It was strange to consider just how much of Claudia’s life was spent behind glass. She had been a tollbooth operator for the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission in the Berea Township for exactly four years, and had not once contemplated suicide. There was something oddly stimulating to Claudia about the position. It allowed her to interact with hundreds of people on a daily basis without feeling vulnerable. Each new harried commuter that pulled up outside her window, telling their kids to go shut the fuck up, gulping down the last lukewarm swig of a coffee or fighting the white noise of the car stereo, was there out of necessity, paying her in change, but never any mind. Simple. Fast. Predictable. She liked her job. She liked people. She liked being visibly invisible, most days.
By far the best part of Claudia’s day was her commute home from work: a seated Hajj down a black expanse of smooth asphalt. 48 minutes to contemplate nothing and everything. Claudia watched the white rectangles she passed on the highway expand and recede like a flipbook. Hypnotic. She thought about layers, about the ground, about matter, about what the highway had looked like before with trees and twigs and possibly wet ferns and slugs whose ooze glistened like glitter glue pens on black construction paper. She cracked the window open, just enough to slip a postcard through. Today the sky was a grey tarp that had been slit open along the sides to let the sun breathe. A dying ray shined down on Claudia’s bare arm loosely gripping the wheel, momentarily warming her skin, which was the tint of a sepia photograph. The sharp whistle of the wind and the drizzle of water coming in through her window signaled to Claudia that it had started to rain. Claudia liked when it rained. The squeaky metronome of the windshield wipers erasing raindrops calmed her nerves, structured her thoughts.
Beep. Beeeeep. Beep.
Claudia wondered how long the light had been green.
* * *
Claudia slipped noiselessly down Collins Street, which showcased a roundabout cul-de-sac in the shape of a lima bean. Her sterile condo overlooked a series of other sterile condos and a dark green communal dumpster. Claudia turned off the ignition and stepped outside into the mugginess. The streets were sweating.
She opened the cupboard and grabbed a can of wet food for June, slipping off her tan clogs, mesh vest and overcoat in the process. She poured herself a generously sized glass of wine and grabbed a slice of Swiss cheese from the fridge, rolling it up like a yoga mat and holding it still in her mouth while she scanned the living room for the remote. Her apartment was relatively clean, aside from the stack of mail solicitations and stale pizza crust that lay scattered across the kitchen counter.
Just as Claudia was about to masturbate she heard a faint knock at the door, followed by a “Hey, Claude, it’s Hugh! I finally finished that book you wanted to borrow. Probably could’ve written it in the time!”
“It’s unlocked,” Claudia shouted, quickly buttoning her corduroys and throwing away all evidence of gluttony. The comment was unnecessary. Hugh had already let himself in.
Hugh Colby lived in the downstairs apartment. He was considerably lean with rimless glasses and a predisposition to toothless smiles. Claudia had rear-ended Hugh a little over a year ago outside of a convenience store. In a frantic attempt to compensate for the bruise to his Volvo, she had begun to hyperventilate, emptying out the contents of her purse like a child would a plastic Halloween jack-o-lantern. Hugh had found this to be terribly amusing: “Whoa there, simmer down, Sister Brown! You showed this junky jalopy who’s boss. It’s about time she got reprimanded,” he had joked. In their messy exchange of personal info, both had figured out that they shared the same apartment complex. Claudia didn’t know what it was, but something about Hugh seemed to tranquilize her anxiety. It didn’t take long for their friendship to become domestic.
“Claude, it’s not so great. My life right now, I mean,” Hugh said, plopping down on her beige armchair and effectively laminating the pile of magazines on top in the process.
“Sorry if I don’t move. I’m exhausted. Just start talking at me and I’ll listen.” Something about the way Hugh told stories was rushed and abridged—crosses between police logs and sticky notes. He quickly launched into a story about an e-mail he had received this afternoon from his ex-girlfriend. He waved the e-mail uncontrollably during his retelling, welcoming any and all paper cuts. He’d talked about her many times before; he still loved her, this stunning, free-spirited girl. Claudia watched from a metal barstool, sipping the maroon liquid to hide her disappointment. She thought about Hugh’s ex, about the e-mail, and about Hugh’s inability to digest it any of it. He was here. She was the first person he chose to tell. Didn’t that count for something? She wore a look of concern while her insides smiled.
