‘Good News’

Hannah Kingsley-Ma

Like a dog, I walked in through the back door and sniffed the air attentively. A rich, woody scent met me. Before I had a chance to call her name, Kira’s head poked out from behind the open refrigerator door. She stooped down again, her hands rooting around, rattling the various jars of mustard that lined the shelves.

Julia, she said brightly. You’re early.

Hi Kiki, I replied. What’s cooking?

You’ll never guess, she said. She pushed herself up with her hands on her knees so she was standing tall.

I have no idea, I told her. I’m trying. I stuck my nose into the air and inhaled violently, like a cartoon skunk. I can’t place it.

Jacob’s cooking a goose, she said.

I wrinkled my nose. I looked for Jacob. He had a way of popping up suddenly when I didn’t expect it. I lowered my voice. Did he shoot it?

He got it at the grocery store here, explained Kira. They have them there around Christmastime. She paused for a moment, and then added: Just sit down over there and I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

I was disgruntled to learn that Jacob’s fingerprints were all over our dinner. Some days I had the feeling that Jacob was trying to kill Kira through the things he fed her. There was something very antiquarian about this—death by poison—which seemed fitting for him, since he had an old-timey, chivalrous way about him that I found distressing. He was the kind of person who would use “purloined” in a sentence. Purloined! It made me grit my teeth. I thought he was the worst kind of nerd, but maybe that was because I was the kind of nerd who had to wait a very long time to get laid, and Jacob was the kind of nerd who was having abundant, rambunctious sex in high school with others of his ilk. He always had girlfriends with garish Ren Fair cleavage, prone to outward displays of affection like semi-public-facing hand jobs.

What’s that? I asked, pointing to the containers of opaque liquid resembling melted candle wax.

Goose fat, said Kira.

There was a shamelessness in the way Jacob cooked. He cooked like someone who was a habitual boyfriend. The meals he made for Kira were exorbitant and devotional in nature. Like some kind of mountain-bound monk, he would spend four days making an elaborate dish that consisted of vegetables he fermented himself in a belching pot, kraut everywhere, a whiff of shit about the room.

Sometimes these meals were dangerous. I remember this one afternoon, before the two of them moved out of the city. I had texted Kira to see if she wanted to grab lunch. We went to the Turkish spot around the corner for me and brought it back to my apartment. Kira liked the lentil soup there and stirred big spoonful’s of yogurt into it. It looked more like a smoothie, barely warm, by the time her dedicated mixing was done. We always shared the almond pudding for dessert. It had a layer of cinnamon half an inch thick at the top. The pudding had a thin, watery texture, and hard nubs of toasted almonds. It was very sweet. We liked to just skim the cinnamon off the top. It caught in our throats and made us cough. It was bland mush and extremity, all rolled up into one. Pudding had a bad rap for being a sad food for the toothless and old. We thought it unfairly unsexed, and thus we were rigorous advocates for it. We ate it often. But that day, Kira wouldn’t touch it.

What’s the matter, I asked.

No, she said. She put her hands on her eyes for just a second. No, I didn’t want to worry you. It’s nothing. It’s fine. I’m just not very hungry at the moment. She suddenly smiled, as if trying to convince herself. I’m probably just worrying for no reason. I think it will be fine.

What will be fine? I asked.

Kira explained to me that that weekend Jacob and her had gone with some friends to a cabin upstate. Standard stuff: board games, warm drinks, socked feet rubbing against crotches. The cabin sat on the edge of the woods, and they had taken long walks in the afternoon to break up the lying around. Jacob and his friend were amateur mycologists. They poked around stumps and examined frilly fungi glued to trees. They liked to forage. Kira had eaten countless mushrooms Jacob had found, even the dog urine soaked ones he plucked from the nearby park. Jacob sauteed them in butter, in wine, in cream. He made them opulent. Delicious.

But on this particular foraging expedition, Jacob and his friend had come across a specimen that looked like one of the ones they knew were safe to eat. But it also sort of—kind of—not really—looked like one of the ones that was not safe to eat. Normally, when faced with this dilemma, Jacob would have taken the conservative route and passed on it. But he was in the presence of his friend, who like him, shrugged his shoulders and said: I’m basically positive it’s fine.

