While driving home from work, Jenny likes to make lists in her head of things she would like to think about at greater length later, when she isn’t responsible for keeping her eyes on the road, or for shifting gears, or for turning up the volume on the radio. She thinks about a man with a long braided beard who came into the bakery five minutes before she was to close up shop. As she turns her car from the parking lot out onto the main road, she reflects upon, and compiles, several names of base and impious men with beards. Captain Bluebeard. Captains Black Beard and Red Beard. Grigori Rasputin. She is twenty-two, and her mind is a wire mesh colander, her thoughts small rocks, being shaken.
Jenny takes the steps to her red front door two at a time, enters the narrow hallway, and ascends the stairs without hearing the dinnertime plea from the kitchen, where her mother runs the sink tap on full force and ladles lentils onto three plates. Up to her bedroom door flies Jenny, who falls onto her bed and looks up at the ceiling fan that turns with languor. She considers beards. Long beards with beads stuck up in them, and short ones that grow in patchy. Mostly, though, she considers the people who choose to wear them, whether it is for utility in winter, or whether they believe it to be attractive and fashionable, and wonders if all beard-wearers are also inconsiderate by default. Jenny turns onto her stomach, and lets her left arm hang off the bed, pressing her fingers into the rug, and remembers her grandfather, who would smoke his cigars in a yellow folding chair at the far edge of his back yard underneath the camellia tree, and she remembers her uncle, who would blow his cigarette smoke into her face and chuckle, and she remembers the grey streaks in both of their beards. She digs her fingernails into the nap of the rug, and ignores the voices that call her down to eat; first her mother, then her sister, then both.
In the morning, there is a problem. Jenny arrives at work and yawns, unlocks the front door and steps behind the counter, and tries to think about what it was she decided, while driving through the sunrise, she wanted to think about. She can’t remember. She tries while she sets napoleons and guava danish in the glass case. She tries while she rings up one dozen chocolate cupcakes for a woman who checks her watch three times during the process. She tries while an old couple buys one petit four each, the old man crinkling the little parchment cup next to his ear, and the old woman laughing.
On the afternoon drive home she can’t remember, and in her kitchen making peanut butter and jelly, she licks the blunt knife, and still can’t remember. She gives up and runs upstairs and lays on her bed, looks up at the ceiling, until she falls asleep.
When she was eight years old, Jenny’s best friend had a good spot at the edge of her back yard. This was a place where the two ends of fence met to form a corner, and where the trailing edge of some tree’s rogue branch hung over and touched the ground, to form a little, hidden sanctuary. Buried beneath the cold dirt protected in this corner were letters and buttons, plastic figures stolen from neighboring boys, and the body of a frog, martyred. One day in summer when Jenny ran down the street and through to this haven of theirs, she saw that her friend had streaks on her face, a distant expression, and a small box of matches.
“What are those for?” Jenny asked and knelt.
“For lighting,” said her friend, reaching back to tighten her ponytail. “We’re going to light these leaves on fire.” She indicated the branch that sheltered them.
“But…” Jenny looked up at the branch and backed up some. “You can’t! We’ll get in trouble.”
Jenny’s friend shook her head. “I heard my dad say sometimes you have to burn up dried grass for it to grow back better next year. If we burn up these leaves, maybe they’ll grow back bigger, and next summer, nobody will see us at all back here.” She pulled a match out of the box. Jenny backed up again, but didn’t say anything. She watched her friend take the match and sniff at its red tip, and let it scratch her nose a little. She took it and dragged it across the side of the box, and looked at the little flame for a second, then touched it to the nearest leaf. Jenny backed up until she was out from under the branch. Jenny’s friend came out, and sat down, and looked up. Jenny saw smoke, and ran. She ran to the shed at the other end of her friend’s yard, and to the other side, and crouched down, and put her fingers in her ears. Jenny pinched her eyes shut.
And when she opened her eyes, everything looked the same, but she could smell it in the air. And when she took her fingers out of her ears, she could hear that people were shouting. She stood up and peeked around the edge of the shed, and then came out to stand and watch. The whole tree was on fire. From where she stood, she saw the backs of adults, one waving her hands in the air, another with his hands on the sides of his face. The last one had his hands gripping Jenny’s friend by the shoulders, saying something inarticulate, but loud, and shaking her. Jenny’s friend looked up into his face and giggled. The tree burned orange, and then red, and Jenny dreams that it was sunset, though it was really afternoon when it happened. She wakes up on her bed, and she sees that the ceiling is orange for a second, but blinks, and it’s white again. She remembers flames, but doesn’t know why.
“I heard from a girl at work they’re pretty desperate for teachers over at your old high school,” says Jenny’s mother. Jenny traces lattice-work patterns in her mashed potatoes with a fork.
“That sucks,” Jenny says.
