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?
“You look lovely, Janet,” Adam said. “Are you waiting for someone?”
No, I’m here to eat steak by my lonesome, she wanted to say. “Yes, I’m meeting a friend.”
“Don’t worry what they think of you,” said the Chiclet from across the restaurant. “They are just people in your life, but you have more people coming. Your life is expanding. Your life is whatever you make it. You are infinite.”
“What are you looking at?” Claudette asked, glancing toward the bathroom.
“Oh, nothing—I’ve just been daydreaming.”
“Daydreaming,” Adam said. “I forgot how you do that.” Then, to Claudette, “We used to joke that she lived on planet Janet.”
Janet smiled, uncertain how to feel. Was it good to daydream? Was it normal to take advice from a piece of novelty chewing gum?
“You enjoy your dinner, Janet,” Claudette said, winking. “We’ll say bye before we leave.”
With dread, Janet watched as they claimed a table in direct eyeshot of her own. She knew, then, that Seymour would be a loud, nasally beast with a sweaty brow and nostrils so big they could house a pair of billiard balls. Maybe he would be ignorant, or plain stupid, or rude. Whatever he was, Adam and Claudette would have first-row tickets.
“You seem to be intentionally excluding the possibility that Seymour will be wonderful,” said the Chiclet. “What if he’s more handsome than his picture? What if he’s hilarious? Or brilliant? Or full of positive energy? What if he’s fabulously wealthy and invites you to tour his private zoo, to ride upon the back of his very own personal tiger? What if that Blockbuster Video was his Blockbuster Video? Or—get this—what if he’s exactly as ordinary as you are and is simply looking for somebody to love? Huh, Janet? What if?”
She appreciated the gum’s optimism, but this was simply not the way things went for her. Since splitting with Adam, her life had been a series of minor failures and depressive episodes. She recalled the teary months after the divorce, when Vanessa had gone to spend the summer with her father. (This was the arrangement: school days with Mom, summer breaks and alternate weekends with Dad—an objectively unfair trade off. While Janet dealt with report cards and sex talks and shopping for prom dresses—the horrors of puberty—Adam spoiled Vanessa with trips to Florida to watch baby turtles emerge from their eggs.) That first summer after the divorce, sans Vanessa or Adam, she had booked a month-long trip to Italy, thinking she would distract herself with walking tours and giant plates of pasta and seaside bottles of wine, but on the morning of her trans-Atlantic flight she woke with a cramp in her side. She imagined her appendix bursting on the plane, the emergency landing ruining the vacations of everyone else on board. She could imagine the handsome pilot rolling his eyes, whispering to a flight attendant: Why did she even get on the plane if she had a cramp? In the end, it was only gas, but she remained in bed, worrying the situation, until her flight’s departure time came and passed.
But here, thirty-four minutes late, was Seymour. Yes, he was maybe 5’6’’ rather than the 5’9’’ advertised in his profile, and there was, as she feared, sweat on his brow, and under his arms, and in the little space where his belly button lived, but he had a nice face—kind eyes, a strong chin—and when he saw her, he smiled, revealing a set of extremely normal teeth. She thought of Adam’s incisor, how it can-canned out in front of his front tooth. Take that, incisor! she thought.
“No need to be cruel,” said the Chiclet. And then, quoting from the children’s book, “Remember your kindness.”
“You’ve read that book, too?” she asked.
“All of us Chiclets have read it,” said the Chiclet. “It’s part of the Chiclet way.”
As Seymour approached the table, she noticed he walked kind of funny. Maybe a knee surgery? Or bad hips? She glanced over at Adam and Claudette, to see if they were watching, but they were both engrossed in the menu.
“Don’t ask him about the limp,” said the Chiclet. “For now? Ignore it. Let it go.”
As soon as Seymour sat down at the table, his hands visibly shaking, he launched into an apology for being so late. “Thank you for waiting. My car wouldn’t start—”
“Did you injure yourself recently?” Janet interrupted. “You seem to be limping.”
She could hear the Chiclet facepalm.
“Oh,” Seymour said, his cheeks turning pink. “I was born with one leg longer than the other—they could have done surgery when I was a kid, but my parents didn't have the money. It’s so nice to finally meet you, by the way.” He stuck out one of his hairy hands and she took it. His palm was warm and doughy, but he had a strong grip. She liked that.
