Welcome back, Radishes! I know our hiatus here has been a bit longer than any of us were expecting, but it’s a new year and we’re excited to get back into short stories. Due to other things happening in our lives, Sarah and I have decided that we will trade off months for posting. I’m taking January, she’ll take February, and back and forth we’ll go. And so, without further ado, here’s a story I wrote for a contest back in the fall. It didn’t win or place or anything, but I’m still pleased with it and I hope you like it too.
The piece was called “Stuck” by Anonymous and to their eyes it didn’t look like much.
“Please tell me – because I’m absolutely dying to know – how is this art?” The taller woman cocked her head to the side, one hand resting on her hip, the other at her face. Her index finger tapped against full lips curved into a puzzled frown. “Either of us could do that.”
“I’m not so sure I could,” the shorter woman replied. Technically speaking, her friend was correct. The canvas was completely blank except for a single black dot just off center enough for it to annoy her. Of course, she wasn’t talking about the piece itself. She was thinking about the getting a piece into a museum. What kind of person do you have to be to get into the Art Institute of Chicago where people come to see a piece of velum that looked like it could be in the aisle of any craft store except for the finger print that apparently made it worthy of a $17 admission fee and security guards?
If only she knew who Anonymous was so she could look him up and ask.
“Oh please, Reagan. Of course you could. Hell, even I could!” Her booming laugh bounced around the spacious gallery and drew the critical eyes of more than a few of their fellow museum patrons, peeved that their afternoon of experiencing Culture be so rudely interrupted by a sense of humor.
“What time does your train leave?”
Reagan glanced at her watch, her mousy brown hair coming out from behind her ear and temporarily hiding her cheeks flushed with embarrassment on her friend’s behalf. No, embarrassment was the wrong word for it. Arria’s exuberance for life and was something she admired, was jealous of even. No, it was more her discomfort at having such close proximity to the center of attention. It was a foreign feeling, something she had very little experience with in her 27 years.
“Not for another hour and a half.”
Arria took her by the hand and started towards the gallery and museum exit. “Great. Plenty of time to do something more productive.”
The wind on Monroe Street was blistery and unforgiving, putting up a fight as Reagan pushed through the Modern Wing’s revolving door. Anxious to escape the cold, the women walked in relative silence as Arria sought out a suitable change of venue for their semi-annual get together. Her eyes lit up as they passed a set of windows after two blocks. “Bingo, baby.”
She looked at home in the posh bar, but no matter where Arria went she managed to look effortlessly comfortable. It was a fact Reagan always knew to be true, but it was never more obvious than in winter. Where the cold had given Arria’s caramel cheeks a soft pink glow, Reagan’s nose bore a striking resemblance to a certain the red-nosed reindeer. And while Arria’s twists were impervious to the wind’s assaults, Regan’s thin strands were either matted against her scalp from five minutes of wearing a hat or a knotty mess from where they had been exposed.
“Stop fussing, you look fine,” Arria said, draping her pea coat over the back of the barstool and waving down the bartender. “I’d love a martini, two olives.”
“Coming right up. And for you, miss?”
“Just a light beer. Whatever’s on special,” she said, but the man had no trouble reading her expression: Whatever’s cheapest.
He nodded, unimpressed and underwhelmed, but understanding.
“Speaking of art – ”
“We weren’t speaking of art.”
Arria barreled on. “Of course we were, we just spent two hours in an art museum. So speaking of art, please tell me you’ve been working on your own.”
“On and off.” Reagan shifted in her seat, shoulders curled in, trying to make herself as small as possible. She’d melt into the carpet if she could. She was an imposter, a tourist, and she stood out like a sore thumb with her practical winter jacket and sensible boots and her purse from the sale bin and sweater that seemed fine in the suburbs but seemed so homely and haggard next to her sleek and chic friend from college. “I’ve been focusing more on getting settled in, and between work stuff…” She let her excuses trail off when she raised her eyes just enough to meet Arria’s pout.
“Girl, you have got to make time! You’re too good for being a full time sub. You deserve classes of your own. Hell, you really deserve your own studio so you can do whatever you want.”
“I’m not that good, Ar.”
