by Michaele Jordan
Cape Codder (vodka and cranberry juice)
There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day. And yet it seemed to Jenna that she was the only one getting wet. It was cold, too. She pulled her threadbare sweater a little more tightly around herself, but it was too soggy to provide much warmth. No one else adjusted their wraps. They just stood, arms hanging at their sides, their heads thrown back, their eyes wide and enraptured.
Slack-jawed and vacant was the way it looked to Jenna, but she knew better than to say so. Not that anybody was listening to her anyway. They were watching the Myth. The entire sky blazed with color and light. Unforgettable characters danced through a story of hypnotic complexity and heart-wrenching emotional intensity. Music resounded across the plaza, and whispered intimately in every ear. The Myth was not merely true—it transcended truth. It was the definition of reality. No one could resist it.
Except Jenna. She had tried—Lord, how she had tried. She had focused, she had murmured mantras, she had breathed deeply, through this nostril or the other or both. She had studied a dozen different kinds of meditation, seeking the technique that would enable her to clear her mind and see the Myth. But when she looked up, there was only a faint shimmer in the air, a humming so soft she wasn’t entirely sure she had really heard it at all. There's no such thing, she snarled to herself. Except could they really ALL be lying?
If the weather had been better, she would have stayed with the crowd, pretending to be one of them. Instead, she extricated herself carefully, trying not to bump anyone. Sometimes a few of them were sufficiently aware to notice her departure, to observe that she was Not One of Them.
She was fumbling her key into the lock when the couple from two doors down stumbled into the hallway, still laughing and intoxicated. "Wasn't it wonderful!?!" the woman trilled, sweeping Jenna into an embrace, which would have meant more to Jenna if she could have remembered the woman's name.
"Best ever!" boomed her partner (like he always did). "Come on in and have a drink with us. Everybody's coming. You can't sit alone by yourself after that!"
"Yes!" agreed his lady. "You spend too much time alone. I'm sure it makes you sad. Come rejoice with us." She gazed at Jenna with moist, luminous eyes, full of undifferentiated bonhomie.
Jenna wanted nothing more than to go sit by herself with a book—which might, indeed, end up making her sad, but would still be better than watching her neighbors rejoice. Except. . . they were offering her free food. Money was tight. She was always losing her job. She didn't know why—she was honest and punctual and a hard worker. But she was always the first to be laid off, the last to get ahead. She had frequently been fired for trifles, or because she was "just not fitting in, no offense," and no one ever spoke up for her. Because she didn't love the Myth, she suspected, but there was no way to prove it.
So free food would make a difference to the budget. And if she lay limply back in her chair, smiling as if too blissed-out to converse, she might overhear enough details to pretend at work tomorrow that she'd seen it. She would only have to pick up a few points; her co-workers would enthusiastically fill in the blanks.
Her current job was mindless and low paid. But she didn't want to lose it. She'd had it for over a year, now—they'd even held a little gathering on her anniversary and given her a cupcake, and she had smiled and pretended to enjoy it. Her debts from the last time she'd been unemployed were almost paid off. She really, really didn't want to lose the job.
So she turned to her neighbor slowly, as if having trouble focusing, and smiled. "Company? That would be nice, very nice." She followed them into their apartment, which was small and a little untidy, but cheerful. They must have brought their own furniture. Jenna’s place had come furnished. She dutifully asked to help.
Cutting cake and distributing trays was easier than small talk. Guests arrived before the food was in place—she just went right on plating and carrying. She was getting pretty good at the smiling, so if anybody spoke to her she smiled and passed them some food. There was lots of food.
And, as promised, drinks. She didn't remember drinking anything but somehow found herself almost as cheerful and fuzzy-headed as the believers. Voluble, too. She suddenly heard her own voice telling a silly story about her father, and how he read to her when she was little. She broke off and looked around the circle of strangers. She couldn't tell them this. They wouldn't understand. None of them read to their children, or read at all—not stories, anyway, they read news articles and technical manuals, but not stories. They didn't need stories when they had the Myth.
"Oh, look she's gone all shy again," somebody said. Meaning she was already past the point of no return. Someone else pressed her hand, "You can't stop now! Tell us the rest of it. Your father sounds so interesting."
So she stumbled on, hating it, but not knowing how to get out of it. The punch line was, "But I gave buns to the heffalump when I went down to the zoo." Of course, nobody laughed. "What a nice story," somebody said. "We should go to the zoo again real soon."
"What's a heffalump?" inquired somebody else. She sighed, and loaded a few little sandwiches onto her plate. Free food. Lots of free food.
And then: "It's a creature from a children's book. Also sometimes called a hoffable horralump." A heavyset man with a blobby nose turned to her. "My father used to read Milne to me all the time. The Chronicles of Narnia, too." He didn't say, 'Because he couldn't see the Myth.' He didn't have to. Instead he said, "Did you read The Chronicles of Narnia?"
"No," she answered and sat down. "My father thought they were too Christian." Everybody but the man with the blobby nose was drifting away. "He preferred the Oz books," concluded Jenna, which—she thought—should have put an end to it. But no. He seemed to take it as encouragement and hung around all evening, talking about books. Some of them she'd heard of, or even read. Others not.
A few days later she ran into her neighbor again. (Kath. Her name was Kath. Probably.) "Have you heard from Dan?" she giggled. (Dan? Who was Dan? Blobby nose, maybe?) "You two really seemed to hit it off," continued Kath. "So I gave him your number. I hope you don't mind."
