“Pay it Forward” by Katie Nickas

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Friday afternoon and I won’t fuck him just yet. Instead I’ll share my mutual love of early Snoop Dogg and Outkast via Instant Message and tell him how I like to dance in my living room to Ace of Base circa The Bridge when the mood hits, but that it’s just a coincidence and I’m no slut.

Reviewing my answers to the Secret Santa gift exchange, he sees I like the show Twin Peaks but misreads the questionnaire, thinking I mean the restaurant. I’m horrified, but also sort of encouraged since I’m bawdy.

After the Veterans Day ceremony in the conference room, I ask him out on the way back to my desk when I overhear him say he hasn’t had lunch yet.

“Where are you eating?” I ask.

“Sub shop. Lenny’s. Want to go?”

I know the one. It’s a couple blocks from the office.

“Sure.”

“Let’s do this,” he says, throwing his jacket against the chair.

On the way, he tells me he’s been with the company for six years. Today marks a month and two weeks for me, which I round to two.

“You’ll be all right,” he states laconically while gazing up at the sky through the sparkly dashboard, where the sun’s a burning hunk of cinnabar. I agree that I’m all right in general.

Before we turn the corner, he wheels his big, white Texas truck the wrong way through the drive-thru of a shuttered business, the outside of which is stripped to a tattered skeleton. This seems like no accident.

In the sub shop, I stand up proudly—at least five inches above him. Without heels on, I’m five foot-ten. Today I’m wearing black wedges that put me over six feet tall.

“I used to work here,” I say.

He likes that.

“Order like you used to work here,” he says.

I choose the veggie sub, six-inch on wheat, making sure to request the bread first, like I would have done, anyway. We watch together in silence as the man behind the counter cuts open the bun, laying cheese across the top.

“Which veggies?” he asks, wearing an urgent expression, like he’s in on this.

“A little of everything,” I reply. He looks at me quizzically, like he didn’t understand.

“All the veggies,” I repeat.

When we get to the dressing, which is always so important, I ask for southwest. He ladles it on, waiting for my approval before wrapping it up and handing the bundle to the cashier. I pay for our lunch—not because I intended to, but since he asks me, promising he’ll get the next one—play it forward are his actual words.

We sit in a booth near the front. He unwraps his sandwich and opens it so I see the mayonnaise lacing the inside. Out of the blue, he asks if I’m clean.

“I’m pretty clean,” I say, removing my blazer to reveal a green t-shirt that draws his attention.

“I’m probably not as clean as you,” he says. I don’t ask him what that means, assuming it means he smokes weed, but it takes all kinds.

I watch him start to eat the meat-loaded sub, taking neat bites that make me jealous. Afterward, I offer him a moist towel from my purse. He accepts it and wipes his hands, eyeing me distrustfully.

“This is pretty moist,” he says, tossing it onto the empty wrapper.

I stare at the table.

“Well, it is a wet wipe.”

Beneath the pleasantries I know we’re flirting and that this is the farthest it will or can go given our respective circumstances.

Suddenly a black lady with butterfly eyelashes approaches us from across the shop, turning a pair of hazel eyes onto me.

“Pardon me, but I want you to know that God loves you,” she says.

“Thanks,” I reply in earnest.

She appears to move away as we resume our conversation, but then she’s back, tarrying by the side of the table.

“He told me something else.”

I smile, filled with increasing dread.

“What’s that?”

“He wants you to do more.”

“Needs or wants?” I ask.

“Wants.”

If wishes were pennies, I recall the old saying.

She walks away again. I’m disgusted, resenting that she doled out advice for me while sparing him. Against my better judgment, I call her back.

“What about him?” I ask.

She sends a quick look across the table.

“Be mindful of your surroundings.”

I study his thin-lipped, satisfied expression. Now, the woman seems to want to neutralize the conversation, worried she’s gone too far and been intrusive.

“A young couple eating lunch together,” she says. “How nice.”

“We’re just co-workers,” he interjects. After she’s walked away again, he offers his advice.

“Don’t engage. Just nod and act polite.”

I feel myself sinking into the seat cushion, torn between being courteous and acting like I know better.

Seeing him around the office afterward, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else. In person, he seemed friendly and harmless, like a large rabbit. Now he cuts the figure of a strutting cowboy. I picture him standing on the side of the highway next to a whirling bucket of chicken, body girded in neon. He has really nice muscles, flexing them whenever he walks around the office. When I peer over again, he’s reclining motionlessly, staring toward the screen at the cartonizer—the web development team’s next big launch.

I send him a message, teasing him about his ten-gallon hat. He turns serious, which makes me think he might actually own one. Something about his demeanor strikes me as funny—the way the act of sex sometimes looks funny, though it makes no sense why.

“How do you know I have a ten-gallon hat?” he writes back.

“I don’t, but you seem like you might keep one in secret, hidden away in your closet. Like you’re the Sheriff of Secret town.”

“At least I’m not the Sheriff of Secretions,” he replies.

I wonder what that means but don’t ask.

As time passes, I can’t make much sense of where this is leading or foresee a denouement. I’ve known guys like him before, where I had to set the pace of conversations myself. It was always a gamble with the cool, calm, silent Longmire types who preferred distance, and for whom coming on too strong could spell sudden death.

So I wait and wait for him to play it forward. I let the music pipe through my headphones and guide me around like a soundtrack to my life. In public places I exchange nervous glances with strangers, our expressions strained by exposed wires and light bulbs, wanting the truth to be tonic, like music.

The truth often leaves me disappointed, while music never does.

When I get home, I drop my keys on the rug and open a bottle of red wine, sipping while I watch the sun send citrusy light across the sky like a fresh-squeezed orange, wishing I were younger, smarter, brighter and that I had a man—but more than that, someone to lay on the couch and fool around with, allowing one thing to lead to another.

I know this is lust and I’ll let it pass me by like so many times before, slide like news across a ticker or phone screen, the constant ephemera of our days.

Alone in my apartment, I finger the silver chain around my neck, staring at my figure bleeding onto the bathroom mirror. Stevie Nicks is playing on the stereo. The record is Bella Donna. The song is “Leather and Lace.”

I need to listen to less rap, metal, and Led Zeppelin and more of her, I decide. I need to stick a feather in my cap and play a tambourine and wear white capes and feathery bangs and count the men I’ve slept with on my little jellied fingertips. I need a man who gives to me his leather and takes from me my lace.

But more than that, I need to stop chasing down men who boast about playing it forward when they mean throw down. Stop feeling like what they have to offer is better than what I can do for myself—that I’m somehow flawed or in need of repair, like a miraculous tree honed down to a flat tabletop that sprouts anguished blossoms in its wake.

This will be how I play it forward from now on.

 

Katie Nickas writes literary and speculative fiction. She earned a bachelor’s
degree in journalism from Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her work has or will appear in Asymmetry, formercactus, Oddville Press, STORGYCultureMap San AntonioThe Rivard Report, and her personal blog at https://katienickas.wordpress.com/

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