asshole who doesn’t pick up a phone?” she waited while Kirk stared back like a scared World Vision Child,“actually, nothing now that I think of it.”
    “Natasha I – ”
    “I’m sorry, did I say you could speak to me?”
     She tried to walk by and keep her head up but he shifted on the sidewalk to match strides.
    “Get the fuck away from me.”
    “Jesus Natasha, I’m not here to say sorry.”
    “Thanks, that makes this meeting entirely unnecessary.”
    “Actually, can we… there’s a Starbucks on the corner – ”
    “No.”
    “I have to tell you something, it’s not something for a phone ya know.”
    Natasha stopped and they ceased the mirror game. Kirk’s hands shifted in his pockets. Dear God he’s knocked someone up, Natasha thought.
   “Then let’s say it in the middle of the fucking sidewalk why don’t we?”
   “No, Tash… your car?”
    She had hoped to stay composed now that she had managed to avoid waterworks. Subtlety is a virtue, but only in the surveying world. He inched forward, pushing Natasha closer to the curb.
    “You might want to… uh, have you been – hmm, no way to put this lightly. I have, an issuedown there.”
    “What?”
      Natasha backed up further as Kirk shifted once more. Her flats slipped off the curb and then all was black.

    “Tash? Hey, we’re on our way to the hospital.”
     Kirk steered through traffic to the Misericordia hospital holding a rag to Natasha’s head.
   “Get out my fucking car!”
    She tried to lunge at him and felt a jolt of pain shoot down her back.
   “Stay still for a couple of minutes and don’t fall asleep.”
    Natasha’s eyes tried to focus and noticed the cracked passenger window.
   “Is that…hair?”

   When her eyes focused again, she was staring at the face of a middle-aged paramedic.
   “Jesus, knocks herself cold and then vomits on herself. Double whammy!”
    Natasha groaned and the paramedic smiled back through a matured mustache. What possible pleasure could this bring him, she wondered. Three hours and twelve stitches later, Natasha was finally willing to let Kirk drive her home. On the condition that he doesn’t mention whatever venereal diseases he sustained in the past three months.
   “But that’s the thing Tash, there is no way of knowing when I contracted the uh, you know.”
  “What are you saying? I know I don’t have that, you’re the only one I’ve ever – ”
     Natasha froze while the car fan made bits of tangled hair dance around her. “You son of a bitch.”
     Up to that point, she believed that even though he left her, he never cheated. He was always there, they lived together, and most of the time they were both too tired for sex so they cuddled. Shared a bed every night. Almost every night.
    “Get out.”
    “We’re five minutes away.”
    “I don’t care, park my car here. I’ll walk.”
     Kirk didn’t ease off the gas, so Natasha dug her nails into his right arm.
   “Okay damn it!”
     He parked outside a Seven Eleven. And while Kirk went west to find a bus shelter, Natasha bought a pint of frozen ice cream. And a lottery ticket.



Dial Tone

"I fail to see what's so funny"

        Continued…

         “So, my dear, you have a quinsy. I can’t believe you let it get to this stage.”
         Doctor Frieson shook his head while holding up a mirror to Natasha’s open mouth. Lining the back of her throat were tiny white puss boils that looked like matured zits. The real problem, the pesky quinsy, lay nestled between her left tonsil and her throat. Natasha groaned at the sight, she didn’t have much of a voice the last few days and before the results of the swab had come back, the doctor said to limit talking. Mariel had called the hospital, claiming to be her mother, and demanded to speak to the him.
        “You try finding someone to cover ten hours and three time zones! Fuck Canada for having eight.”
         Natasha hadn’t been back to work and even though Kirk was letting her rest with the bed all to herself, and drool all over their pillows in solitude, she felt that the time off was a sign. The constant talking had kept her from thinking about the past year. About all the time she spent in a hospital room much like the one she’s occupying now. Kirk hadn’t come with this visit, couldn’t stomach the thought of being with her while the quinsy got ‘popped.’ Her stomach would be sore from the drain and she may have to rest more, being silent for the next few days.
             
Hey Kirk, Plz come get me.
Sure thing Babe. C u soon.

