Litter Box

Janet blows the money she’s been saving to hire a lawyer on a plane ticket to London. There are many ways to rationalize the trip: London is where she and Tyler went for their honeymoon, eight years ago. This is where Sabina, her college roommate, lives. If there’s any place where Janet can get her head on straight, it’s London.

But the fact is, Janet has never been good at resisting short term gratification.

In a Psychology class in college, the professor described a study done on five- to seven-year-olds, evaluating impulse control. The kids were offered a Rice Krispie treat, but if they could resist eating it for fifteen minutes, they would get a second treat. The professor played the students a film of the test subjects being surveyed through a one-way mirror. One little girl with straight black hair sat on her hands, staring at the treat on its fluted paper plate as if it were suffused with a radioactive glow. Janet’s classmates laughed; even Sabina thought it was funny. But to Janet, the little girl’s distress was only distressing.

Almost immediately, London clarifies itself as a mistake. For one, how did Janet forget that London is one of the most expensive cities in the world? Sixth most, she Googles it. The Airbnb studio she’s rented is rectangular and tiny, with a high, narrow window that displays a pale wedge of cloudy sky. Everything in the studio is strangely proportioned, as if built for a boat: the bathroom, the shower, the miniscule stove. The shag carpet is sand-colored.

I feel like I’m in a litter box, she texts Tyler.

The three dots waver: someone is typing a message. Janet waits, but no text arrives.

Later she says the same thing to Sabina, when Sabina asks about her Airbnb. “I wish you could stay here,” Sabina told her on the phone when Janet first called to say she was coming to London, but never explained why she couldn’t stay there—and looking around Sabina’s house, Janet continues to feel mystified. Her living room is big and light, with shiny wood floors the color of honey, and it’s full of sharp-edged glass. The chandelier has shards of diamond-shaped glass dangling from it that look like a weapon a villain in a James Bond movie might hurl at one’s throat. On top of the enormous glass coffee table is a square glass plate full of Venetian glass candies. Janet visualizes stumbling into a piece of furniture, things smashing, a snowy cascade of shards.

Sabina and Janet go to the bar around the corner for a drink, a bar that looks like a living room, with blue velvet chairs and dark, expensive looking tables. “Your neighborhood is so posh,” says Janet, and Sabina wrinkles her perfect button of a nose.

“Only Americans say ‘posh.’”

Americans like you? Janet thinks, but stops herself from saying it—exerting, for once, impulse control. Does Sabina think because she’s married to some British guy she has transformed? Some old British guy, Janet thinks, some old, rich British guy.

“How’s Julian?”

“Okay,” Sabina waves her hand, which could mean anything. “I was just reading about the world’s oldest woman, she’s South African, she’s 128. She attributes her longevity to growing up eating wild spinach and fresh milk. If Julian lives that long, he’ll have only already lived half his life.” She laughs, and Janet studies Sabina. It’s been almost four years since Sabina last visited San Francisco. She’s as pretty as ever, with her milky skin and large, light blue eyes. Her hair is scraped back in a tight, very high ponytail that makes Janet think of a sexy astronaut.

“And how’s Cecily?”

“Cee. They’ve changed their name to Cee.” Another hand wave. “Well, at any rate, I’m going to call them ‘Cee’ until they settle on a name for more than a week. For a while it was ‘Caleb,’ then ‘Cal,’ and I just can’t keep up with the pronoun changes and name changes. Is this all over the States too? This whole generation switching up their gender, reinventing themselves?”

“I think so? I don’t really know. You’re my only friend with a thirteen-year-old. Most of my friends with children have kids younger than five.”

“You’ll see,” Sabina says, and then frowns, in a way Janet deciphers: Sabina must realize that Janet most likely won’t see, having left her husband at age thirty-eight. Of course, that’s part of why Janet left. After two failed in vitro attempts, she was walking down Clement Street, and thought suddenly, what was the point? Why be married to Tyler if they weren’t going to have a little girl named Coco? Why stay married if they would never have Taco Tuesdays, which Janet had visualized so clearly, all her little white bowls full of taco fixings, cheddar cheese she would grate herself, chopped tomatoes, fat slices of avocado, wedges of limes? The thought had the dangerous, sharp edge of those glass diamonds hanging from Sabina’s chandelier. Janet stopped walking to consider it, and realized only then how very angry, how truly full of rage, she was at Tyler for putting off trying to get pregnant for four years. What was the rush? They had so much time, let’s just enjoy being married for a while, he’d said. What reckless and stupid games people played with time.

“So how’s Tyler Fargo?” Sabina asks. She always calls Tyler by his first and last name both, as if his name is a joke. It bugs Janet, the sardonic, bitten-off way Sabina pronounces “Tyler Fargo.”

After a second beer, things dilute, like the night is a drink watered down with melting ice, and London feels less of a mistake. Sabina monologues. “France has food, but England has gardens. Now of course, food is better than gardens. But the gardens here are pretty extraordinary! Remember that walk you and I and Tyler Fargo took on your honeymoon, through Hyde Park? You must go there tomorrow! I’m working, I’m not free until night, but you should take a stroll there. Look for the hollyhocks, those are my favorites. They are so vertical and architectural. They look like flower ladders, or like a book shelf or china cabinet some sorceress turned into a flower.”

“I remember that picnic. We drank rosé and we lay on some old baby quilt of Cecily’s. Cee’s, I mean.” It had been their honeymoon, and Janet remembers feeling proud of Tyler, how Sabina seemed to like him—she raised her feathery eyebrows at Janet approvingly, and even flirted with him. “Pass me a baguette, Tyler Fargo,” she said. Tyler had not minded her calling him Tyler Fargo; he teased her about saying “brilliant.”