“You’re even more beautiful than your pictures,” he said.
“Oh, no need for lies this early on.”
The Chiclet shouted, “JANET!”
“I mean, thank you,” she corrected. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
She ordered clam chowder and a Caesar salad with chicken and he ordered ribs with a side of mashed potatoes. As they ate, she willed him to make a joke so funny that she would laugh out loud and all the heads in the restaurant would turn to look, to see what kind of remarkable man had made a woman laugh in such a way. But he merely droned on, describing his childhood in Iowa and then talking about his son, a freshman at Kansas State who suffered from social anxiety and dyslexia. “He wants to move back home, but that’s where I lay down the line. You let them in and then they never leave. No, sir. I know how that movie ends.”
Janet understood he was telling her this as a sort of code, so she would know he possessed a house, empty of children, in which they could make love openly, on the living room couch or even the kitchen table if they wanted, though kitchen sex, Janet knew, was the kind of thing people were always doing in movies but never actually did in real life. She disliked people who couldn’t tell the difference between what was usual in life and what was usual in the media. She ascribed this brand of lazy thinking to Seymour, though had he even mentioned kitchen sex? Wasn’t she the one who’d brought it up in her mind? Regardless, at this particular moment, she didn’t want him to be sexy, she wanted him to be funny, like Adam was funny. She wanted him to make her laugh, to make iced tea shoot from her nose. But he kept on: the son was studying to become a veterinarian. He loved animals, had liked them ever since he was a little kid. Blah blah blah. The boy’s mother, may she rest in peace, had painted watercolor portraits of peoples’ pets for a living. Blah blah.
The only relief was that Adam had not yet looked over. Claudette had glanced, giving a tiny nonjudgmental wave, scrunching her nose as if to say, Isn’t this fun? Out of all the restaurants in Wichita!
Janet’s mind wandered to a time she and Adam saw a play in Kansas City. Adam had won the tickets on a radio contest—he was precisely the type of man to call into radio contests—and so they’d made a date of it, driving the three hours to Kansas City and splurging on a night at a Radisson with a hot tub and continental breakfast. The play was spectacularly awful, so boring that the elderly couple beside them had begun, in unison, to snore, and so, to liven things up, Adam began a game of the tickles. Janet quickly lost the game, snorting so loud that it woke the elderly couple from their slumber.
“Do you know any jokes?” she asked Seymour.
He raised his eyebrows. “I keep a few handy.”
“I’d love to hear one.” She adjusted in her seat, preparing for hilarity.
“Okay, how about this. Why did the farmer win a prize?”
“I don’t know,” she asked. “Why?”
“He was outstanding in his field.”
She blinked at him. “I’m sorry, could you say that a little louder?”
He cleared his throat, a guttural, mucous-heavy sound, and then locked his eyes on hers, as if pleading for her to please, for the love of God, just chuckle. “He was outstanding in his field!” Practically a scream. Flustered, he began to cough and then expectorated a large, wobbling mass of green-tinted phlegm onto his mashed potatoes. Quickly, as if Janet might not notice, he used his fork to bury the throat-booger inside the potatoes. He then patted his mouth with his napkin and looked up, as if something of extreme interest was on the ceiling. Just as Janet wanted, everyone in the restaurant had turned to look, including Adam, who squinted to examine Seymour, to see what Janet had gotten herself into. His squint turned into a pitying frown. Oh, it’s an internet date, the frown seemed to say. She’s put herself on one of those websites.
It was just about time for the Chiclet to interject with something wise, a snippet of advice to solve the entire evening, but there was only silence. When Janet looked, she discovered it was gone.
“Could you excuse me for a moment?” she asked, already rising from her chair.
Seymour said, “Of course.” His face was such a violent shade of red that Janet imagined his father as a life-sized tomato, complete with arms and legs and little brown stem where his hair should have been. His mother would be an ordinary human woman, a Plain Jane who found herself drawn in by the handsome garden vegetable next door.
On the way to the bathroom, leaving sweaty old Seymour behind, she scanned the ground, but saw nothing. Was it possible she had imagined the Chiclet? Or had someone come to clean him up?