            She was irritated when Kirk called her babe, baby, or any other form of an infant. Seeing it in text twisted her stomach further. He showed up in his teal green Tercel and stayed inside the car, waiting for her to inch slowly toward the passenger door. After five minutes, she was sitting awkwardly in the passenger seat.
           “Tash, I’m going to drop you off at home.”
           When Natasha didn’t respond, he edged on, “and I’m not going with you.”
           The rest of his cleverly devised speech continued on through red lights and stop signs, school patrol slow downs and busy train crossings. An ordinary fifteen minute drive from Misericordia Hospital to their apartment took forty. And after she was dropped off like a tricked orphan, she kicked off her Uggs and curled up on their bed with their pillow. When she awoke thirteen hours later it was only her, and a circle of dried saliva.
           

           “Good after noon, may I please speak to – ”
            Dial Tone.
            Just like the seven times she tried calling Kirk after she got her voice back. She hadn’t been physically able to rebuttal his “it’s me, not you” and other excuses about the relationship in terms of distance and place, direction and the rate of motion at which each was travelling. It wasn’t a fucking physics lesson.
            “Alright Tash, you’re off.”
            Mariel had been unhinged by the health incident to the point where Tash’s shifts were blocked out in four hour arrangements every second day. No more time shifting and dialing for ten hours. No more mind numbing repetition. Natasha had unhooked the home phone to stop herself from dialling out the phone book.
            “Mariel, I’m feeling much better. Please just increase my days.”
            Kirk had to have packed while she was being drained. He had wrapped his cd’s, packed what little clothes he had, grabbed a toothbrush and a box of bandaids.Then drove to the hospital out of kindness. He had to have moved in somewhere else, with someone else, since he didn’t touch the furniture. What was he trying to be, a martyr? All the remnants were a reminder of him, especially the unpaid rent bill that was plastered to the refrigerator.
            “I know you are having a hard time but I can’t be responsible for putting you in hospital again.”
            Mariel smiled back with concern. The sincerity killed Natasha and she couldn’t mention the most distressing part – in one week, she had to move back to her family home.
  

            “Really? Kirk?”
            Natasha’s father, like most she told about the unromantic split, could not believe that Kirk would do that. How come it’s so God damned unbelievable? Why would she make up such a thing? Yeah, she fibbed to the extreme only to come back home and admit, it was all a gag. A practical fucking joke. No, after four years, it’s either marriage or a break up. Perhaps it was the four weddings they were invited to this summer, all high school friends, some younger than 24, that drove him off. They had lived together for three years in a rhythm that would rival most longtime marriages. But Kirk and Natasha were one of the few couples that hadn’t succumbed to the hype of socials, stags and glitz.      
             It’s one day, and then the rest of your life.
            “Tashy, I’m not going to stop you from staying out late but my shifts at the firehouse are during the day. I need to get back into a normal routine.”
              Ronald Kinley had only been a firefighter. Right out of highschool he waited and applied when he turned twenty. Back then, it was rare that one considered university the only option, and even more obtuse if one chose a history major. What can you do with that? People always asked, as if Natasha would simply know that after the date of graduation , of which she was uncertain, she would start a career as blank. It was a let down for most people, the vagueness, but who can be so certain of the future when even history lacks total truth? 
          “Well, if you need anything, just ask. Most of the things are still in the same spot. Don’t have any lady products kicking around though,” he looked at her for a violent reaction.“Alright, I’m off.”
            It was just like her father to wake up at 5:30 a.m. and help Natasha move home. Even though it was dark outside and the early February air bit the bones with its crisp cool tongue. Even though he was still half asleep with an eight-hour shift ahead.
           Even though Natasha looked so much like her mom.
           

            “Good afternoon, may I please speak with Mr. or Mrs… Winters?”
            “The mister, yes, how can I help you?”
            Natasha could usually tell if someone was being smug by their intonation. Mr. Winters’s voice, however, carried a hint of relief. As thought he really wanted to help her than carry on with his life on the other end.
           “My name is Natasha and I’m calling from J&S market research, would you have some time to discuss your thoughts on local arts programs in the city?”
            “Yes, Natasha, I would.”
            She imagined his delight at being plucked away from a dull meeting or perhaps a glamorous meal at a country club. Natasha never let her mind wonder on the people she called. Not worth it when they suddenly hang up the phone, and the chance of rejection was high on a mobile call. But Mr. Winters held on, it was a lengthy questionnaire too, and that’s when she heard it on the other line… Paging Dr. Samms… visiting hours have started. The front desk voice, the one Natasha could recognize without the aid of sight or the familiar odour.
           “Sorry sir, I forgot to ask earlier, is it Mr. Winters or Dr. Winters?”
           “What does that have to do with the survey?”
           “It doesn’t.”
           “For our purposes, it’s Mister.”
           “Are you at the hospital?”
           “Yes.”
           “Are you okay?”
           He chuckled.
           “Mr. Winters, I fail to see whats so funny.”
           “You’re the first person to ask me that in six months.”
           She stayed forty minutes past the end of her shift. Mariel had motioned her over numerous times and then dropped a note on her desk – “you’re not being paid for this.”
           His wife was in the hospital undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer. He hadn’t been able to be upfront with anyone how hard it was on him to see her like this. He was torn between hoping she’d remain in his life, and hoping she wouldn’t continue suffering. It had been two years and after a while, the little true support received went only to her. He remains in the prayers, as the supportive husband, a title wholly dependant on Mrs. Winters survival. They were both still young, early forties, that Natasha expected to hear about distraught children but never did. When he noted, with a chuckle, that the bars on his cell phone were almost depleted, they ended the conversation.

