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“It’s okay,” Ben had said, “I want to meet your mom.” He’d patted Shelby on the back to calm her, which only served to make her want to push him away.
Ben had pulled on his clothes. He wasn’t kidding about doing the proper thing. He’d gone out the back door, through the yard, around the house, then up to the front door, where he rang the bell and introduced himself to Sue. Shelby and her mom still laugh about the fact that he was wearing Shelby’s boots, which he’d put on by accident. He’d been forced to hobble around the house while Sue Richmond served him tea and cookies.
All that spring they were together. Sometimes they talked and sometimes they just had sex. Shelby liked to keep the lights off so she couldn’t see the way he looked at her, love-struck and dumb. Ben is a romantic. He’s a sap. It’s only sex, Shelby always thinks. It’s so different from what the orderly made her do on the bathroom floor, where he said nasty, dirty things about how he owned her ass while he fucked her. That wasn’t sex, it was assault. When she rose out of her body to escape him she thinks that may have been the moment she lost her soul. Somewhere in the hospital her soul is flying above the patients in their beds, trapped inside the ward where Shelby spent those awful months.
Ben found the apartment, signed the lease, and hired the moving van. Shelby finally agreed to live with him because she is fairly certain she is a victim of space and location and time, and all she needs is to get out of town in order to escape her past. But it isn’t working out that way. She’s still spooked in Manhattan. She has an eye for tragedy and sorrow. Show her a rose and she’ll see only the wasp in the center of the bloom. On the city streets she finds herself haunted by the smallest thing: a child with a purple bruise on his cheek peering up at her from a stroller. An old woman with papery-thin skin and a huge, ill-fitting coat who cannot go forward without a walker. A cat in an alley, with one torn-off ear. Does no one else see all this pain floating around Manhattan? Shelby sits on the bed in their new apartment and she’s just as haunted as she’d been when she was living in her parents’ basement. She takes Ativan morning, noon, and night. When Ben gets home from pharmaceutical school up on 125th Street, she pretends nothing’s wrong. She’s a Stepford wife and they’re not even married. They smoke dope and order Chinese food delivered and Ben talks about his day and Shelby doesn’t listen. It’s all fine as long as Shelby doesn’t look into the eyes of the deliveryman from the Hunan Kitchen, who always seems in the grip of some great and quiet sorrow, no matter how much of a tip she gives him. She takes the fortune cookies from the bottom of the bag and throws them into a glass bowl she keeps in the closet. She has no desire to know what her future might hold.
“Who made it your job to feel guilty for every bad thing that happens?” Ben says fondly when she begins a litany of the awful things she’s seen in a single day. A man with no shoes. A girl crying as her father drags her along Fourteenth Street. A woman begging people for help in a language no one can understand. They both know Shelby wouldn’t have looked at Ben twice in high school, but she wonders why he doesn’t flee from her. He thinks she’s beautiful, which convinces her that he has not only lousy vision but terrible judgment as well. Shelby still shaves her head and she only wears black; she’s so skinny her veins are luminous under her skin, like the old ladies on the street with their walkers and their plastic bags filled with belongings and trash. Ben, on the other hand, has begun to care about his appearance. He wants to look professional. He bought five white shirts that will need ironing. As for Shelby, she has never used an iron and she hopes to keep it that way.
Tonight as they sit on the fire escape, they’re stoned enough not to care about the heat. It’s ninety-nine degrees, hotter than the human body. The sky is falling and the evening is wet and thick. It’s the kind of humid night when people shoot each other for no good reason. Shelby has wrapped herself in a damp sheet. The desire for an air-­conditioned environment has recently led her to apply for and then surprisingly get a job at a pet store in Union Square. It’s disgusting, boring work—cleaning out cages and unpacking boxes of dog food—but fortunately the store is ice-cold. It’s Shelby’s first job ever, if she doesn’t count babysitting in high school. She still can’t believe people actually trusted her with their children. Helene used to come over and sneak out before the parents came home. That is her entire occupational experience other than living off her parents and mooching off Ben Mink. Her parents think the job is some kind of breakthrough, which is just pitiful. Her mother went so far as to send her a greeting card. Congratulations. We’re so proud of you! There was an illustration of a little girl wearing a crown on the card, holding a magic wand and standing on tiptoe as if she were a good little fairy. Shelby can’t bear to look at it. She wishes it had been another postcard from her anonymous correspondent. She’s come to depend on those well-wishes and their strange and beautiful artwork. She crams the card from her mother into the old jewelry box she has where she keeps the postcards. Shelby had thought distance from her hometown would make a difference, but she still feels she’s responsible for everything bad that has ever happened in the world. She has bad karma. Unfortunately, she’s fairly certain that bad karma is something you’re born with and can’t ever change.
“I wonder how it feels to cure someone,” Shelby muses as they have their fire-escape dinner. “Do you feel like a magician or like a god when you save someone? Or maybe you just feel like you’re a plumber fixing pipes.”
“You should go to school,” Ben suggests. “I see you as a healer.” He has a long, skinny body, even more evident now that he’s shirtless. Shelby thinks he’s lost weight since he started graduate school. Even though he’d been a screwup as a kid, he’s surprisingly serious about his studies now. He’s a nerd, falling in love with science just as he had with Shelby, suddenly and for reasons that are impossible to fathom. Plus he’s better-looking all the time, and Shelby doesn’t know how that’s even possible.
“I’d be a terrible student,” she remarks. She blew off NYU, and now she’d be two years behind. She’s pretty sure it’s too late for everything. “Plus I’m too poor.”
She’s earning minimum wage. She eats noodles and tofu and spicy eggplant for dinner only because Ben is foolish enough to take care of her. Caring about things doesn’t come easy to Shelby. She can hold her hand over the lit burner of a stove for the longest time and not feel a thing. Sometimes she sticks pins into her flesh just to make certain she’s alive.