In the bathroom mirror, she was distressed to find a sad, middle-aged woman wearing too much makeup, her eyes weary from watching a grown man hide his booger in a side dish. How had she gotten here? She recalled when she and Adam first met, how he would watch her try on outfits, saliva literally building at the corner of his mouth. When had that stopped? It occurred to her that maybe it hadn’t, that maybe she had just grown annoyed by his staring, his eagerness, the open toy box of his love. She tried to remember the first time she chose to change in the closet, with the door closed. She wondered if that singular decision, to hide her body from him, had caused everything else to decline. She washed her hands until they burned red, as if clean hands might create a fresh start with Seymour, might send the snot-rocket shooting back into his face, un-turn the heads of everyone in the restaurant.
Reentering the dining room, she paused to perform a visual scan. There was the Chiclet, thank God. Someone must have kicked it. She already had the Chiclet in her hand when someone tapped on her shoulder. “Janet?” asked a voice. It was Adam.
“Yes?” she asked, rising to meet him, the Chiclet in her fist. She could feel it kicking against her palm.
“Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I just noticed your friend left in a hurry—I thought maybe something happened. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“He left?” She looked over and saw that yes, Seymour was no longer at the table. “Oh,” she said.
“Are you okay? You look a little frazzled.”
“I’m fine. Everything is fine.”
“What’s that in your hand?”
“Is it an earring? I noticed earlier you were wearing very pretty earrings.”
“Oh, Janet,” said the Chiclet. “It’s been a bad night, hasn’t it? Seymour seemed nice, but you blew it. You let your ego get in the way. You failed. One little booger and you scared him off. And now here’s Adam, being kind to you. Wasn’t he always so nice? And you were so cruel to him. So needlessly mean. Have you learned anything, Janet? Have you?”
She opened her hand, as if to address the Chiclet, to tell him that yes, it had been a bad night, but his commentary was only making it worse. She’d suffered a humiliation—getting stood up in front of her ex-husband and his new wife—why should she suffer guilt, too? At least soon it would all be over. She could go home, pour herself a glass of wine and watch Queer Eye with Vanessa. She could fall asleep on the couch. She could never try to love again. Never try to make herself happy ever again.
“What if,” said the Chiclet, “instead of working to make yourself happy, you tried to make others happy? Plant kindness, gather love. Just an idea—a little thought. Take it or leave it.”
“Is that a Chiclet?” Adam was asking.
Janet looked at her palm where the Chiclet lay innocently sleeping, or rather pretending to be asleep. What did it know about happiness, anyway? It was just a piece of gum. “Yes,” she said. “It is.”
“I haven’t had one of those in years.”
An unkind idea filled her heart.
“Don’t do it, Janet,” said the Chiclet. “Don’t you dare.”
“Would you like it?” she asked.
Astoundingly, Adam reached out his hand. “I used to love these things,” he said, and then, before she could stop him, he popped the gum into his mouth. He had always been a lover of candies. When they were first married, Janet had hidden treats for him on his birthday. A Tootsie Pop in his loafer, a mini Snickers in the pocket of his jeans. Once, she had tucked a gift card to Barnes & Noble into his morning bagel sandwich. She could still recall the look on his face when he bit into the plastic, the way his confusion had so quickly transformed into glee. She hadn’t thought of this in years—how she’d taken pleasure in delighting him. There were other things, too. She would write love notes in the margins of whatever book he was reading. He was a great reader, Adam, something they’d always had in common. They would read together at night, their legs and elbows occasionally bumping. Sometimes, she would look over to find him ogling her. “What are you staring at?” she would ask.
“My everything,” he would say. “My Janet.”
Now they were practically strangers, and she had fed him garbage from the bathroom floor. She braced herself for whatever was to come—a cracked tooth, a taste so foul he would spit the candy straight into her face—but there was nothing. Her dear Adam merely chewed, an expression of nostalgic pleasure spreading from his lips to his bright, happy eyes. “Now that brings me back,” he said.
“Oh, thank you,” she said to the Chiclet, but the Chiclet could no longer hear her.
BECKY MANDELBAUM is the author of the novel The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals and the story collection Bad Kansas. She has received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2018 High Plains Book Award for First Book, and was a finalist for the DISQUIET Prize in Fiction, the Nelson Algren Award, and The Missouri Review Editor’s Prize. Her work has appeared in One Story, The Sun, The Georgia Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Originally from Kansas, she currently lives in Bellingham, Washington.