Art: Office Space
In the time it had taken her to walk the distance from the metro station to the front door of Royal Siam, the finest Thai restaurant south of the city center and Josefin’s most recent employer, she’d developed a sizable blister on her left heel. Typical, she thought, as she pulled open the door and marched inside. She sat on one of the chairs, a gaudy burgundy-upholstered gold-dragon embossed giant of a chair that Ying, the restaurant’s owner, claimed was imported directly from Thailand. Josefin knew this was a lie. Her parents had the same chair, which they displayed, prominently and tastelessly in the entry hall of their tiny row house. She reached for her foot. Tobias, her boyfriend of seven months and six days until just over a week ago when he’d broken up with her by means first of a short and poorly spelled email and then, cruelly, a follow-up text message, had debuted the night before as the new second-line left forward for the Carolina Hurricanes. He’d even scored a goal. Josefin had woken up in the middle of the night to watch the game. It took her over an hour to find it available for free on an illegal streaming website. The video buffered for nearly ten minutes. She stared at the frozen screen. Right when she was ready to give up and try to get some sleep, the picture burst to life, unkindly just in time for Tobbe’s goal. She slipped her shoe off over her heel and tenderly poked at the blister with the tip of her finger. That morning on the way to work, she’d seen Tobbe’s face on the cover of Expressen Sport above the headline: Swede Dreams! Even tired and heartbroken—and she’d been heartbroken twice before so recognized the symptoms—she thought the headline was clever. She did not, however, buy a copy of the newspaper. No doubt her mother, to whom Josefin had still not confessed news of the break up, would have already bought several copies. She ran the pad of her finger back and forth along the blister and discovered that the milky white cushion of skin did not hurt very much. She could in fact barely sense that she was touching it. The pain rose instead up from beneath the blister. She pressed on the blister firmly, attempting to cause herself more pain in the hope that when that pain subsided, the pain that was still there did not cause her too much trouble. This strategy failed. Tobbe, she’d learned only that morning from a link in an email (subject line: What???) forwarded from her best friend Marie, to whom she had also, as yet, not confided news of the break up, was number twelve of twenty-five on Sports Illustrated’s list of the NHL’s most eligible bachelors. It was five minutes to eleven in the morning. The lunch rush would soon start. She anticipated a crowd. There was a first aid box mounted in the kitchen on the wall nearest the dining room. Inside the first aid box there was sure to be a bandage she could place over the blister. Tobbe’s rise to international hockey star was, Josefin strongly sensed, more than partly a result of her support and encouragement. She’d been to every home game when he’d played for AIK in Stockholm, even though she disliked the cold of ice arenas and the way Tobbe smelled after each game and practice. Such were the sacrifices of a relationship, a conviction, unfortunately, that Tobias did not share. The blister seemed to be growing. Tobbe’s move to America had been sudden. He’d been called up to a minor league team in Albany, New York, where Josefin had wanted to visit but did not due to what she sensed—rightly, it turned out—was some discouragement on Tobbe’s part. After only six weeks in New York, the player Tobbe was to replace broke his wrist in an on-ice fight, and just like that Tobias was a Hurricane. She looked down at the shoe in her hand. It was a very nice looking shoe—the design and color were striking but not, unlike the chair she was in, ostentatiously so—but she regretted having bought the pair. She also regretted the effort and time (both equally, tragically, irretrievable) she’d placed in eligible bachelor number twelve Tobias Carlson. She uncrossed her legs, slid her shoe back on carefully, and put her feet flat on the floor. She heard Ying’s loud voice from the other end of the dining room, screaming at Sara, the newest server, about sidework. Josefin shuffled quickly into the kitchen, careful not to let her left heel rub against her shoe. The first aid kit was a large green box the front of which was taken up entirely by a graphic describing the appropriate steps to take if a customer started choking. Each step was numbered and contained in a separate frame. For the length of her tenure as server #3 at Royal Siam, Josefin had never thought to spend any time looking at these images. But now she could not look away. In spite of their simplicity, the images communicated a sense of dread very effectively. Perhaps it had something to do with the implied failure of the actions the images depicted. Each successive frame of the graphic was dependent on the failure of the preceding frame. This escalation, this story, as Josefin now clearly saw it, was one she knew well. Her life for the past week appeared to share much with the choking victim’s. It started poorly and only got worse. Back slap to Heimlich maneuver to CPR. She’d left Tobbe’s initial email unanswered for two days, choosing to believe that it had all been a mistake, and one that Tobbe would correct as soon as he was ready. At the end of the second day, however, he’d started sending text messages, all of which might easily be summarized as saying, “I broke up with you, Josefin. Get over it.” But for those two days, she’d been able to pretend that Tobias Carlson the Hurricane was still her Tobias Carlson the Hurricane. But then the emails started up again and Josefin, not unlike the choking victim, found herself lying, frame after frame, somewhere (usually her bed, but once the kitchen floor), scared and gasping for air. Like the choking victim, her own problems represented a terrible story. This was not because Josefin thought breaking up with professional ice hockey players who had recently moved to America to play the sport for more money than she had ever dreamed was possible to have was anywhere near as tragic as, say, choking to death in a Thai restaurant, particularly, but because like her break up with Tobbe, the choking graphic represented a clear failure of drama. Everyone she knew had told her Tobbe would leave her eventually. “Don’t be surprised,” they’d all said. “Watch out,” they’d all said. “Be careful.” And now she knew they’d been right. She’d stubbornly pursued a relationship with a man who played a game for his job and who, to be fair to those members of her family and friends who had doubted his ability to faithfully commit to the same degree she had done to their relationship, was, it appeared on reflection, an asshole. Of course he was. He was never going to be anything but. The trajectory of their story, the story of Tobias and Josefin, that is, was too direct. There were no surprises. Tobbe’s move to America, which had, initially, seemed to be a surprise, was of course just another frame in the story, and whatever attempts she made to keep the story’s victim (Josefin, aged 26, blond hair, slightly underweight, likely career waitress) alive only resulted in failure. She was choking and being grabbed from behind by a well-meaning but ineffective savior who would compress her belly, trying to dislodge whatever was stuck in her throat, and succeed only at cracking her ribs. She looked at the final image of the choking graphic. The image of a man was preparing to perform CPR on the image of the victim. The message Josefin took from this graphic was: there is no hope. You will reach this point and when you do and there is no question that you will there is no hope. She opened the first aid box. Inside, she found the box of bandages, tucked neatly between a bottle of disinfectant and a role of gauze. She removed the box and opened it. There was a single bandage inside. But when she took the bandage from its wrapping, she found that it was dried out and had lost its adhesive. From the dining room she heard the first murmurs of voices as lunch customers began to arrive. All afternoon she worked hard and walked fast from frame to frame of her day’s story, and she envied the simple and, by all appearances, happy and survivable lives of every customer she served. Midway through her shift, as she was carrying a tray of dirty dishes—two orders of Pad Thai and a curry dish she hadn’t yet tasted but which smelled delicious as she held its remnants close to her face—her blister opened, leaving a small circular stain of blood on the back of her shoe.
Jensen Beach is the author of two collections of short fiction, most recently Swallowed by the Cold. His writing has appeared recently in the Paris Review, Lit Hub, and The New Yorker. He lives and teaches in Vermont.