Margaret was twenty-nine years old when she decided she didn't really care for her life anymore. She had given her job (a boring mix of shuffling papers, sitting at a desk, and occasionally walking through hallways) its fair shot. Her boyfriend had offered his hand in marriage, but four years had gone by and she was still working at the office, hating life, and wondering whether she should still be wearing a ring on her finger.
Her birthday didn't really mean much to her anymore. Today was her birthday. She sat at her desk in front of a Macintosh computer with a big Apple logo on the side, a black screen, and text rambling across it as if it were a foreign language. Dust and smudges could be seen on the monitor, while the computer hard drive was rumbling quietly next to her feet.
The clock to her right said 5:20 but she was fairly certain that it was 6:20. The clocks had changed recently, but some of them sat unchanged due to the fact that no one had bothered to walk to her corner of the office to change them. As for her, it didn't really matter whether it was 5:20 or 6:20.
That night she sat at home reading the newspaper in front of the television. Mark was out with friends at a sports bar, watching the Pistons play the Bullets. He had told her that he would make it up to her by taking her out the following weekend, but she probably didn't believe him.
At midnight she went to bed. When she woke up the next morning he was lying next to her, although he was facing away from her. She smoked a cigarette in bed and then she took a shower. She was supposed to meet with an old friend from college for lunch, and she didn't really care if Mark was awake when she left.
She made herself scrambled eggs for breakfast and she also ate half of a cold blueberry muffin that was left over from the previous weekend. As she washed down the muffin with a cup of decaf she realized that it was no longer her birthday. She was no longer twenty-nine. She played around with her hair for a minute and then got up and brushed her teeth.
She got into her car and drove to the nearby commercial area. She filled her car up with gas, which took longer than she had hoped because the first pump she pulled up to wasn't working.
The diner at which she was meeting her friend Jake was situated almost a hundred yards away from the road. It fit nicely in a small shopping complex in between a Friendly's ice cream restaurant and Christian bookstore. She looked at the clock in her car and noticed that she was half an hour early, so she decided to check out the Christian bookstore.
Inside the store there were cassette tapes of lots of contemporary Christian rock groups, but Margaret hardly recognized the names of any of the groups except for U2. She had liked U2 when she was younger, but now she yawned as she looked at their cassette tape. The store also contained several books that she had read as years before, such as the Chronicles of Narnia and Johnny Cash's autobiography Man In Black. There were also lots of different versions of the Bible, all in different colors.
After several minutes of bored browsing, Margaret went outside and smoked a cigarette. She looked inside the diner and saw that Jake wasn't there yet. A toy store was open at the other end of the shopping complex, so she decided to see what was in it.
The store was filled with action figures and toy cars and dolls and doll houses, assorted board games for children and also several of the newer games such as Oregon Trail that people could play on their desktop computers. Margaret went over and played with a puzzle called the Rubik's Cube, which was a cube that contained various smaller cubes of different bright colors that had to be moved around in order to have the same color cubes for each side of the cube. It was a bit mesmerizing but also boring after a while and she put it back on the shelf. She also played around with an Etch-and-Sketch, which produced about the same results for her.
She exited the toy store and made her way back over towards the diner. Her friend Jake could now be seen inside the diner, sitting at a booth and skimming the menu. Margaret opened the door to the diner and made her way over to the booth.
"Hi, Jake," she said.
"Hey Marge!" he said.
He got up and gave her a hug and she sat down and they stared at each other for several seconds with shit-eating, shy grins on their faces.
"Sorry, I was late," she said, "I got her a few minutes ago and you weren't here so I decided to look around the stores."
"Finding anything interesting?" asked Jake.
Margaret was in a brief daze as she surveyed the menu.
"What?" she said, "No, I didn't find anything interesting. This area sucks."
"Yeah," he said, "I generally don't care for suburbs. I prefer either the country or the city."
"Me too. But I live here."
They looked at the menus for several minutes, and Jake made several remarks about dishes that he either found interesting, random, or cliché. Margaret smoked a cigarette and gave brief answers to his comments on the cuisine. After several minutes a waitress walked up to their table. She seemed to be somewhat forcing her smile.
"Hi, my name is Carmella. Do you know what you would like today? Our soups of the day are clam chowder and vegetable, and coffee is only 25 cents a cup until two."