         Natasha took off her head set before she heard the dial tone.

*

See Cereal page at top for more.

Call Out

         

“Oh babe, you look beautiful”

      “Is there any chance that the John Deere tractor is a 2000 model or older?”
      The man on the other line shuffles about his Arkansas home most likely in denim overalls with grass stained knees to ask his wife something. He has reached the ten minute mark, the length of time Natasha had told him the research survey would take. She also promised him a $25 cheque in the mail on completion. It all hinged on the last question.
         “No ma’m I can’t say it is. When’am I gonna get this cheque?”  More shuffling and forks clanging. The man was eating a family meal on the phone with some random woman living a country away.
      “I’m sorry sir, but I cannot continue the survey at this time. The model tractor–”     
           “Well fuck you very much.” Click.
             Natasha took off her headset, now at the half way point of her ten hour shift. She had to cover three time zones this evening with calls out to the maritimes regarding fishing nets and a radio survey in Ottawa. She was two thirty-something -males-who-own-2000-model-John- Deere-tractors away from finishing the survey quota ahead of time. Thats why she is almost supervisor. Thats why she gained twenty pounds.
        Sitting, dialing, ringing, (no) answer, repeat. She never had imagined that after three years of working toward a history degree, time and space would invert to start her career at a call center. After six months she is the third longest remaining employee at J&S market research: “we search so you don’t have to.” She chose to ignore all the grammar and dignity errors with the job, staring at a screen script where an empty mind is a requirement. Like a Disney channel actress, she did as the script said and became successful. The average expected quota for completed surveys is one per hour. Natasha could churn out a rate of ten on a bad day; thus landing her a prime computer chair and a head set.  The only decoration in the office was a plastic Shakespeare bobble head that danced in the corner of her cubicle.
            “Hey Tash, before you go on break please come see me.”
            Mariel Simons, the second half of J&S and also the distinguished longest remaining employee, stood in kakhi’s and crocs fanning herself with old surveys. The air conditioning had broken and the office was just an open planned space on the highest floor of an old strip mall. Natasha often found herself buying bulk candy a floor below just for the ventiliation. Mariel’s office was unpleasent and putrid today, the goldfish in the fish-tank-come- bubble-gum dispenser looking worse than usual.
            “Okay Tash. Now ya’ know I love ya but head office needs us to send in some people for promotions.”
            Even though J&S ran their own operation, a third party controlled a larger number of market research firms and supplied the small companies with more jobs. The last time they needed to do in-house promotions – more like stealth market spying – they went through the rows of cubicles and selected Kristine, Allie and Bridgit. Such ASSests to the company they were. Needless to say, the quota wasn’t filled. But it didn’t matter; like the others before, they stayed the summer then headed back to school to continue the rest of their lives.
            “And as much as I need you here kicking time zone ass, I’m sending you. If only ’cause the place has air conditioning.”
            Natasha started to smile at the thought but then realised that promotions meant surveying in person. Looking down at her B.U.M. equipment sweat shorts and generic pink tee, there was no question head office needed the numbers more than appearance. She could get people to talk on the phone alright, but what about when they see the one who’s digging? When they reject her, like every 19 out of 20 do, face to face without remorse? Mariel slipped out a gum ball.
            “Listen Tash, they’re paying double and you got that cute… smile and way about you.”
            Mariel chewed loudly on the stale gum and absent mindedly pushed another out the machine. The movement in the tank ceased and the goldfish lay floating like a fat man on vacation.
            “Thanks Mariel, I’ll do it.”

