Joanie had bad teeth; no one would fall in love with her. We sat at her kitchen table drinking gin and juice out of old jam jars while outside the window the world gathered itself into dusk. She said, “It seems so simple when you consider the odds. Seven billion people. Three-and-a-half billion men. That’s three-and-a-half billion chances. But then when it’s me, and every stranger is someone I’d have to smile at, a million to one I’ll die alone.”
She rose and stood in front of the fridge. “Listen to me, going on,” she said. “How are you and Robert doing? Do you want a cheese and pickle sandwich?”
There was a gentle knocking from upstairs, the ghost of her mother that haunted a bedroom closet. Joanie had left the closet closed for years. At night, she said, she could hear her mother crying, but was afraid to let her out.
Joanie used to be my babysitter. I hadn’t seen her in years, but when we moved into her neighborhood she dutifully appeared to shuffle boxes from truck to house in the flat summer light, arriving earlier and staying later than Robert’s and my friends. She looked how I remembered her: the unreachably aged way that 15-year-olds appear to five-year-olds. The front tooth that crossed over the other like a girl uncomfortably crossing and uncrossing her legs.
Our photographer friend Manny caught Joanie carrying a vase and lifted his camera; she shook her head, thrust the vase toward Robert and me, saying, “Flowers belong with flowers.”
“Joanie, come on,” we shouted, laughing. She returned to the door shyly, arms full of antimacassars, and peeked into the lens. As if the good work of helping a neighbor might, just this once, allow her to be lovely.
Outside the window the blue evening waned into black. Joanie said, “You’ve done so well for yourself, Lorraine. You were always so independent. You don’t even need a man.”
The sentence puddled on the table. I wanted to say, loving isn’t about need, but it felt like telling a starving friend that your turkey dinner isn’t very good as you sit and chew it in front of them.
I rose, and she told me I could leave before I said I had to. Upstairs, the ghost of her mother moaned. I rinsed my glass in the sink and went out into the night.
I was halfway home when flowers began to fall from the sky. The frogs hushed, and the whole night went ripe with gardenia. Then it was on me, a heavy rain, damp petals plastering to my face in the dark: dahlia and lily and rose. Stems and blossoms arcing from the clouds to tangle on trees and bounce wetly on lawns, a fragrant golden crush in the porch lights. Something wild opened in me, then. I twisted back to the yellow square of her kitchen window. I wanted to run back inside, to say, Joanie, come on. I wanted to run into every lonely house of every lonely women on the street, to take them by the hands and fling their arms wide and lead them shy and tender and fearful into the rain with their arms outstretched, telling them: this is for you, this is all for you.
Kendra Fortmeyer has an MFA from UT Austin and edits fiction for Broad! Magazine. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Nonrequired Reading and has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, The Toast, PANK, The Literary Review, NANO Fiction, FiveQuarterly and elsewhere. You can find her at www.kendrafortmeyer.com or on Twitter @kendraffe.