Tanya was not surprised to find no one hiding behind the hedges when she looked out her window, but she was disappointed.
Kevin Appel, Screen (cholla), 2011. Acrylic, enamel, and uv cured print on canvas over panel, 60 x 48 in.
On the day of her performance, Tanya woke up suddenly, right before dawn, to find a man hiding behind the bushes outside her building. It was early June and though the sun was still sleeping, the clouds had their own kind of thin, gray light, which hid as much as it illuminated. Just last week, Tanya had heard someone rustling through the garbage at around this time of day, and she had shouted, without bothering to lift her head from her pillow, “Hey Mr. Peepers, I see you! Get away from there!” In the morning, she walked out and saw her garbage can overturned and what looked like footprints barely visible in the mud.
Today, however, what made her sit up and open her eyes wasn’t a sound so much as a feeling. She lived on the second floor and slept right by the window, and when she sat up she got a clear view of the strange man crouched in the hedges. He seemed to have gotten his position all mixed up. Instead of standing on the sidewalk so that he could peer into her downstairs neighbors’ windows, he was squatting in their sliver of a yard, facing out onto the street, which, being empty of any traffic, had nothing to offer him. Squinting past him, Tanya tried to see if there was any activity coming up Bradford Road, but the coast was clear. The nearby stoplights slid from green to yellow to red, and without a single car for them to hinder, they performed their own little show. Transfixed by the lights, Tanya slowly sank back underneath her duvet, the man, his unexpected position, and the quietness of the street barely registering in her mind before she fell asleep again. The details came later, when her alarm went off at seven-thirty, but by then the man was long gone.
Tanya was not surprised to find no one hiding behind the hedges when she looked out her window, but she was disappointed. Doubly disappointed when she stuck her head all the way out and could see no sign that he had been there at all. The story had all the trappings of a dream though Tanya had no doubt that the man had existed. Other people would not be so convinced, specifically the people who were in her Oral Memoir group.
“No room for tall tales here,” Olin, one of the founding members, would say every time he managed to ferret out an unsubstantiated fact. “If you’re looking for the Fairy Tale faction, they meet on Wednesdays.”
Tanya was the newest member, the only one who had yet to perform in front of the group. She stayed mainly silent during the fortnightly meetings, which were held in the children’s lobby of the public library, at seven in the evening. Apparently the first year Olin had proclaimed “After dark!” as the meeting time, but he had finally relented on nailing down a more concrete hour by the time Tanya joined. Olin was always pretending at flexibility to hide his love for form and order. He had fooled Tanya at first, but she slowly saw how his large beard was shaped to a consistent thickness, how his tattoos were geometric. And what were the gauges in his ears but perfect circles? Her first time with the group, she had asked if there were rules for storytelling.
“Rules are meant to be broken,” he had said. “But only if they’re broken in the right way.”
All the more terrible was that Olin’s was actually a name that turned heads on the national storytelling stage. He was always returning from a tour or a festival. Fans routinely updated his Wikipedia page. He’d recorded a spoken-word album that was selling relatively well on iTunes. His arrogance never exceeded his capabilities, which frustrated Tanya to no end. Also, he was almost a decade younger than her.
Sometimes, right before she fell asleep at night, Tanya would allow herself to remember the first time she met Olin. She had learned about the group after stumbling upon a storytelling performance in the park. Fall was just ending. Taking in the smell of broken leaves, bittersweet in the cool air, Tanya had been impressed by the way the performers made their voices full of warmth and life in the midst of so much natural decay. “It’s pretty amazing how they keep their voices from cracking,” she had commented to the crowd around her. Most people’s backs remained turned, but the woman on her right had nodded vaguely.
He had one of those wide, thick chests that only belonged to opera singers and furniture movers.
She had just been about to continue her walk when Olin took the makeshift stage. The crowd cheered more enthusiastically than they had for the storyteller who had just finished. He waited for the applause to die down by adjusting the microphone, which he never ended up using. The distance his voice could travel shouldn’t have surprised Tanya. He had one of those wide, thick chests that only belonged to opera singers and furniture movers. His deep baritone flooded her head as he started a story about his grandmother’s pearl earrings, which he had found while cleaning out her house. He had put them in his pocket while he carted all her belongings into a truck, and when the house was finally empty of everything except dust and loose hair, he had taken them out and fastened them in his own ears. The pearls had slipped right through the holes in his earlobes, falling and ricocheting off the floor, leaving him to search the entire room on his hands and knees. He had laughed until he cried.
“Or the other way around,” he said, and Tanya realized she was clasping her hands to her chin. “I still don’t know what came first, the tears or the laughter.”
He was the last performer, the other storytellers clearly just opening acts. Only after he had walked offstage, and the emcee asked the audience to “Give it up for Olin Holmbeck,” did Tanya finally recognize him. He had won a national storytelling contest recently and she had read about his honor in the local newspaper—front page of the Style section, above the fold.
Though she’d never done so before, not even when she’d attended friends’ one-act plays and open-mic nights, Tanya went up to Olin after the show.
