by Arianna Reiche
I always think I’m too tired to go. Even as I’m telling myself I’ll skip this one, even as I turn my phone onto its face to suffocate the light, even as I wrap myself in my duvet, the one that smells like teenage me, curve my spine, and try to re-settle into the abyss of sleep – there my feet are, hitting the carpet. There I am, standing. I’m getting my coat.
I left the volume in my mom’s Kia cranked up so I wince as the engine starts. Once it’s quieted, the remnants of sleep are gone. I reverse out of the garage with one hand and tap the notification on my phone with the other. I stare into its glow and swim to the message board I’m looking for. From there I’m re-routed to Discord, which feels quieter, fewer voices, more like traditional texting, but scrolling through the thousand odd messages steals my attention from the road and hypnotizes me until I feel myself nodding to sleep at the wheel. At a stop sign I let the engine idle and press my cheek against the window, let my skin prickle from the cold glass, then look at my phone again. When I find the address I’m less bleary, but more desperate.
It’s not a short drive, maybe forty minutes on the freeway. I thought I’d set my alert preferences for a smaller radius but there’s no point turning back. What would I be doing in bed, anyway? I don’t sleep well. I haven’t since I moved back. If I was sleeping I’d probably be having that dream again, the one where I drink and Max catches me and I wake up with a pulse throbbing behind my eyes.
My arrival time seems off to be cut in half. Odd, I think, until I see that I’m doing 90. I hope this one isn’t like last time. She was in terrible shape: a woman confined to a chair who could barely move her face, whose pupils followed me, whose hair stuck to her neck in sweaty wads. I left quickly. It was her caregiver who’d made the post. It didn’t seem right. But then I don’t know what the caregiver would have had to gain. I think maybe he was just like me, just like the rest of us, but a little further down the line. A little lonelier. A little more desperate to let us see what he sees, on the surface of this woman, even if it’s got nothing to do with his own body. I’m not worried about getting to that point. I’ll have things figured out by then. Maybe I’ll be back in the city. I’m not getting my hopes up about Max, but never say never.
When I pull in beside the curb I worry that it’ll seem weird that I’m in pajama bottoms and I check them for visible stains. I’ve got a long quilted coat on. No one here is going to judge, I tell myself. I don’t bother locking the car.
He’s fifty-ish and wearing bottoms like mine, thin cotton. He fumbles with the latch on the screen door. It takes him a second, and he mumbles something friendly, but it’s at the door, not me. “There ya go.”
There’s something familiar and comforting about him. He’s mumbling in two different languages at the wrinkles on his shirt, picking off lint, maybe as a way to avoid small talk. I understand what he’s saying in both: What’s this? He takes long strides, and I worry about that, the movement, disrupting it. I wonder if when he sits down again, it will take ages to see what I’ve come to see. Sometimes it’s like that.
He seems to be alone in the house, which makes me both less and more nervous. He takes a turn down a hallway and assumes I’m right behind him but I hesitate. I never like losing sight of the door I came in through. He says something from just around the corner and I come like a trained pony, without thinking, passing framed photos of children on dark paneling, a boy and a girl with matching blunt bangs. Then we’re both walking on cream carpet – a second room with a television on mute. There’s a stack of paper Burger King bags, folded with great care, leaning against a sliding glass door. The light from the TV sputters against it in icy blue.
He doesn’t hesitate, and neither do I. He sits on a sofa whose faux leather is balding in a rivulet pattern. The black confetti bits of it are everywhere and I know that later I’ll have to dust them from my hands. I sit in front of him, on the floor. There’s a small table with a candle encased in dusty glass. I can just barely make out an ancient label: it says ‘Autumn Wreath’, and there’s a photo of an autumn wreath.
The man pulls up his t-shirt. I assumed it’d be his leg – it’s usually a leg. I must have missed that in the description. He twists from the center of his waist and taps his oblique. He taps it again. He’s leaner than he first looked. It’s good to be lean for this. Too much flesh makes it difficult to see. On the carpet, I shift my weight forward. I let my eyes settle. The show’s about to begin.
When I moved back home after college, I did SAT tutoring for rich kids through an agency. I had to stop because of the students. None of them were unkind or unpleasant. It was their distinctness that unnerved me. I could never stop thinking about them. Also, Max found a one-bed in Harlem and invited me to come live with her on the condition that I never ask her why she finally agreed to it. I quit the next day. I still think about those kids sometimes though.
