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    Someone else came in. Karen quickly assumed the usual position and waited there until they left. Turquoise shoes—Maria. She weighs less than a hundred pounds and she's getting married next month. Karen left the stall and went to the sink, looked at herself in the mirror, wiped her running nose and mouth.
    "Damn you, pull yourself together," she muttered. Her lipstick left dim crescents on the Dixie cup as she rinsed her mouth and spat, pulled out her bottle of mouthwash to rid herself of any lingering odor. A few more minutes of applying new gloss to her full lips, teasing at thick curly dark hair, just for the hell of it a dab of powder to pale cheeks, and some correction to the smeared liner on muddy hazel eyes. My don't we look the proper businesswoman, she sneered at herself and then didnt know why she did so. It's a damn good job, I enjoy it, and I worked hard to get it. I deserve this life, and I don't owe anyone anything.
    She returned to her desk and buried herself in work. When she looked up she knew by the sound of the fan that it was nearly seven.
    "Damn." Then again, the subway wouldn't be so crowded. And hard work got you noticed. You could move if you applied yourself. Move where? I sound like my father. The trip home was a vague blur.
    Her apartment was familiar but held no comfort. At least there were windows. The answering machine light blinked insolently. Karen flung the mail on the table without looking at it and went to take a shower, humming the Twilight Zone theme song.
    Wrapped in a robe, towel-turbaned, she emerged a half hour later to find the sun had slumped below the skyline; the buildings split the light like bars. She hit the ON button on the stereo remote control without looking to see what was in the player.
    Nine Inch Nails. Synthesized despair washed over her—why was this in there?—Trent Reznor breathing violent darkness, a desucitation. She closed her eyes and let the waves come as they would, now snarling, now soft.
    Bitch, he hissed, for all the scarred men.
    "Bastard," she muttered out loud, remembering something, and went to the kitchen table.
    There was the letter from Chris, she must have noticed it subconsciously. Of course, the letter from Chris, it was the second Thursday. And it would have to be this CD.
    Chris, why can't I forget you? Why do you keep writing to me? A year behind her in school, the boy genius who burned every Oxford shirt his mother had given him, still wrapped in plastic, the first day of classes. A week after that he was taking drum lessons, and by the next year, when they met, he had his own band. So many others did as well, of course, but they didn't have him. Like so many others, fascinated by the aura he carried; like so few, she had been chosen for his acolyte. He'd introduced her to pot and guilt-free sex and entire worlds she had never dreamed of. It had been Nine Inch Nails, she recalled now, the night they talked so late after everyone else had left.
    "This man," he had proclaimed grandiosely, "this man is the Dark Side. This is all the bitterness there ever will be, all that we can never speak of." An exuberant spill of lanky, black-clad limbs across the horrible plaid couch, exhausted from dancing, Karen had seen him as if from a great distance, bemused by the turn her life had taken, fascinated as always. Flyaway hair in three shades of green, none of them touching those brilliant eyes, and even as she marveled at him he leaned over and kissed her. She tasted vodka.
    Later they made love, and her hands still remembered the velvet heat of him. She could never share his bed all night, in that ratty little apartment, there was too much energy there. He understood, or maybe didn't care, why she left afterward. He always said anyway that he liked her for a friend, and if anything should be serious it certainly wasn't sex. She had laughed and agreed.
    Karen stared at the envelope in her hand and let it fall limply to the table. She knew what the letter would say. Or maybe this time it would be different. No, the little heart was still there, to the left of her name, with the arrow piercing it.

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Except where otherwise noted, all material on this site is © 1999 Rebecca J. Stevenson