Joyland

Toronto |

If Life Gave Me Lemons

by Kerry Clare

edited by Kathryn Mockler

At the time, her life had been lacking in sure things, and so Lindsay took comfort in knowing where she stood with Aaron, even if it was nowhere good. She was technically his manager, which made their friendship inappropriate, but as her job title was meaningless and he knew she was in love with him, her authority couldn’t have been compromised further. So Lindsay went out for drinks with him whenever he asked, and understood that he suppressed his reciprocal leanings out of fairness to his long-time girlfriend, Staffanie, the habit he just couldn’t shake.

Except it turned out that Lindsay hadn’t understood anything.

One night just after they’d ordered their third round at the izakaya, Aaron halted in the middle of a sentence, collapsed into his arms and started crying. Lindsay had watched his heaving shoulders, waiting for a punchline, but once he’d unfolded, giant tears were rolling down his face. His features contorted so grotesquely, however, that she still thought perhaps it was a joke.

But he was serious. “Yumi’s pregnant,” he said, and his expression went slack. “And it’s mine. Apparently.” Then he laid on this heavy stare, daring a response. But Lindsay didn’t know what to say. Most of the story was missing.

She had to ask,“Yumi who?” They knew six of them.

“Onishi,” said Aaron, like this was obvious.

But Lindsay didn’t think it was obvious. First, because Yumi Onishi was their student, though this was only a simple violation of the school’s No-Fraternization policy, which got violated all the time. What was more surprising was that she’d never noticed Aaron paying this Yumi extra attention. She wouldn’t have been able to pick out a Yumi amongst the girls who waited for him after classes were over, jockeying to sit beside Aaron on the train-ride home. The girls would snap his picture over and over, and he’d pose beside them, making bunny ears above their sleek and shiny heads. Lindsay, across the aisle, would pretend to read a magazine. She hadn’t taken it seriously. All those little girls in sailor suits. “She’s in high school,” Lindsay said.

“College now,” said Aaron. “And she says she won’t get an abortion. She’s even told her family, and her brother showed up at my door last night, and I tried to pay him to go away, but he wouldn’t.  I don’t know what they want from me.”

“What about Staffanie?”

“I know,” said Aaron, emphatic, as though they were concurring on the one point of absurdity. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here.” His outsized tears started rolling again, falling off the sharp edge of his jaw.

Lindsay downed her beer. She hated it when guys cried. Crying for guys was a last ditch effort, after lying and scheming was exhausted. “I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “This is messed-up shit.” Which was the kind of inarticulate vocabulary she reverted to whenever she was with him, a handy technique that kept her from going off-script.         

“Staff can’t find out.” Stupid. His girlfriend’s misspelled name an infection, a boil. “She’s at work now, so it’s all right, but I’ve got to get home before she does. So the guy can’t show up and tell her, I mean. But then, what if he finds out where she’s working? This is making me fucking paranoid.”

And Lindsay considered how they’d come to this. They’d been talking about vocabulary curriculum for the kindergarten kids, and about Giuseppe, the colleague they both hated. It had been an ordinary evening, but now everything was ruined, and it was clearer than it had ever been that that Aaron was never going to lean across the table and kiss her. That they wouldn’t leave this place with their hands all over one another, pressing up against the wall in the elevator. She’d imagined him taking her outside, how they’d fuck in his car, or maybe he’d even come home with her. But now it would never happen. After all the time she’d spent trying to interpret his signals, the agonizing analysis of everything he’d ever said to her or held back, to be suddenly confronted with clarity was unexpected.

But hope was still a force much more powerful than knowledge, even now, as she realized that his signals had never been about her and she’d been reading the story wrong-side around.

“What an asshole move.”

“Me?”

“Yeah.” She was always straight with him. This was why he liked her.

“I’m not,” he said. “I just made some mistakes.”

“But that’s what an asshole is, see? A person who does things. One thing after the other—it’s cumulative.”

He said, “Hey, I thought you’d be cool.” He wasn’t crying anymore, but his eyes were pleading. He wanted something and for once, she knew what it wasn’t. He was never straight with her, which wasn’t the reason that she liked him. Why exactly did she like him then? She wasn’t sure of the answer.

 

*

In the past eight months, Lindsay had gained 27 pounds, which she’d recently discovered after finally buying a bathroom scale. She’d resisted the scale for the obvious reasons, and mostly because she required no proof of her weight gain beyond the three sizes of pants she’d outgrown. The only pants that fit her now had to be bought online from America, and online pants aren’t easy to fit, so while the waistbands didn’t dig into her doughy flesh, they never looked right either, and the ones she was wearing now under the table exposed the bottom three-quarters of her calves.

The pants weren’t the problem though, and neither was her weight, because Aaron had paid no attention to either. He didn’t know about her slovenly housekeeping habits, or the Saturday nights she spent holed up in her apartment Googling people from high school. He didn’t know that she posted mean-spirited anonymous comments to her cousin’s blog, or that she logged into her ex-boyfriend’s email daily to check his messages. All the things that Aaron didn’t know, and still, he didn’t want her.

He said it again, “I thought you’d be cool. I really don’t need your judgment.” Their glasses were empty. She’d wrapped her hands around hers, and it was still so cold, she couldn’t feel her fingers.

She considered how things might have turned out differently. Between the three glasses of beer that had lightened her head, and the tension of the moment knocking her knees under the table, she could see farther than she’d been able to before. She imagined what might have happened the day after that never-to-happen morning when she and Aaron finally woke up together, when he’d be expecting her to be someone who was cool, and she’d realize that she didn’t know him either. That she might not even like him if she did.

She said, “I’m not judging.” And she wasn’t.

He said, “I just don’t know how it got to this.”

