Karena pressed the message button and pleaded as the voicemail recording was about to start – interview, interview, interview. While waiting through beeps and pauses, she edged gingerly out of her high-heels – ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. Her toes unstuck from one another and stretched themselves into the carpet. A circle of dried blood spotted over one middle toe, where a neighbouring nail had dug in.
The phone clicked. The sound of breathing took over, followed by an unrecognized male voice, “Oh, baby…yeah, that’s how I like it.”
Her finger stabbed at the off button as she stuck out her tongue like an angry child.
She sighed and loosened up her shoulders the way athletes do in circular motions. The interview had gone well in terms of her performance – confident and sharp – but she knew when she passed through the lobby and her stomach sank that she wouldn’t get the job. The memory of it with its sense of defeat made her reach for the half of a cannabis joint still in her ashtray from the previous night. No, she thought, it will just make me hungry. And she only had two joints left and had to make them last.
She drew the curtains, giving the room an afternoon darkness – not black like the night, but grey from the daylight peeking through the curtains’ edges.
Sauntering towards the couch, she turned on the fan and snapped up the TV remote. It was some talk show, where a couple yelled and gesticulated at one another as the camera flipped back and forth between them and an agitated obese woman in the audience. Imaginary company in Karena’s new world, a drudge of temping as an admin assistant around job hunting. Too worried about money to socialize, her evenings were spent in front of the TV. Just as well since her friends distanced themselves as if unemployment was contagious. Or worse, perhaps they didn’t want to be associated with a whistle-blower.
She eyed the joint in the ashtray again.
The wife belted out, “You liar, you liar!” The camera panned the audience, wide-eyed, riveted.
Back to the husband. “Did not, did not!”
“And that wasn’t the half of it,” the wife continued, flicking back strands of wavy dyed-blond hairs, “You used to go around in my shoes – my best pumps!”
The audience roared. “Dump him, honey,” came from the large women.
Karena grinned and unbuttoned her blouse half way, pulling the rest over her head and tossing it over a chair. This behaviour made her think of the cleaning lady who used to come to her old apartment once a week, and how Karena herself was once meticulous, clean to a crisp. Now clothes were tossed, mugs with coffee residue left out for days, while dust swirls settled into baseboard colonies.
She stretched out on the sofa and closed her eyes.
Thump, thump, thump.
She shook her head in frustration.
“Lisa, Lisa...It’s Mrs. Wilson.” Knock, knock. A woman’s voice, scratchy and nasal, shrieked from the hallway.
“Huh?” Karena grunted, weaving a path to the door. “Yes, I’m here.” As she partially opened the door, a wave of heat hit her face.
In the hall stood an old woman holding a Macy’s Christmas bag. She wore a sour expression, which then burst into a smile of oversized dentures. Looking up at Karena through thick glasses that made her eyes appear round and dilated, the woman said, “Lisa, didn’t you hear me? Oh, no, you were napping. I can tell. You look like you just got up.” Her insect eyes glared closer at Karena, who stood with her mouth ajar, shielding her body with the door. “In fact, Lisa, honey, you look flushed. Are you okay?” The old woman slanted her silvery head as if to see into the apartment.
“But, my name isn’t Lisa...”
“Oh, no, I forgot your name again. Oh, I’m so embarrassed. But don’t tell me – I’ll remember in a minute or two.” She placed her hand on the door gently pushing it to let herself in. Tired and weak, Karena leaned back as the woman came trotting through, her leg movements stiff with age.
“Well, I brought the dress for tonight,” the woman said clipping her words. “Oh, you were watching Steve Harvey. I used to watch him, but now I watch Dr Oz.” She placed the bag down on the table. “My, it’s dark in here.”
“Uh, I think there’s been a mis…”
The woman hurried to open the curtains. “It’s warm in here too. No wonder you’re flushed.” Bright sunlight suddenly filled the room. “Oh, you only have your bra on. Me, too. I do that all the time. Just make sure you don’t do that on the second Thursday of the month. That’s when Charlie, the window cleaner – he’s such a good boy – that’s his day.”
“Uh, but, no...”
“Not another word. I told ya, you could borrow it for tonight. Not another word from you.” She then looked at Karena’s exposed trunk, her eyes growing bigger. “Ya know, Laurie, you’re thinner than I thought...”
“Because I’m not...”
“This dress won’t be tight. It might be a little big even.” She paused to catch her breath, and before the baffled Karena-Lisa-Laurie could utter another word, “Well, I’ll be off now. If you need anything else, you know where I live – 302, that’s me – just down the hall.”
Karena’s mouth opened in a silent ah ha.
“And, Lisa, I mean, Laurie, take it out of the bag right away so you won’t hafta iron it.”
The old woman was heading to the door. “And there’s a pair of shoes in there too – you don’t hafta return those – can’t wear them anymore.”
Karena’s last effort, “Ah, but...”
The phone chirped in a three-beat monotone.
“Oh, I’ll let you get that. You don’t hafta see me out. Have a good time tonight.”
The phone nearly drowned out the old woman as she said her parting words.
Karena shook her head – weird.