On a scale of one to 100, asked Kira, as the four of them walked back to the cabin. How sure are you? Jacob frowned.

99, he said.

Do you feel sick? I asked Kira, when she finished recounting her tale. I felt sick.

No, said Kira. I feel fine. I’ve felt fine since I first ate it. But we got a text from the other couple who we were with this morning, and they said that Amber had been throwing up last night, and that some hours later, Peter started throwing up too.

What does that mean? I asked Kira.

It means, said Kira. That Amber probably has a stomach bug. And Peter caught it. And everything’s fine.

But, I said. In the case it’s not a stomach virus. In case everything’s not fine.

Well, said Kira. In that case, and here’s the crazy thing about mushrooms—there’s really nothing anyone can do. The four of us are now winding towards a slow death, where all our organs shut down.

I stared into my bowl of pudding. It was pale, tremulous.

I think it will be fine, Kira repeated. Jacob’s not worried. But if you want to spend the day with me to make sure I’m not dying, we could go to the movies? And if I begin twitching and frothing at the mouth, we’ll know.

Alright, I said. I was going to work out. But I don’t have to, if you want to hang out. You probably shouldn’t be doing anything too strenuous, right?

That’s very magnanimous of you, she said.

We went to a movie about a young woman who dies. This pained me. I didn’t read the synopsis of the movie beforehand (a mistake) or else I would never have subjected Kira to it. In this case, the young woman drowned in a shipwreck. But still: death is death. I took Kira’s hand in mine when the young woman’s body was found washed up on shore. SORRY I mouthed in the dark theater. I DIDN’T KNOW THERE WOULD BE DYING IN THIS. After we left the theater, Kira ducked into the bathroom. I stood anxiously outside, waiting for her to resurface.

Kira, I said, trying to make my voice sound calm when she finally did. Was there blood in your stool?

She gestured to the bucket-sized Diet Coke she had me hold while she went to the toilet. It was nearly empty. After that, she said it was probably best if we parted ways for the day, and that she would send me text updates if anything changed.

I never forgave Jacob for those mushrooms. Or maybe I didn’t forgive him for the move. Both had the same potential outcome: Kira gone. Except the move wasn’t his idea. He wanted to stay. It was Kira who said she was sick of the city. Kira who wanted more space. Kira who wanted to save some money and live somewhere cheaper, to help build for whatever life was up ahead. Kira who took me aside and told me that this was her plan, that it was what she wanted, and that she hoped I could understand.

I said: Kira I swear to God if you do that I’ll never leave my house. 

Don’t say that, she said. People are horribly depressed.

I knew about it. I worked as a substitute teacher in various high schools. Someone from the district gave all of us subs a training session on what to look out for in our students in terms of warning signs. If they were withdrawn. Did they have their heads down on the table, with their jackets over their ears? I’m a substitute teacher, I wanted to scream. Of course they do. The representative from the district showed us something called the “loneliness scale.” Apparently it was rising, year by year, like the seas.

Fine, I said. And then, because it was the thing I was supposed to say, I told her I just wanted her to be happy.

But that was a lie: I didn’t just want her to be happy. It would be fine if she was unhappy. We could be unhappy together, like we had always been. Or maybe we weren’t unhappy. Maybe we were just young, and tired, and not yet at the point where we could afford nice things, and constantly hungover, and eating only granola bars and French fries, and that just had the same chemical properties of sadness.

Jacob’s worst crime, after all, was just the surprise of his arrival. I didn’t see it coming. His permanence. His solidity and his solemnity. The monogamy he carried as an implicit promise that Kira so willingly embraced. And this life they had made in this new house, in this new place, and the goose roasting in their oven, like we were homesteaders, and this was my last visit with Kira before she died of childbirth, or influenza. I carried into their home the somber shadow of someone mourning.

My father, the son of two Jewish Latvian immigrants, always ate goose for Thanksgiving growing up. It embarrassed him. He was supposed to eat turkey. The meat WHITE WHITE WHITE, turkey, with its HUMONGOUS BREASTS. My mother, the daughter of two Chinese immigrants, ate duck. I told this to Jacob, lying on his couch as he basted his bird with the fixed intent of a neurosurgeon.

