4. In Which Our Heroine Is Rudely Awoken, Or Perhaps Awakened

4. In Which Our Heroine Is Rudely Awoken, Or Perhaps Awakened

When the phone rang, Erica was deep in a dream. She was on a train, or maybe it was a car. It changed back and forth, actually. In either case she was in France, and she and her dream friends kept asking each other how to say things in French. Except that Erica didn’t speak French, so the answers were always in Spanish, which even her dream-self thought was cheap and lazy. In the train or car they zoomed through traffic but also ordered snacks from the waiter. She assumed that in France the good trains had some kind of service, like an airplane. There was no such thing on Amtrak, which were the only actual trains Erica had ever been on. Amtrak did have a restaurant car, but even Erica at her hungriest balked at paying nine dollars for a poorly microwaved hamburger.

She was eating what was either escargot or a croque monsieur but was really a plate of French fries when the phone rang, announcing that she was at her stop or was being stopped by the police but really telling her that her phone was ringing, and judging from the sound she had left it on the kitchen counter, which meant its battery would be nearly dead by now.

Also, she had to run through the obstacle course of her room to get to the door and into the kitchen. The phone was at nine percent. “Hello?”

Silence on the other end. No, not quite silence. Slow breathing. But not in a scary way, like a serial killer trying to get into her head. More like somebody dialed and then forgot to talk.

“Hello?”

“I’m mad at you,” the caller said in between annoyed sighs. It was Anthony.

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3. In Which Our Heroine Decides to Change, and Then Decides to Not

3. In Which Our Heroine Decides to Change, and Then Decides to Not

So one beer led to another and in the morning Erica felt like death but worse. Her head hurt and her mouth was dry and she was pretty sure but not entirely sure but still pretty sure that there was some kind of food under the covers with her. There were vague memories attached to that feeling. Late night pizza delivery, too tired to eat, I can eat in bed no its fine then I can just roll over when I’m done. Oh good God there was most of a slice of pizza in the bed.

She stripped the sheets and dumped them into a laundry. Erica didn’t have extra sheets, so these would have to be washed today, and since she had to work she was going to have to drop them off at the expensive cleaners across the street. Which, she decided, was a fitting punishment.

The pizza slice wasn’t quite stale yet, and before putting in the trash she had a serious thought about taking a bite, but then she saw her blouse hanging on the back of the chair–the blouse that Mr. Handsome Man had criticized so unfairly–and in that moment a wave of strength and determination came over her. She dropped the pizza slice in the trash, and then grabbed her blouse and did the same, and then took the bag out of the trash can and walked through her living room and into the hallway and dropped the whole thing into the laundry chute.

And then sprinted back to her door in order to stop it from locking her out.

It was five-thirty in the morning and even if she was awake for all the wrong reasons, she was at least awake and ready to start what would be the first day of a new life.

Through a fog of nausea and headache and the curious sensation of being both full and hungry at the same time, Erica got herself ready. By seven she was fully dressed, and that included spending extra time going through her clothes to determine what actually looked decent. Her pickings were slim, but eventually she settled on something. The remainder of the clothes, a depressingly large chunk of her wardrobe–none of it expensive but in aggregate quite a bit of money–she threw in a heap on the floor. She would deal with it later.

On days when she was rushed, she would stick something in the toaster–bagel, waffle, Pop-Tart–and then eat it on the way to the subway. On days when she wasn’t in a hurry, she would stop at the diner by the subway and treat herself to a fantastic diner breakfast, where everything was enormous and drenched in an extra layer of love and butter. Today, however, she was earlier than ever, which meant that she had time to really think about what she wanted.

What she wanted was to be a three again. Love and butter wasn’t going to get her there.

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2. In Which Our Heroine Remembers That, Unfortunately, She Has Both Friends and Family

2. In Which Our Heroine Remembers That, Unfortunately, She Has Both Friends and Family

The subway went express unexpectedly, and Erica ended up much farther south than she had intended. On the platform there was an old woman selling cold churros from a rusty shopping cart lined in clear tarp, but by then a mild depression had come over Erica and she said to herself that she did not want a cold stale subway churro. The loudspeaker announced that an uptown local was seven stops away, and Erica gave up and walked home.

