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Tell Me I'm Here

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Therese knows better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, but then again… she really doesn’t want to be here.

She was out til 2:00 last night, working her first shift at a new job uptown. It’s her second bartending job, but this new place is a lot higher class than the dive bar where she worked through undergrad. Lots of rich Wall Street guys. Lots of assholes. That may be why she’s particularly irritated to be out at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. This weekend gig is at a holiday market in the West Village. Which means more rich assholes.

Therese savors the coffee she bought on the way over, hot and full of very necessary caffeine. She looks around at the sleepily awakening market. It would be one thing if Therese was renting out one of the booths (selling her photographs? she gets embarrassed just imagining it) but in fact she’s working for the market itself, the information booth. Richard’s father has a stand in the food court and got him the job, and Richard got her the job, but Richard called in sick this morning. So, it’s just her in the booth, stuck under the assessing and endlessly dissatisfied eye of her supervisor, Mrs. Hendrickson. Mrs. Hendrickson wears horn-rimmed glasses and a poodle skirt; she is that particularly irritating brand of hipster who dresses like it’s the 1950s.

Even worse, when Therese showed up fifteen minutes ago, Mrs. Hendrickson presented her with a Santa hat.

“All the market staff wear them,” she announced, her tone and glare suggesting that this hat was a hill she would die on.

Oddly enough for a hipster, Mrs. Hendrickson gives Therese major “War on Christmas” and “Fox New” vibes. So now Therese is wearing a Santa hat, and questioning all her life choices. At least it’s $15 an hour. With what she makes today, she’ll be able to pay the repair bill for her camera, which has been sitting in the shop waiting for her for four days. Therese feels naked without it.

It’s just a six-hour shift, she tells herself grimly. You can survive a six-hour shift, go home, get some sleep, eat something, and be ready for the bar at 6:00.

The market opens right at 7:30, and soon the patrons start trickling in. It’s mostly Lululemon moms and older couples, everybody searching for that perfect artisan knife set, that bespoke pocket watch, that handmade piece of jewelry—all ethically sourced and overpriced and a surefire way to show your loved one that you went above and beyond Amazon this year.

Therese, fully aware that she is being a snob, reminds herself that she plans to buy Richard’s gift here. He’s a hobby painter and there’s a booth that sells watercolors and handmade brushes. Therese gets a 20% discount for working here, and she knows the gift will be a hit. She’s just not quite sure why she cares about that.

It’s not that Richard isn’t nice. All her boyfriends have been nice. Unlike a lot of the other girls she grew up with, she’s got a good eye for closet abusers and controlling assholes. But after six months of dating Richard and hearing from all and sundry how nice he is, she’s beginning to wonder if not being an overt jerk is too low a bar to have set herself. Dannie certainly seems to think so, a fact he made clear in their most recent conversation.

“When are you gonna dump that guy? Sure, he’s cute, but man is he boring. Let me find you someone with a personality at least.”

“All the guys you know are gay.”

“I know several bisexuals and I’ll bet you cash money they give better head than Richard. No one gives head like a queer. It’s our greatest talent.”

Just remembering brings a smirk to Therese’s lips. It would be hard to be worse at giving head than Richard, but still… her smirk fades to a frown. He is nice. And it’s not like anyone else is interviewing for the job of boyfriend. Therese wishes that didn’t matter to her. Wishes that she could just be single, but she’s living alone for the first time in her life and it’s… lonely. No, that’s not a good enough reason to be in a relationship. But is it a good enough reason to avoid the monumental awkwardness of breaking up with someone?

Over the loudspeaker, Mrs. Hendrickson’ performatively cheery voice reminds the shoppers about the reusable bag policy, calls out a few specific sellers (who paid extra for the advertisement), and directs all patrons with questions to the information booth in the center of the market. Therese shakes herself out of her morose thoughts, stands up straighter, and tries to look as if she’ll have information, should anyone need it.

And that’s when she sees her.

There’s a booth about ten feet away, a ceramics maker whose shelves of teapots, cups, and dishware caught Therese’s eye on the way in this morning, everything beautifully minimalist. But it’s not the ceramics that have her attention now. No, it’s the woman who stands before the shelves, gazing at the maker’s wares with an expression that Therese instantly recognizes: the expression of one who is looking, but not seeing. Whose thoughts are a thousand miles away.