“You just don’t believe in yourself. We need to get you some confidence.”
But really, Reagan wasn’t lying. It wasn’t false modesty or anything noble that made her knock herself down. It was a reflex based on fact: Reagan was undeniably unextraordinary.
“Besides, the school job is good. I get benefits now,” she added quietly. What she meant was, like everything else in her life, it was good enough. Not quite the life she’d dreamed of, but still better off than most.
Arria waved her off dismissively as the waiter brought their drinks. “No more sad talk. It’s practically the holiday season, so I’m insisting on some holiday cheer.” She raised her glass and an eyebrow until Reagan shyly followed suit. “A toast. To us. To old friends and walks down memory lane.” They each took a drink and Arria sighed.
“Now this is my idea of a work of art!” she laughed before taking another sip and smacking her lips. “That hits the spot. So. Talk to me. You finally moved out and are all settled into your new place?” Reagan nodded. “Any fun Thanksgiving plans?”
Dread washed over her. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving and her favorite holiday was only a few days away. She should have been excited. Even a few years ago she would have been. But lately, the days leading up to the day only filled her with anxiety. “The usual,” she said with a shrug. “Which I always love.”
Her phone buzzed twice in her pocket – a text message. She ignored it.
The usual was driving a few hours to her grandparents’ house and spending the day with her family in Indiana. It wasn’t exactly a farm town, but calling it a city would have been generous. They weren’t hicks, but they weren’t haughty either. The town and that side of her family were wonderfully ordinary, so much so that Reagan actually did feel special, different, accomplished.
Of course, that probably had less to do with the town and more with the fact that she felt loved, if not necessarily understood there. Not that she’d ever felt understood, so she could shake that one off pretty easily.
“Nice,” Arria said approvingly. “You’ve got to give Grams a hug for me, and tell her that in all my world travels I still have yet to find a pumpkin pie recipe to match hers. She’s going to have to share someday.”
Reagan nodded, this time her cheeks coloring with pride for her grandma’s accomplishments in a way that she never could find for her own. “Will do. What about you? What are your plans this year?”
Arria sat on the edge of her stool, holding up one finger in a way that said Hold on just a sec as she took another drink. When she was ready to talk, her eyes were sparkling. “If you can believe it, David Rosenberg has decided that this will finally be the year that he introduces his black Shiksa girlfriend to his Orthodox grandmother.”
“Wow,” Reagan said, impressed. “Congratulations. What brought that on?”
“Well for you to really get the whole story, I’ve got to rewind back to July.” And so Arria launched into a longwinded story, but Reagan didn’t mind because it was so clearly important to her. Despite her incredible ability to play it cool, this was something Arria had desperately wanted for so long. So Reagan, while unable to follow all of the particular intricacies of the plot, listened, adding in the occasional “No!” or “Seriously?” or “You’re kidding!” in all the right places. She continued ignoring the persistent vibrating of her phone so she could focus, only catching up at the end when the long and the short of it was that Arria would be flying to New Jersey in a few days with her longtime boyfriend for the holiday weekend, not only ready to make this leap, but excited to.
It was a feeling Reagan turned over and over in her head and her heart. She thought about it on her train ride back out to the suburbs and the drive from there to her apartment which was small and simple and most importantly hers. As she lay in bed, warm beneath her flannel sheets, the thought floated in the air along with the lingering smell of vanilla and wax and smoke from the candle that she had burned earlier.
Could she ever be like that, find a dream and believe enough in it and herself to make it come true? Could she ever live in the present and be bold instead of always being closed off and cautious? Could she find a way to protect her heart that was always getting battered and bruised from its place on her sleeve? Could she shake this feeling of doubt that had settled over her during adolescence and finally start feeling like the grownup she technically, legally, age-wise was? Could she ever break out from this holding pattern her life had become? She had a lifetime of evidence that she was only ever good enough to be considered slightly above average. It’s not that life was bad and it’s not like she was a failure, but it wasn’t… she wasn’t…
She couldn’t find the right word to match the feeling.
And so, Reagan’s final thought to cross her mind before sleep swept over her on the Sunday before Thanksgiving was a small, sad, silent whisper: I’m not so sure I could.