She said, “One thing after another, like I said.” It occurred to her that her own downward spiral might have just spiralled to its stop, just as Aaron’s was beginning. But no. There was distance left to travel, so she softened her words by placing her hand on his, and her hand was so cold, he pulled it away. Or at least she thought that was the reason.

 

*

He’d had kissed her once. Or she’d kissed him. It was hard to tell, which she’d figured was a good sign. Both of them kissing, at least two pant sizes ago, at a rooftop bar on top of the train station. It had been cold, too cold for rooftops, too cold for the portable heaters that were supposed to be warming them, and there weren’t even enough of these. Everyone was huddled around them trying not to shiver, no one willing to admit that perhaps the season for rooftops had ended. The only Japanese season that Lindsay had ever known at that point.

It was all still new enough for her to be standing beside Aaron behind a potted palm tree, thinking that something might happen between them. And then something did. They were both drunk. Staffanie hadn’t come out that night; Lindsay hadn’t even met her yet. At that point, Staffanie had only existed in theory, Lindsay wondering why Aaron was with somebody who was so obviously not much fun, and what was with the name.

Lindsay had been fun though, on that last cold night, behind the plant. They’d been drinking since their shift ended, and she was wearing a sparkly tube top, the one dressy item that she’d brought from home. The sparkly tube top that would always fit, no matter how much weight she gained, but she’d only look worse and worse, like sausage links. That night it must have looked good enough, however, because Aaron kissed her, his mouth tasting just like hers did, then he broke away, fell to his knees and vomited on her shoes.

They rushed away into their respective bathrooms to clean up after that, and Aaron remained in there for the next hour while she mingled with everybody else, trying to appear more sober than she was. She’d sent someone in to check on him twice, and the second time they came back to report that he’d gone home.

The next time she saw him was the first time she met good ol’ Staff, who was sweet, kind and adorable. Aaron never mentioned the kiss, and Lindsay was no longer sure that it had happened.

 

*

Lindsay clasped her hands on the table before her, feeling returning to her digits. “So, what now?” she asked him.

He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s almost got nothing to do with me now—the whole thing is out of my hands.”

“But you have to tell Staffanie.”

He blinked twice. “Why?” She didn’t answer, and he went on. “Because it’s sure as hell got nothing to do with her, I mean. And it would fuck everything up, and it doesn’t have to—“

She said, “But everything’s fucked up already.”

“Yes,” he said. “Only Staff doesn’t know it. So it isn’t.”

“Did you like her? Yumi?” she asked him. Lindsay had a vague recollection of having taught the girl conditional tense. If life gave me lemons, I would make lemonade. “Could you tell her apart from the rest of them?” The second question was not rhetorical. Distinguishing Yumi from her gaggle of friends had always been a problem. Naoko and Sayaka, and the two other Yumis.

Aaron said, “There wasn’t a rest of them. There was only her.”

“And Staff,” said Lindsay, telling it straight.

Aaron shook his head with his eyes closed. “No.” He opened his eyes. He said, “But I really liked her, I did. She’s a sweet girl. She’s funny.”

“She’s not funny,” said Lindsay. “She doesn’t know enough English to be funny.”

Aaron shrugged. “She made me laugh.”

“Because you’re an idiot,” said Lindsay.

“It’s the truth,” said Aaron. “We hung out, but only a few times, really. She had me over and she made me lunch. I never met her brother. There was never anyone home, and that’s why it’s freaking me out that this guy shows up at my house. I don’t even know how he knows where I live, because I certainly never told her.”

“Then you have to tell Staffanie,” said Lindsay. “I mean, if she going to find out anyway.”

“She’s not going to,” said Aaron.

Lindsay said, “But it might not be up to you.”

Aaron was still shaking his head. “Nope,” he said.

“But she deserves to know,” said Lindsay. “If you love her.”

Aaron looked annoyed. “Of course, I love her,” he said. “And that’s why I don’t want to have to tell her. In the grand scheme of her and me—us—it doesn’t matter.”

“But you cheated.”

“It wasn’t a cheat,” said Aaron. “It was a blip. I don’t know how it happened, and it never will happen again, and I don’t think I need to be punished for a one-time thing. I’ve learned my lesson—believe me, I have.”

The waitress came to their table, and cleared their empty glasses. Neither of them moved to order another round.

“But it’s not all about you, right?” said Lindsay. “Because there’s Yumi too.”

“Who’s got her thug brother after me,” said Aaron. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy. And she could make this simple for both of us, but she’s choosing not to. She’s choosing, see. It’s all up to her, and I don’t think that’s right. That she’s going to fuck up her own life, and take me down with her.”

“But you’re not going to let her,” said Lindsay.

Aaron said, “There’s no question—I can’t. It’s that simple. I get to choose too.” There was no sign in his face that he was a man who’d ever cried.

“You’re fantastic, you know that?” Lindsay told him. “Your singular vision, I mean. I admire that. I mean it. I yearn for it myself.” She could tell he wasn’t sure what she’s talking about. He suspected that she was making fun of him, but she wasn’t. She wouldn’t. Aaron wasn’t an idiot actually, and he’d realize straight-away if she was. She said, “Let’s get out of here. It’s getting late. And you have to get home before he does.” So they paid the bill, split it in two. And in the elevator back down to the ground floor, she said it again. She said, “You are fantastic, I really mean that.”

And he said, “That’s what I’m talking about.” He hugged her, burying his face in her hair, not pressed up against the panel but in the middle of the elevator, four walls all around them. He said, “That’s why I call you. That’s why I do.” And she could hear him behind her ear sniffing her hair, inhaling, and she liked it. She could feel his arms around her shoulders, his great big hands on the small of her back, wet with her sweat. He was feeling her secretions, and this was intimacy, she might have been thinking, if it were some other night. Another night she might not have come such a long way on.