“Hello,” another unknown male voice began, this one sounding like a pop music radio announcer. “Am I speaking to Ka-ren-na?” He sounded unsure about the pronunciation. “Karena Ferguson?”
She knew what this meant – being at home in the daytime made her prey to telemarketers. She rolled her eyes. “Yeah.”
“You are a guaranteed winner in the Daytona National Sweepstakes.” His speech kicked into rapid pace, every sentence one breath of air. “You could be the lucky winner of a brand new sports car or perhaps you’ve won a Caribbean cruise or perhaps…”
She slotted the phone back into its cradle. She hated to do that – after all, she could be the person making those calls if she didn’t find a steady job soon. As she sighed she could hear Steve Harvey saying, “We’re now going to meet another couple…”
The shopping bag on the table seemed to jump for her attention. She went to the closet, where a shirt laid crumpled on the floor. Imagining some other woman, the Lisa-Laurie, panicking for the dress, she pulled on the wrinkled shirt, slipped on some canvass loafers and grabbed the bag.
She had to walk the entire length of the hall, stuffy without air-conditioning, to reach 302. Approaching, she could hear a television inside and knocked on the door loudly for the old lady to hear.
The door swung open. A short Latino man with a large potbelly and bare feet held a startled look on his face. “Si? Jes?”
At first she didn’t know what to say. The old woman had said 302. Karena was sure of it. “I’m sorry, I must have the wrong apartment. Does a little old lady live here? She left this in my…. I live down the hall.” She pointed, feeling her cheeks turning red.
The man smiled out of politeness. “No, not in thees apartment, sorry.” He turned away, anxious to get back to the baseball game on television.
“Uh, do you know of an old lady on this floor?”
“No, sorry.” The door slammed behind him.
Maybe it was 3-0-something else. She stepped down the hall trying 300 and 301 – nothing. At 303, a student-type came to the door, emitting a waft of cannabis fumes. He wore a nose ring, had holes in his jeans and had black and purple hair. This creature was definitely not keeping an old woman with thick glasses.
Karena continued, knocking on 304 to 308. No one had answered – probably still at work – the teachers, office workers and taxi drivers, the kind of people who lived in an apartment building the likes of this in a residential area. She had moved away from the verve of downtown – a change of scene, the line she used with anyone who asked. But it was economizing and self-punishment for opening her mouth and losing her job.
She returned to her apartment, frustration furrowing her brows and her face glowing from the steamy hallway. The living room was back to grey. She couldn’t remember, but she must have closed the curtains after the old woman had left. She dropped the bag on the table and hoped that the woman would realize her mistake and come back.
“You can be a sweepstakes winner!” came from the television.
She stared at the curtains and thought about a snack. Salad or sandwich? She hated herself for thinking about food nearly all the time. When she was managing her own staff she was too busy to think about eating. Lunches were often forced on her by Marta, her assistant, bringing in sacks of Harry’s bagels for the team.
Now she needed to stop the cravings and hold out until dinner. The Macy’s Christmas bag could distract her. It wouldn’t hurt to look. The old lady expected her to. Inside was a folded square of crepe paper that smelled of dust and perfume. She unfolded it and a silky red dress – so brightly red it could be seen in the darkened room – laid itself alluringly over the table and on to a chair.
“Wow,” Karena said aloud.
She held the dress up to see its lines. It tapered in around the waist and then came out slightly fuller at the hips, where it continued to knee length. It was cut straight and high across the chest with wide elegant straps – the type of dress that suited her angular frame. She caressed it and then draped it on to herself, imagining how she would look in it. No, I can’t do that – I simply can’t. It wouldn’t be right.
She rummaged through the bag and found a pair of red slipper-like shoes with short heels. She tossed one, then the other, on to the floor. They landed in a line, waiting for her to step in. She kicked off her canvas shoes and eased into the red slippers. They were cushiony inside and fit her perfectly. “Yessss.” She clicked the heels three times like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
Grand ballerina poses took over her body. A few bold strides and she was at the curtains, where she made sweeping gestures parting the panels as if she were on a stage. The bright sunlight was dazzling. She closed her eyes and spun herself around and stopped with her arms in the air. As the final note played in her head, she gently lowered her arms – applause.
On television, the audience applauded. A woman about the same age as her said, “Yeah, like, I’ve moved on with my life.”
Karena pirouetted back to the table, kicked off the red slippers, swept up the imaginary dress and headed into the bathroom, barefoot with dried blood still on her toes. She knew she wasn’t going to win any sweepstakes and didn’t want to grow a paunch in front of the television or spend her evenings in a cannabis haze. There was only one thing to do. She’d go to a busy club or maybe even one of the grand hotels – someplace with dancing and where she could pretend to belong to one group or another. The music would be too loud for conservation. No one would ask what she did for a living or where she worked. If someone asked her name, she would yell over the music, “Lisa Laurie.”
Paola Trimarco's stories and essays have been published in several magazines, including Mslexia, Fishfood Magazine and Shooter Literary Magazine, along with a story and an essay at The Creative Process exhibition website. She was shortlisted for the Wasafiri Life Writing Competition 2014 and her stage plays have been performed in London. She has authored four textbooks, is a co-author of The Discourse of Reading Groups and is a regular contributor to The Literary Encyclopedia.