            If Kirk didn’t return a call it meant that his band, Damned Souls, were finally back to rehearsing. After every small gig, the Damned would pound back too much Jack Daniel’s and confess their frustrations with the group. Marty always complained about the broken guitar strings that couldn’t be paid for with the band account. Geoff would politely remind Marty there was no band account because Brandon didn’t understand when to use his personal one. Kirk would just listen and vent it all later to his girlfriend. He was fed up with the band and Natasha believed, with her as well.
            She examined herself in the mirror glued to the closest she shared with Kirk. Just a one bedroom apartment close to The University of Winnipeg. Not that its a point of interest for her, J&S was a decent forty minute commute. Kirk couldn’t play his drums but they chose it so she could finish school. She had saved only one outfit from her days as a professor’s aid, but the blazor would have to stay unbuttoned. She always got along well with her professors, being praised for her mature manner and intense passion for history.  Natasha loved knowing how things would end and today did not suit the feeling. Holed up in a near by MacDonald’s, she would have to survey customers on drink choice. The company wanted to switch beverage suppliers but not without a guarantee of success.
            She could appreciate that, she should have tested the outfit on Kirk first.

            Most of the people eating dinner were accessorized with small children and tired eyes. The quater pounders had reached their arms and the fries had settled in the thighs. The smell made Natasha hungry and sick all at once.
            “Good evening sir, I’m here from J&S – ”
            “I’m not interested.”
            “Sir, it’s only five quick questions regarding beverage selection and you receive a coupon for a 2 litre Pepsi product.”
            That’s the game. Everyone wants something for free.
            When she was younger, Natasha’s parents would complain about the condition of their neighbours home, filthy and cheap they would say. But whenever furniture was put out for garbage pick up, the stray coffee table,filing cabinet, or wine rack would make an appearance in their basement.
            She only needed to complete 75 surveys for the night but she was already up to 120. It was a two day gig so she needed to nail it, more is more in the survey business. The customers were friendly, the coupons helped with that, and she was on a high. 120 surveys – that would land her a nice supervising spot come Monday. It wasn’t only the promise of a seperate office but the pay raise would help with the rent. Kirk was on again off again as a sales associate in the trendy boutique YellWhisper. When he was on, he would kill the sales and bring home 20% commission. He used to pay for the rent himself and take Natasha out for dinner.  But when he was off, he would show up to work dressed in pajama bottoms and scream at the store “you’re nothing without me!” 
            His pseudo stardom with Damned Souls spurred these incidents but when the band was on the outs, the comission came rolling back. Retail is so desperate for male staff.
          The eight hour shift came to a close at midnight, when the teenagers in the back were just settling in for the night. Natasha considered a late night Big Mac but decided against it. Hopefully Kirk would be up for some late night … cuddling.
            That’s all they had been doing lately.

          “Hey babe, the band is heading to the King’s Head tonight and Marty wants us to crash at his place for an early practise tomorrow. If Rob calls, tell him I left my pajamas at home.”

            A deserted apartment greeted Natasha along with the message she replayed on her cellphone. It seemed strange that he wouldn’t call her twice or even ask where she was. Natasha had forgotten to tell Kirk about the promotion job because when he called it was only to check if Rob, his boss, had. If he was home, he was asleep or reading 2012: What Could Happen.           

           “Marrr…ielll”
            Natasha’s hoarse voice carried over the phone. Her throat burned like a tongue shinged by hot coffee and the ache that started in her stomache now tensed her neck.
            “No, Tash you’re not screwing me like this, head office needs those surveys.”
            With no voice, Natasha couldn’t mention that she could barely move let alone get dressed, be polite, and speak to the sixty people necessary to finish the job. After a few muffled whines, Mariel accepted the pleas, leaving Natasha’s head pounding with the familar rejection of the dial tone.

            “Tash, baby! Hey, are you home?”
            Kirk staggered into the apartment just after one in the afternoon. He wasn’t there with soup or a sympathetic ear but rather with the hope that the place was his for a few hours. Tash had been so busy lately that he grown used to the freedom of a solely occupied space. As he started to strip off his stained wife beater,  he stopped at the foot of the bed. 
            “Oh babe, you look beautiful”
            It wasn’t bad enough that he had left a terrible message with no “I love you” attached but now he was picking on her, Natasha thought. She tried to say shut up and instead vomitted off the edge of the bed.
           “Shit.”
             Kirk helped her back on the bed, positioned sideways, slumped in defeat. Gently stroking Natasha’s hair away from her mouth, he noticed her pale skin and decided it couldn’t be now. She was helpless and a little bit of puke remained on her lower lip.
          It was strangely cute, the vulnerability.

*

See Cereal page at top for more.

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