There was Amanda who was anxious, funny. A nebbish. She was sixteen and already had the presence of a college junior or senior, a quiet awareness of her own neuroses, an acceptance of the awkwardness that I never could have had at her age. We were scheduled for a session the day after her junior prom, and she was clearly very hungover, slumping forward, cowering over a 5-Hour Energy, and at one point she fell asleep with her forehead on the table. In a brief flash I imagined hitting her, there, in the home she shared with her short parents and the grandfather with Alzheimer’s who was always laughing gently, but who was ushered away from us, as though his presence could muddy our intellectual waters. I said her name once, sharply, and she sat up. I never thought I’d be stern with a kid like that. But she shouldn’t have been hungover. She overthought every answer and struggled with the probabilistic elimination technique. She was too smart: she understood how it worked but she thought that she’d get questions right, even if she was uncertain, by virtue of stick-to-it-ism. Despite my urging her to skip answers where she could not eliminate even one choice, she guessed, sometimes correctly but more often not, using intuition, guided by her self-belief in something I don’t quite know. Exceptionalism? No. Something else. A gentler kind of specialness, one that would safeguard her from an inevitable type of labor. The labor of needing to struggle to be remarkable. I didn’t like that she was hungover because I needed every brain cell firing as I tried to telegraph to her in some psychic code, through the language of linked clauses and Robert Frost passages, that she was not special, just like none of us were, but that she’d be okay, as long as she listened to me.
There was Riley with the feline smile, who had done things that I didn’t want to know about. She tried to show me them in every pitying smile, every sarcastic softening of her voice. She did ballet and was going on some extracurricular trip to Paris over the summer. She asked me if I’d ever been. I know she wanted to tell me that she had someone there waiting for her, maybe a family friend or someone she met online. I didn’t give her a chance. I didn’t entertain the idea that I could be her friend. I never looked into her eyes for too long. She did well at word choice but not paired passages. She scrunched her nose at her incorrect answers, which was also some kind of vaudeville. Whatever she’d done, with whomever, she knew with certainty that I would never understand it, that no adult had ever experienced what she had, and so why not be an ironic doll of a girl while under our gaze. She made me recall, hazily, some Wedekind description of women and murderability that had made my blood boil when I first read it for a discussion in some elective. I guess I’m as bad as them now, I’d thought then, with Riley, without knowing precisely who ‘them’ was.
Emily was a swim team girl who’d never read a book. Her mother told me that, and Emily repeated it. Her mother also spent half of our first session warning me about her focus, how I had to be harsh with her or she’d space out. But Emily was always tuned into what I was saying, so long as I was explaining rules. Here’s how this section is different from the math section. Here’s what a semi-colon does. She had beefy trap muscles that sat on her otherwise small frame like a trowel, something she seemed to be carrying against her will. I found out later that she did better on the SATs than any other student. A near perfect score.
I kept my promise to Max and didn’t ask why she’d suddenly caved about us living together. After I settled in, I trained in a type of inventory software that would let me become an expensive temp, which I liked the sound of. I tried to make a sex thing out of it but Max didn’t like it. We always argued about who was sub-ier, so this didn’t shock me, but a few days later she told me she didn’t think that being a temp was anything to brag about. Nothing to bring up, even when we were alone. It stung.
“You’re doing that thing with your face again.” It was what she said when she failed to get a rise out of me.
“What thing?” I said, but she was already in a different room.
The software training meant that I could work anywhere with a physical warehouse. I took a job just past Yonkers, at that border where the land starts to seem like it could belong to any other state, Wyoming even. I was greeted by Bonnie, a tan white woman with an ex-junkie voice rasp who told me that all the fabric they sold, wholesale, had been selected by a Thai princess who owned the company. She even made some of the prints herself. Bonnie spoke with her every other day. Bonnie needed me there because she’d just fired Diane, who’d been her best friend, until something happened. What exactly it was was never clear: “She knows what she did”. Now the warehouse needed to modernize, digitize, if only for the sake of the benevolent princess on the other end of the telephone, whom Bonnie had never seen, but who she knew must be very elegant.
On my fourth day at the warehouse, I was scrolling through names of fabric retailers in a spreadsheet: Close Knit, Blazing Needles, The Art-Ful Barn, Nik-Naks, Pinspiration Gainesville, when a woman appeared out of thin air and gave me a look up and down. Of course: Diane.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. In back somewhere?”
“Wow.” Diane looked appalled.
I tried to elaborate. “Sorry, I haven’t been paying attention.” I nodded at my screen. “I’m updating last month’s inventory.”
