Where We Were

April 25, 2017 | leaving to return

“Music is about sound.” This was enough for him. His gaze returned to his laptop. He squinted as he zeroed in on a phrase and erased it. It wasn’t worthy of his next record in academia. She waited for his fingers to complete his thought.

“And words. Lyrics.” Lori added. She chewed on a salad leaf quietly. It was tasteless and cold, but she’d spent too many of her per diems on pasta and chowders in the past few weeks.

“Even then, it’s the quality of the voice singing them.”

“But the words themselves are important. They give meaning to the music.” She thought of a tangible example. “It’s like how we build our decks. We can’t just present walls of numbers.”

Nate shook his head. She could see a fleck of dandruff in his dark coffee hair. “I still think they’re distracting.”

“How do you explain four years in a capella?” She asked.

“It was fun, but we sang the same pop stuff that everyone else did.”

“Right, there was the whole thing about wanting people to come see our shows.”

He rolled his eyes, and she could see thin red veins spidering out around his irises. He needed sleep. She shifted away to let him work while pretending to check her work phone. No theorems for her, just bullets to rewrite. She leaned lightly against his shoulder and speared another clump of leaves.

—–

“That was amazing.” She sighed and watched her breath take and lose shape in the cold air.

A co-worker who ended up having to take a redeye to a client site in Fresno gave her the orchestra tickets. “For you and Nate.” They were all in the same boat. Anything that could extend the life of a relationship a little while longer was not to be wasted.

Nate nodded in agreement. “Not bad, not bad. Some of the middle started to lag, but you couldn’t really tell.”

She didn’t have as sensitive an ear as he did, but for once she just wanted him to not temper his enjoyment. Their enjoyment.

“Well, I thought it was magnificent.” Lori ambled over to the symphony entrance. “Come on, let’s take a picture here.”

“It’s too dark. It’s probably going to come out grainy.”

“It’s okay. Just so we can remember coming here.”

He shrugged and put his arm around her shoulders. She snapped a few shots and ended up deleting four.

They hurried down into the subway station when the wind started picking up again. She paused on the steps, surprising him.

“You want a picture of that?” Nate pointed to the station’s name in tile on the walls. “You see it every day.”

“Tonight’s different. We got lucky with these tickets, and we listened to beautiful music in a grand concert hall.”

There was a time when she wouldn’t feel silly about explaining this or had to do it at all.

—–

The client site was five stops from her hotel and just one from their old apartment.

She did not miss the intense squeaking of the old subway, but being able to read while in transit was a welcome break. The PA made the announcement for this station. She looked up.

Discarded newspapers still floated along the floor, and although the man was a different one, he also sold cheap beaded jewelry on one of the waiting benches.

As he’d said, she used to see this every day. They hadn’t spoken since she accepted her new job on the west coast. The sunshine better suited her mood, and last she’d heard he had moved somewhere a little further south to pursue tenure.

It wasn’t worth commemorating. Or was it?

To hell with what he would’ve thought. She shuffled the contents of her bag around and searched for her phone. The camera loaded. She looked out the window, searching for the station’s name on the walls. Waiting for the couples in black and white, satin and tulle, accent jewelry to part ways. Her thumb hovered over the shutter button. Then, the train lurched and lunged forward, re-energized but resisting. The wheels groaned and whined against the tracks. No one would wait for her sentimentality.

The glow between her fingers faded to black. She withdrew her hands into her pockets and out of the cold.

The Aquarium

October 25, 2016 | straining through turbulence

aquaview

The minute hand of Quinn’s watch ran as fast as the possibilities did in her mind. It was silly. She knew he wasn’t like that and appreciated the effort he was making to get here at all. His project’s client was almost not worth it, but until it was his choice to make, here they were. Or here she was. She and her thousands of well-traveled friends.

Paul grew up on the west coast and ingested as much seawater as she did faux-healthy smoothies in high school. Passionfruit coolers were as close as she got to an island lifestyle in suburbia. His skin had absorbed all the sunlight it could before going off to college, and it radiated through, despite the dark and cold blanket that covered New England for most of the year. She fell in love with his brilliance. When it came to her turn to pick for date night, she wanted a place they could slowly amble together, not sitting in some dim space deciphering dish descriptions. She didn’t realize until now that most of the aquarium would wash them in a deep shade of blue anyway.