“I just don’t get it Claude, I’ve been trying to reel her back in for months, baiting her. She’s a fucking salmon trying to swim upstream or some shit. I swear. Just when I think I have a nibble she sends this. First she writes that she loves me, but that love is a complicated animal that isn’t so much the result of the person but of the time they have spent together. What does that even mean?” Hugh examined the paper like it had just come out of the printer, groping the edges loosely with his fingers so as not to smudge the ink. Claudia admired Hugh’s performativity. He seemed to enliven even the most trivial of realities, something Claudia had been trying to do for quite sometime. Her attempts were all mental, half-hearted at best. She liked having an actor around to bridge the divide.
Hugh gazed hard at the off-white wall, as if trying to project his thoughts onto it.
“Will you get me another glass of water? Please,” Claudia said, trying to pull him out of his reverie. Part of him always seemed to be on autopilot. As he walked past the counter she touched her hands to her arms and looked down at the counter. She was glowing from the wine and the prospect.
“Your agua, Madame,” he said, setting the glass down on cold granite and resting his arm lovingly on her shoulder.
“So I’m going to ask you a favor. Don’t feel like you have to say yes, although you should. Come to dinner with my dad and me tomorrow night at La Hormiga. You know, that Mexican dive restaurant on Main with the great jalapeño cheese dip and six-dollar margaritas.”
Claudia chugged her water, curious as to why Hugh wanted her, the platonic neighbor, to meet his dad. She assumed it had something to do with the recent e-mail, with the fact that his lead actress had called out. In any regard, she was flattered to be named understudy, and tried not come off as too eager.
“I’ll go, but on one condition: you come visit me at work sometime.”
“Ha, you sure? It’s sort of out of the way…wouldn’t want to hold up traffic.” He smiled, his dimples bracketing his mouth.
“No, no. It’ll be something to look forward to. Make sure it’s a surprise though,” Claudia asserted, as she traced her index finger along the rim of her glass. Hugh laughed.
“Sure, Claude. Whatever blows your hair back.”
He stood up from the chair and watched the leather reflate to its original form.
“Hey, breakfast tomorrow? I have eggs, do you? I’ll bring eggs. We’ll have eggs! Sleep tight neighbor.” He left her apartment, shutting the door so lightly that Claudia wondered if it had even shut completely. In the shower, she let the steam fill the room, clouding the glass encasing with a layer of moisture. She felt safe.
* * *
In the morning Hugh knocked at the door out of courtesy, but impatience got the best of him. Noticing that she wasn’t in the living room, he made his way towards her kitchen.
“You have the better skillet!” he hollered from the fridge, unwrapping a loaf of sourdough and rummaging for the milk. “I still can’t believe you buy skim, Claude. That stuff is essentially water.”
Hearing the commotion, Claudia scrambled out of bed, and stood disoriented in the kitchen doorway.
“Holy hell,” Hugh said. “Forget breakfast, I’ll put on a pot of jitter juice.”
Claudia didn’t need a mirror to tell her how she looked: matted, damp hair, puffed, baggy eyes, and almost certainly a splotchy imprint on her forehead from using her arm as a pillow. Hugh took her hand and beckoned her over to the bar stool.
“Come here, pop a squat. Tell me what’s what. I’m sorry I barged in here like the Kool-Aid man last night and didn’t even ask you why you were so run down. Tell me.” Hugh started opening the blinds to let in the sun, realizing midway that it was gloomy. He abandoned the blind, leaving it misshapen at a 45-degree angle.
“Still seeing what’s-his-name?”
