FAIR-WEATHER FRIEND - KATHERINE TOMLINSON
Clea knew a lot of people who defended their spending sprees by dubbing them ‘retail therapy.’ She couldn’t deny that they were in situations that were enormously stressful. Tasha had survived breast cancer only to have her only child die in a car wreck. The driver of the other car had staggered away with only a hangover to show for it. He’d been too drunk to dial 911. Not that anyone could have saved the boy. He’d been trapped inside his second-hand Dodge Neon. There’d been a fire.
Andrea’s husband had been unemployed for six months and had moved his father into the house to ‘help with rent.’ Her father-in-law was a randy old goat who liked sneaking up behind her and giving her full-bodied hugs that involved clutching her breasts and rubbing them enthusiastically. Andrea made sure her little girl was never alone with grandpa.
Nguyen had put her husband through law school and he’d left her for a paralegal ten years his senior, a well-kept cougar who only worked out of boredom. Nguyen’s office was in the same building as her ex-husband’s law firm. She ran into him in the elevator all the time. He always said ‘hi’ as if she were a total stranger. Sometimes his lover was with him. She at least knew not to say ‘hi.’
Sometimes when you’re stressed, it’s hard to distinguish between ‘I need’ and ‘I want.’ Clea got that. But she wasn’t a shopaholic. Whenever she went on an eBay binge, or fell into a fugue state in a mall, she told herself that her purchases were investments—things she might not need now but would need some day so she might as well buy them when the price was right.
In her more reflective moments, she realized that what she was really doing was buying props for the life she wanted to have, furnishing a dream house as insubstantial as an existence on Second Life. There were the splashy, colorful tablecloths she’d use for back yard barbecues as soon as she had a home with a backyard. There was the brilliant deco-styled jewelry that would accessorize the designer evening gowns she would wear to theater openings and glittering charity balls. She imagined herself on the arm of a handsome, distinguished older man who’d swept her off her feet after meeting her at an art gallery over white wine and cheese.
She had boxes full of whimsical cookie cutters she would use to make treats for her as-yet-unborn children. There were novels she would read and discuss with a book club, maybe review for the local paper before she passed them on to grateful friends who were too poor to buy hardback books. There was the elegant monogrammed stationery she would use to write witty thank you notes for cocktail parties and intimate dinner invitations. There were ... many other things.
She did use some of the items—recycling the books into birthday presents for office mates or donating them to the local library; selling the jewelry to consignment stores where pretty young girls would buy it to wear to their school dances.
She set the kitchen stuff out at yard sales where fashionably dressed gay couples snapped it up for pennies on the dollar, which made her sad, even though she knew the stuff was going to a good home where it would be appreciated.
She left many of her purchases in their bags and left them in the closet of the spare room in her apartment—a room that was really too small to be a second bedroom although it set her back an extra $350 a month more than she’d paid for a one bedroom place. She’d thought she was trading up when she’d moved in three years ago, especially since her new apartment faced a park instead of a parking lot, but her next-door neighbor was an insomniac who played loud music at odd hours and whose heavy smoking sent noxious fumes wafting into her kitchen if she left the window open.
It wasn’t that she hated her life. She knew she had a lot to be grateful for. She had a steady job, a subscription to NetFlix, a charge account at Lane Bryant (stylish clothes for the full-figured woman), and a car that was reliable. Her parents were dead, so she didn’t find herself sandwiched between generations like so many women her age. She didn’t hate her life so much as she was disappointed by it. She was sure it could be so much more and yet, she’d had to settle for so much less.
Until Susan Williams walked into her bank.
There were three loan officers available but Susan had chosen her, walking straight up to her desk with a confident stride and a wide smile. Right away, Clea sensed she’d found a kindred spirit. Susan was wearing a Jil Sander pantsuit in a sophisticated color somewhere between grey and beige. Her auburn hair was glossy and full, cut to the chin in a business-like but approachable style. She carried a soft leather portfolio filled with paperwork. When she opened it up, Clea noticed everything was arranged into orderly, paper-clipped sections. Clea liked that she was organized. Scatter-brained women drove her nuts. Susan explained that she was divorced, owned her own medical billing business and had a condo she wanted to re-finance.
Clea and Susan had hit it off immediately, giggling over some of the questions on the loan application like teenagers mooning over Robert Pattinson. Clea had offered her a peppermint from the glass jar on her desk; in return, Susan had produced a metal tin of French blackberry pastilles.