Truth be told, the place wasn’t her original idea. Or maybe it was. Her feed had served her an ad, algorithmically chosen based on her admiration for National Geographic photos and envy of her friend’s recent snorkeling trip in Australia. A night at the aquarium at a discount. She barely needed to think for herself. Somewhere there was an engineer she should thank. Maybe one of his friends.

Quinn had pointed out the California coast exhibit advertised on the website. It wouldn’t be an exact homecoming for him, but they could get a taste. She imagined him standing on his board and surfing above the multitudes of life below. He had only shrugged and said it should be fun. She thought it could be like college again. They had loved going to museums and exhibits around the city. They dared each other to narrate the introduction to the artist placards in their best imitations of snooty curators’ voices. He even maintained character when trusting tourists asked him to explain more about the artwork.

She stared at the card that detailed the distinct stripes of the delicate shrimp species in the picture window-sized tank. A second face suddenly materialized in Cheshire cat fashion next to her reflection.

“When did you get here?” Quinn asked and offered him a smile. She looked for indicators of how his day had went.

“I came straight from work.” Paul immediately took her hand in his and steered her towards the entrance to the rest of the aquarium.

“What’s the rush? The fish aren’t going anywhere.”

“I’m kind of tired, okay?”

“Okay, sorry.”

Her imitation of Jean-Jacques Cousteau could wait.

She broached the subject. “How was today?”

Paul scrolled through a new email on his phone. “Not bad, not good. We found a mistake in our model that had been holding us up this whole time. It got fixed, not a big deal, but I’m still frustrated.”

The summary made it possible for her to understand, but she wondered if the conversation could go longer if she knew more about the work he did. She could take classes.

“Makes sense. It feels like you lost time that you didn’t need to.” Quinn bent down to peer at a dimly lit tank housing a rare octopus species. Paul followed and craned his neck to get a glimpse.

“Yeah, exactly.” He confirmed. “I can’t see this thing. Maybe it’s asleep. How about you? How were the kids?”

Quinn sighed. The class she inherited this year provided more than enough opportunity for her to stretch her teaching skills and make a difference, as the corps had advertised.

“You know that quote from commencement I’d taped to my desk?”

The inner edges of Paul’s brows met as he thought. “Uh, no…?”

“Okay, well it was from the end. The laundry list. ‘Prevent apathy and inspire action.'” Quinn reminded him again. “I think I’m succumbing to apathy.”

“You’ve only been teaching for a year. If real teachers gave up this early, where would we be?” Paul swung their hands back to emphasize. Quinn dampened the motion as she led them to another tank.

“You’re right. Maybe I’m not a real teacher.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. But if you really don’t want to do it anymore, you can quit anytime.”

“I can’t,” she replied. “I know I can make it through another year. I don’t want to give up on those kids like that.”

“Then you won’t.” Paul said quickly. As far as he saw it, he knew she wouldn’t, and so there wasn’t anything else to discuss. After giving this routine report of their days, they shifted into silence.

They walked at a pace not much faster than the large fish swimming languidly in their clear cages. She drifted toward the touch tank, and Paul followed.

“I thought you were too scared to do this?” He asked, swishing his finger in the water. “You can’t even feed a giraffe at the zoo.”

“Starfish don’t have large teeth, however blunt.” Quinn gently stroked one of the arms of a purple specimen.

He cleared his throat, and then a voice worthy of a BBC documentary sounded. “As you’ll see here, we’ve found a rare starfish species with small, serrated rows of teeth on the underside of their arms.”

“You’re bluffing.” Quinn smiled but still retracted her hand from the water. “And why would they need teeth underneath?” She waited for him to counter, but it didn’t happen.

Paul appeared to read the placard intently. She didn’t understand the change until she turned to see a father and his daughter walk in to the section. They couldn’t be the children in the room anymore.

Quinn and Paul joined hands again, and she steered them to the exhibit she had wanted them to come see.

The tank looked like it was two stories tall, and that was just from their standing view. The glass wrapped around most of the wall so that it felt like the fish weren’t on display but the human visitors were instead. Glass also made up part of the floor so that braver guests could see into the world below.

Quinn marveled at how a place like this could have been built in such a crowded city. She should propose the place for a school field trip. It would mean she’d get to come and see it all again.

“Isn’t this place amazing?” she said to Paul.

“Pretty crazy,” he agreed. He looked down at his phone. “Hey, I need to take care of this. I’ll be quick.”

Quinn nodded and watched him leave. As he walked out of the unlit area, his skin regained its deep golden shade.

