Nerves and Water
The pantry was empty except for a can of tomatoes, a can of beans, half a box of dry pasta, and a limp blue plastic package that had once held Oreos. Jen grabbed the Oreo package and peered into it, hoping to find remnants. It was empty but for a scattering of telltale brown dust. Sighing, she considered her dinner options. There was no point trying to make this last—it’d get eaten soon either way. She still had money in the bank. She’d go grocery shopping tomorrow. And then—and then she’d cross that bridge when she came to it.
She lugged the ingredients out onto the counter and turned on the stove. There was a saucepan somewhere around here, a nice one that had once been her dad’s. She gave a dry laugh. If she moved back in, she could loan it back to him. She didn’t savor the idea of that phone call, of a dejected homecoming, of soiling the rose-tinted childhood memories she had of her parents’ place.
She found the saucepan hiding under Ashley’s vegetable spiralizer. Ashley’s low-carb phase had been painful to witness, but mercifully short. She’d tried to get Jen on board, and Jen had retaliated by going vegetarian and eating nothing but pasta. At least Ashley had never invited her to the gym, like her mom always did. As she began wrangling the tomatoes open with a can opener, Jen wondered if her mom was still doing CrossFit. If she moved home, would her mom move the elliptical out of her bedroom? Or would she make her sleep with that ghastly exercise skeleton looming over her every night?
The pan went on the stove. Tomatoes went in the pan and sat there limply. Jen scrambled for a non-plastic utensil to stir with. She found a silicone spatula in the drawer next to the stove. It looked clean enough, and she gave the tomatoes an encouraging stir. Lots of people were failures when they were young, right? Steve Jobs was a dropout. But, she supposed, being a Harvard dropout was probably more prestigious on its own than being a graduate of pretty much anywhere else. The tomatoes still sat in the bottom of the pan, immobile in their juices. She turned the stove up a little higher and went to find a pan for the pasta.
An ant was crawling up the sink faucet when Jen went to fill the pan. She squished it and flicked the black smudge on her finger into the sink. She was usually a stickler about killing bugs, but the ants in this place were asking for it at this point. They were barely animals anyway—nerves and water connected to some central hivemind. Who was it who had told her that? Nerves and water. Maybe it’d been her manager. Laurie.
Laurie. Sweet, sweet Laurie, who’d taught her all the tricks to making the best soy lattes in town. Laurie, who dressed like a librarian and swore like a sailor, who hung pictures of her grown-up children behind the counter. Laurie, who’d treated Jen like her own child, who’d always been fair and just and kind.
Jen put the water on to boil on the other burner and heard footsteps from the direction of Ashley’s room.
“How was work? How’s the new owner?” asked Ashley, her hair up in greasy pigtails. “Is that my spatula?”
“I’ll clean your spatula,” said Jen. “Work was fine.”
“Really? I heard he fired someone.”
“Who told you that?” asked Jen, opening and closing drawers, trying to remember where she stashed stolen restaurant salt packets.
“Justin’s roommate’s girlfriend said she stopped by the shop today and heard yelling. Apparently he fired, like, half the baristas. Is it true?”
The tomatoes began to burn.