According to the clock on Janet’s new Fitbit, Seymour Reynolds (male, fifty-four years old, software engineer) was now seventeen minutes late. Janet tried to be patient, but her server was growing increasingly needy, asking every other minute whether she wanted an appetizer. Breadsticks, maybe? Or a cup of soup? He kept pouring her iced tea to the brim so that she had to take tremendous care drinking the first sip. As she drank, she tried to make eye contact with the server, as if to tell him, Do you see what you make me do? Slurp this tea like a hummingbird? Eventually she tipped her glass so that the tea spilled everywhere (except on her new outfit) and the server had to deliver a new tablecloth, new silverware, a new glass of tea. He smiled nervously, said he was so sorry, that he would bring her a free plate of mozzarella sticks. Janet, who felt guilty but not that guilty, patted him on the back and said, “If it'll make you feel better, I won't say no.”
By the time the mozzarella sticks arrived, Seymour was twenty-six minutes late. Because of all the tea, Janet had to use the ladies’ room. She was conflicted about going, lest Seymour finally show up and assume she had left, but she didn’t have a choice. Over the past decade, her bladder had continued to shrink so that sometimes, when she sneezed, a little bit of wet came out. Such is life, her ex-husband Adam would have said. You suffer, you love, you pee, you die.
The bathroom was clean enough, the walls painted seashell pink. A smell of potpourri, lemon cleaner, bleach. She was on the toilet, admiring the little silver purse hook on the door, how it looked like a googly-eyed octopus with outstretched, accepting arms, when she noticed something on the ground. At first, she mistook it for a mosaic tile, so shiny and lustrous was its exterior. But as she sat there, Spanx around her ankles, she saw it was too round, too smooth at the edges. Could it be? It was. A Chiclet.
In her old life, she would have left the Chiclet alone—You'll get a disease, Janet!—but this was her new life, and in her new life, she said yes. Yes to acupuncture, yes to happy hour with her coworkers (however dull and provincial they might be), yes to the online dating site Plenty of Fish (where she met Seymour, whose emails were dry but had meticulous grammar), yes to coconut water and bacteria-rich yogurt that was supposed to help with her gut flora, whatever that was (she pictured a bouquet of white flowers blooming in the dark recesses of her bowels). Saying yes to the Chiclet meant picking it up, inspecting it, squeezing it between her fingers. On a teabag label she had once read the quote: If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere—Vincent Van Gogh. Certainly, Van Gogh didn’t intend for everywhere to include the restroom of a middling steakhouse in Wichita, Kansas—but this, she reminded herself, was the type of negative thinking her therapist, Cindy Lee, had warned her about. The difference between a weed and a flower, said Cindy Lee, is a judgement. Or had that been a teabag, too?
How many years had it been since she’d eaten a Chiclet? Twenty? Thirty? She was rapidly approaching fifty, the age when her own mother had dyed her hair purple and purchased a motorcycle she was too terrified to actually ride, and still, Janet could remember the taste and texture of the beloved childhood gum. Sweet, a little gritty, far from enough gum to satisfy, like eating a single kernel of corn or drinking a teaspoon of merlot. You had to get a handful of the things to really get what you needed. It was a scam, but who cared? Nobody. Because it wasn’t about the content of the gum so much as the name, the idea, the packaging. Chiclet. It was a fun gum, for fun people. Even saying it a few times—Chiclet, Chiclet, Chiclet—was like shaking a maraca. How cute they were, too. Like edible confetti. Or a beanbag meant for a mouse. One could not, Janet decided, be unhappy while eating a Chiclet.
Thinking it might impart luck, she found herself exiting the restroom with the Chiclet still in hand. Only once she was in eyeshot of the other happy diners did she wonder if this was what Cindy Lee referred to as an unconventional superstition. Pretending to bend over and adjust the strap of her boot, she deposited the Chiclet on the ground near a potted plant, making sure she could see it from where the pug-nosed hostess had seated her. Don’t worry, she told the Chiclet, I’ll be right over here.
Of course, Seymour had still not arrived. Perhaps he’d been in a car accident or had been mugged or murdered. More likely, he’d run into an attractive woman on the way to the restaurant and had fallen immediately and madly in love with her in a way he never would have with Janet. He and the woman would live happily ever after. Years from now, Janet would see them in a park, gazing deeply into one another’s eyes as someone released a dozen red balloons in the background. This had always been her luck.
Meanwhile, the Chiclet watched her from its position by the restrooms, unmoving. Alone. It was supposed to be a festive candy but there, by itself, a fleck of color against the muted wood floor, it made Janet a little sad. What happened to such an object in the world? It would certainly end up in the trash. What then? Would it eventually disintegrate, or continue to harden until it attained the permanence of a rock? She could imagine its Chiclet brethren jumping around in their cardboard box. Hey, where’d Jerry go? a yellow Chiclet with a Boston accent would ask. Quietly, in the corner, a fair young green Chiclet would weep, for she and Jerry had been lovers.
Was there anything more depressing than a singular Chiclet?
Once, while she and Adam were still together, a singular tulip had blossomed in their yard among a sea of dandelions and dying grass. It had made her so lonely, that tulip. What a relief when Adam had plucked it and put it in a skinny glass vase so it could die alone, indoors, hanging its yellow head before them as they ate their Honey Bunches of Oats.
For a moment, Janet let herself imagine that the Chiclet had noticed her before she noticed it. My goodness, the Chiclet said, looking up from its place on the bathroom floor. Hubba, hubba. She put her hand on her chest, scandalized. Then, finding the Chiclet sort of handsome, she blushed. “If you’re going to stare, why not buy a girl a drink?” Had she ever said such a coquettish thing in real life? Of course not. But this was her mind, the only place in the world where she could truly be herself, where she could think all the fantastic and superstitious and mean-hearted things she cared to think and nobody could say a word.