An aquarium guide waved to get the attention of the guests milling around. Quinn joined the group gathering by the edge of the wall of water.

“We have three species of sharks in our largest tank here in the facility, and they can all be found along the Pacific coast. However, our nurse shark is elusive, and you might have to look underneath your feet to find her.” The guide explained then suddenly pointed down. “There she is now!”

Quinn and a few other more curious listeners rushed over to the glass floor and saw the latter half of the shark glide by. Next to her, a man goaded his girlfriend or wife into crouching down to get a better look.

“It’s right there! Don’t you see it?” he pointed.

“I don’t see anything.” The woman replied confidently, trying to prove that she was in on the joke. He put his hands on her shoulders and guided her closer to the center of the glass. They brushed past Quinn.

The woman yelped as the shark’s snout appeared and then the rest of its thick and powerful body glided by. Quinn gasped in awe at the animal’s fearsome presence.

Paul had to see this. She looked up and then around but found no one to wave over. Her phone didn’t have any messages either.

Quinn turned back to the glass floor. She looked and looked, but she couldn’t spot the animal again.

A Recommendation

October 20, 2016 | strung together on a subway

The downside of e-books is that they remove a legitimate conversation starter. She was surprised that he was a reader now, but with no idea what he was reading, it was useless. Commenting on the weather wasn’t an option when the weather barely ever changes. It just screamed desperation — and even worse, it was unoriginal. And the conversation wouldn’t even have a half-life if she asked to borrow his laptop charger.

She looked down as his eyes shifted up and away from his reading for a moment. This was silly. She could say hello. She would.

If he left the cafe, all these spinning thoughts would be a waste. For today. Tomorrow she might have another chance. But she’s had so many. Maybe he’d choose a different place to read and enjoy a coffee. Away from her.

A few years ago, he must have been the agonizing. Well, maybe not, since he had been sloshed from one too many vodka shots. Freshmen. Their first taste of illicit freedom, and they wouldn’t even remember it the next day.


She had stuck close to the mercifully open window, trying to remember why she’d even come. The thump-thump-thump of the DJ’s strange inventions pulsed through her head despite the distance she kept from the table. If she was parked on her dorm couch as originally planned, she’d be transfixed by the tender kisses exchanged in her classic movie collection. Instead her eyes were helplessly drawn to the pair of tongues swirling against lips and faces a few feet away from her. She wondered, would they be in pain the next day?

She took another gulp of air and made for the makeshift coat closet. Better to make a quick exit before her roommates could nag her. She needed the night out. She and her boyfriend had been admirable, but the distance would’ve done them in at some point. (She appreciated the support.) It was time to explore!

A dark and slightly wet-smelling figure blocked her path. It was flanked by two others, too. Her nose wrinkled, and she gave them an expectant looks, waiting to pass.

“Hi, um, wanna dance?”

Very impressive.

“I’m trying to leave actually.”

The strobe lights illuminated the other two reinforcements. One of them stepped up.

“He’s, like, totally into you.”

Very subtle. He smiled, since there was nothing he could do coherently. A bolt of gratitude that her roommates were occupied in a different corner surged through her. They would not have let her pass up this offer.

“Thanks, but I really need to get out of here.”

The main boy spoke for himself now. “Um, can I get your name?”

She thought for a moment. “Audrey.”

“Audrey.” He said, testing it for authenticity.

“See you later.” She continued to thread her path through the throng.


She had a close call over winter break. Being at home made her nostalgic for familiarity, and her roommates weren’t there to remind her otherwise.

His smell and touch were familiar, and he knew everything about her. So much so that she didn’t think anyone else could ever know her better

For the same reason, she needed to get out and back to campus. He was right about so many things. Boston was really, really cold. Sure, her classmates were smart as hell, but he heard that the science honors program at state was just as challenging. Tuition would be less expensive, and they could even get an apartment off-campus together.

Easier. Better. Better?


She shook the drops off her umbrella outside the doors to the lecture hall. Showing up late wasn’t her M.O. even in the first week of lecture, especially since she was hoping for this professor’s recommendation someday. She peered through the porthole window and searched for a seat that would require the least amount of navigating around people’s legs and their things.

There. Somehow the second seat closest to the walkway was open. She gently pushed open the doors and kept her eyes on her target.

In a quiet flurry she unpacked her notebook and pen, cursing silently when a few raindrops spilled onto a clean page. She tried to brush it off before the water could settle in.