"I will have the half-pound bacon-cheese burger with tomatoes and mayo, and Pepsi to drink," said Jake.
"Would you like chips or fries," asked the waitress.
The waitress wrote this down and then turned to Margaret: "And for you, ma'am?"
"I will have half a panini with ham, salami, cheese, and prosciutto. And a glass of 7up to drink," said Margaret.
"Would you like chips or fries," asked the waitress.
"Fries," said Margaret.
When the waitress returned with their drinks they each took a sip and then Margaret lit a cigarette.
"Hey, do you think I could bum one of those off you?" asked Jake.
She handed him her pack and he took out a cigarette and she lit it for him.
"Did you quit smoking?" asked Margaret.
"Yes, well cigarettes at least. I still smoke a cigar every once in a while with these assholes from my job that I play cards with, but in general I no longer smoke. But I like smoking, but there is just too much anti-smoking information out there these days. My girlfriend would kill me if she knew I was smoking right now."
"Yeah," said Margaret, "who is this girl of yours again?"
"She works for Proctor and Gamble, that is about all I know. She went to Penn State for college, and majored in political science."
Margaret took a couple of drags off her cigarette.
"She is fun to be around though, unlike a lot of people."
"I wish I could say the same about my boyfriend," said Margaret.
"Aren't you engaged to him now?"
"I have been for several years now," said Margaret, "But it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. I don't really know why I am still with him. I don't know what I am doing anymore."
She let out a laugh that rang with sarcasm, and he did the same.
"What are you doing for a job now?" she asked, "You had been working for your father's bank hadn't you?"
"Yeah, but they got bought and I didn't like my new boss so I quit. Now I am working for a publishing company."
"What are you up these days? Besides living with your boyfriend or fiancé or whatever..."
"I work at a marketing information systems office, but I am hoping to get some jobs writing in the future. I can't work in an office for much longer or else I will kill myself."
"Yeah, me neither."
"Do you still talk to Robert or Sandy or Alison much anymore?" asked Margaret.
"I talk to Robert sometimes," said Jake, "He still smokes pot a lot, I think, but he seems to be doing okay. He is working for a small advertising agency that is based somewhere in Ohio."
"Yeah, I talk to Alison sometimes on the phone. She says pretty much the same thing about him."
"What is Alison doing these days?"
"Working as a paralegal at a law office in New York."
Their food arrived and Margaret put out her cigarette in the ashtray. It was the third cigarette she had since she had been sitting there.
The prosciutto on her sandwich was a bit too thick and it made it hard for her to chew it as quickly as she would have liked. Jake had already finished half of his burger before she had even taken three bites of her sandwich.
"What is up with women watching their weight?" she asked Jake.
"I don't know," he said, "I wonder that all the time."
"Aren't you watching your weight right now?" he asked, pointing to her half sandwich.
"I guess so. No, I'm not. I'm just not hungry. I had breakfast before I came her."
"Oh," said Jake.
She looked back down at her sandwich and took a bit and then she washed it down with 7up. They each concentrated on their food for a few minutes.
Jake finished his burger within a couple of minutes. After Margaret had eaten the last bite of her sandwich that she was going to eat (she usually left the crust alone) and gotten a refill on her drink ("Excuse me, can I have some more 7up?"), she lit a cigarette.
Remnants of cooked potatoes and processed meat were sitting patiently on their plates. They each sat back and in the booth, leaning against the leather, adjusting their pants, sighing, and slightly flexing their stomachs.
"I've missed you," said Margaret.
"I've missed you, too," said Jake.
They sat in silence for a few moments. Margaret would stare at her mostly empty plate and then glance quickly at Jake, and she would see that he was doing the same.
"How long are you in town for?" asked Margaret.
"I will be here for the rest of the week, because my hotel is here. But I will be heading into the city tomorrow and most of the other days in order to meet with clients."
Margaret nodded her head a bit and twisted her lips upward as if to show that she understood this information.
"We should hang out again while I am here though, of course," said Jake.
"Yeah," she said, "Do you want to hit up a bar or something in awhile later?"
"That'd be nice," he said.