Jenna did mind, but there was no point in objecting. If Dan wanted to call her he could just look her up, same way Kath must have done. "My phone's not working," said Jenna. Maybe a little too coldly, judging by the look on Kath's face. So she added, "I don't know what's wrong with it. I've been meaning to pick up a new one." Like she had money to spare on a new phone. "I hope I don't lose the voice mail."
For all she knew Dan had called. She never answered the phone unless it was her boss’ ringtone. But she couldn't ignore the gift. It was sitting in front of her door, when she got home from work, all wrapped up in pretty paper with a bow. No card. Just a bow. She picked it up and turned it over several times, just to be sure, but there was definitely no card. Maybe the card had fallen off on the way? But on the way from where? There was no way of telling without a card.
She was still puzzling over the package, utterly intent, when a pair of hands clapped over her eyes, and three voices shouted in unison, "Happy Birthday!" Jenna was so startled that she shrieked, threw the package into the air and fell over backwards, collapsing into somebody’s arms.
The hands dropped away from her eyes as the attached arms rose up to catch her; they felt feminine but strong and supportive. Her vision restored, she saw Dan lifting his hands to catch the flying package, and beside him, . . . Kath's guy. Whatever his name was. Who was laughing hysterically. "Man, we got you good!" he chortled. "I was sure you heard us coming, but you jumped about ten feet!"
"I'm sorry," said Dan with a rueful smile. "I guess we sort of overdid the surprise thing. Didn't really mean to give you a coronary." He held out the package, which he had successfully caught. "Happy Birthday."
She stared down at the present, then back up at him and then back down at the present again. "Is this for me?" She pulled the bow off. "Today's my birthday?" Well, yes, now she thought of it, it was. It had been years since she'd bothered with her birthday. The paper fell free to reveal seven slightly battered paperback books. The Chronicles of Narnia.
Dan smiled again. "I hope you like them. They were the only thing I was sure you hadn't read."
Kath came around from behind, leaving one arm around her shoulder. "You forgot your own birthday? That is the saddest thing I ever heard." She grinned. "Good thing we're taking you out to dinner. Some place nice. Right, guys?" The guys nodded cheerfully. "We'll teach you to remember your birthdays."
She couldn't pass up a free dinner. She looked down at her work clothes. "I'll have to clean up." She hated to do it, but there was no way around it, not if they really meant to take her out. So she said, "Come on in," unlocking the door. "Make yourselves comfortable. I'll just be a minute." Coming in behind them, she looked down at the books in her hands. It was true she had never read them. "Thank you, Dan." She set them on the side table next to the recliner.
She didn't like leaving them alone in her living room, so she rushed through a perfunctory wash. There was no need to worry what to wear; she only had one nice dress. She'd bought it for her father's funeral, but with a string of red beads it passed as a modest version of everywoman's basic black. When she emerged, Dan was looking through her books and Kath was rolling her eyes at the apartment. She had no right to look so pitying; the place was neat as a pin. Just a little under-accessorized.
There were drinks again, and Jenna had something involving rum and fruit juice and a little umbrella. It definitely helped. The meal was the best food she’d had in years. She didn’t have to talk. Dan did the talking for her. Mostly about books, although he threw in some music references whenever Kath and What’s-His-Name started to get glassy-eyed. Jenna got the impression he’d been waiting his whole life to talk to someone about books. All she had to do was smile.
The night was fine, so they walked back, laughing. Then, as they passed the park, they heard it. Even Jenna heard something, a faint melody, sweet and seductive. They turned. And the sky opened up. Or, at least, Jenna guessed that it must have. Kath and her guy were already embracing when it happened; they leaned into each other and stared upward as one. Dan started to look up, paused, shot Jenna a glance and looked up again.
She stared at him the whole time that the Myth played. Was he seeing it? Or was he pretending? That little glance—did it mean he was pretending for her benefit? Or was he checking out her reaction before he let himself be swept up?
It was a short episode. When it was over—at least Jenna assumed it was over—her neighbors sighed in deep satisfaction. So did Dan. So, for that matter, did Jenna. They all resumed walking, although conversation was at an end. When they came to Jenna’s door, Jenna stopped, of course, and searched her bag for her key. Dan stopped, too, and when she looked up, he leaned in and kissed her. Nothing salacious—Kath and her guy were just ahead, approaching their own door. Just a soft, gentle kiss. She was still wondering if he was going to try for more when he turned and walked away.
The next morning on her way to work, she passed a sign. Apartment to let, furn, 1 br. It cost a little more than she was paying, but it was better furnished than her current place. Now her debts were paid off, she could afford it as long as she didn’t lose her job. There was even a tiny balcony in the back, just big enough for one chair and a plant. And the plant was included! Tall and green, with fronds. She put a hundred down to hold the flat until evening.
After work, she peeked out the door to make sure her neighbors were out of sight before slipping out with a shopping cart full of book cartons. She had almost finished unpacking when she found her phone in the bottom of a box. She had no idea how it got there, but it didn’t matter. She tossed it across the room into the trash.
Watching it fall, it suddenly occurred to her she perhaps she should have asked Dan what he saw, but the thought flashed past and was gone as quickly as it had come. She’d pick up a new phone in a few days, maybe even cough up to keep it unlisted. In the meanwhile, she sat out on her little balcony to relax and enjoy the warm night
While she was sitting there, it started to rain. She leaned back and sighed. She liked the rain. She was good and wet before she went back inside to shower and curl up with a book. The Chronicles of Narnia. Volume 1. She’d never read it before.
About the auhtor