Paula would bring her Capri-style, ultrathin Eclipse smokeless cigarettes into Dr. Benjamin's waiting room. She elected to do this even though the sign at the entrance read NO "SMOKING," the quotation marks around the SMOKING obviously meant to incorporate less widely practiced versions of the art. She clacked her name onto the sign-in clipboard with a moribund ballpoint pen, the same one, she liked to imagine, that had been tethered to this desk since her first visit six months prior. Its shaft was a cordial, uncommunicative blue.
There was something electric about waiting rooms, Paula knew. She remembered most vividly the antechamber to her childhood dentist's office, a room unreasonably mod even for the sixties, where a low-slung coffee table tendered its dour arrangement of complimentary cigarettes. She could cite this memory when justifying to the receptionist, who seemed to be eyeing her suspiciously already, the decision to smoke an Eclipse while she waited. Or she could just say she's the customer, which means she can do what the fuck all she wants.
Paula retreated to an armless wing chair and considered more rejoinders to the smoking accusation as she attempted to read People magazine. Women who played mothers on cable television read People, and Paula was working through a resolution to be more like a cable mom and less like an HBO mom. "HBO moms end up dead or addicted," her mother had told her at Christmas.
People featured an article about Sarah Michelle Gellar's workout regime. It was mostly pictures, Paula discovered, of the star in various strenuous-looking poses with a muscular black man standing at the periphery. A numbered list of "fat-slayer" moves accompanied, in a bulleted column on the left. Feel the Heat With Sarah This Bikini Season.
Paula hadn't been to the gym since Jessie was a little girl, and the guilt she'd initially felt about it had long since subsided. So many of her colleagues, the Tiffany-spackled surgeons' wives with mountains of frosted, implacable hair, exercised religiously before dawn. They talked about the workouts at least as often as they partook of them, a self-indulgent, upright game of kiss-and-tell Paula found unseemly. She ate a doughnut every morning to spite these women, in the teachers' lounge in front of all of them if she could. Her body was never the problem, anyway.
Paula smiled. "Is that an actor?"
Dr. Benjamin frowned.
"He's kind of like a philosopher."
"I got my master's in design."
Dr. Benjamin—first name Erik with a k—had a nautical-looking bumper sticker affixed to his desk that read, "Are there oysters in heaven?" The implication that he might pass up an eternity in God's garden to remain earth-bound and eating mollusks with rocks for shells didn't bode well for his ability to advise Paula on her mental wellbeing. But her friend Carolyn—her one friend Carolyn—swore that this tiny, beetle-browed man had once through the prowess of his empathy rescued her from being this close to suicide, and anyway he was purportedly single.
Paula, these days, was purportedly not. She met a muscle-bound podiatrist named David at one of the stupid happy hours the fifth grade team pressured her into attending during the spring. The bar was called Checkers, and karaoke was happening. When the small knot of teachers, a few of them wine-drunk from their dinner at Carrabbas, bustled through the swinging saloon doors, a man in a constricting linen aloha shirt stood onstage. He carried a mason jar of beer. His sideburns, which were shaped like bell bottoms, crested down from a ridge of gel-crunched hair. He was in the process of butchering "Roxanne."
"Go talk to him," the ladies said to Paula, as they always did when they spotted someone under fifty without a woman immediately attached.
Paula did not—at least not until she'd had four mojitos and found him smoking by a Lexus outside. "You did interesting things in there," she said. "With the song."
"Is someone driving you home?" said David. It was only weeks later, after they'd been to dinner twice and had a weekend's bout of unremarkable sex, that Paula realized these words were probably not in fact a pick-up line, but an expression of concern for a woman well beyond her limits. Which was fine—she'd gotten the ride either way.
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
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Mallory Hellman received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a BA in English and American Literature from Harvard. Her nonfiction has appeared on the Forbes Booked Blog and in the Indiana Review, and her short story "October, Forest River" was a finalist for the Room Of Her Own Foundation's Orlando Prize. She has taught writing courses at Indiana University, the University of Iowa, the Duke Talent Identification Program, and elementary and secondary schools throughout Eastern Iowa. She's currently at work on a novel.
FIX, a chapter from Mallory's forthcoming novel, will be presented on the Daily Palette in three parts. Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part 2!
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