The person right next to her chuckled just loud enough for her to hear. She kept her eyes straight ahead. It was the only way for her to keep up with these kids and their summers of enrichment programs and science fair medals.

“Sorry, Audrey.”

Her attention snapped to the unknown speaker.

“Oh, you.” Her embarrassment was compounded by her realization that she didn’t know his name.

“Warren.” He offered his hand.

Audrey shook it and smiled quickly. “Rough first week,” she explained.

“You can take a picture of the notes you missed, if you want.” He pushed his notebook towards her.

“Really? Wow, thanks!” Audrey snapped a picture of the pages with her phone.

By the end of the lecture, the lecture notes weren’t the only new items stored in her phone. She could see this semester being better than the last.


He was the model of support and wouldn’t let her quit. But come junior year, classes, the MCAT, and working in a lab were all becoming too much.

“I’m not sure I want this anymore.” Audrey said. She took another gulp of coffee and stared at the chem problem. It was that time of the night when your brain either flew into heights it never neared before or crashed like a plane without an engine. Tonight she felt like she was suffering the latter.

She wanted alcohol, copious amounts of it.

Warren reached across the table and rubbed her wrist. “It’s midterm season. We’re all f—-d. But you’ve got this. I know you.”

“No, I don’t.” She forced her chair back as she stood up and started to gather her things.

“Where are you going? Back to the room?” Warren mirrored her and started to pack up, too.

“My room.”

He didn’t follow.


Audrey took another long drag of her coffee. Of course, she could ask him how med school was going. Or maybe he was one of the hoodies now, as was common in this city. She smiled as she tried to guess what his reaction would be to her new path, or, to be more accurate, gigs, now. So far, the title for best reaction had belonged to her old roommates, all founders or on their way to becoming C-something-O’s.

She could let this pass. She’d be moving away from this city soon anyway.

Then the natural law that governed how humans can feel and seek out whatever is observing them played out.

Her hands hovered over her keyboard, and she gave a small wave with the hand closest to his direction.

He set down his e-reader with a small grin.

She decided, just as deliberately as she did a few years ago. “Hey, um, what are you reading?”

A Happy Meal

July 28, 2016 | for my father


Fifteen minutes. Then finally, “Sorry, we’re closed.” Fourteen minutes. The end of the workday was taking its time.

Still slick with oil from its former owner’s fingers, the toy rested on its side across the table. The painted-on smile was perfectly shaped. He couldn’t wait to surprise his daughter with the find, if he did end up getting to keep it. She would be overjoyed. Each Happy Meal she had opened in the past few weeks had ended in a pout and his heart deflating a little. He could’ve gone to the cashiers to just ask for the toy she wanted, but his embarrassment held him back. He couldn’t say the name of the princess right, and “purple dress, purple” got him nowhere the last time.

But they might come back for it. They left their table not long ago, bellies full and mouths still chattering away. At least, if it was his daughter who had lost her toy, he definitely would.

Ten minutes. His favorite song out of the long and always unchanged soft rock soundtrack to the restaurant started playing. He let out a full yawn, sound and all, now that the place was cleared of all but the staff.

Maybe he could just take it now and pack it away with his things. If the family came back for it, they would understand. They would think that another kid took it, or that it had gotten bussed away with the rest of their uneaten food.

He reached for the plastic doll and righted it up onto its feet, then took out a napkin from his waiter’s apron pouch to wipe off the oil. Much better, and ready for his daughter to play with.

He rubbed his sore shoulders and neck and rolled up his sleeve to cover an oil stain his wife was sure to tsk at. Being open on a holiday meant more customers, but it also meant more heavy trays of food to run back and forth. Technically people could still walk in and order food to-go, but he was pretty sure he was done for the day. He would simply refuse. He only had energy left for the drive home.

He pictured his daughter’s face peeking through the window of the back door. She would be so happy with the toy. The thought that her joy might come at the expense of another child’s crossed his mind, but it didn’t stay.

The door chime stopped his daydreaming. His head jerked back up, and he craned his neck to see whether it was one of the people from the toy’s table. It wasn’t one of the flood of faces from today, and the person left when they were told it was too late to order even to-go. He let out a breath that he didn’t realize he was holding.

“Where did you get this, daddy?” She grabbed it out of his open hand with the eager force of a delighted child. Immediately she started twirling it in the air, choreographing dances and spinning stories in her head that he could only wonder what they were about.

He smiled wide and said, “It was meant for you, so I found it.”

That was all she needed to know.