Talisman

By claire hopple

I followed someone. This person, Claudia, I knew her a long time ago. I had never followed anyone before, but now it’s hard for me to imagine that I haven’t been doing it for a very long time. I’m somewhat of a natural. This is very strange because I’m not a natural at anything.

I had a job. Somehow I was weaned off practically all the responsibilities of this job without my noticing. I have since noticed. This was much worse than losing a job. They seemed to keep me around to fulfill a deeply entrenched nuclear family dynamic they all shared and required on a relational level. And that’s all they needed me for. I loathed my lack of utility, and this loathing gave me enough energy to get me up each day for work. When I wasn’t in a state of loathing, I was in a state of bewilderment that loathing could have the power to keep me in this negative cycle, and the bewilderment tucked me in at night.

I felt about as necessary as the first “r” in February. It reminded me of lying in bed as a child on those longest of summer days when it was still light out at bedtime. I would lie there staring at the crack of light where the blinds met the window, hearing the neighborhood kids (with more laissez‐faire parents) shriek in freedom.

It’s easy to say I should have known from the beginning. I interviewed alongside a guy applying for a different position and my future supervisor gave us a tour of the building together. Each time I had a question or comment, my supervisor wouldn’t acknowledge me. He would look at the guy next to me and answer as if he asked the question, or he would keep moving. For several months after being hired, if I had an idea in a meeting, he adjusted his glasses while I spoke, as if what I was saying was too incredulous to be real.

But my desk was near a window and that was nice. I could see planes ascending astonishingly close to this window each morning, but I never saw them coming back in and I took this as a good sign. My other coworkers were tolerable and some were even fun to be around. They were paying me money to be there, too.

 

I ran into Claudia on the street when I was returning home from work. I heard an ice cream truck and felt so nostalgic about it that I walked down a parallel street to snag a quick look. Who knows how many days we had been traveling so close to each other unknowingly. Who knows if she ever went down that street except this one time.

My first reaction upon seeing her was a slow recognition of who she was. This recognition then morphed into an urgency to avoid her. Because what was I going to do, catch up with her? Make small talk?

She was wearing a very colorful, very floral dress that was a little too summery for the beginning of March, with a light sweater overtop. The sweater had a pretty noticeable hole in the sleeve and looked so fragile and papery that I was expecting the whole thing to unravel onto the sidewalk. I darted away but she caught me.

Even with the holey sweater she had the stately, regal manner she’s always had. Charlotte seems like the kind of person who would actually use a hotel safe when she travels. I was wearing something semi‐professional but felt suddenly mangy.

We were in the same second grade class and grew up in such a remote area that we were in the same class for all the following grades as well. We were never really friends.

I remember she pronounced “realtor” as if there were an “i” in the middle of it and she laughed like a Valley Girl on the wrong coast and she was our valedictorian. I heard she ended up as a civil engineer and then I also heard she was an assistant manager at a Yankee Candle Company in the mall.

We made some trite greetings and she told me she was going to meet George and Grace and John Carlisle for dinner. She had this look of intense meaning that I couldn’t decipher because I didn’t know who these people were. This dinner was either especially exciting or grotesque from what I could make of her expression.

“George actually suggested we meet at Bailey’s, can you believe it, Gwen?”

I could believe it, but that’s because I still didn’t know what she was talking about. It’s like she thought we had lived the same life and knew all the same people but I had somehow forgotten all the great stories contained in this life. She was so confident in her context and expectation of understanding that I felt I needed to apologize to her, or at least to go along with it. So I nodded a lot.

I made a polite comment about needing to take my dog out for a walk. I gave her a cordial arm squeeze as a goodbye and she ran off to dinner. A note fell out of her pocket and I happened to accidentally notice it fluttering to the ground. Suffused with enough curiosity to pick it up, I actually had to pounce on it before the wind got to it.

It said:

Max 8pm Thursday

Azaleas or hydrangeas

Dr. Fineberg ‐ make appt

Below, something indecipherable bled into a coffee stain. I didn’t know anyone still wrote paper notes to themselves.

 

I didn’t want to see her necessarily, but I found myself trying to find her anyway. What if she really needed this note? What if Dr. Fineberg was performing surgery on an organ of hers obscenely littered with tumors?

I was going to the grocery store and then I was going past the grocery store. I was late for a gallery opening and then I was pushing onward in the opposite direction of the gallery.

After some doing some research earlier that week, I had enough of an idea of where to look for her. I ended up being right but having to wait in a parking garage for over an hour. The concrete floor beneath my feet had blended seamlessly with old gum and stains of unknown provenance.

Amazed at my own ability to wait, I saw that Claudia had appeared, making her way to her car. She had that same sweater on with a different dress. I remembered that it would be unusual for me to be there, note in hand, so I panicked and jumped in my car, tailing her instead.

I didn’t watch cop movies but I knew that you were supposed to let at least one car in between you and the person you were tailing, so after a couple of minutes, I finagled this by letting in a morose PT Cruiser.

 

In fourth grade, I copied her every movement. She tucked her hair behind her ear, I tucked my hair behind my ear. She doodled a picture of a frog on her word search worksheet, I drew a (better looking) frog on mine.

She was always overly enthusiastic about mundane events. That spill looks exactly like a stegosaurus! I really need a Golden Delicious apple right now and if I had one it would be the most perfect snack.

I distinctly remember overhearing her tell a friend in the hallway by her locker, “There is nothing more fatal than purchasing sensible shoes.” It was sophomore year. It was the same year I tried running.

There were rumors about Claudia and the history teacher/renowned soccer coach that I never believed then but was maybe starting to believe now.

 

The morning I put in my two weeks’ notice, the water beaded on the shower wall in such perfectly spaced lines that it looked like a record that couldn’t make its way back around.

I wanted to disrupt the office dynamics by finally leaving. I couldn’t understand why people would want more family when I loved mine and was still terrible to them. I get so nervous about being the irresponsible one that I send birthday cards really early to ease my mind. But then I worry that I send them so early that it would seem like I didn’t know when my family’s birthdays actually are, which is somehow much worse.

 

I managed to fumble into the store where Claudia had parked and made a grab for some strawberry‐banana yogurt seem like a serendipitous occasion. I couldn’t find a way to bring up the note and ended up accepting an invitation to a girls’ weekend at Claudia’s aunt’s cabin instead.

I discovered that girls’ cabin weekends entail day‐drinking and binge‐watching shows and ignoring the surrounding nature altogether. We were in a pleasant paralysis. The weekend was disorienting and strange.

 

Claudia carries three separate cell phones at all times. She is a family plan unto herself. The phones are for work purposes but she can’t really explain why. She leaves detailed messages for everyone she knows, talking to the voicemail as if the person answered. And when I get these voicemails now, sometimes I actually understand the context.

 

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Claire Hopple’s fiction is published or forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, Bluestem, Quarter After Eight, Timber, Hermeneutic Chaos, District Lit, Noctua Review, Crab Fat, Limestone Journal and others. She’s just a steel town girl on a Saturday night. More at clairehopple.com.

Art: “KING O WASH” by Michelle Johnsen

Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.