She remembered the first time she discovered the beauty of her own mind. She was in kindergarten, on the school bus, when she found herself wondering what her teacher, Miss Maloney, looked like naked. She was suddenly overcome with terror, certain someone would overhear such a time-out-worthy thought—she was sitting in the middle of the bus, after all, in earshot of all her peers, the bus driver, and Miss Maloney herself. But a moment passed, and then another, and nothing happened. Nobody even looked at her. It was then she realized, with a tingling, top-of-the-world sensation, that her thoughts were her own, an impenetrable fortress where she could paint as many nasty pictures as she wanted and nobody would ever know. A magnificent discovery. Immediately, she thought of boobies, then vaginas, then the dark tangle of hair she’d seen the time she walked in on her father getting out of the shower. Locking eyes on Miss Maloney, she imagined a tower of rotting dog doo reaching up and poking the sun on its hot, warty chin. You’ll never know that I’m using my outdoor voice in here!! she shouted in her head, as loud as her head-voice would go. You’ll never know that I’m shouting: crap, farts, pee!! Could she have known that these fantasies would follow her into adulthood, all the way to a steakhouse with three dollar signs on Yelp where she would imagine a mustachioed piece of bubblegum waltzing her around a great white ballroom, lifting her off her feet, his suit made of fine Italian silk? At the periphery, cameras flashed: the paparazzi.
She was still daydreaming when who should enter the restaurant but Adam and his second wife, Claudette. Janet so badly wanted to hate Claudette. She was your typical midwestern shiksa: pretty, Scots-Irish, skinny in the arms but plump in the chest. She was the kind of woman whose skin, if you pressed a finger to it, would produce a bright white splotch before quickly fading to its default strawberry color. Despite everything, Janet couldn’t help but admire Claudette, who was a social worker and once donated bone marrow to her dying sister. In lieu of hatred, Janet felt something approaching kinship; they were the only two women in the world who could claim the experience of being married to Adam.
Tonight, Claudette wore practical leather shoes and a ruby necklace that Adam had likely given her. He was a great gift giver, Adam, something Janet missed terribly, along with his voice (buoyant and happy, like a red balloon), his smell (Gold Bond baby powder and Aqua Velva aftershave), the way he would laugh at his own jokes for longer than appropriate (a habit that, at one point, had exasperated and embarrassed her). He was a naturally jolly person and, in the end, it was Janet’s perpetual cynicism that wore him down. “I can’t do it anymore,” he’d told her the day he asked her for a divorce in the parking lot of a Bed Bath & Beyond where she’d unintentionally made a young sales associate cry. “I am a firefly and you are my jar.”
Janet had rolled her eyes and told him that, if he was going to end their marriage with a metaphor, it needed to be less melodramatic.
“Do you see?” he had said, eyes watering. “Do you see how you diminish my light?”
In that moment she was sick of him, but not as much as she was sick of herself. After the divorce, when she found out about Claudette, she ordered a book called How to Be Kind to Others. Only when it arrived in the mail did she realize it was a book for children.
Now, with Adam and Claudette in the restaurant, she worried even more acutely that Seymour of Plenty of Fish would not be handsome. In his pictures, he was only slightly cute, and Janet suspected the pictures he’d posted were outdated. In one, she could make out a fully operational Blockbuster Video in the background.
“Who cares if he’s ugly?” said the Chiclet. “Maybe he’s nice. And besides, you’re better than this negative thought cycle. You’re a new Janet. You donate to the Sierra Club now. You do reformer Pilates. You foster diabetic cats.”
Maybe the Chiclet was right. Recently, she had tried to expand herself outside of work (she was a budget analyst for the city of Wichita) in ways that made her feel good about herself and the space she took up in the world. In addition to yoga and meditation, Cindy Lee had suggested a makeover, and so Janet had pulled a thousand dollars from her savings account and spent an entire afternoon at Bradley Fair, trying to create in each dressing room a version of herself she didn’t completely despise. On this night, she wore a gray maxi dress from Talbot’s, black suede ankle booties, and a pearl bracelet Adam had gifted her on their last anniversary (she’d refused to wear it when they were still together, claiming that pearls disturbed her. “They’re little clam scabs,” she’d told him. Only in hindsight did she see all one million ways she’d been cruel to him). When Janet asked her seventeen-year-old daughter Vanessa what she thought of the ensemble, Vanessa had replied, wincingly, “You look pretty…but also like you’re trying kind of hard?” At first, Janet felt insulted, but after further consideration she decided that trying hard simply meant that she had not given up at the age of forty-nine. Who cared if it looked like she was trying? She was trying. All that mattered was the first part: she looked pretty. This is what the Chiclet meant: she was a new Janet, a Janet who cared about herself. She had hutzpah, and confidence. Nevertheless, she was persisting. And that was more than Adam could say for himself, wasn’t it? Since marrying Claudette, he’d let his beer belly grow unchecked so that it now hung unapologetically over his leather belt. His turkey wattle had grown increasingly wattley. He was two years younger than Janet but looked a decade older. Who cared if her date turned out to be a schlub?
From the hostess stand, Claudette spotted Janet and waved excitedly, then poked Adam to alert him of Janet’s presence. Adam raised his eyebrows and smiled, offered a quick wave. Janet took a deep breath and prepared for their invasion.
“What a small world!” Claudette sang, coming over with a show-tune sway to her gait. She always spoke as if singing and walked as if dancing.
“More like a small town,” Janet said, loathing Wichita more than ever. What was the point of living in a city if you were forced to run into the same people, village-style, over and over again?