Heartburn
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Chemistry"
Originally featured on 01-31-2007
As part of our series "Phases of a Holiday Meal"

I’ll try and tell this story the way it really happened, though I can’t guarantee that the events fell in the order I remember it; it all seems like a dream at this point and besides which I’ve been told that sometimes I live entirely too much within in my ‘own world’ and am not sympathetic enough to the real world. But there was one day recently when I was paying attention particularly well that everything seemed to shift.

What I remember, in the beginning, is being on the train, and I know this happened before anything else because I was talking to Opal on my cell phone, getting all sorts of dirty looks from the other passengers, though I don’t know why, as most of them were dozing off regardless, and beyond that, there was a sense of urgency I hoped came through in my voice that should have excused the whole thing.

It had been a particularly dingy day in Seattle, and heading back to Portland things weren’t improving too much. All sorts of clouds were hanging around looking mildly threatening and kind of elastic, like they would never stop expanding and eventually the entire world would be enveloped in them. Anyway, I had been in Seattle on business, and in fact had secured a deal that would most likely bring me a raise, or at least an upgrade to a corner cubicle. I’d been in the same position since I began working there the fall after my graduation at the ripe age of twenty-one. Five years had passed since then and every time I look up there is the same view—Jack’s back, and often he is hunched over, which aggravates me because posture is very important to looking professional. Jack and I slept together, only once, after two bottles of Pinot and a joint, and I think I was more nauseous than anything, but it was enough to make me able to picture his bare back whenever I looked up, as I have a very active imagination.

“How was your trip?” Jack asked me upon my coming back from Seattle. I pretended I didn’t hear him, but when I looked up he was twisted around in his chair and looking right at me. The way he was turned I could see the framed picture he had of his cat, Frankie. He loved cats. He loved watching them, like when they smelled flowers with their tiny noses, or when they got up on their hind legs to get a more thorough pet. He told me this in bed and I knew right then I was never going to sleep with him again. Not that there was anything wrong with liking cats, or even thinking they were adorable—but I didn’t like him enough to think it was a positive personality trait.

“It was fine,” I told him, and went into the details of the hotel: the mini French soaps, the perfection of the water pressure, the smell of the sheets, the spread at the continental breakfast.

“They had these little quiches, they were the cutest, most delicious things, and fresh orange juice. I was in heaven.”

Luckily, my lengthy and boring descriptions got to him and he excused himself to the restroom.

Now, I can’t say for sure what happened next. I know Jack was back at his desk because I was wondering whether or not he still had that patch of hair on the small of his back, or if he had shaved it off, as I had recommended, and then Dana was at my desk, the expression on her face only accentuated by her high drawn on eyebrows, set at surprise.

“Opal isn’t here yet,” she told me, and she was looking at me with such intensity that it almost seemed that Dana suspected I had killed her; she was breathing heavily, as she usually was, being a large woman with a slew of health problems and ankle joint sensitivity to boot. She was always claiming to have Rheumatoid Arthritis, and even received several sympathy cards in connection to the claims, but really she suffered from a weak will.

“She didn’t say anything to me about being late,” I said, and returned back to my work.

“Well when did you last talk to her?” Dana asked, fingers clutched around he cubicle wall, her red nails digging into my picture of Opal and I at the Japanese Gardens last year, when she was still with Ben. At this point Jack swung around, and those walking by, as if Soviet police suspecting plans of revolution, slowed their paces and eyed us suspiciously.

“I talked to her this morning,” Jack said, and crossed his arms, exposing a Swiss watch. Just then I noticed the lines around his eyes and lips, the bits of gray in his sideburns, around his temples. He was smiling at Dana, knowing he had the information she wanted, and if there was one thing I respected about him, it was that he didn’t let Dana’s self pity work on him. She could talk all she wanted about her meth-head son, her high blood pressure, the fact that her husband had cheated on her thirteen years ago and she had stayed with him, god knows why, and he had died and left her with his debts and his 1979 Cadillac that barely ran and when it did, produced the most putrid exhaust that gave her headaches. He just let her talk and held a smug smile on his face the entire time.