Therese, on the other hand, is looking and seeing. She feels like she has never seen anything so clearly in her life. The woman is… she is absolutely breathtaking. Tall, and statuesque. Slender but not petite; something stately and powerful in her shoulders, in her long legs, in the hand that brushes back a sweep of her blonde hair. She’s dressed like a movie star: a large, expensive-looking handbag on one arm; black jeans and black riding boots; a white blouse unbuttoned at the throat to reveal the glitter of jewelry; and a thigh-length, camel-colored wool coat that would look unattractively boxy on so many women. On her, it simply compounds the impression of someone powerful and elegant and refined. Therese can’t stop staring.

The woman looks up, as if sensing eyes on her. Their gazes lock. Even at the distance, Therese can tell her eyes are pale, maybe blue? Her expression doesn’t change, even as their stare holds for two, three seconds, and then—

“Excuse me?”

Therese startles, turning toward a woman with a toddler in her arms, who stands before her looking harried.

“Where’s the bathroom, honey?” she asks.

Therese points toward one of the exit signs. “If you go out that door and make a right, you can’t miss it.”

“Thank you,” she says, smiling gratefully, and walks off.

Therese’s eyes flash back toward the ceramics booth—but she’s gone. Amidst the maze of booths, it’s easy for someone to disappear, and yet Therese looks all around, hoping for another glimpse. But no, she’s nowhere to be seen. Something happens in Therese’s chest, a weight settling there, sinking down into her stomach. She can’t understand her own reaction, her disappointment, her sudden… anxiousness, as if in the woman she saw something she had been looking for all morning, and now—

“Ms. Belivet?”

The sharp voice startles her, and there is Mrs. Hendrickson, looking at her disapprovingly and then nodding toward the short line of customers that seem to have appeared out of nowhere in front of the information booth. The last thing Therese needs is for her other shifts at the market to get cut. She blinks, shoving away thoughts of the woman, and turns toward the surly-looking man in the front of the line.

After that, things pick up. There seems to be no end of patrons, wanting to know where the ATM is, where the bathroom is, how to find this booth, or that booth. A half hour goes by in a blink, and just as the line has finally shrunk away, Therese turns to replenish the stack of pamphlets on the counter—and knocks her coffee onto the ground.

“Shit,” she hisses, dropping down behind the counter in a panic. Luckily the cup was almost empty. She grabs paper towels from under the counter, rushing to mop up the spill before Mrs. Hendrickson gets back. Damn it, she wanted the rest of that coffee! But at least she hasn’t dropped it on anything important. She quickly has the mess cleaned up, stands to dump the soiled towels in the garbage, faces forward again.

“I wonder if you might help me with something.”

Therese goes stock still. It’s her. She’s standing before the booth with a vague smile, slightly distracted. She lays a pair of buttery leather gloves on the counter, looking at Therese expectantly.

“I’m looking for a booth a friend of mine told me about,” says the woman. “A—oh, what do they call it? A maker, yes. Handmade dolls. Here’s the card my friend gave me.”

She holds out a business card to Therese, who takes it after a beat of startled silence, and looks at the name.

“Oh,” she says. “Bright Betsy. Yes, she’s very popular. But I’m afraid she sold out her stock yesterday. She’s not here this morning.”

A look of defeat fills the woman’s eyes (gray, her eyes are gray, pale as moonstone).

“Oh,” she says. “Left it too long.”

Her disappointment is so deep, almost reproachful, and Therese is desperate to help. “Well, there are other toymakers here,” she says, grabbing one of the market pamphlets. “All kinds, actually—”

“Right,” says the woman, looking away, rifling through her purse. She pulls out, of all things, a vape pen, and says, “The doll was supposed to be for my daughter. What sort of doll did you want when you were four?”

It’s not clear if she’s actually asking, or just thinking out loud. Therese says, “Me? I never… Not many, to be honest.” The woman seems about to take a drag from her pen, and wincing Therese tells her, “I’m sorry, you’re not allowed to smoke inside the market.”

For the first time, the woman looks into her eyes. She seems startled. She glances down at the pen in her hand, as if she didn’t even realize she had it, and puts it away, muttering, “Oh. Of all the—” she stops herself, and looks at Therese regretfully, “Forgive me. Shopping makes me nervous.”

