The Last Time We Saw Rita • Amy Shearn

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Listen, I wasn’t even worried about catching it, none of us were, that’s the thing. Honestly I thought the whole thing was overblown, even though at our weekly luncheon at Marshall Fields’ Carol kept saying well she heard on the news this, and her neighbor whose cousin is a doctor said that, and at the school where she’s a secretary people were pulling their kids out and la la la. It’ll make your face fall off, it’ll carve out your insides, Carol thinks we want to hear all of this as we’re still passing around the communal plate of pickles. Carol only comes to the luncheons because she’s Susan’s niece and we felt sorry for her when she moved to town and was all alone—twenty-three and still not married, you worry. So finally, Rita, always cracking wise, says, “Well, we know Carol doesn’t have it!” And we laugh a lot at that! Because we heard one of the symptoms is you lose your voice, see, and Carol never stops talking even though as I made clear she’s a pity invite. Maybe Carol should get it! I’m joking, relax!

It’s not even like it seemed that bad, I mean unless you got it so bad you died of course but who would do that. I heard it makes your tongue turn blue like a Chow-Chow which is, like, weird but also who cares. Another symptom is your hair curls. Seems fine, honestly, even kinda fun! Another one is a loss of appetite. Quieting down, getting a free perm, slimming down—“It’s bound to get a lot of gals hitched,” cracks Rita, poking a manicured finger into her cloud of tangerine hair. I would kill for her volume, honestly I would, I mean not literally, but, like, literally.

My daughter Lori is clearly unaffected, I think as I watch her scarf down her sandwich. She’s even eating the fries. I hope she doesn’t get too heavy now that she’s married but oh wait, maybe she’s pregnant, is my happy thought, but I’ll ask her about it later because I’ve been accused lately—me!—of being a loud-mouth. “WHO, ME?” I loud-whispered when Lori said it, and she laughed and forgave me, I think. What can I say, I like to live out loud! In color! I’m always finding something fun to wear, even when Rita rolls her eyes at my getups, but hey! Life is short, you know? Anyway, I think I go even louder and brighter when I meet my luncheon ladies because I know it riles them up and what can I say, they could use riling. I mean look, we could all use some riling, and heaven knows our mahjong groups and golfing husbands aren’t going to do it for us.

Rita slurps her iced tea and says, “I heard you can get it from surfaces, like if someone touches your things and they have it.” Rita also reads the tabloids they sell at the supermarket checkout lanes and told me you can get it from takeout lo mein, so I’m just saying, feh to Rita’s medical knowledge, you know?

“That’s ridiculous,” mutters Carol who, as we’ve discussed, knows everything all the time. Amazing that secretarial school also makes you an epidemiologist! “Although I did hear that it’ll make your eyelashes fall out. Anyway, it’s a cough that you have to look out for.” Rita is at that very moment coughing into her napkin and she sees us looking at her and laughs and coughs again and then waves the napkin over the table, which is honestly not that cute, not that I’m worried, just, ew.

Lori takes a break from her romantic relationship with her turkey club—something is definitely up with that girl—and says, “I heard it was like a biological weapon thing, spread by the Russians,” and at the look we all give her she goes, “What? I heard that!”

Susan pushes her chicken salad around on her plate until it looks like a crime scene. “I heard you can have it and not even know you have it.” And that! Well, whoever heard of a thing. We shush her and move on to the more pressing gossip because that country club locker room story is not going to tell itself. And it’s fine, and we needle each other, and we laugh, and Rita coughs some more, and no one orders dessert, and then Rita says oh, oh she has a new camera and wouldn’t it be fun to have the waiter take our picture, and sure okay, and at the last minute she grabs my sunglasses off my face and says, “Oh silly don’t wear those in the picture!” After the photograph gets snapped, she tries to hand me back my sunglasses and I stare at her hands and I say you know what, she can keep them, I never really liked those sunglasses anyway.

Amy Shearn is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. Her third novel, Unseen City, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2020. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and currently lives in Brooklyn with her two children. You can find her at or @amyshearn.

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