“So explain this to me,” Sabina says. “Are you really getting divorced? Is there another guy in the picture? I feel like there are moth-holes in this story.”

“Yes and no,” Janet says. “There is another man, but it’s just a dumb rebound. I don’t like him very much. He’s kind of mean.” She explains that she’d suspected this about Bill already, suspected but had not particularly cared, and then a week ago they were walking back to his apartment through a damp fog and she started reciting her favorite Yeats poem. Bill said, “Oh please! Those Modernists were all fascists.” Janet felt as though he’d slapped her; her face actually stung.

“But reciting poems is your party trick!” Sabina says, grabbing her hand.

“And what am I, without my party trick?” Janet laughs, they both laugh, but Sabina looks sad. Who would have thought at thirty-eight they would be so damn sad? No one seeing them at twenty-one, leaning against each other at some party, Sabina wearing her red suede jacket with the rosebud buttons and whispering in Janet’s ear—no one would have imagined that seventeen years later they would become this.

“Tyler is disorganized and messy, but kind, and I decided kindness was overrated. Now I’m thinking smart is overrated. If this Bill guy is even very smart—I might have just mistaken contempt for intelligence.”

“Is the sex good at least?”

“It’s like a complicated recipe that has too many steps and isn’t really worth the trouble.”

That makes Sabina laugh, and a beer later she describes her own sex life, which sounds terrifying. It involves both Viagra and something Julian ties around his penis to stiffen it.

“Like a penis tourniquet?” That makes them both howl, and then Sabina sits up straight and looks out the window, beaded with condensation. Janet watches her delicate profile, the curve of her nose. Sabina crosses her arms and rubs her shoulders, as if she’s cold.

“But you know, I’ve never been obsessed with cock,” Sabina says.

“Flexing that bisexuality!”

“Well, I am bisexual. It’s not a pose.”

Fifteen years ago, Sabina went to the London School of Economics for graduate school and never come back. She fell in love with Julian who, Janet had to concede, was pretty hot, for fifty. In her absence, Janet internalized Sabina’s critical eye and carried it with her. She thought, when she first met Tyler, that Sabina would be impressed with his sleeve tattoo that looked like iron filigree, even if she hated his man bun and beard. How ironic, that Janet was the one with the hip husband, while Sabina’s had silver, receding hair. She feels a flare of warmth for Sabina, her oldest friend, though that snuffs out an hour later when they stand outside Sabina’s house and Janet says, “Can I come in for a sec and use your bathroom?”

The pretty nose wrinkles again. “I’d rather not—last visit you clogged our toilet.” Janet laughs, thinking she is joking, but Sabina says, “The plumbing’s old and ridiculously finicky. Go back to the bar, the bathroom there is perfectly clean, and it’s just around the corner.” As Janet stands there, her face contorted in frozen mid-laugh, Sabina kisses her cheek in dismissal. “Call me tomorrow! And remember to walk through Hyde Park. Look for the hollyhocks!”

On the way back to the Tube to return to her Airbnb, Janet fumes, thinking of everything she might have said. “I just have to pee,” she might have said, though that isn’t in fact true. Was this why she wasn’t invited to stay at Sabina’s, why she’s shelling out all kinds of money for her tiny studio?

Vertiginously, Janet feels the tug of an old memory: Sabina, when they were roommates, used to wave her hand in front of her nose and ostentatiously open the window of their room. “Good grief, your farts smell! What have you been eating?”

To cheer herself up, Janet buys a Cadbury bar at one of the vending machines in the Tube station, but even the chalky sweetness in her mouth, the sticky caramel coating her teeth, fails to lift her. What the fuck is she doing in London? It’s like she’s the kid in the impulse control experiment, reaching for the Rice Krispie treat, but it only looks delicious: when she takes a bite, it’s paste and sawdust.

A little drunk, back in her litter box studio, she takes out her phone. Tyler never returned her text. She upgraded her cell phone plan before leaving for London, the kind of organized, preparatory action usually beyond Janet, and she realizes now that she did so only in order to text Tyler. Now she types, I keep seeing those old-fashioned phone booths, and it makes me think of when we were in London in 2014 and you kept pointing to them and saying, ‘It’s a TARDIS!’

This time, the three waving dots appear. You always say my Doctor Who references are annoying.

They are annoying. But I miss them, she types, and then, before she can second-guess it, I miss you.

His text pops up: Well . . . I will always miss you.

Janet imagines Tyler looking at his own phone, at the three dots, someone is typing a message, and feels another sharp corner of invisible glass, aimed directly at the softest parts of herself. She puts away her phone.

She closes her eyes to call up her Taco Tuesdays revelation, to access that abrasive and clarifying anger she’d felt, the hot light it cast on her marriage. But the image won’t materialize. All Janet can visualize now is herself, sitting on one of the bar stools at her kitchen counter, spooning yogurt directly from the container, the foil lid peeled back.

She’s jetlagged, she decides, it’s bringing her down.

Tomorrow she’ll go to Hyde Park—why resist, just because Sabina pisses her off with her “Tyler Fargo”s and her weird issues with defecation? She’ll walk down one of those sinuous, lushly bordered paths. If it takes all day, Janet will find one of those hollyhocks, and see if it indeed looks like ladder, each flower a step, that a Rumpelstiltskin might climb.  

Copyright © 1999 – 2024 Juked