That might be hard for you to understand, I said. What with your mother being a Daughter of the American Revolution. You guys were probably eating the original turkey, the one that started it all. And because I had started drinking, I turned to Kira and said in a dramatic sotto voce: started all the MURDER.

Always get the last word.

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Well it’s supposed to taste like beef, Kira said. What could be more American than that? A bird that tastes like hamburger.

There’s lots of fat on a goose, said Jacob. That’s what makes it delicious. Goose fat is supposed to be incredible.

Geese can kill, I said.

She’s afraid of flying, Kira explained to Jacob. You know, the Captain Sully thing.

Miracle On the Hudson, I offered.

The truth was I wasn’t so afraid of flying anymore, now that I was prescribed one precious pill I took thirty minutes prior to any flight. It made me feel the particular stupor of a drugged cat. I was two beats away from licking myself. Generally speaking, I didn’t like the tinny rattle of turbulence, the swooping belly feeling of bouncing on a cloud. When I took the pill, I could pretend I was in a funky elevator in the sky, just grooving. But without the pill, the fear mutated each time. At first it was terrorism (on trend for the early aughts) but then it was embarrassing, maybe even politically abhorrent, to be afraid of terrorism, so it shifted to something more nebulous—mechanical failure, fire onboard, an errant man tugging the emergency doors open. There were errant men abound.

Who knew what I really needed to be afraid of was geese? I told Kira and Jacob excitedly, taking on the gusto of a carnival barker. Great clouds of geese! The shocking weapon that is “bird strikes.”

What is a bird strike, asked Jacob.

Where the birds get sucked up into the engine, said Kira. She had heard this all before.

A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time researching how I might plummet to my death as the result of migrating flocks. There was a retributive spirit in the air after a gang of Canadian Geese nearly downed a commercial jet with 155 people on board. What did America excel at, if not theatrical vengeance? Over a thousand geese in New York were gassed. And then they took their eggs and they smothered them in corn oil, so that no air would be able to get through to the growing embryos.

While Jacob cooked his bird, I imagined myself doing such a thing. Taking an egg, and methodically rubbing it into a shiny nub so the thing inside of it—the beginning—died.

Cocktail? asked Jacob.

Please, I said. Thank you.

He was hospitable. I had to give him that.

Kira had one horrible boyfriend before this one. He made Jacob seem like a prince. And maybe Jacob was. He loved Kira. He had lots of hair, not just on his head, but all over. I saw it on his toes, when he took his sandals off. Kira’s horrible boyfriend before Jacob did not have money, nor hair, nor Jacob’s manners. He had a clear disdain for the comfort of others, and he was not afraid to make it known. He did not like me. My ambitions were so plainly embarrassing to him, the thought that I would simply like a nice life, one where I could maybe afford to get a teeth cleaning every six months like the dentist recommended. Kira’s horrible boyfriend had not been to the dentist in nine years. He was handsome. I think this is where some of his conviction came from, the good luck of his own looks, which had blessed him with a kind of intangible prosperity that money could not buy. But every now and then I found him wincing when he bit down on his food. Kira explained later that his wisdom teeth were exploding out of his gums. He had never gotten them removed, and they were readjusting the shape of his mouth, and most certainly infected in an abstract kind of way, or as abstract as infection could be. By this I mean that we couldn’t see the pus.

Kira’s horrible boyfriend was dumped by Kira when we were 24 years old. They had been together for three years—“on and off.” That was the parlance of those days, shockingly literal: us hopping off old dicks, hopping on new ones, and then back to the old. No wonder we were winded. All that jumping.

Kira started complaining about him a lot. She said that he had become too negative. It wasn’t fun anymore to spend time with him. He was on his phone a lot. Then one of our friends, Samin, saw his profile on a dating app. It was him alright: the misaligned smile in the photo was the same. She called me right away.

What should we do? she asked.

I think we tell her, I said grimly. Or we get him to tell her. You message him and tell him that he has to tell her. And if he doesn’t, we will. That’s the least he can do.

God, she said. What am I, a mafia boss? I’m not used to making threats.