How could anything make this woman nervous? She’s like a goddess. The market should pay her to stand here and smoke and attract customers.  

“That’s all right,” Therese tells her. “Working here makes me nervous.”

A short laugh. It goes through Therese like a lightning bolt, and nervously she smiles back. The woman says, “You’re very kind. I know how silly it is, shopping the weekend before Christmas.”

“Oh,” Therese releases her own short laugh. “I haven’t done any of my own shopping yet.”

“Haven’t you?” asks the woman, looking almost relieved—as if hearing that she isn’t alone in this matter is enough to squash her guilt over missing the dollmaker. She looks at Therese keenly, her head tilting a little. Therese realizes that this is the moment when she is supposed to say more, but all she can think about is that she actually has hardly anyone to shop for besides Richard, and she can’t say that without sounding pathetic, and anyway— “What did you want, when you were little? If not a doll?”

Therese is inexplicably delighted that the woman heard what she said (she had thought she wasn’t even listening) and with a sudden smile she admits, “A train set.”

The woman’s brows lift in surprise. “Really? Do children even play with trainsets anymore? That seems like an… I don’t know, sort of old-fashioned toy?”

“Did you ever hear of the brand Brio?” asks Therese. A frowning look. “They make train track pieces, so you can build your own tracks, and they make trains to go with it.”

A light of recognition. “Oh, yes! With the little magnets to keep the cars together?”

“Yes. I loved those, growing up. And there’s a maker here who creates her own. The tracks aren’t all that special, of course, but she sells beautiful hand-painted cars and figurines to go with the trains. I can show you on the map where the booth is, if you like?”

“Yes, please!”

Therese’s heart flutters with excitement that she can’t understand. Quickly she opens up the pamphlet, laying it out in front of the woman so she can see the map and the little You Are Here circle in front of the Information booth. Together they lean over the map, and Therese points out the train maker’s booth, not far away. To be honest, she’s surprised she can even speak to give directions. The woman emits a delicious perfume like none Therese has smelled before, warm and spicy, and the woman’s hands, laid on the counter, are tipped with coral nail polish. It’s a color Therese would never pick for herself, and yet on the woman’s long fingers, it looks so elegant.

“Well,” she says, standing up again and looking at Therese with a vibrant smile. “That’s that. Sold. Do you mind if I take this map with me?”

Her smile is so…fucking… beautiful.

The fine eyebrows lift in curiosity, and, mortified, Therese realizes that she hasn’t answered the question.

“Oh!” she exclaims. “Yes! Here.”

They exchange the pamphlet. The woman’s smile has become a full-fledged grin, so arresting that Therese thinks her heart is about to jump out of her chest. The woman asks, with a commiserating twinkle in her eye, “It’s a rotten job, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Therese says without thinking; the brows lift in delight at her honestly and she’s quick to add, “I mean, it’s not so bad. When it’s slow I just sit back here and read.”

“Oh?” she asks, genuinely interested. “What are you reading?”

“Uh—right now? Toni Morrison.”

“Which one?”

Sula.”

“That’s refreshing.”

“What is?”

“Oh, just—” the woman breaks off with a little chuckle. She seems almost embarrassed. “Young people, reading, I guess.”

Therese just looks at her; Therese is twenty-five. The woman can’t be that much older than she is. Yet there is something about her, a kind of weariness under her beauty. Therese recognizes it; has seen it in the mirror on cold mornings when everything seems to be interminably the same.

Therese watches as the woman puts the pamphlet away in her purse (Louis Vuitton) and snaps it shut. Whatever slight embarrassment she showed before disappears.

“Thank you,” she says brightly, definitively, their time almost up. “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas,” Therese echoes, and already the woman is turning away, and Therese stares after her, thinking irrationally, Don’t go! Tell me your name! Tell me I’ll see your again!

As if she hears her, the woman pauses. Looks back at her. Now there is a little smirk on her lips, so provocative it stops the breath in Therese’s lungs, and she gestures at her own head, whispering conspiratorially, “I like the hat.”

Her eyes flit up and down, an appraisal that Therese feels in every point of her body. Then she is moving away, like a ship at full sail, like a cloud over the ocean, like a dream that drifts off upon waking—but suffuses the waking world.

It’s only twenty, thirty seconds later that Therese notices the woman’s leather gloves, forgotten on the counter.