We're proud to present our 2015 Literary Contest Winner with Ms. Samantha Dauer and her piece "J. J. Jones." Thanks to everyone for participating and check back here soon for a new contest opportunity!
Ping. Notification from an unknown 917 number. The text:
Hey is this the barista who left her phone # and “Call me” on the napkin w/my croissant?
Margot sat bolt upright in bed, staring in wide-eyed disbelief at the little gray bubble on her screen. Immediately she felt a grin twitching at her lips, like two hooks were trying to tug up the corners of her mouth, but someone kept slackening the line. She was too stunned to give in to exuberance. Besides, she didn’t want to pump her fist in the air in triumph just yet — the next text could very well be “I’m super uncomfortable and I’m telling your manager.”
Gotta play it cool.
Maybe, she typed.
She added a sunglasses emoticon and tapped “Send” before she could stop herself.
Now to cope with the suspense. Dropping her phone on the mattress at her side, Margot lay back on her bed, staring up at the ceiling with her hands folded over her stomach. Her fingers kept fidgeting, tapping. It was getting to be that part of the evening when the world turned to shadows, and her eyes burned from the strain of looking at her phone’s white glow. She glanced sideways at her nightstand lamp, wondering if the warm light was worth reaching over that far after an eight-hour shift. If she waited long enough, her father would probably come home from work, crack open the door, sigh, flick on the overhead light, and walk out again with a mutter of “like living with a Goddamn vampire.”
Margot liked that thought. Vampire Margot, sucking blood with every hickey like it kept her alive. Except the same blood too often got stale.
She grabbed the phone too quickly, tapped in the passcode, and read the response: Haha cool I thought maybe it was a stupid joke. I mean who says “Call me” anymore…no offense.
Grinning now — score, the crowd goes wild, Houston we have a snarky one — she answered, Lmao got the point across just fine, I think. You got a name?
A minute passed, then: J.J. Smiling emoticon. All pink cheeks and beaming.Not telling you what it stands for unless you ask me out though. You?
What a terrible fate.
Margot. Friday @ 7, Italian place on the same street as my job y/n?
Italian?? Do you get all your moves from bad rom-coms
Margot’s grin widened. Even more so when a second text came within seconds:
I’ll be there.
She replied, biting her bottom lip, See ya. I’ll wear my favorite rom-com LBD.
A short laugh escaped her, nervous and elated, as she tossed her phone aside, throwing her arm over her forehead. Italian. God, since when did she invite them out for Italian? Could she even afford Italian? Did she even own a little black dress? Probably not. Maybe — she’d go through Mom’s closet. She ran a hand over her face, as if trying to wipe the smile off. But it lingered, insistent.
Swinging her long legs over the side of her mattress, Margot leaned over and turned on her lamp just as a car pulled into the driveway outside her window. She paused, hearing the soft whirr of the engine fade to a stop, wheels crunching on gravel. A slamming car door, the even footsteps of her father in patent leather shoes up the walk.
Her fingers were still on the socket knob. Slowly, with two turns — two clicks — she turned the light off again, lay down in the dark and waited a little longer.
Some people are hired at service industry jobs because they’re charismatic, responsible, efficient, and helpful by nature. Margot was reasonably convinced that the chain coffee shop she worked at hired her because it couldn’t be more apparent, from her application and interview both, that she wasn’t going anywhere else anytime soon. Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to a lifetime as a cog in the machine of restaurant monopolies I go.
She did pretty good work, considering her aggressive lack of motivation. She showed up on time, always gave correct change, made sure the coffee wasn’t too foamy, kept her hair just long enough to hide the tattoo on the back of her neck — 5.24.11, the date of her junior prom that she wouldn’t have gone to even if her mom’s crap lungs hadn’t decided to give up for good that day — and only dragged coworkers like Simone and Rachel to the employee bathroom 1) on her break and 2) when no one who mattered was looking. Employee of the Goddamn month.
The routine wasn’t too soul-sucking; she came in a few days a week at varying times (nothing else to do meant flexible hours, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year — they loved her for that), taking the 7 train from her house to Grand Central and the 6 line uptown. Margot worked, flirted, collected her paycheck, went out with the high school friends who hadn’t moved on from enjoying her just yet, played and blogged about video games, and fluctuated between done-with-smoking-forever and not.
Mostly her full-time job was professional self-loathing, and Goddamn if she didn’t excel at it. Accordingly, nearly all of Margot’s solicitations were for the hell of it — a temporary fix, giving in to the itch under her skin when a girl walked in who looked at her a certain way. She lost herself, wasted potential and all, in warm skin and soft hair and glossy lips.
Despite her love for playing the archetypal lesbian Casanova, however, most of the time she acted in response to cues. Lowered lids, frequent glances, little smiles, shy waves, fingers grazing lips, casually deliberate. Margot usually didn’t bother with anyone like the blonde who walked in, kept her nose in a revamped Batman comic almost the entire time, and walked out with only a fleeting glance in Margot’s direction.