“Wow,” she said again. Her eyes were wide, questioning. What am I to do with your incompetence? I’m unable to proceed, so wholly have I been blockaded by your ineptitude. I simply have no words.
I sat there, on the other side of the small desk, steeling myself for another question but she left. Maybe I was a little disappointed. Maybe I thought there’d be a confrontation between the women. Maybe I thought Diane would provoke me and I’d get a chance to shout. Maybe that disappointment – and what lives just underneath it, the ghoulish prospect of joblessness – is why that night after I drove back into the city I bought enough bodega wine to black out. In the morning Max’s face was swollen from crying and my bags were packed. I got into the shower, vomited, and rolled my suitcase onto the B. I got off at 175th Street and joined a rideshare with people who leaned away from me and cracked their windows open, even though it was February. I was the last one left in the car, and the driver didn’t want to go west of Ridgefield, so I got out and walked another two miles. My mom was waiting at the bottom of the driveway. She didn’t ask what had happened. She asked how long I was staying. I shrugged. On the way to the door she kicked cigarette butts into the gravel. “Your uncles were here,” she said. I knew she was lying.
Only when I was inside, when I could hear my dad’s gentle afternoon snoring from the other room, did I realize I’d been gripping the retractable handle of my suitcase since I stepped out of Max’s apartment. I hadn’t let go, not even in the car. During dinner I tried to cut through some cold chicken parm but my hand was weak. When I was falling asleep, the muscle started twitching. I turned on the light beside my bed. The spasm was coming from the point where thumb hinged onto hand, so that it moved, in very tiny pulses, like a marionette. I set my hand still on my lap and waited, watched, stared at a part of my own limb doing a ghostly dance, waited some more. The sight of the muscle fluttering and the sudden truth that my body was not entirely my own made me feel weightless, lighter than I could remember feeling since childhood. I’d had twitches before – who hasn’t? – but this was different. It stopped, really stopped, around the time the sun came up.
The next day, all was still, and it felt like a loss. The serenity under my skin felt like a cruel accident, a lost telegram between my mind and my body. An old friend, gone. In the afternoon an old piece of packing Styrofoam from my mom’s most recent Etsy delivery blew onto my forearm. A faint sensation. My heart leapt, then sank.
After sunset I dragged several boxes of obsolete home tech to the street at the front of the house. I’d been in bed for an hour when the twitching began again. Again, I didn’t sleep. Again, I was filled with a warmth that not even Max had been able to give me.
Shortly after that, I found the forum. A few days later I went on my first night call, surprising myself at my own willingness to act on this new obsession. All it took was knowing that there were more people like me out there. When I arrived, I balanced on the balls of my feet in front of the man’s recliner, looking at his calf. A guy in cargo pants who’d gotten there before me flushed a toilet in another part of the house. Maybe I looked uneasy. Maybe the man was just chatty. But he said: “People love to tell you to eat bananas.” Then it started. The dancing shadow under the skin. The spasming. I now knew the medical term: Fasciculation. We sat like that for about half an hour, silent for the stretches of 40 seconds or more where there’d be nothing. I was impressed by how he didn’t apologize in that silence, in that stillness. He knew he wasn’t a sideshow. We were there, the guy in the cargo pants and I, simply watching. Then, after one particularly thunderous stretch of frenzied movement, it stopped and the man stood, showed us to the door, and finished his thought like no time had passed. “The potassium. In bananas. Stops twitches. People love to tell you that.”
I emailed the tutoring service. I got booked onto a re-training session for the following Monday. I thought about the girls I’d been paired with before. I wondered if Amanda’s grandfather was still alive. I imagined her mother calling her to break the news of his passing. I imagined Amanda having to step out of a bar in Gowanus or Missoula or London to answer the phone. I imagined her going back inside and leveraging the sympathy from her friends into physical intimacy with whoever she’d had her eye on at the time, like I would have done. I felt bad about how I’d treated her. She must have felt the indignity of that 5-Hour Energy, too. I wished I could go back. I would have been softer with her.
Training is different now. SAT scores are different. There are new sections. Different topics are acknowledged. The fat laminated binder they gave us is the same.
We go over probabilistic answer selection, and the idea that a kid can write whatever they want in their personal essay – anything: how they invented antibiotics in the seventh grade or how they were born on a blimp – because the test can’t afford to integrate fact-checking, and so long as they make a coherent argument and display use of vocabulary, students should feel free to stray from actual, lived facts. We do mock tutoring sessions, with the facilitator pretending to be a snotty teen. She crosses her arms and rolls her eyes and whines, “Yuh right!” to see how we respond, and her commitment to playing this part makes us all uncomfortable.