“Nah, it’s not really that,” Claudia admitted. Hugh was referring to her next-door neighbor. They had been sleeping together on and off for the past couple of months, pretending that they wouldn’t rather be seeing other people. He was nobody, a body if anything.
“You know when you’re just biding time, waiting for something to happen, and in doing so you just hope that the universe will take the initiative?”
“I know that same feeling, Claude! It’s what I was getting at last night, isn’t it? That’s what you’re referring to?”
“I mean, yeah. You’re who I’m referring to.”
Hugh nodded his head in obliviousness. She was translucent; he saw right through her.
* * *
On Friday evening Claudia and Hugh took the Volvo down to La Hormiga to meet his father, a squinty-eyed doctor. His big fluff of white hair reminded Claudia of a dandelion, the ones she’d collect as a kid and form into a fragile bouquet. Mr. Colby ordered the jalapeño dip, took one bite from a chip, and set the broken triangle on a napkin to his side.
“Hugh tells me you work in a toll booth. May I be so bold as to ask why?”
“Well, um, it’s just easy. No hassle. It’s um, actually quite nice, lots of people though. Just gets tiring, long days.” She hated having to affirm how bland she was.
“I see, I see. Yes, Hugh tells me you work too hard. You best be sure to relax sometimes. I hope you don’t take offense to this, but you look very tired.” She could tell by Mr. Colby’s delivery that his comment was genuine, or at least trying to be.
“I’ve been working on trying to rest,” Claudia mumbled. She pressed the rim of her margarita up to her lips, taking some salt crystals up off of the rim and waiting as they dissolved.
Hugh stayed relatively quiet throughout the dinner, as if supervising a date. Claudia wondered if he was watching her talk to his dad, or if he was watching his dad talk to her, and what sort of messages he was picking up from their exchange. When the server came back with doggy bags, Claudia thanked Hugh’s father for the meal and shook his hand with a loose grip.
“It’s been a real pleasure,” he said. “You’re a nice young lady, a very nice lady. Hugh is lucky to have such a nice neighbor.” Claudia hated being described as “nice.” It seemed so overused, so safe.
In the car on the way home, Claudia told Hugh that she liked his dad.
“I’m just glad he has a mental picture of you now,” he said. “I just couldn’t quite explain you to him.”
Claudia could tell from hearing this that she should be made to feel unique, indescribable, even. Yet it was more furtive and insulting than that. She had been asked to dinner to prove her own identity, to authenticate her own self-worth because Hugh hadn’t taken the time to see her, to remotely consider what type of person she really was. Claudia thought of all the people she came into contact with down at the tolls. She thought about how she was only exposed to each of them for a period of roughly a few seconds. Snapshots. She thought about how little she knew about them, but how much from their brief encounters she would be able to say.
* * *
Later that night the other neighbor came over. Tim was a young divorcee who liked to downplay his bitterness with sarcasm. Claudia assumed by the way Tim acted that he was using her to evidence to his ex-wife how utterly unaffected he was by the divorce. She also thought that if he ex-wife actually met her, she would’ve thought the opposite. Regardless, Claudia felt numbed by dinner and thought that a casual fuck from Tim would at least make her feel like a person again. She was wrong.
“Hey, I thought you’d dropped off the earth or something!” Tim said with immediacy. “I sent you a few messages but you must not have seen them. It’s okay. I know how hectic shit is. I of all people should know, right? Ha. I can barely keep my head on straight. That Laurie, she just makes this so easy.”
Claudia immediately regretted her decision to call Tim over. She wasn’t in the mood to play fan girl. For someone with little self-assurance, she was often tasked with giving it out.
“Would you like a beer? I think I have a few left in the fridge.” The offer was directed more at herself.
“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Thanks.”
By the time Tim was subdued enough to get frisky, all sexual inclinations had been soured. Claudia felt embarrassed for calling him over, but she couldn’t ask him to leave because now she felt like she owed him something. When he started to kiss her neck she went along with it, the whole time envisioning her life as a sad montage of highways and wine.
