by Megan Peck Shub
Megan Peck Shub is a producer on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, New York Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Independent, Maudlin House, and X-R-A-Y. She is a contributing editor at Story magazine.
barbara, all in lowercase
On her birthday, Julia sits in an upscale restaurant with her friends, most of whom are also her colleagues, as Julia dedicates most waking hours to work. Her sleeping hours, too, often involve dreams of scenes from her job or former jobs, such as, coincidentally, the one at a restaurant, years ago. In that recurring dream she roves table to table, arms laden with dirty dishes, explaining to faceless customers that their food is late. Why, they ask, but she can supply no reason. Anxiety hits hard and fast, in life and dreams alike, delivering all the fervor of a drug yet none of the fun.
But now Julia works at an advertising agency, and it is her birthday, and she is the customer, sitting in a restaurant as servers and food runners fill and refill her water glass. She inhabits the curious position of enjoying neither to serve nor be served. She wishes the water would simply refill itself; she pictures her glass as if it is a well, filling up from the bottom by bubbling spring, the water level rising, rising, all the way to the edge and no further.
# # #
Another coincidence: the woman seated at the next table looks familiar, though Julia cannot pinpoint why. The woman sits alone, reading a book whose blank grey cover gives it the air of a stone tablet. Beside her left hand stands a half-empty martini glass sweating condensation onto the paper tablecloth. Once in a while, she lifts her fork and spears green beans from her plate, one at a time, tearing them from the tines of her fork with her front teeth.
# # #
“Get this woman a piña colada!” Matty says, pointing to Julia. He is an account manager who lives in New Jersey with three small purebred dogs named after birds. The drink order is an inside joke: Matty is referencing an incident last winter, when they were at a client dinner and one of their most universally loathed clients ordered a piña colada at a steakhouse in the middle of winter. It isn’t funny anymore, but everybody laughs because Matty is deeply insecure.
# # #
Julia tries to look discreetly at the woman, hoping for recognition, for the answer to surface. She studies her appearance. It is so familiar. The curly black hair, cropped at the chin. The slouch, not louche or weathered, but more like a coiled spring fixing to bounce back.
# # #
A piña colada appears before Julia. It looks like a glass of snow. People take out their phones and snap photos, the phones producing their simulation of shutter noise. Julia is old enough to have known the music of real cameras. Paul, her first real boyfriend, showed her how to use his. On her 20th birthday, they took the camera to the beach and dropped acid. At some point, a turtle crawled up out of the sea like a soldier. “She’s here to lay her eggs,” Paul had said. “This process normally happens at night.” He posted himself protectively by the turtle’s side until it turned around and dragged itself back to the edge of the surf. Before launching into the water, the turtle turned to Julia and told her to run away. Julia must’ve looked incredulous. “You heard me,” the turtle said. “Run.”
At the day’s end the camera was gone. Paul and Julia laughed. They’d picked a hell of a place to lose an object. Nothing but miles and miles of sand and water and, by that point, darkness.
# # #
“You can’t leave the house here without spending at least 20 dollars—I read that somewhere, and it’s true. That’s just how it is.”
This is Gail talking now. Gail, an art director, studied painting, and she often sends Julia links to old masters up for auction. “It’s just for fun,” Gail has said of her window shopping. “Just to dream.”
The conversation has turned to New York and involves everyone one-upping each other’s complaints about the city. Somebody says, “Today I saw a man stop to piss in his coffee cup and then he carried it away!”
Julia rarely complains about New York because she’s still awed to be there at all. The awe is not rooted in some inherent New York magic, but rather its status as a location other than her city of birth, which was a place loaded with perilous traps always snapping around her extremities.
# # #
Now everyone is discussing the notion of having children in New York. Nobody understands how anybody does it. This is where the two parents of the group, Joe and Emily, pipe up about how they constantly feel like terrible parents. How they feel like they’re needed at home when they are at work, and how they wish to escape back to the office as soon as they’re with their kids. How their backs always hurt when they bend over and pick up the toys scattered on the floor. How they feel so goddamn old.
“That’s okay. We all know the alternative to aging. Happy Birthday, Julia,” one of them says, glass raised with ironic cheer. It doesn’t matter to Julia which one says it. They are all interchangeable robots right now.
# # #
She’s still there, the woman. Julia swears, acknowledging some possible measure of the paranoia acquired through modern living, that she is peeking over occasionally at Julia’s party. The liquid inside her martini glass has not changed in quantity, but it seems to have browned from her repeated stirring of the garnish, a skewer of three olives.
How does Julia know her? While nodding along with her table’s chatter—mostly shit talk now—Julia starts a categorical inventory of her memories. The woman is not a client, old or new; Julia can sense this in her apparel, her dinged up nails, and her countenance, which is slightly feral. She is not a former employee of the agency, because somebody else would’ve recognized her and lobbed the kind of polite greeting that lets one know that their distance is appreciated. She is from even further back, from another era. Julia closes her eyes. Every restaurant sounds exactly the same: screeching, clattering, hollering. She opens her eyes and takes stock. She is at an upscale brasserie on the island of Manhattan. She is attending her 30th birthday party.