We go over the fact that the women in the room would only be paired with female high-schoolers. We go over this very quickly.
One of the trainees raises her hand. She’s sitting behind me, out of eyeshot. She’s in thick, high-waist denim jeans that make her torso look impossibly small. Maybe this is just a trick of the eye, relative size distortion, like the Ames Room, looking small in a big room, big in a small room.
“Are the men in here going to be paired with fem–”
“I’d be happy to talk about that more if you email me after the session, but we don’t have enough time to tackle it in here.”
“Trust me, it always spirals out into a huge thing. You can just email the reception-at address on the inside of the binder.” She turns back to the whiteboard: “Timesheets! Someone asked about timesheets!”
On the way to lunch I see the girl in the jeans pair off with a golden retriever of a man, the one who told us earlier that he was training to be a firefighter but was going to tutor until his foot healed. We all wanted to ask what was wrong with his foot but none of us did.
“I’m Fiona,” I hear her say.
“Heh.” He’s smirking, teeing up for something. “Like Shrek?”
She looks just over his shoulder and pulls her braids into a bun on top of her head and secures it with a big tortoiseshell clip. “Yes,” she says. “Exactly like that.”
I try to catch her eye but they slip out of the room and into daylight.
The next day I follow them to the rich-people strip mall beyond the business park and across the overpass. The cars below drown them out, and I don’t want to get so close that they try to rope me into conversation. She’s in a leotard with a low back today, and I can see the sharp angle of her shoulder blade as they enter a juice place. With a stab, I remember Max’s smell: a caramelized smell, the sweetness of something that’s recently been on fire.
I duck into a coffee shop. My phone buzzes. The messenger app. Discord. Two new locations since I last checked. I’m tempted to leave, get in my car, go to these addresses one after the other and watch. Of course I can’t, but it’s a nice thought.
I feel something touch my back.
“What do you think about the whole male-female student thing?”
She hasn’t said hello, and my hand is paused mid-air, taking my coffee from across a counter. Did she follow me here? Did she know I’d been following her, until I wasn’t? She’s got fine lines around her mouth though she’s clearly in her early twenties. A long neck, and the thinnest curve of sweat under her breasts. She doesn’t look like she belongs here. She should be finishing her PhD in some respectably small European capital, or leading a very cutting-edge webinar.
She’s waiting for an answer.
“Um, yeah, it’s weird. But I guess it’s just to make sure boys don’t get distracted.”
I know what I’m saying. I know what it’ll invite. With malice, I watch the shaggy man with the mysterious foot get impatient beyond the cafe window. Did she tell him to wait out there?
“That’s so fucked,” she says. “Reinforcing the idea that young boys aren’t responsible for themselves. That our attractiveness is an obstacle. For them.”
“Yeah, I mean it’s just policy though.” I still know what I’m doing.
“What, and it doesn’t work the other way around? The girls aren’t super horny for the guys tutoring them? 17-year-old girls don’t want to fuck 24-year-old guys? That’s a way more likely scenario. I bet that’s like actually happened!”
I’m out of my depth. I worry she’s saying this at me, not at a shared ephemeral body of injustice. I take a sip and burn my tongue.
The firefighter is at the other side of the glass. Fiona looks over her shoulder for just a flicker of a second, a fly buzzing behind her, then looks back to me, waiting.
“I don’t think anyone’s fucking anyone, right? That’s crucial, but yeah, I see your poi–”
“I mean of course not, but it’s the assumption – that girls can control their impulses and boys can’t – that’s fucked, right? Like that we as educators would be failing families by putting women in front of their shitty sons. We would be harming their chances at success by…” She lowers her voice and moves an inch closer. “Like, take you, for example…” She falters. I can see her quickly calculating her words “You must not understand how you fit into that equation. Not ‘fit into’ it, but… you know…”
I do know, but I want to hear her say it.
“How you present…” She shifts her weight, still calculating, nervous. At the last minute she blasts a smile that’s surely more dazzling than she meant it to be. “…do you think a teenage boy is gonna go after you?”
I smile. “No.”
“Right!” Relief. “And that must–”
“Hey!” A different voice interrupts her. The guy is at the entrance now. “We walking back?”