The Pink Floyd song "Another Brick on the Wall" was playing softly against the backdrop of the lame buzz of conversations and cooks and waitresses and the cashier shouting inside the diner. Jake scratched his eyes. For some reason, this made Margaret angry, and she felt like slamming his face against the table. She sat back in the booth and massaged the leather seat with her hand.
"Do you know of any good bars around here," asked Jake, "I haven't been here in years, and back then I didn't have enough money to really 'hit up' bars too often."
"There is a nice Irish-themed bar on the other side of town, and there is also a stupid cheap bar right down the street from here," she said.
"Is the Irish bar actually Irish or does it just act Irish?" asked Jake.
"I think it might be actually Irish. Or Irish-American or whatever."
They told their waitress they did not want dessert and they paid their bill. Outside the clouds were beginning to coalesce into dark gray pillows, and the sun was no longer as bright as it had been that morning. Margaret lit a cigarette and walked over to her car.
"What are you doing now?" asked Jake.
"I think I am going to go home and do my laundry, and then hopefully I will be able to continue reading this book that has been sitting on nightstand for the past couple weeks."
"It is called Women. It is by Bukowski. I don't know if I like it."
"What are you going to do now?" she asked.
"I think I am going to go to my hotel and prepare for a meeting I have tomorrow, but I will give you a call in a few hours or so, okay?"
"See you later."
The drive back to her house was boring and dramatic. She was happy to see Jake, and it made her realize she needed to leave her fiancé and find something new. But she also was bored, because she had spent several years with Jake when she younger. She had gotten bored eventually of being around him, and she figured that she might get bored again if she spent too much time with him or kept in too close of a contact with him or whatever.
The song "Don't Let's Start" by They Might Be Giants was playing on the radio. She hated that song so she switched the station to NPR but she hated that too so she flipped around at random until she go to the black people station. She didn't know what song was playing, but for some reason it made her think of sex.
When she arrived home she put her laundry in the washer and turned on the television. She watched an infomercial for a few minutes until she realized she was falling asleep. She smoked a cigarette and then she pulled her pants down and began stroking her clit. She inserted several fingers and kept rubbing her vagina until she was sufficiently wet. Then she smoked another cigarette.
Around five she got a call from fiancé Mark saying that he would be home later than expected that evening. He said she could go ahead and eat if she was hungry, or if she wasn't they could make dinner later that night. She said she would make herself something to eat because she was meeting an old friend later at a bar. He didn't seemed to care and she said goodbye and he said goodbye and then she hung up.
She wondered whether he was having an affair and then she realized that she didn't really care.
She made herself a salad and coffee for dinner. For several hours she sat in front of the television; she would turn it off and try to read her book but that wouldn't work and then she would turn it on again and stop reading and then she would turn it off again and try reading again.
At 8:30 or so she got a call from Jake saying that he had just finished dinner and was wondering whether she still wanted to get a drink. She said "yes" and gave him directions on how to get to the Irish-themed (or perhaps actually-Irish) bar. They agreed to meet in half an hour.
On the ride over to the bar she put in a cassette tape of the new album by Sonic Youth. She stroked her hair and looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. When she arrived at the bar there were about a dozen people there, mostly men who had just gotten off work at the port but also several slutty-looking women who were older than here who were either talking in gossip-like conversations or hitting on the men from the port. She sat down in the middle of the bar.
On the television the Detroit Pistons were playing the Chicago Bulls. Margaret didn't know the stake of the game, but she figured it might be the playoffs because it was May and that was usually what happened this time of year (most of the boyfriends she had ever had had been fairly avid basketball fans). She noticed Michael Jordan as he was shown in close-up. He looked intense. Words flashed across the screen before a commercial saying that this was "Game 1". On a television at one end of the bar there was a baseball game playing as well.
When Jake entered the bar several minutes later she finished her drink and said hello. He was wearing a different and nicer shirt then that afternoon and he had on nicer pants. The shirt was flannel and the pants were Levi's or something, but they looked a bit too small or tight on him.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," he said, "I had to call my mom to check in. I hadn't called her since last week."
"How is she doing?" asked Margaret.
Jake raised his eyebrows to himself and let out a small sigh before he said, "She is doing okay. She bitched to me about my dad some and asked me what I was doing here."
"Sounds like fun," said Margaret.