It’s a DM, Samin, I said. You’ll find the courage somehow.

When Kira called me in tears to tell me that her horrible boyfriend had confessed to snooping around, exploring his options, I made a split decision to act surprised. I thought it would be less embarrassing for her. But I regretted it as soon as I did it. I didn’t like knowing something she didn’t. I had no business pulling the strings of her life like that. Okay, lesson learned, I told myself. I ran into that horrible boyfriend once, on the sidewalk. He had his arm slung around a different girl. She didn’t look anything like Kira, and not in the good way. In a nightmare way. I walked right up to him and said: Hi Tom! It’s been so long! I gave him a great big hug, the kind where my breasts squashed gently against his chest. I looked expectantly to the girl at his right, so that he would have to introduce her. He was confused by my friendliness, which was entirely the point.

This is Mira, he said. My girlfriend.

Mira, I said, not a hint of irony in my voice. It’s so nice to meet you.

I did tell Kira about this. I explained my strategy. His new girlfriend would surely ask who was that. And he would have to say: that’s my ex-girlfriend’s best friend. And then the ghost of Kira would leap forward, hovering over their new, untroubled, love.

Boo! I said to Kira, beaming. 

Kira frowned. I don’t want to trouble his new, untroubled love, she told me.

Don’t you think it’s psychotic at least, that your names rhyme? I pleaded.

I never thought of that, she said.

You’re killing me here, I said.

By the time the goose was finally ready to be consumed, I was absolutely plastered, lying fully prone on the couch. It was nearly ten.

What did you eat on the train ride up, asked Kira.

Cheez-Its, bitch, I said.

Okay, well let’s chase it with a little goose, she said.

A gamey scent had encircled all of us, like a spell. My sweater was a net, capturing it all. The warm odor of my body mixed with it, all kinds of animal.

Jacob pulled up an internet forum where people debated the pros and cons of consumption. A disturbing amount of people compared it to roast beef. I liked the man who called it “exaggerated chicken.” I liked the man who called it a “flying pig.” When Jacob sliced into it, it was bright pink inside.

Is it cooked fully? Kira asked very softly.

Yes, said Jacob. That’s what it is supposed to look like.

I fell upon the bird with the hunger of a weary traveler. The meat was almost liquid rich, but distressingly chewy. Collagen heavy.

I like it, said Kira. It’s different. It’s not at all what I’d suspected.

Jacob shrugged. He seemed pleased she was enjoying it.

It is good, I told them. Maybe this is your guys’ thing now. You’re goose girls.

Everything had been blessed by the bird, drenched in its renderings. Fried sheaths of bread sat underneath it while it cooked. Carrots and potatoes had soaked up the residual grease. A humble pile of arugula stood guard at the edge of our plate, as if to symbolically represent an alternate reality.

I ate the most out of everyone. Jacob put in a good effort but was deterred by his own exhaustion. He had spent most of the day cooking, and he would soon tackle the dishes. Kira was too busy talking, our eternal bridge, to consume a whole meal’s worth. It was just me devouring, working through uneven puzzle pieces of pinkish meat I had chaotically cut with a butter knife. Suddenly it was nearly midnight, and I could barely keep my eyes open. Kira, I said. Deliver me to my residence. It’s time I retire.

She took my hand and led me up to their guest room. I thought Kira would be sixty by the time she had a guest room. And here she was, with a whole other bed that no one even slept in most nights.

You know this is your room, she said, as I unlatched my bra and pulled on a large t-shirt. It’s my mother’s room for when she is in town, but it’s really your room.

Be my mom tonight, I said. I’m so tired.

Do you mean I need to make you brush your teeth? she asked.

Absolutely not, I said. Just tuck me in.

So she pulled the corner of the duvet back, and I crawled in. She leaned down to give me a kiss.

Your mouth smells like straight goose, she said. 

No kisses for me, I said.

I’ll still kiss you, she said. And she did.

I awoke in the middle of the night to the most horrible pain I had ever felt. It was concentrated somewhere low in my stomach. I gasped. A powerful contraction rippled through me. I wondered if I was like those teen girls who didn’t know they were pregnant till a baby’s red scalp began to crown between their trembling legs. I let out a high-pitch whine. Kira’s dog came thumping into the room, anxious at the sound.