“Go on ahead,” Fiona says. Then she tells me her name and something relaxes in her face. She wants me to help her choose a scone. There’s a gap in her teeth. There’s a thin scar above her lip. When I imagine touching both, it’s with the accuracy of a memory borrowed from the near-future. I don’t need to guess what it’ll feel like.
I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of my old room waiting for an address. I knew I wouldn’t sleep. There’s been nothing all night. I’m thinking about the Disaronno that my mom keeps above the oven with the baking soda, and about Fiona, and I decide to just start driving around, choose a direction and go. As soon as I settle into this decision, at four on the dot, my screen lights up. It’s only a few blocks away, toward the water.
On my way out the door, I hear the wide pads of my dad’s feet on the kitchen floor. I double back.
“Morning,” I say.
He’s startled, but I can tell he’s happy to see me. “Your mom keeps giving me melatonin,” he says. “Makes me groggy so I’ve been hiding it in my sock drawer.”
“Take the melatonin, dad.”
“Nah…” He trots over to me and whacks me on the side of the shoulder, like he’s done ever since I got rid of my hair. “If I was sleeping I’d probably be having that dream again anyway.”
He pulls at the loose fabric of his t-shirt. “Oh nothin’. People with busy minds…” He laughs and taps on his skull, a joke. His feet slap the laminate again. He closes the distance between us. His hips look like they’re giving him trouble. “Where you off to?”
“I just have a thing,” I say, trying to be soft.
He slaps me on the shoulder again.
“Don’t worry!” He laughs again. “I didn’t see nothing!”
It’s in a shipping container this time, set against the river. I can hear the water slapping the levee. There’s a sharp wind on the gangway to the gate of the complex. I buzz, and am buzzed in in return, and there’s a long tunnel lined with Pyrex windows – like a construction site – looking out onto the water, and without any of the rest of civilization in sight I feel suspended, like I’m hovering. My feet suddenly feel warm and I see that there are space heaters lined along the path to the first row of apartments. Extension cords everywhere.
A young blonde woman with an accent I can’t place greets me at the door, tells me Dale is in his bedroom, and as she walks me there we collect others: a skinny guy with a handlebar mustache and a Caribbean woman in an apron who asks me if I’m cold, if I’d like to borrow a sweatshirt. I tell her I’m okay. I can’t figure out who lives here and who has come to see Dale, like me. But by the time the blonde woman is knocking on his door there are six or seven of us, and they all radiate a calm that makes me suddenly certain that not only do they all share the space, they’re some kind of family.
Dale is seated cross-legged on a mattress. He could be in his early 90s. There’s not much floor-space. There’s room for our bodies, the mattress, and little else. But there are red, pink, and yellow string lights hanging on the wall that blur the margins, make the angles of the room indecipherable, with only a pile of books in one corner to act as an anchor. One wall is mostly window, a kind of porthole, through which I can make out the glow of the rising sun. The family sits around him. He smiles and pulls up his sleeve and shows us his shoulder.
The movement is constant and sweeping, fanning out from a single point, a seashell pattern, and radiating up toward his clavicle, his neck. It’s like phosphorescence, the way the movement plays under his skin bouncing underneath the warm electric light. I feel my lips part, I breathe through my mouth. It doesn’t stop.
“Sometimes it just goes like this,” the blonde woman whispers to me. “Sometimes for days at a time.” She takes my hand.
I don’t know how much time passes, but at one point he lets me touch it, his wrinkled skin, the skimming, blinking flutter running from my fingertips, retreating from me, then rippling out again, then returning to its still state. Dale looks sleepy, but he seems so content that none of us would dare cut the moment short. We let an hour slip away.
When I finally look behind me new people have been guided in. There are two teenagers in beanies, one with his hands in his pockets, leaning against a bare wall. I wonder if they’ll ever need tutoring. There’s a woman sitting cross-legged with a sleeping toddler on her lap. I slip to the back of the room, eyes still fixed on his living shoulder, but I look instinctively at my phone in my pocket when it buzzes. I see Fiona’s name.
The Caribbean woman is beside me now.
“Do you have a friend who’d like to join us?” she asks, and I think very carefully before I answer.
Arianna Reiche‘s debut novel, At The End Of Every Day, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2023. She is also the author of two-story chapbook Archive / Warden. She lectures in metafiction and interactive media at the University of London, and her work has appeared in Ambit, Joyland, SAND Journal, ArtNews, New Scientist, Electric Literature, and Vogue International. She won the 2017 Glimmer Train Fiction Open and the 2021 Tupelo Press Prose Prize. She lives in east London.
Image source: Juan Pablo Daniel/Unsplash