* * *
Before parting ways, Hugh had asked Claudia if she would be interested in going up to Haddix Lake to help him collect water samples. Hugh was a specialist in freshwater ecology and was constantly making daytrips in and around the state. Although she was hesitant to go, she wanted affirmation that her thought process wasn’t jumping the gun, which was a possibility given the strength of the margaritas and all of Mr. Colby’s probing.
Late that afternoon, Hugh drove them both down a freeway south of town through a labyrinth of dirt roads to his research facility. He parked the Volvo in back and grabbed a black crate of vials and pH strips from the trunk. The sun was barely visible in the summer haze; it seemed out of focus. “It’s just a ways down here,” Hugh said. They trudged along the dirt slope towards the water to the soundtrack of cicadas and Hugh’s whistling. The ground was littered with fragments of glass, likely remnants from the late-night frivolities of hobos and high schoolers. Hugh stopped at the bridge of his tune to thank Claudia again for entertaining his dad. When they finally reached the edge of the lake, Hugh upturned the crate and sat down. It sunk easily into the muddy bank like a cookie cutter through dough. The grass around them was scratchy and high on all sides.
“You sure are quiet today, Claude. What’s your mind saying? Hmm?”
“I was just wondering if you’d thought anymore about that e-mail?”
Hugh looked off at the sky as a plane marked it with a loop of exhaust.
“I’m done fishing. I want something surefire, something attainable.” Claudia stood next to him, hopeful. Hugh began to drum on the crate.
“It’s so friggin’ hot out, isn’t it? It is. Let’s go swimming.” Claudia loved Hugh’s bursts of spontaneity, which compensated for her lack thereof. She though about how maybe all of this exposure time with Hugh would make her picture a little more interesting, a little more developed.
Hugh began untying his shoelaces, which were as limp as ramen noodles from contact with the wet ground. He peeled off his socks, shirt, and khakis, then waded into the water. Claudia followed, discarding her jean shorts and tee on the gritty shore. The water felt tepid, like milk.
“It’s…refreshing,” Claudia said. She waded toward Hugh as if by magnetic pull. For once, she felt bold. She faced him straight on, standing waist deep in the water, knees wobbling from the uneven subsurface. To her dismay, there was nothing remotely romantic about the cesspool. She looked around at the low-hanging clouds of gnats and brown water and tried to imagine a better scene. In her mind, she and Hugh had just re-entered a warm bath.
“Claudia, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to kiss me.” She took his observation as a cue and leaned forward, pressing her lips together with his. They were cracked, but gentle. Suddenly Hugh broke the moment, dunking down beneath the surface and coming up strong with his hair plastered to his scalp. He pinched his nose momentarily and blew out the excess. At this point Claudia just wanted closure. But more than that, she wanted to sink down into the muck and have the lake freeze over.
“Hugh, in all honesty, what do you think of me? Do you think I’m awkward or something…?”
“Well, I think you’re whimsical in your awkwardness.”
“Oh. Care to elaborate?”
She waited for Hugh to confirm what she had believed all along.
“I dunno. You’re just so difficult to place. Being with you is like, talking to glass mirror or something. Like, you just listen and stare and listen more and don’t really ever say anything. But that’s what I like about talking to you. Sometimes I think I’m losing it, Claude, but you make me see myself clearer. You’re just a presence. But a good one, you know, in a Zen-ish sort of way.”
It took her a while to process the words, so slow, like watching something online with a poor Internet connection; there was a lag time between his mouth’s movements and the audio. She wanted to yell out, to rewind everything. She wanted him to capture the words that swarmed around her like porch moths around light.
“Right. Thanks for clarifying,” she said.
* * *
“One dollar. One dollar. One dollar. That’ll be one dollar.”
After a while Claudia just let them read the sign. They all could just spare her the trouble and ride through without charge, for all she cared. Today she felt amnesic; everyone was faceless.
“Fucking go, Mac! We’ve all got places to be!”