Yet for whatever reason, call it a whim, ten digits had found their way onto the napkin of a girl who was clearly more interested than she’d let on, and that gave Margot a strange sort of thrill.
J.J. looked even better in a suit and tie than she did in the student-in-coffee-shop uniform of a sweater and high-waisted jeans. Lightly gripping the strap of her handbag, she spotted Margot from down the street and flushed, eyes bright, waving and standing on tiptoe in what may have been an unconscious movement — Margot would’ve been surprised if she cleared five feet, after all.
Her heartbeat quickened, and she smiled a little as she waved back, tugging with her free hand at the dress that felt far too short. God, she was so screwed.
Heels clicking as she walked down Lexington towards her date, Margot tucked a loose strand of cropped, dark hair behind her ear, uncharacteristically sheepish. “So, uh,” she started, coming to a stop and founding that she towered over J.J. “I bet you thought I was kidding.” She gestured to the LBD (unearthed, as she’d anticipated, from her mother’s closet with the utmost care).
J.J. giggled and it was perfect and Margot was almost annoyed with herself for finding it so perfect. Get ahold of yourself. “Yeah, I’m impressed,” J.J. said, failing to conceal her smile with her fingers. “Shit, though, I messed up — did you want me to like…not see you at first, then turn slowly to see you approaching and gape like…” She did an excellent impression of a (singularly tiny and blonde) leading man in some kind of Hollywood drivel, blinking stupidly and deepening her voice as much as she was able. “Woah. Wow. You look…wow.”
“Hey now, that’s my job.”
“Then you shouldn’t’ve dressed femme. According to the conventions of the genre, I’m in charge now.” Winking, J.J. pointed with her thumb at the restaurant, with its maroon awning and ridiculous white lights strung up everywhere. “Shall we?”
Screwed. So very screwed. “We shall.”
Margot watched J.J. as she led them into the restaurant, named after some Italian guy whose name ended with an ‘O.’ The suit was plainly fitted to her shape. Her nails were painted coral. Her hair was blow-dried and unstraightened. There was a dusting of freckles over her cheeks and nose. Before Margot could get the chance, J.J. strolled up to the hostess and said cheerfully, “Table for two, please.”
As the hostess picked up two menus and beckoned for them to follow, J.J. glanced over her shoulder at Margot as if to say, “You’ve gotta do a whole lot more than write a phone number on a napkin to make yourself the alpha, babe.”
She’d never felt more like kissing someone after exchanging fewer than twenty sentences with them. Including the whole That’ll be seven-fifty, college girl thing.
Once they were seated at a table near the far brick wall, one candle in the center atop the white tablecloth, the drinks ordered, Margot asked, “So: what does J.J. stand for?”
“The ulterior motive revealed!”
“You bet,” Margot grinned.
Sighing, J.J. folded her arms atop the table and answered, “It’s short for Jessica Jade. My parents like alliteration.”
She made a face. “Jones.”
“Are you gonna ask for the check?”
“Nah, you’re still cute, I guess. Besides, it takes a certain kind of…I dunno,gumption to text some random barista.” Margot opened up the menu and groaned at the price of the first entrée she saw. “Especially one stupid enough to suggest Italian on the Upper East Side.”
J.J. laughed. Margot felt like she’d just broken through the ribbon at a triathlon. “Takes some gumption to write your number down in the first place,” she countered, following suit and opening her menu. “I’ll try not to order anything made from an endangered species.”
“I appreciate that.” Belatedly, she added, “My full name’s Margot Bloom.”
J.J. nodded with all the regality of replying to a queen. “Pleased to meet you, Margot Bloom.”
“Pleasure’s all mine.” Really.
Drinks came, meals were ordered — eggplant parmesan for Margot, penne alla vodka for J.J. — and personal stats were swapped. J.J. was a sophomore at NYU, majoring in anthropology. She was from Sherborn, Massachusetts, which was a suburb of Boston, and she had two younger brothers. She liked baking and superhero movies and terrible whiny indie music.
“Don’t suppose you could have me over at your apartment and whip something up for dessert that I won’t have to pay for?” said Margot, tearing off a last piece of bread from the basket and popping it into her mouth.
“I hope that’s not a come-on, because it isn’t a very good one.” Scooting her appetizer dish aside to make room for the entrées that their waiter brought over, J.J. cast a smile upwards and thanked him before answering, picking up her fork, “I dunno, maybe. What are you in the mood for?”
Don’t say, “You,” don’t say, “You,” don’t say it don’t say it for the love of all that is holy. “I’m in the mood for anything that isn’t a thousand-dollar cannoli.”
Spearing some pasta, J.J. looked thoughtful. “I guess I could manage that. Why so frugal, though? If I’m the broke college girl, aren’t you the self-sufficient working girl?”
“Easy, College Girl, mere mortals like me don’t do words like frugal.” Margot paused to chew some eggplant. She swallowed. “I’m saving up to start pursuing an associate’s degree in…something.”