Get Kira for me, I told him in an urgent voice, the kind I assumed would summon Balto. He sat there. The twisting continued. I cried out.

Ow! I kept saying. Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! It was pitiful, but it was the truest statement I could usher. It came out of me quick like a river, just the plain sound of hurt: Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!

I heard rustling in the other room. Kira was up. She was talking to Jacob. Shaking him awake, disoriented. Their feet were padding down the hallway. She was wearing a pair of his underwear. He didn’t have a shirt on. He had a nice body, Jacob. I didn’t know this about him, but I was struck by his vitality in this rare moment of disclosure, where he was as undressed as I had ever seen him. I couldn’t help but notice the alluring swell of his stomach as it disappeared into his puckered waistband. His boxers were on backwards. He must’ve put them on in a hurry. Kira was the kind of person who usually wore “designated pajamas.” Like the kinds moms wore in holiday catalogs. So they must have slept together that night, I thought, studying her hastily thrown on clothes, none of which matched. That must’ve happened after she had tucked me in, and I had closed my eyes.

What’s wrong, asked Kira, looking alarmed. What’s going on?

I don’t know, I whimpered. Something hurts, so bad. A guttural sob escaped, like a hiccup, surprising both of us. My mind flashed suddenly to Madeline, that French child from the picture books. Was she an orphan? Why was she away from her parents? She was so young, after all. I fell into a fog, trying to summon up the particularities of her emotional reality. All I could remember were Mrs. Clavell’s clarion words, ringing out in the night: Something’s not right.

I began to cry.

Oh, Kira said. Oh, sweetie. It’s okay. Jacob reached out instinctively and put the back of his hand on my forehead. I was sweating. He pushed back my wet bangs, so that they weren’t clouding my peripheral vision. I had a vision of him as some kind of prairie midwife.

I can drive you to urgent care, he said. It’s nearby. We can get you there very soon.

Maybe it’s her appendix, said Kira to Jacob, in a low tone, as if I couldn’t hear.

We have to make sure it doesn’t burst, then, said Jacob. That can be dangerous.

Will you take her? said Kira. I’ll follow behind. I feel like we should bring two cars, just in case it takes a really long time. You can take the van, and I’ll follow in the Volvo. So you can come back, and take the dog for a walk, if you need to. She’ll need to go out around six.

Even at a moment like this, they were gaming out their life together, doing that kind of logistical back and forth that signaled their fused lives. I half expected him to say: and what would you like for dinner? And did you buy the plane tickets for us to visit your parents?

But he didn’t. He didn’t have time for that. I shit my pants, by which I mean the bed. It wasn’t my appendix. It was the goose.

I was crying harder now. Kira soothed me, she was petting my head. “No, no, no,” she said. “It’s okay, it’s okay, don’t worry.

I’m sorry, I kept wailing. I’m sorry I’m so sorry.

Don’t be sorry, she said. You have nothing to be sorry about. Let’s get you cleaned up. Don’t worry, love. It’s alright. It’s just me, right? It’s just me. It’s okay. Let’s get you feeling better.

She hooked my arm around her shoulders and hoisted me up. As I hobbled out towards the shower, I turned back. Jacob was wordlessly gathering the soiled sheets into a black garbage bag. Kira turned the faucet on, and even over the rush of hot water, I could hear the sound of Jacob getting the hose going out back, where he was spraying down the linen. My tears mixed with the water streaming down the shower head, and I submitted to both. Kira was still in her boxers, soaking wet. She was rubbing my back, putting a grainy bar of soap in my hand. Laughing quietly to herself. Handing me a towel I knew she used to wash her dog.

She led me back to her bed and brought me a glass of ginger ale. Told me if I needed anything, I should just let her know. She leaned back, as if to sit vigil. But she fell asleep quickly, her breath a light thrum. Eventually, I went back to sleep too.

In the early hours of the morning, I slunk out of Kira’s bed in an absolute hole of shame. I wondered if I’d ever be able to crawl out of it. The odds weren’t in my favor. My skin was wan and I was feeling emptier than a drum. I saw a corner of a fitted sheet dangling from the dumpster outside. I took in its dire message: it could not be saved.