Susan had admired the silver-framed photograph of a tuxedo cat that sat on Clea’s desk. Clea told Susan the cat’s name was Maestro but did not add that he’d died four years ago. She asked if Susan had any pets. She didn’t at present, Susan explained, but expressed a fondness for marmalade tabbies. She called them ‘ginger moggies’ in a slight English accent that delighted Clea. It sounded so refined, so unlike the flat California drawls that surrounded her all day. She couldn’t imagine Susan ever falling into the verbal sloppiness that she found so distasteful. (Clea cringed whenever she heard someone say ‘anyhoo’ or ‘whatever.’)
Clea knew that she and Susan were destined to be best friends forever. They would sneak off to air-conditioned movie matinees on hot afternoons. They’d share lunches at little bistros with tiny dining rooms and chalkboard menus. They would browse yard sales and swap meets on weekends, grabbing breakfast at shops that weren’t franchises.
They would celebrate birthdays with girls’ nights out. They would enjoy tandem massages at upscale spas. Clea loved a good sugar scrub.
They would have so much fun.
As Susan was gathering up her paperwork, Clea asked if she wanted to go for a coffee. There was a Starbucks next door and she was due for a break.
There had been only the slightest hesitation before Susan had told her she was sorry, she was running late. She’d taken a swift glance at her watch to sell the lie. The watch was a square-faced Movado with a solid gold case and band, a timepiece worth around $3600 if you bought it retail. Clea wasn’t impressed. She owned one of the black, museum-faced Movados but stopped wearing it once she bought a cell phone.
It was in a drawer somewhere at home, along with a pair of diamond earrings she never wore because she couldn’t be sure they weren’t blood diamonds and a gorgeous ivory bracelet she’d found at an estate sale but never worn thanks to the news stories about poachers killing elephants just for their tusks.
Who wears a watch anymore anyway, Clea wondered. Pretentious bitch. She was no longer listening as Susan suggested they might have that coffee when she came back to the bank to pick up the completed loan papers. Clea knew she didn’t mean it. She knew that Susan had already figured out which of her employees she would send in her place.
Before Susan Williams had reached the parking lot—she drove a silver-blue BMW with a vanity plate—Clea had sold her personal information to a Bulgarian identity thief. Within a week, Susan would be in foreclosure on her condo; her business would be in receivership; her car would be repossessed, her credit cards maxed out, and her checking account empty. Everything in her savings account would be gone and her stock portfolio would be pillaged.
All Susan would have left would be the thousand dollars she kept in a vintage pineapple-shaped cookie jar (McCoy Pottery, mid-century, $200 on eBay). Her life would be wrecked beyond all redemption and she would have no idea how or why. She certainly wouldn’t link her troubles to the chubby banker who had been so helpful with her loan application.
Susan would be so distraught she would attempt suicide, at which time her mother would be put in charge of what was left of her affairs. Susan and her mother had never gotten along. Her mother had sided with Susan’s ex in the divorce. She’d never thought Susan was good enough for him. Susan’s mother would make what was left of her daughter’s life a living hell. Eventually, when she was living in a studio apartment in a part of town where English was rarely spoken, Susan would attempt suicide again. This time, she would be successful.
After Susan left the bank, Clea clocked out early, claiming a sick headache. She went home and showered, using the Kiehl Crème de Corps body wash she’d bought herself for Christmas a few years ago. After drying off, she put on the antique kimono she’d purchased online after reading Memoirs of a Geisha and savored the feel of the heavy silk against her body. The robe had a slightly musty smell from being stored in a plastic cleaner bag for so long.
Clea rummaged through her pantry until she found the dusty bottle of red wine a client had given her as a token of appreciation after she’d guided him through a particularly tricky loan process. She’d looked up its value in the Wine Spectator and been surprised at the price. The customer had been very appreciative. She’d decided to save it for a special occasion and then nearly forgotten about it.
She wiped the bottle off and poured a glass as she perused take-out menus. She considered the offerings of half a dozen restaurants before ordering Spaghetti carbonara from an Italian place just down the road. She was in the mood for something creamy and salty. She ordered two portions of tiramisu for dessert. And extra garlic bread.
She poured another glass of wine as she waited for her food and contemplated the possibilities that now lay before her. On average, she served eight customers a day.
It’s amazing what you can do with a social security number and a whole lot of schadenfreude.
BIO: Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles where she works as a freelance writer and editor. Her fiction has been published in Thuglit, Astonishing Adventures Magazine, Acorn Newspaper and other print and online outlets. Her story "The Sin Eater" will appear in the January 2010 issue of Dark Fire.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
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