“Yeah, well.” She felt her cheeks warming up and focused on the candle in its glass bowl, the light bouncing off every surface and reflecting on the tablecloth. “It’s either that or listen to my old man bitch at me about it for another couple of months.”
There was a pause. “Do you, um…” J.J. started, then stopped, then tried again: “Do you live with just your dad?”
“Yeah.” The unspoken question settled heavily in the air. Margot decided to get the disclosure out of the way, poking her eggplant and making holes in it with her fork before actually picking it up. “My mom died a few years ago.”
“Oh.” It sounded like the breath had gone out of J.J., and Margot felt horrible right away. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine, it’s really fine, seriously, don’t worry about it.” She took a bite that was far too immense, forced to chew it for a few extra moments of painful silence as people murmured and the speakers played ambient piano music. “She was sick for a while, we kinda saw it coming. Besides, we’re doing okay.”
“Are you sure?” J.J. asked, and Margot tried to remember the last time she’d had this conversation with one of the girls she’d made out with in a secluded corner of a city park.
She forced a laugh. “Well, Dad works all the time and I’m gay, but other than that.” Oh God oh shit that did not come out as flippant as she’d wanted, shit, God, it fell flatter a thick textbook on a tiled floor. “Look, um…”
“Oh, come on.” J.J. sounded strangely disappointed, frowning.
“Come on what?” said Margot, taken aback.
“I don’t know, it’s — you seem smarter than the whole ‘liking girls is a defect and it makes me feel edgy’ thing. I mean…I’m sorry, it’s just that I really doubt you had some kind of latent queer gene that kicked in when…”
“I never said — ”
“You kind of did.” Slowly, J.J. looked up from the table back up at Margot. “I’m not upset, I don’t have the right to be, it’s just… It makes me sad.”
“The fact that someone clearly made you think that being who you are is just some kind of…post-mourning act of rebellion, or something.”
The words felt like a hard punch in the chest. Margot said nothing, empty fork in hand, throat suddenly tight.
She heard J.J. swear under her breath, saw her run her hands over her face. “God, I’m sorry, that was so — that wasn’t fair, shit.”
“No,” Margot said, surprised by the conviction and sincerity in her voice. “It was totally fair.” They were looking at each other again. “Don’t be sorry. You’re right. You don’t know how right you are.”
“It’s not just his fault — I bought into it, I just sort of adopted the role — you have no idea how shitty I really — ”
“Margot.” Somehow bringing herself to look up at J.J., Margot found the other girl reaching out, and before she really knew what was happening J.J.’s hand was covering the one holding Margot’s fork. Some swanky Sinatra-esque crap was playing in the background.
J.J. looked at her with the utmost sobriety and said, “If you come to my apartment with me, I will provide the sexiest tiramisu you will ever encounter.”
Slowly, Margot felt those hooks tugging at her lips again, only this time the line was taut and the catch was a complete success. Putting her fork down, she turned her wrist and slid her fingers through J.J.’s. Squeezed. “Oh, you’re on.”
“Hey.” J.J. smiled back, and the rest of the room quieted around them. She leaned over the candle, kissed Margot once, and said, “You’re okay.”
She nodded, lifted her hand for the check. “There you go.”
At 2:58 AM, Margot slipped quietly into her house in Queens, footsteps light on the landing. Tiptoeing up the stairs to her bedroom, she peered briefly into her father’s room. His light was on; he was reading something, propped up against a few pillows in a t-shirt, sweatpants, and glasses pushed down the bridge of his nose. Reading up on one case or another.
She was still for a moment. Then she nudged the door open, stepping inside.
Without looking up, he said, “Latest coffee shop shift I’ve ever seen.” He looked up, taking in her outfit. “New dress code?”
Margot didn’t answer. She didn’t know how. Taking in her silence, her father paused, removing his glasses as if he could see her better without them. “You alright?”
“I like her.” She was barely conscious of saying it. There was some kind of fundamental disconnect between her mouth and her brain. “I like this one, Dad.”
Her gaze was not on him, but on the blankets untouched on the other side of the bed. On the empty nightstand and undented pillows. He’d never gotten rid of the outrageous king-size and replaced it with a twin, or at the very least a queen.
The silence stretched on as she kept her eyes averted. She was dimly conscious of him closing his file, staring at the manila surface, getting lost in it. Finally, she heard him say, “Get some sleep, sweetheart.” He hadn’t called her that in a long time.
Margot said nothing more, nodding and heading to her bedroom. When she was settled under the blankets, she picked up her phone and saw a message from J.J.
Don’t even THINK about not putting a heart made out of cream in my coffee when I come in tomorrow. My tiramisu comes at the cost of stupid gestures.
Her thumb twitched with the instinct to type out something delirious and juvenile about whether “tiramisu” was supposed to mean something else. Instead, she smiled once, closed her eyes, and thought of hands with coral-painted nails and dress-shirt cuffs around the wrists.
I’m doing okay, she thought, still wearing Mom’s old little black dress, turning over in her comforter and looking up at the window. Bars of pale blue moonlight cast themselves onto the carpet through the blinds.
I’m doing okay.