Jacob was sleeping on the couch. He stirred as I tiptoed through the kitchen, attempting to leave a note for Kira while she slept upstairs.

Where are you going? he asked confused.

I need to go back, I told him. I just don’t feel very good still. I think I want to be in my own bed. He nodded. I understood that he understood.

I’m so sorry—I said again. He cut me off.

I’m sorry, he said. If what I made, it made you sick.

I’m sorry for being sick, I told him. I ate too much of your suspicious meal. I was being greedy.

We both smiled.

He drove me to the train station. I looked in the rearview mirror exactly once, and saw that I was very pale, pleasantly frail looking. I wondered if he liked me looking like this, like some sweaty angel he had plucked off the side of the road, her insides gone.

Once we arrived, there was no ceremony getting out of the car. I heaved myself sideways out of the seat, almost melting out the door. My suitcase followed, Jacob diligently hoisting it from the trunk. There you are, he said. I almost shook his hand. As the train pulled away from the station, I saw him sitting there, in his parked car, leaning over his cellphone. Probably writing to Kira, telling her he was on his way home.

By the time I had reached my apartment I had a text from Kira.

You left?????? She wrote. Without saying goodbye????? Are you Alive?????

Alive, I told her. Triumphantly Alive. But horribly, horribly embarrassed.

Don’t be, she wrote. We’ve seen much worse from each other, have we not?

It took me a moment to figure out if we had.

It was a mistake to take the train back so soon after the chaos of the night before, and I was quickly humbled by my body’s demands. I felt stoic, only in the sense that I had no other option. I wondered if I needed an IV of fluids to restore my natural order. Or maybe just morphine. The semantics of food poisoning was clear. Poisoned, not unlike Purloined. There was malice to be found in what I had consumed, in this case large amounts of undercooked goose. Being alone in the apartment posed its own hazards. If I passed out, who would help me? Who would even know I was in need of help? I thought about that more than once. Each time, a delicate panic would rise through me, till I was practically levitating. In one of my weaker moments, I called my mother. She picked up on the third ring and listened sympathetically as I recounted to her my various symptoms, eliding the bit at Kira’s. My mother was a woman of uncompromised dignity. I loved this about her, and I simply could not relate.

Well, she said. I mean that sounds awful. I’m sorry.

Thanks, I said. I do feel awful.

On the bright side, she said searchingly, maybe you’ll come out feeling skinny mini at the end of this, since you can’t eat anything. I always look best after a little stomach flu.

Mom, no, I said. Bad mom.

I’m not allowed? asked my mother.

The cops are on their way, I told her.

Very funny, she said.

They are knocking on the door, I said.

I’m hanging up the phone now, she said.

Open up! I shouted.

I said I’m hanging up the phone, she repeated.

POLICE, I yelled into the receiver. But she was already gone.

It turned out that two days of food poisoning did not dramatically alter my figure, but it did give me a blood thirst for orange-flavored Pedialyte sipped from a reusable coffee cup. It was the easiest vessel to tip back endless amounts of liquid into my throat as I lay on my couch and watched episode after episode of women with soon-to-be foreclosed mansions yelling at one another about who was happier. I needed to be on the BRAT diet, my mother told me—bananas, she explained, rice applesauce and T. What was the T? She said she forgot. I was angry at her then, for not knowing. I was wandering around my apartment, muttering to myself: Taleggio. Taquitos. Taffy. I settled on Tapioca Pudding. I ate mounds of Tapioca Pudding. The squishy beads rested somewhere between my teeth, creating a gelatinous buoyancy amidst all those brittle bones. I wished Kira could come over and keep me company. She was at home, reading a book with her dog at her feet. I was a BRAT, living in the Best City in the World, making do with pudding.

How are you feeling? She would ask via text.

Back to normal :). I told her, Better than Ever

For weeks afterwards, I had an aversion to meat. The gleaming look of it on a plate. The way it beckoned. The spectrum of liquids ejected, intensely savory and newly nauseating. I had no choice: I was now a vegetarian. What I had lost in pleasure, I had made-up in moral high ground. Most vegetarians were careful not to flaunt their dietary decision as a reason to be celebrated, for fear of appearing smug. But I wasn’t one of them.