"What are you drinking?" he asked.
"I just had a vodka-tonic. I was thinking of ordering another one."
Jake got the attention of the bartender and ordered himself a whiskey-soda before also ordering her another vodka-tonic.
"This isn't really too much of an Irish bar," he said, "They have a Notre Dame pennant, that makes sense, and a bunch of Yankees bullshit, that doesn't make sense. I also have no idea who any of the people are in those photos."
"You recognize Jack Nicholson, don't you?" she said, "Or what about Flannery O'Connor?"
"Oh yeah, I see him. But is he Irish? Hold on, where is Flannery O'Connor? " They each laughed. "I guess there is a lot of green and stuff in here, too. Like look at that neon green lamp over there. You don't see that everyday."
"Yeah," said Margaret.
"So did you eat dinner?" he asked.
"Yes, I had a salad or something. I was going to eat with Mark but he had to stay later at work."
"Bummer," said Jake, with a hint of sarcasm.
"Do you have any plans for tonight?" he asked, "It is Saturday night after all..."
"No, I didn't call anybody. I've felt like staying in the past couple of weekends."
"Yeah, sometimes people aren't nice to be around, even if they are nice."
"Yeah," she said.
She was drinking her drink at a fairly fast pace, but so was he. He seemed somewhat interested in the basketball game. He asked her offhand if she cared about the game, and she said "not really."
After they had each finished their drink, they ordered more and Margaret suggested they go sit down at a table.
"I was just tired of both us, mostly you, using the game as a distraction," she said after they were both seated at a table.
"Yeah, televisions shouldn't even be allowed really in public places. People use it as an excuse so that they don't have to interact with other people."
"Exactly," she said.
"What kind of music have you been listening to lately?" he asked.
"Oh, a lot of the same stuff, a lot of older stuff, some new stuff. I guess Sonic Youth is my favorite band, but I have been listening to the Beastie Boys more than I used to also."
"I love that band," said Jake.
"I need to reconnect to music or something," she said, "I think it might help me figure out what I want to do or something."
"Yeah, I can give you some tapes or something," said Jake in an off-hand way.
Margaret lit a cigarette.
"So are you going to...stay with this guy for…how long?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said, "I should probably move out soon and give him an ultimatum or something. Or just leave him."
"He doesn't really seem to care about anything. Actually, I hardly talk to him frequently nowadays. I think he might be cheating on me."
"That's fucked up," said Jake.
"Yeah, I guess so," she said.
"What do you want to do?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said.
"Can I bum another smoke off you?" he asked.
"Of course," she said. She handed him her pack and laid her lighter on the table.
They each finished their drinks.
"What would you like to drink?" he asked.
"Just get me a class of wine, please," she said.
Jake returned to table with her wine and a glass of scotch for himself. She felt uncomfortable about the fact that he had paid for her last two drinks, but she also kind of liked it.
"Remember that time when we bought a couple grams of coke and went bar-hopping all over the city with Robert and Sarah?"
Margaret laughed. "Yeah, I remember that," she said.
"We were wasted. I remember not paying for half the drinks we had that night. I wonder if anyone ever paid for those."
"Probably not," she said, "It was just really strange going into bathrooms and doing lines and then dabbing our cigs in coke and smoking them and being discreet and not being discreet and everything."
"I think Sarah puked that night," said Jake.
"Yeah, probably," said Margaret.
"I remember Robert going up to some guy that was talking shit about us and almost starting a fight."
"Sounds about right," she said.
"Do you want to go drive around this area of town after we finish this drink?" asked Jake.
"Okay, sure," she said.
They walked outside and got into Jake's car. It didn't make sense, because she didn't even ask why they were getting in his car. It was just an old habit, maybe. Or some type of subtle masculine domination. Being around him was somewhat relaxing and good, but it also made her nauseous. She couldn't stop biting her lip and she felt a headache growing, but it was possible that the drinking caused that.
When they got in the car and Jake started the engine, Margaret could hear the motor. It started much easier than in her car. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He turned his head slightly. He looked like a sad puppy who didn't know what to do but deep down knew what he wanted. He took his hand around her head and kissed her back on the cheek. He turned on the radio and began driving down the road.
"Where should we go?" he asked.
"I don't know," said Margaret.