“Why did you talk to her?” I said, and both Dana and I looked at him, who then looked up to the ceiling, as if there was something amazing happening up there, and I began to feel this strange sensation in my stomach, like there was a balloon inflating inside me. It was anger, I think, or maybe jealousy, because immediately I began imagining Opal and Jack together in bed, staring adoringly at each other and giggling, Jack running his fingers through Opal’s little brown curls.

“She called me,” Jack said, putting up his hands in defense. He tapped his shoes against the carpet, a habit I knew was directly related to dishonesty.

“You’re lying,” I said, and pointed down at his foot. Dana looked too, but seemed confused, although you wouldn’t have known from looking at her. Now other people in the office were slowly closing in, conveniently stopping at the nearby water fountain for a five-minute drink, or simply approaching with a stack of papers against their chest, as if waiting for an opportunity to talk about work-related subjects and having to suffer through the gossip.

He looked at me and winked. My mouth fell open. I wish I could’ve punched him, but I don’t think Dana would’ve survived the shock of it, and besides it had been years since I’d thrown a punch at all and knowing my luck I would have missed.

I stood up and leaned as close as I could towards him without falling over.

“We’ll talk about this over lunch,” I said, and sat back down, focused on my work. Dana walked away, unsatisfied, but confident in the knowledge that there would soon be something happening.

At quarter to twelve Opal called me, on my work phone. She was breathless.

“Has anyone noticed I’m not there?” she asked, and I could hear the sounds of traffic in the background, yelling children.

“Only Dana and Jack,” I said, and glanced over at him. He was putting his things away, getting ready for lunch.

“Of course Jack would know,” Opal said, and the feeling was back in my stomach.

“He always finds his way into other people’s business,” she finished, and my stomach settled.

“Just tell them I’ve been puking all day and could barely finish talking to you because I was running to the bathroom. Thrown in some diarrhea to, just as a validator.”

Opal was a great liar; she had a degree in Business Law, but it hadn’t worked out for her.

“I can’t believe it,” she continued, and the noise of the traffic almost overtook her voice. There was honking, brakes screeching.

“I’m thirty-five years old,” she went on, “and I’m pregnant. I tried for three years with Ben and nothing! Life can be so wrong sometimes, you know?”

“I know, it sucks. Did you have an appointment for the…uh…you know?”

“Yeah, but now I’m just standing outside, on a pay phone. I haven’t used one of these in years, but I was so out of it that I left my cell phone at home. My hands are shaking.”

I could picture Opal, even though I really had no idea where she was. I imagined her in jeans and a button down shirt, somehow managing to look gorgeous. She had that ability, and it had caused her trouble throughout her life—men who proclaimed love but really were infatuated, and women hated her because of this, because sometimes it was the man that claimed to love them as well.

“We’ll come down,” I told her, “Jack and I.”

“Jack? I don’t know…what will he think?”

“He won’t think anything. He voted for Nader, for god sakes.”

“Fine. I’m at 50th and Powell, standing next to a red Toyota.”

Jack already had his coat on, was brushing off the bits of dandruff on the shoulders when I stood up, smiled. We walked out together, and everyone’s eyes followed. In the elevator he looked at me, cleared his throat.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked, and for a moment I felt like wrapping my arms around him, just because of the way he was standing there, his hands in his pants pockets jingling his car keys, leaning back on his heels.

“We have to go get Opal.” I looked straight ahead, even though I knew he would be looking at me, which he was, soon enough. The elevator stopped and I slid off, heading towards his car.

“Where is she? Why?”

“She’s at 50th and Powell, and she’s freaking out.”

Opal was perhaps the opposite of Dana in a sense, as I knew very little about her despite having worked with her for five years and known her as a close friend for longer than that. I found out bits of things that she let slip by accident, I knew that her father had been a heavy drinker, her mother a lousy cook, that her sister had been killed in a car accident when she was a junior in college, starting her own drinking binge. She always smiled when she recollected these times, but it was clear that this was a defense mechanism, that she was still in pain about it. She’d had many affairs over the years but never tried to justify them, always accepted the guilt and moved on, always claiming to have learned and that she was a new person and so on. But she always did it again, and now she was pregnant. This wasn’t her first time, I knew that, but I didn’t know what had happened in the first case, I only knew that she was very closed lipped and antsy about it.