At least it wasn’t raining. Down by NYU Erica noted all the girls who were terribly shabbily dressed and still looked adorable because they were young. Nobody criticized their clothes that didn’t fit quite right.

Her phone rang, and as she pulled it out of her purse it caught on something and nearly fell out of her hands. She fumbled with it majestically like a football player catching a Hail Mary, and although the phone still hit the ground it did so from only a few inches up, so a new ding on the case was the only damage. Less flattering was how ridiculous she felt entertaining all the kids on Seventh Avenue with her circus-like juggling antics.

“Hello?” she answered, not stopping to see who it was first.

“Grrrgmablble,” the phone answered back.

Erica covered one of her ears and pressed the phone hard against the other, in case the problem was with her hearing. She explained to whoever was on the line that she couldn’t hear them, apologizing as though her phone’s failures were really her own.

“Erica, it’s Mami,” the voice said clearly.

“Where are you?” Erica relaxed her grip on both the phone and her ear.

“I’m at home, what do you think?”

“I couldn’t hear you. It sounded like you were in a tunnel or basement or something.”

“No, I’m on my own couch. Brbrlemgrl.”

Erica took her phone away from her face and looked at it for a moment, puzzled with the strange sounds it transmitted. “What?”

“I’m eating pizza. Hrrmblrger.”

At times like this Erica could feel her rage boil up from the bottom of her stomach and churn through her whole body, a roiling magma of frustration that couldn’t find an escape vent. Unable or unwilling to throw her phone into oncoming traffic, Erica let her hand drop to her side and looked up at the sky and took a deep, deep breath.

Then she whipped her phone back up to her ear. “Why would you call me and then shove a slice of pizza in your mouth?”

“Mgrrmhll!”

“Finish eating, then call me!” She hung up, and then said to nobody and to everyone, “Damn!” Her hair fell into her face and she blew it away. The thing is, she knew the haircut wasn’t right. It’s not supposed to fall in your face all the damned time. Out of style, too. Julie stopped cutting it this way a long time ago.

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1. In Which Our Heroine Learns a Terrible Truth

1. In Which Our Heroine Learns a Terrible Truth

It’s not that she forgot, but that she really wanted to forget and did her best to, so as eleven o’clock rolled around Erica went out of her way to find ways to get involved in her work, to find something that would sweep her up so completely that she would–whoops, would you believe it’s already twelve-thirty? I guess I missed my appointment! Oh well, I’ll reschedule for next year.

She tried cleaning out her inbox, but remembered too late that she’d already done that a few weeks ago when she was trying to forget about the dentist. So she called her mom, who was always exasperated about something Amelia was doing or had done or was talking about doing, but her mother was on her way to do “djoga” and couldn’t talk but would call her later to ask about her appointment, okay?

She went to the cafeteria but Marjorie wasn’t in on Tuesdays anymore and the lady who took her place didn’t speak any language Erica could fake so that was no use.

She reviewed Elizabeth’s vouchers but they were all in order, and Mr. Larson was going to be in meetings all morning. By about eleven-thirty she was getting desperate and decided to call Amelia directly. After all she had done for that little twerp over the years surely Amelia owed her at least this much, right?

“Ellie, what’s up?” her little sister said over the phone.

“Nothing, nothing,” Erica stammered. “Just…checking in. What are you up to?”

“I’m in the middle of class, dummy. Can I call you tonight?”

Shit. Now she probably would call tonight, and unload all of her craziness at a time of day that was entirely useless. And then her mother would call and insist that Erica repeat the entire conversation verbatim, and ask all sorts of speculative questions that nobody could answer except Amelia, and of course Amelia would never tell her mother those things. Where did we go wrong with that girl? she would finally ask.

So the evening was ruined, and it still wasn’t noon.

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