“No,” her mom says. “I mean I bet you could get a job there.” Jenny’s mother gets up from the table and walks over to the oven, takes out a cookie sheet with rolls on it. Jenny’s sister reaches over and takes one from the pan, pulls air in between her teeth, and lets it drop onto her plate.
“Yeah,” says Jenny. “I’ll think about it.”
“What’s to think about?” says her mother, and looks across at Jenny with her eyebrows poised high.
“I’ll look into it, I mean,” says Jenny, and runs a trail through her potatoes with her knife.
Jenny washes the dishes after dinner. She hands them to her sister on her right, who rinses and dries them. Jenny looks out the window over the sink, the clouds hanging low and pink.
“Ooh, guess who I saw yesterday?” says her sister.
Jenny blinks and turns to look at her. She moves her hands in the water. “Who?”
“That guy! You know, the guy that used to cut the grass. God, it’s been forever. Hasn’t it been forever?”
“It’s been a while,” says Jenny. She looks out the window again and watches a neighbor pull his trash can to the curb.
“Anyway, it reminded me of that song we made up about how we both wanted to marry him.”
“Hmm?” says Jenny. The neighbor scratches his big belly and walks back inside.
“You know, that song? We thought it was hilarious, I think we taped it. It was like, ‘something something, and it’s okay if you have two brides’? You know?”
Jenny looks at her sister. “I don’t remember that.”
For the fourth time, Jenny pulls over to the side of the road, takes out her notebook, and adds something to her list. She pulls back out onto the road and tries not to let her mind wander anymore; she’s 30 minutes late already.
Jenny meets a friend from back at school at a Thai restaurant two blocks up from her house. When Jenny comes in, he smiles, but he pulls his mouth tight at the sides and doesn’t show his teeth.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says quickly, lets her bag fall to the floor beside the booth and slides in across from him.
“It’s alright,” he says, and looks down at the table.
Jenny swallows. “No, really, I’m sorry. I just got…sidetracked.”
“It’s cool, really,” he says, and looks back up at Jenny, smiling differently. “How’s it going?”
Jenny settles back into her seat. “It’s alright, you know, just working and stuff. What about you?”
“About the same. Getting ready for a new semester. I’m doing a semester abroad, actually, so that’s cool.” He takes a sip from his water glass and rubs at his chin.
“Yeah, that’s really cool.” Jenny nods, presses her lips together. “Where you going?”
“Florence,” he says. “Maybe do a little traveling around after that, but.”
The two of them look at their menus, covering their faces.
Jenny thinks about a night in her dorm when they ate microwave burritos and watched some sweeping epic featuring the English countryside. The women talked in high, helpless voices, and the men said all the right things. The two of them laughed, and drank, and drank.
“Someday,” he said, and slid an arm between the couch and her back, “me and you are going to tour Europe. Like, just put our shit on our backs and walk.” He took a drink from one of the bottles laid on the coffee table in front of them. He laid his other arm across her belly, put his head on her chest. “Does that sound awesome to you?”
“So awesome,” she said, and giggled, and closed her eyes.
The waitress lays their plates in front of them, and they both say “Thank you” at the same time. They look across the table at each other and smile. He looks down at his plate and picks up his chopsticks. Jenny keeps looking across the table, looks all the way across the table.
“How was it?” calls out her mother when Jenny walks in the front door. “How’s he doing?” Jenny walks to the back of the house and sits on the small amount of sofa left available to her, after her mother’s outstretched body. Her mother holds the remote and turns down the volume on the television.
“He’s fine,” Jenny answers, and pulls the notebook out of her bag, stares at it, but doesn’t read.
“I heard he was going out of the country or something.”
Jenny flips the pages in her notebook. “I don’t think he said.”
Jenny is walking through the park, as she has every day for a week. She makes the familiar bend in the path around a trio of bushes and reflects on her proms, both eleventh and twelfth grade. Eleventh was important, but twelfth was definitely more important, and so she considers eleventh grade prom, its hurried preparation and its long waits at a restaurant beforehand. She considers her date’s crooked boutonniere, dancing to a song she’d hated until that night, and the quiet ride home. She takes a look at it, and lets loose of it, and walks past a group of children playing in the dirt.
In her bedroom, Jenny opens her notebook and reads, and cries. Pineapple it says, and sunsets and book clubs, and Julio Iglesias. Each image she turns over in her mind is bright enough, but their significance is a dissolving edge she can’t grasp. She lays down and pulls the covers over her shoulders, wipes her cheeks. She looks at the photo next to her bed, and can’t make out the faces. The bottom of her stomach feels cold, but electric. “Something different is coming,” she says to herself, and her eyes get heavy, and start to drop. Jenny pulls her knees to her chest, and sighs, and with her heart beating hard and slow, wonders who she’ll be in the morning.