Time flowed inconsistently over the next few days, like the ocean tide coming in an out depending on the will of the moon high above. Everyone was experiencing a lot of feelings about the upcoming days off. Most were happy about the break from work, about the opportunity to get away from the school for a little while. Some were happy that Christmas music would finally be able to be played freely and without judgment from Scrooges that it was “too early” for that sort of thing.
Still, others’ emotions were less cheerful. To plenty, the holidays were a time of stress, of unwanted family time and traveling far distances in awful weather and for what? To eat turkey around a table with people who maybe shared your DNA but not much else?
And all the while, there was Reagan, coasting through Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday relatively unscathed with her focus on just needing to make it to Thursday morning fierce, a force to be reckoned with.
At least, that’s how it felt to her. To anyone else, she probably seemed the same. Quiet, but kind. Diligent in her work, but still somehow distant. It was all fine, all good enough.
Sometimes Reagan joked that she should have pursued a career in the theatre arts rather than visual arts because that’s what teaching was – playing a part day in and day out. Of course, the joke was only in her own head and she’d rather die than be on a stage and she wasn’t just acting in school. She was acting all the time. She played the part of Reagan well, or at least well enough for no one to notice the ever present sadness in her eyes.
She was always quick to forgive, though, especially her students, and especially the day before a holiday and a long weekend. They were wrapped up in their own worlds, and rightfully so. It made sense that as children their worlds were small. It was an excuse Reagan couldn’t hide behind anymore. She was old enough to know better, that the world was big and vast and strange and wonderful.
And terrifying for a person whom the world had told over and over again by circumstances and second place ribbons that she was nothing special. Occasionally an honorable mention, but rarely much more. It’s why she made sure to tell the students that she got to borrow from the “real teachers” day in and day out that they were special.
Maybe it was a lie, but it felt true. She wanted it to be.
“Have a great weekend!” she called out when the final bell rang, sending the herds of hormones stampeding into the halls. There was less speed in her step than theirs, but just as much spring. She’d made it through the whole day, through the unbearably long three-day week. Successfully avoiding the ghosts of her past was a lot harder than most people would have thought for a person like her. How many could there be?
Plenty, she’d reply if anyone ever bothered to ask, ignoring another incoming text in her purse.
The secretary in the front office had a demeanor like her hair – bright and frazzled, and but friendly. “Another week done, Reagan! I swear, these kids are even more wound up now then they were back in your days here!”
“Absolutely, Mrs. Walters. Have a nice holiday.”
“You too, dear. And bundle up! That snow has been blowing around something fierce all afternoon.”
She hiked her messenger bag up on her shoulder (a sale bin find, faded from eight years of daily use, a hole wearing in the side from where it rubbed against her leg) and wrapped her scarf around her neck. “Yes, ma’am. Goodnight.”
“Oh. My. Gosh. Reagan? Is that you?”
She spun on her heel and found herself face to face with a ghost, only to everyone else she probably looked like a ray of sunshine, especially now that all the color drained from Reagan’s face and panic rose in her eyes.
“Katie,” she said simply. Her tone was polite, if not necessarily warm. Still she followed Katie’s lead and did the obligatory hug. “Hi. Wow, it’s been a long time.”
“I know! What’s it been? Six years? Sophomore year of college or something?”
“At least that,” Reagan agreed. “What brings you here?”
“Oh I’m just home for the holiday. Told my mom I’d come pick up my little sister as a surprise. I haven’t seen her since Jason and I got engaged so she’s been wanting to see the ring in person.” She tucked her golden strands behind her ear with her left hand even though her hair was perfectly in place. Katie’s diamond ring and her eyes were both sparkling, an impressive feat under the unforgiving florescents.
Jealousy pinched Reagan in the pit of her stomach, but it left as soon as it came. “I saw online. Congratulations,” she said sincerely. “When’s the big day?”
“We’re thinking June. Not next year, but the year after.” Katie smiled sweetly. “It’s so good to run into you. I thought you were still in town, but wasn’t sure after all this time.”
“Yup, still here.”
“And you’re a teacher here now? Talk about a blast from the past.”
Reagan could feel heat having nothing to do with her thick scarf creeping up her neck. “Subbing, actually.”
