that big smile by mpeonies

7 Feb

The first time I met Karen Nichols, she struck me as the kind of woman who ironed her socks. She would take out stain removers in the middle of meetings and mist her shirt, which was otherwise clean. She never took a seat without checking at least five times that the chair was spotless. I only know so much about Karen because I found myself attracted at my first sight of her. Sure, she seemed crazy, but she never acknowledged it, and certainly didn’t apologize for every paranoid move like Alice did. Alice always fumbled with her shirt, making sure it was straight. “Don’t mind me. Sorry. This shirt just crinkles up like paper in the laundry. I can’t figure out how to get it right!” she would laugh tautly. It was better to not explain your idiosyncrasies. It gave you an air of cool nonchalance and poise, the kind that Karen had.

The first time that I ever spoke to Karen is an embarrassing story to tell. But I’ll have to, since the second time would make little sense without it. The first time, I was coming out of the conference room with a few co-workers and was fixing my belt—I had been gaining weight and the belt was horribly tight. I saw Karen out of the corner of my eye, but proceeded to look halfway down, as if I was simply pulling my pants up.

“Hey. What’s your name?” I heard. I looked up quickly.

“Me? Patrick. Pat,” I said without thought. But she chuckled, pointing at Dave, the guy behind me. She smiled big at me, as if I was a kid that had just said something childish but adorable, and said “Hi Pat,” and then stopped looking at me. She began talking to Dave about faxing papers. I said sorry softly and walked away.

But a week later, walking into the main conference room together, she looked at me. And I couldn’t resist making sure that it was her looking at me. It was. She smiled big, again, just like the first time, and said “Hey Patrick. Pat.” I greeted her back, but I don’t remember exactly what I said. I just recall giving a look as if I was going to say more afterward, but then said nothing. We sat together at every meeting since then. She would go through her routine of shuffling around her clothes, doublechecking them, patting the dust out of them. I never commented on it because she seemed to be in a world of her own, just her nervy-obsession-with-cleanliness and herself.

One week, though, I leaned back in my chair, my face feeling the cool air from her swinging around her jacket. I chuckled and asked “Do you have fun doing that?”.

I remember the sudden loss of peace in the expression of her face, and the way she responded: “It’s not fun. It’s necessary.” That was the first time I saw Karen, without the light of her easy, soft face. She looked grim and sad, her cheeks longer and drooping downward. At the end of the meeting, she gathered her things slowly, leaving it ambiguous if she wanted me to wait for her or not. I did. I stood by the door, only to watch her go past me, a lukewarm smile on her face.

We didn’t speak for weeks after that. But one day, she came over to my cubicle, and in a flat, tired voice, said “Come with me after work. I’ll show you my place.” She tapped the side of my cubicle wall, as if we had just signed off a huge contract or arrived at a grand agreement, before I could reply. I spent the rest of that afternoon wondering if she felt sorry for not speaking to me for so long, if she wanted to cook me dinner to make it up for me, chat over a glass of Rhone wine, play me her favorite songs, maybe bring me to bed.

I followed her out of work later that night. We said nothing to each other, which was awkward considering that I made so many noises by trying to sit comfortably in her car covered in plastic wrappings. It was a 16-minute ride, and when she got out, I sat there for a couple of seconds, gazing at her house. It was white, quaint, the shutters were red, and there was one flower-pot by each window. I followed her to the front door, as she opened it. Inside, I was pleased with the smell of lime and peonies, and maybe there was some mint in there. But soon, I noticed the vast spaces between the furniture pieces, of which there were very little—just a couch, a small television set, and a rustic coffee table. They were wrapped in a plastic covering. I must have had a bewildered look on my face, because she turned and laughed.

“What’s going on?” I asked. She grabbed my hand and led me down a hallway, the walls and ceiling all perfectly clean. There was a room at the end, on the left, and the door was slightly open. She told me to stay quiet and I nodded. In the room, an elderly woman was squatting on the floor, swooshing a towel back and forth in the same motion, in the same spot on the floor, her eyes big, empty, but frantically focused. She would move to another spot, and then quickly return to the one from before.

“Hi, Mom,” Karen said. Her mom, not looking up, quietly said, “Hello, sweetheart”.

Karen smiled big at me, and for that moment, I felt like I knew everything—about her, about love.

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4 Responses to “that big smile by mpeonies”

  1. ingridfnl February 7, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    I was laughing at the plastic wrapped car seats until the reveal… Nice. 🙂 I love the contradiction between her behavior and her motive: how we could see her, and who she actually is.

  2. jadamthwaite February 7, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    I really like the way we come to understand Karen as Pat does. And, as Ingrid says, the way we can see both parts of her throughout. I also really liked the first description of the inside of the house being a smell – it really gave me a sense of the place straight away.

  3. Parenthesized February 11, 2010 at 9:04 am #

    I enjoyed your description of their interactions, especially how light-hearted Karen seems despite her home life. A great piece!

  4. phoenix.writing February 21, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    I enjoyed how Pat and Karen could connect even despite the misunderstandings. I liked how you showed that Karen struggled with whether or not to show him the truth, and it was great how he responded in that last line. It’s actually very sad, but you get a hopeful sense at the end. ^_^

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