Claudia snapped back to a series of loud car horns and realized her mechanical arm had stopped working. How long had she been motionless? She looked at the window, only to see Tim, the other neighbor, literally parked in her lane. She had been drunk the last time she had talked to Tim, and could not guess for the life of her what he was doing.
“Tim, what are you doing?” she said. “You’re holding up traffic.”
He looked as though his seatbelt was the only thing confining him to his seat. His eyes were wide and earnest.
“You haven’t been too responsive lately, so I thought I’d come by in person and check in. Would you want to come by my place for spaghetti tonight? I don’t know if you like Italian as much as Laurie, but I thought I’d offer.”
“Sure, Tim. Sure. Just please keep going,” she yelled against the symphony of car horns. Tim nodded. “’Round seven!” he called back, rolling up his window and speeding off down the lane. In a matter of seconds the line quickly resumed, bringing with it a series of agitated faces. Claudia sighed and brought the sleeve of her shirt to the window; it was chilly this morning and the glass had started to fog.
* * *
It was almost 8:00 by the time Claudia arrived at Tim’s apartment. He had it neatly organized with a leather couch pressed up against his back wall and an etching of a mallard above the mantle. The remotes on his wooden side table were arranged in ascending order from smallest to largest. To the right of them was a ceramic ashtray and a crossword, half-finished. The place smelled like a mixture of conifers, cigarettes and marinara sauce, scents of compulsion and yearning. Bill Evans was playing.
Claudia sat at the bar while Tim prepared the meal. She was still hurting from what had transpired at the lake and would rather have ordered take-out. Engaging with anything other than June at this moment in her life was a chore. She hadn’t spoken to Hugh since.
“Rough day?” Tim said, breaking the stack of raw spaghetti in half like sticks and dropping them cautiously into the foaming pot. He put on a cover and reduced the heat to medium-low, letting out a breath of accomplishment.
“Understatement,” Claudia said, forgetting to feign emotion.
“I’m very sorry to hear that. Would you mind giving the sauce a stir? I have to use the restroom.”
Claudia agreed. She walked over to the stove and hovered momentarily by the pot. She stared down at the clumpy red puddle, stagnating there, bubbling, begging to be stirred. She empathized with the sauce. After giving it a quick go round, she sat back at the bar. When Tim got out of the bathroom, he looked puzzled.
“Didn’t you say you were going to stir the sauce?” he said, grabbing a paper towel to dry his hands.
“And I did…” she responded, with a hint of annoyance.
“Sorry, I just put a lot of time into it. It’s puttanesca, my great-aunt’s recipe. I didn’t want it to burn.”
“I literally just sat down, Tim. I stirred it. Relax.”
“Okay, yeah I should have specified for how long. I just want it to taste its best. Do you like the music? If jazz isn’t your thing I have other CDs, and Sirus radio, or…”
“You know what Tim, I’m really not up to this tonight, whatever this is.” Claudia didn’t understand why Tim was being so anal. She motioned for her coat that was draped around the seat, accidentally knocking another jar of homemade sauce onto the hard linoleum. The glass container shattered, sending sauce and shards dispersing in all directions in what looked like a crime scene.
“I-I-I’m so sorry, Tim. I think this is a sign I should leave.”
“No, it’s re—”
“Tim, it’s my fault. I’ve got it.”
Claudia knelt on the ground and began cleaning up the mess. There was so much sauce on the floor and Tim’s shitty paper towels did more guiding than cleaning. The floor looked pinkish once all of the sauce and glass was finally mopped up. Claudia apologized again and put on her jacket with haste.
“I appreciate the invitation, Tim. But don’t feel bad for me. I know what we are, so lets stop pretending this is more than it is.”
“Come on, Claudia, please stay,” he pined. “I went to all this trouble. Sometimes I just can’t get through to you.”
Elena Robidoux (1993) is a writer of prose poetry and creative nonfiction from Boston. Her work has been featured in Pulp Metal Magazine, Wu-Wei Fashion Mag, Purple Pig Lit, Potluck Magazine, and Jerkpoet.