“Oh. Well, props to you. I’d never be able to do it.” Her smile was still there, but something about it flickered. Instead of genuine, it now looked a little pinched, slightly strained, genuinely sympathetic. Katie was one of the people who got out, moved out, moved on the way that people are supposed to. The way Reagan tried to, too, with this foot-in-the-door job she got all those years ago and was still waiting for it to finally be her turn. It was a fine just out of college situation, but now being closer to 30 than to 20, it only seemed sort of sad.
Reagan plastered on her own fake smile to match. “It pays the bills. And it’s a good opportunity.” How many times would she have to say it before it felt true again?
“That’s awesome. And hey now that I’ve got you I don’t have to send you a text later! A bunch of us are meeting up at Sully’s tonight. You should come!”
Once class president, always class president, Reagan thought. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Impose?” Katie laughed. “It’s Sully’s. It’s where everyone goes. Shelby told me she’s been trying to get a hold of you. And Rachel and Mark.”
“I meant to get back to them,” she lied. “It’s been a busy few days.”
“All the more reason to come out and have some fun! It’ll be like having our class reunion a few years early. It’ll be nice to catch up and talk about old times.”
There was only one way for this conversation to end, and Reagan knew it. “I’ll think about it, I promise,” she conceded.
Even though she’d only said what she did so she could get out of work and on her way, no one was more surprised than Reagan when she actually found herself thinking about it. Could she finally let go of all her baggage that had been piling up on her for so long? Wasn’t there some truth to the idea of fake it ‘til you make it?
And who knows? Maybe she was different now.
She thought about it while she folded her laundry alone and while she ate dinner alone and while she changed into a nicer sweater and her favorite boots and tried with her hair and touched up her makeup. She thought about it as her feet took her on autopilot to her car and she drove to Sully’s, the bar that people were always talking about but she hadn’t been to since college. The last time she was there was probably a night a lot like this one, in town on a school break for a holiday, looking to reconnect with friends and compare notes about how they were all moving forward.
Except it wasn’t quite all, not quite everyone. It was then that Reagan started to realize that while other people’s lives were starting, she’d somehow fallen behind. All those times when she’d been first runner up or second best had finally added up. She’d plateaued. This was it, this was as good as it was going to get.
Good enough, but not great.
Those old fears about her future were walking past her. They dashed across the crowded parking lot, bundled up in winter coats as they laughed and hugged and didn’t seem bothered by the wind or the snow or the frigid temperatures and weight of the past. The sounds of music and conversations pulsed through the building, bright colors visible even through the ice-covered windows, and it all turned up every time the door swung open.
These four walls and a roof had more of a social life, more of a personality than Reagan. It had a history, a story worth telling, even though, like her, its whole existence was in this one town.
So she did the one thing that a building couldn’t: she left.
The roads weren’t bad, but still she minded her speed. Her eyes were on the road but her thoughts were a million miles away. For the first time in a very long while, she willingly looked into her past, those high school and college years and memories of this town and searched for something, some place good. Something better than just good enough.
Her memories and her car took her to the next town over. Her time as a perpetual rule-follower came to a close as she ignored the sign declaring that the forest preserve was closed after dark. She parked in a spot in the far corner of the first lot she came to, pulled her hat down over her for-once carefully done hair, and ventured out into the cold.
She followed the wide path up the hill, the slight burn and working of her muscles a welcome contrast to the frigid temperatures. How was it that it technically wasn’t even winter yet? How was it that she let the mere existence of other people get to her?
How was it that she could have forgotten this place?
The sky was clear and a deep blue that made the stars feel even brighter, like they finally had room to stretch and shine. There were less trees here than down below by the parking lot, giving the sense like the sky had grown during her hike and when she had been too focused on looking down, minding her feet, avoiding eye-contact with the greater universe.
Because of the particular placement of the tree line, it appeared from here that the only man-made object in the world was the snow covered wooden bench sitting directly in the center of the hilltop. The site of countless evenings watching sunsets – sometimes with friends, sometimes with boyfriends, sometimes alone – it was the first time Reagan had ever come here when the weather was anything less than lovely, or at least below freezing.