# # #
Food arrives. Trays of oysters teetering on ice, lemon slices tucked around their speckled shells. Plates heaped with french fries. Moules mariniere topped with thrown parsley like spent confetti.
She met Paul at the restaurant where she worked, she watched his calloused fingers toss the garnishes at the stainless-steel expo station. She followed the tickets as the printer spit them into his hands. He tore them off, one by one, spearing them on a nickel-plated spindle, a little antenna, she imagined, beaming his intensity to her. He would wink at her. His hands found his way to hers. Inseparable was the right word for it. For the first time, it was not just lust. She wanted to climb inside his head, and he hers.
“He loves you too much,” their manager cautioned her.
At night, he always fell asleep before she did. She needed time; her bedtime mind was like a ship moving through locks of a canal. As he slept, she counted the black hairs sprouting from the backs of his fingers. One, two, three, four, five, and so on. It wasn’t interesting but she felt compelled to do it.
Julia tried to wring him from her memories but instead she finds him everywhere.
# # #
“Julia, have you noticed that woman has been looking at you?” says Gail.
“She’s a little weird,” says Matty.
At the very least, now Julia knows that the woman is not her hallucination. It’s reassuring to know that what one’s own eyes see is true—except until it’s not, of course.
Julia nods, slurping the last of her cocktail through the straw. Pineapple stings her mouth. The woman places both hands on the white paper tablecloth and raises herself. She pauses to stare before taking a few steps over. Matty brings a fist before his mouth for a hyperbolic cough. “Ummm…”
The woman crosses her arms and cocks her head. She’s quite thin and knotty, with wrists as small as the neck of a wine bottle. Her clothes billow accidentally, they hang off her body. She’s all wrong, this woman. Julia still hopes for an epiphany about her identity.
“I know you,” Julia says, or at least she thinks that’s her voice. “Where do I know you from?”
The woman clucks her tongue. She’s about Julia’s age.
“Come on,” Julia says. “What? Who are you? Tell me—was I awful to you? There is a period from my early 20s that is just lost to me now...” Julia slowly raises a finger to mimic something flying away. Matty grabs her wrist and shakes it in solidarity.
“You were fine,” the woman says, her speech slightly impeded by liquor or physiology, Julia’s not sure. The sudden attention sears the tops of her ears. Her colleagues are rapt. Neighboring strangers are watching and waiting to see what happens. The woman continues. “I’m Barbara. We worked together at that restaurant for, like, six months. I’m surprised by what you said about being awful. You were the opposite.” As if turned by a dial, the woman’s voice jumps upward one register. “Everybody was an asshole to me, but you were okay. Why’d you think I would say you were bad?”
Julia blinks. For a moment she’d lost focus. “Because I have always thought that I’m bad,” she says.
“Nah. Everyone else called me the ‘Barbarian’ and you scolded them,” the woman says, scratching at her scalp a little too zealously. “I appreciated that.”
“Not very creative,” Matty says. “I mean, for ‘Barbara.’”
“Indeed not,” says the woman. She curls her fingers around the edge of an empty chair, lifts it an inch, and then slams it for emphasis. Gail flinches, sending her elbow against her water glass, which topples across a plate of fries. Everyone at the table rushes to martyr their napkins onto the spill.
The memory of this woman blooms. Julia recalls huddling outside the back door of the restaurant with the other servers in a fog of cigarette smoke as they disparaged the weird girl with the curly black hair, the one whose name tag contained a typo: “barbara,” it read, all in lowercase.
“You’re Julia, I remember,” Barbara says. “You were Paul’s girlfriend. Paul was nice, too, actually. And then you got him fired.”
# # #
One night, Paul’s hand had flown to the side of her face. The blow stunned more than it hurt. For a second, she lost hearing on her right side. The quiet sounded like a seashell held to the ear.
(This is an example of a time when one might feel something other than reassurance from reality, when one might wish for a misunderstanding by any means: dream, delirium, imaginary figment, etc.)
The neighbors must’ve heard something, because soon came a few hard raps on the front door. There were two cops. “We should take him,” they had said. “Let us take him.” She refused. Four black eyeballs pleaded with her to cave. She closed the door. Julia wouldn’t let the police take Paul. She wouldn’t do that to him. She protected the person who hit her. She told only their boss, letting it slip one day as they rolled silverware into those red cloth napkins that never felt completely clean.
# # #
Barbara steps aside and disappears as the waiter arrives with a birthday cake and lowers it to the table. A handful of lit candles are stuck, crooked as old headstones, into the plain of white frosting. Everyone sings the obligatory lines, and everyone claps with extra enthusiasm, it seems, to dispense with the strange interlude. Throughout the song, Julia watches tears of wax drip from the wicks of the candles. She looks up. Barbara slips out of the restaurant’s front door, darting awkwardly around a pair of entering customers. Julia is sure that she will never see her again. She looks back down at the cake and deposits her one wish silently into the universe. With great force, she blows out the candles, giving them all the strength of her lungs, not by desire but by necessity. The flames refuse to easily vanish. The little flickering heads—they fly in unison, all to the left, then the right. She blows again, hard, from deep within her chest, as if she’s turning her lungs inside out. You get it really wrong sometimes, she thinks. You don’t know how some candles will burn, and you don’t know why. That’s just how it is.