We were stuck in lunchtime traffic and U2 was on the radio. Jack was staring heavily out through the windshield and I could tell by his breathing that he was irritated.

I should tell you, before things go any further, that we’ve slept together more than once, and I hate to have to admit that—not because he’s a bad guy or that I don’t find him attractive, I do, it’s just that there’s no good explanation for it other than hormones, but truth be told, I have some powerful ones.

“Why don’t you ever tell me the whole story?” he said, and I began to feel the tension in my stomach again, now because I felt the constriction of our relationship or anything, but the way he looked at me sometimes like I was a storm cloud he was watching and all he needed was for me to spill open made me feel like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.

I could have said nothing, stared out the window and made him angry, I could’ve told him that I didn’t want to go alone.

“She’s getting an abortion, or at least considering it, but she’s freaking out.”

Jack swallowed hard.

“How pregnant is she?”

“Almost two months.”

“Jesus. Who?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t know she was sleeping with anyone, but I guess it was around the time we last…you know…”

“Fucked?” It was meant to be harsh, but he said it very quietly, and I could see Opal now, could see the sun hitting her curls, the playground of the daycare center, now empty of children.

She looked distraught, that was the only word that came to mind.

“She’s just drawn to the wrong men, I guess,” I said, looking at Opal’s long frame against a street light pillar.

“It’s like masochistic chemistry,” Jack said, and looked over at me, his perfect white teeth biting his lip. At that point I had to get out of the car, as the feeling in my stomach was being replaced by an ocean sound in my ears, and his lips were beginning to pull me in like magnets.

“Opal!” I yelled, and bounded towards her, waving. She smiled, sot of, and ran to hug me. She felt cold, and I immediately had my hands on her shoulders and was looking at her face, which told everything when it wanted to. She was shaking her head, trying to collapse back into the hug.

“It’s easier when you’re younger,” she said to me, and to Jack who was standing next to her with his arms out wide, as if she was going to swoon.

“Everything is…I don’t know what to do, I just had this feeling, as I was walking up to the door, this feeling that I shouldn’t go in, and it was very strong, and it’s something I can’t ignore. Maybe this will be my last chance, you know?” and she looked now towards the building, it’s blank doorway, and to the concrete, which held in it a man’s footprints, going to the end of the block. The sun was unobstructed by clouds, I remember looking up at it and the shine of it blackening my vision for a moment.

“Get in the car then,” I said, and I linked her arm with mind, could feel the tenseness in it, “we’ll go to Burgerville and talk it over.”

Opal nodded and began walking to the car, turning around before getting in the car, shielding her eyes from the sun’s reflection off the skyscrapers.

“I would’ve liked it to be with someone I loved,” she said.

“Love isn’t everything,” I said, though I have to admit I was about halfway in it myself, “you’ve read enough fiction to know that.”

“Besides,” Jack jumped in, “there are people who love you, who’ll help you out.”

She didn’t look satisfied, and stood there, with her hand on the door, the sun hitting along her face so as to reveal the tear pathways from earlier.

“You’re not weak person, Opal,” I said, and I meant it, because she looked it, though I suspect most people are prone to fall into character traits should they be convenient, “you’re just a victim of chemistry—bad chemistry.”

“Like vinegar and baking soda,” Jack said, and he squeezed my arm.

“Fine. Well let’s go. It doesn’t make sense for us to stand here talking about it.”

That day Jack offered to pay for my black bean burger and I let him. That day, Opal decided she was going to have a baby, not while we were at Burgerville granted, but a few hours later when I was in the middle of record breaking timed game of solitaire and she just came over and asked me if I would handle the baby shower. Opal held her hand over her stomach while she spoke and I got the feeling that she’d known all along that she was going to have it. That night when I found myself at Jack’s apartment I stopped thinking it was going be the last time, even when he started kissing Frankie’s little nose and talking to her in a baby voice, because I had felt the shift that had happened somewhere along Powell Avenue, and I wasn’t about to ignore it.

Read More By Liz Varley

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