But this was lovely in its own way. She cleared off the bench with a mitten-clad hand before sitting down under the blanket of stars. It was the exact opposite of being at work or what she assumed it would be like had she ventured into Sully’s, being surrounded by people and still being lonely.
Here she was all alone but didn’t feel lonely at all. Here, where there were no other distractions, no other people to compare herself to, no other lives she was measuring hers against, she finally felt like enough.
Until she heard the snap of a twig.
Her head spun in a flash towards the direction of the noise encroaching on her perfect silence. Anger simmered behind her eyes. “Who’s there?”
“I could ask you the same question. You’re in my secret spot.”
“Your secret spot? Get in line, buddy.” Her snarky response was far from typical Reagan, but she was okay with that. She wasn’t so fond of typical Reagan these days anyway.
The man smiled, but it wasn’t until he came closer that Reagan could make out his face in the moonlight. It took a moment before she realized who it was. He was ten years older than the last time she’d seen him. His face was a little trimmer, shoulders a little broader, and there were some crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes which were new, but those eyes were the same. Those midnight eyes and bright smile and dark hair that was a little on the longer side, but never sloppy.
Never Daniel Chang.
“Dan.” His name fell from her lips, wrapped in her warm breath that puffed in the freezing air. She stood up and fidgeted with her mittens as he came to the space beside her. “What’re you doing here?”
“Like I said, secret spot.” Before she could protest or over-think it, he wrapped her in a hug, short but strong. Even through their layers of coats and scarves, the scent of him filled her nose, all mint and soap and laundry detergent. “Though I guess it’s not much of a secret if it’s in a public park, is it?”
“Well I’ve never told anyone about it either, if that’s what you mean.”
“I’m surprised we never ran into each other before.”
Reagan shrugged and looked out at the horizon. “I didn’t start coming here until senior year, so you were gone by then.”
Dan nodded, her timeline making sense with his own. “I can promise you there’s nothing like this in LA.”
“What?” she laughed, taking a seat. “Nothing so boring out there?”
He shook his head, his lips still curved in a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “This isn’t boring. It’s simple. It’s refreshing. It’s not pretending to be something it’s not.” He sighed and looked at her as he took a seat. “So how’ve you been?”
“Good,” and in that moment, she meant it. It’s not that she and Daniel Chang had been friends in high school. They hadn’t. They weren’t much more than friendly acquaintances, two people who had spent a lot of time in art classes together, but didn’t really cross paths outside the sanctuary of the studio rooms. Like this spot, Dan was one of those wonderful things she couldn’t believe she’d almost forgotten. “You?”
He shrugged. “Good. You home for Thanksgiving?”
“I’m home all the time. I still live here. I’m a sub at Jefferson.”
“Seriously?” Unlike Katie this afternoon, Dan sounded impressed. “Wow. That’s cool.”
“Not really, but thanks. It’s good enough for now.”
“Hey, now.” He leaned into her, giving a playful nudge with his elbow. “Maybe it’s not the ideal situation, but that really is cool that you stayed. And I bet your students love you.”
“They’re not really mine-mine.”
“But they love you.”
“I don’t know about that. I don’t think they hate me, which I’ll take as a win.”
“Well then, congratulations. That’s definitely something worth celebrating, especially in a middle school.” That drew a laugh from Reagan.
“Thanks. And congratulations to you and that film you worked on being nominated for an Oscar. Talk about impressive.” He started to brush it off, but Reagan returned his nudge with one of her own. “Don’t pretend it’s not!”
“It is, it is!” He shrugged anyway. “But that was a lot of people putting in a lot of work for a very long time.”
“It’s work you can be proud of.” He winced, but she persisted. “It is.”
He turned to her, scooting a little closer as he moved. “Okay, now I know you must be an awesome teacher.”
“Sub,” she interrupted, but he shook his head.
“Teacher. And you’re a good person, always were. You must be a better person than a lot of us to stay here.”
She scoffed. “Yeah, I’m so good at life that I got stuck here.”
“You feel stuck?” he asked, eyebrow raised.
She swung her feet back and forth beneath the bench, dropping her head to watch them make divots and circles in the snow below.