Is it for environmental reasons, friends would ask. Worker conditions? Animal welfare? In my mind, I checked the box that said Other.

Kira came down to the city once every two months or so to stay with me. She’d always ask to go dancing. I didn’t understand what she meant when she said that. Was that a thing we had ever done before? “Go dancing?” Did that, as an actual activity, even exist? Most of the time we took long, sweaty walks across the neighborhood where she once lived, so that we could reminisce on all the things she didn’t miss, and the few things she did. She slept with me in my bed. Every visit I’d peel back the sheet and say: Alright, now shit yourself. It’s only fair. The first time she cracked up. The second and third and fourth, she said: Julia, you’re working too hard for this laugh.

It was a buggy, summer afternoon when I spotted Jacob in Prospect Park. I didn’t believe it at first. There were Jacob look-alikes everywhere. That was part of his accessible charm. Plus, Kira never mentioned he was coming into town. I was on a run. Sweat ran down the backs of my legs, gathering in the creases of my joints. There he was. He was walking with purpose, looking down every now and then at his phone, to check the time.

What are you doing right now, I texted Kira.

Working, said Kira. Like usual.

What’s Jacob doing, I texted back.

He’s at work like usual, Kira said. Why.

But he wasn’t at work. He was in the city. He was standing mere feet away from me, charging through a patch of tall grass.

Wanted to send him a picture of a goose in the park. I said. As a joke.

Haha, wrote Kira.

But I won’t if he’s working, I repeated.

He’s working, said Kira.

It was a plain text. And yet in my head I imagined her telling it to me firmly. Not as reassurance, but as a warning.

I followed him. It wasn’t even a conscious choice, more like a forceful yank. It proved to be challenging. The park was mostly open stretches of lawn. There wasn’t a lot to dodge behind. As he strode across the meadow, I ducked beneath an overflowing garbage can, a diseased looking shrub. Jacob was on the move. He bent down to tie his shoes. He drank from a poorly functioning water fountain. He stopped to pet a dog. How dare he, I thought. Pet a dog at a time like this.

What was he walking towards? How was it that Kira didn’t know he was here? I had joked, yes, to a friend or two, about wanting to find myself in this exact scenario: confronting Jacob over an act of obvious wrongdoing so bad that Kira would finally leave him. But now faced with the prospect of all that power, I felt ill.

I stalked him for a quarter of a mile. He kept texting, then looking up to orient himself in the park. I imagined us as two blue dots, pulsing in the grid of his phone. I had sworn to myself, since the handsome man with the infected teeth, that I would never play God in Kira’s life anymore. But the cruel fact of it was that every friendship existed most acutely in small moments like this, when your hand was forced into some kind of action. It was so rare that I had to be an agent of change in our relationship. It was like a recurring payment on a credit card bill—it just rolled over, month to month.

Jacob stopped before a bench draped in low-hanging branches. A young woman slid her ass down the seat to make room for him. He leaned in to give her a hug. I watched for their hands. Hers went up in the air as a napkin fluttered past, skittering across the pavement like an injured moth. He stood up to trap it under his foot, chasing it as the wind blew it forward. He was headed right towards me. I imagined our blue dots colliding. It was time for me to go.

I stood there for just a beat longer, watching them from afar. The ground was wet, my shoes sinking in the muck. A clouded shard of glass stood erect amongst the blades of grass. The woman brushed yellow beads of pollen from Jacob’s hair with the back of her hand—not with the grim punctuality of someone performing a chore—but with a tenderness that suggested care. Maybe this was friendship. I thought. Friendship looked so many different ways. Maybe they were friends, and I was just outside of it. What did I know? I didn’t understand it even when I was in it. I stepped forward to call his name, but just then, he leaned in to give her a kiss.

I knew as strongly as I knew my own name that I would never tell Kira. I looked up to look away. Above, the slow arc of a bird.

Hannah Kingsley-Ma is a writer, radio producer, and former bookseller. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Drift, The Believer, McSweeney’s, The Kenyon Review, Joyland, Literary Hub, and BOMB Magazine.

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