“I’ve never been a standout or whatever, but when I got to college I thought I’d be able to make up for it. I worked hard. I even love working hard, but that stopped mattering to other people along the way. So I came back here and it was only supposed to be temporary but then it turns out I’m still only okay. Meanwhile everyone else is off getting married and having kids and being nominated for major awards… “ She shot him a look of faux-annoyance at his well deserved accolades. “And where am I? Still in middle school.”
They sat in silence for a while, her confession settling over them along with fresh flakes from the clouds. The wind stopped at some point during her speech, leaving an incredible stillness. Finally, finally the world stopped long enough to listen to her.
“I think,” Dan started, clasping his gloved hands in his lap, “that we’re actually all still in middle school. And I stand by what I said before. You staying here was brave, and it’s what makes you a great teacher for those kids. This place is complicated. I remember high school. I remember sometimes a full week could pass in the studio and I wouldn’t hear you speak to anybody.”
He looked at her and she fought the instinct to turn away or hide her face. “It wasn’t easy for you back then, was it? Or coming back?” She shook her head. “That’s why you’re brave. You did it anyway. Meanwhile most of us who you think are successful because we left were really just terrified so we ran away.”
“What did you have to be scared of?”
“Letting everyone down. Part of me felt horrible about going to California for school and even though it’s brought me great opportunities, I think I’m always going to feel a little guilty about my choice and how it hurt people. Everyone else had a plan for me. They were okay with the art electives, but only as long as I knew where my priorities were, that I was going to go to med school. So I ran away to a place where I could be selfish and far away from their disappointment, but it followed me anyway.”
He sighed. “It wasn’t until the nomination that we really started talking again, that I think I gave them something to be proud of. I’d disappointed them. It’s like when I was a little kid and I’d done something wrong. I’d hide and hope it would blow over, or at least that they’d blow off some steam first. This is my first trip home in almost three years.”
The conversation was the most that either of them had opened up about their fears to anyone else. The longer they sat, the less the cold bothered Reagan. Her nose was numb and her toes were stiff in her socks, but other than that she felt awake for the first time in a long while. She longed to keep this connection going, to know she wasn’t just imagining it, that when she woke up tomorrow before the Macy’s Parade this wouldn’t be another moment lost.
So, being Reagan, she did a remarkably ordinary thing, something hardwired into small children that so many people forget the power of as they grow older. She reached over and held his hand, his gloved one in her mitten.
She gave a small squeeze. He gave one back.
“So we’re just a pair of imposters, aren’t we?”
“Probably,” he said. “But what exactly are you referring to?”
“We only look like grownups on the outside, but our instincts are stuck somewhere around fourteen years old. It’s like… I know I’m an adult. I pay bills and rent and insurance and spend all day long with kids. But then the bell rings and I feel just as lost as they do and overwhelmed and jealous and…”
“Like I’m not enough. Or only just good enough.”
Reagan could only gape at Dan and his choice of words. “Yeah.”
“I get it. Completely. People make a big deal about the movie, but honestly, I was just one guy on a team of hundreds whose name is lost in the credits at the end. And what about all those jobs I did before? They were good, too. So every day, I wonder… I think no matter what people do, no matter what others say about us, each of us inside is always wondering if we’re only ever just good enough.” He gave her hand another squeeze. “I know that you’re more than good enough.”
“I’ve always thought you were more than good enough, too.”
Dan stood up, tugging Reagan to follow but she stayed seated. “So what now? Think you could handle going over to Sully’s with me? We could get a drink, warm up, catch up, see all the people from back then who are probably just as messed up as we are?
Reagan didn’t answer right away. She took a deep breath, the brisk air making her tingle from the inside out. Above the stars twinkled and down here on here on earth, if she squinted she could make out the faint glow of headlights and break lights on the interstate not all that far away, full of cars packed full of families of all makes and sizes just trying to get to Thanksgiving like she was all week.
She savored the moment, this feeling of fullness and being okay with herself, with being here. It was a remarkable sensation to accept her life as it is, a calm and warm peace wrapping around and within her. Meanwhile, old dreams of people and places awoke in her heart, stretching and dusting themselves off, ready to believe in something again.
Could she handle it? “You know what? I’m sure I could.”