“That was fantastic,” she said, pumping his hand. “I’m Tanya, by the way.”
“Thanks for coming out,” he said. “I’m Olin.”
“Yes, I’ve heard so much about you,” she said.
Something in his face seemed to jump back, and then surge forward. His hand lingered in hers.
“Well,” he said, laughing softly. “Likewise, Tanya.”
The other members of her group were of all ages, but they were what Tanya’s little sister would have called weirdos. If Tanya pressed Theresa, she would have likely called Tanya a weirdo too. According to her sister’s sensibilities, Tanya might be a weirdo for being thirty-five and still without a permanent address; for having four cats, all named after women in Shakespeare plays; for having paid thousands of dollars she didn’t have to give Desdemona, the orange tabby, a liver biopsy; for crying all day when Desy died anyway; and for calling Theresa at midnight, hiccupping from drink and emotion, to ask, however jokingly, if taxidermists gave quotes. Her sister had brought all these examples to Tanya’s attention during this midnight phone call, in quick, damning succession. Tanya had hung up much too late.
If Olin had been a part of the call, he would have cut Theresa off after the liver biopsy, citing the Rule of Three as he’d done at the last meeting.
“Think about it,” Olin had lectured. “Goldilocks and the three bears. The three little pigs. The three stooges.”
“A priest, a rabbi, and a unicorn walk into a bar…” Jessie, his girlfriend, had tacked on, to much laughter.
“See how unnecessary that fourth example was,” Olin had said, touching a finger to his bottom lip to make it a joke.
Jessie had tweaked his ear, like the gibe was all a part of their comic routine. As if Olin would ever collaborate with a partner. Jessie, who was too old for the braided pigtails she sported to meetings and too young for the floor-length cardigans she belted closed at the waist, clearly saw herself as Olin’s sidekick. His caddy was the more accurate job description. Jessie always brought Olin’s things to the library for him, her thin shoulder bowed under the strap of his bag. Tanya would have set Olin straight if he ever asked her to carry his overstuffed messenger bag for him, even if the extra weight hampered his biking, as Jessie claimed. Olin would never respect someone who followed him, followed his rules. He was just too young to know what he really wanted.
Tanya certainly hadn’t known what she’d wanted in her twenties. She had moved around a lot. From Chicago to San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and now Minneapolis. Owning her own copyediting business gave her the freedom to plant herself wherever she liked—people everywhere made grammatical mistakes. She’d gotten into the habit of adopting a cat or two to make each new apartment feel like home, which made finding the next place to move into harder, but not impossible. Desy, the first and only pet Tanya had ever co-owned, had come with the two-bedroom in Chicago, and when Desy passed, though it was eleven years later, Tanya had considered calling James, her ex-roommate. She’d even dreamed that she was back in that old apartment, looking out at the porch, where the tabby was perched. “Come back in, sweet girl,” Tanya had cooed, holding the sliding door open. But the cat refused to budge, its tail wrapped around the quartz ashtray filled with James’s broken Parliaments. She’d thought that this was a sign, if only a sign that she still missed him despite the fact that their friendship had, as with most of her relationships, ended badly. She’d called his old number only to have a roofing company pick up.
“Didn’t you know?” Theresa had said on the phone. “James died three years ago.”
“You’re joking,” Tanya had said, her hiccups shocked right out of her. “You’re fucking joking. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought you knew,” Theresa said. “There was an email chain. I know I saw your name on there. If you came and lived with me already, this wouldn’t happen. This is why you need to move back to Chicago. Everyone you know is here.”
“First my cat dies, and now James?” Tanya moaned, pressing her glass against her temple.
“I think it’s the other way around,” Theresa said.
“You know what I mean,” Tanya said. “You always do this. You know exactly what I mean and yet you still insist on pretending you don’t.”
“God, act your age already,” her sister hissed. “It is almost one in the morning. You don’t get to tell me anything when you’re the one calling me in the middle of the night mourning an animal that you let shit in your house.”
“No, you’re an animal that…” Tanya hung up before she could finish her own sentence.
Theresa always got the best digs in. She was the sensible one, who had known even in middle school how to dress to suit her body type. The day she had looked Tanya up and down and termed her figure boyish was the day Tanya had realized that they saw the world very differently. Still, Tanya sometimes thought, when she’d forgotten to bring a book to the restaurant or arrived too early to the Sunday morning matinee, that she could do a lot worse than go back to live in her sister’s guestroom, where at least Theresa would bring spiked hot chocolate to offset their bickering.
Tanya only had her three remaining cats, her copyediting business in the basement office of a real estate firm, and a leaky pipe that smelled faintly of sewage.
Their fight had been almost two weeks ago, and there’d been no communication since, although Theresa, with her husband and her two kids, could pretend at being too preoccupied to touch base. Tanya only had her three remaining cats, her copyediting business in the basement office of a real estate firm, and a leaky pipe that smelled faintly of sewage. And her Oral Memoir group.
The group had also been Theresa’s idea. Olin had invited Tanya at the performance, directing her to Jessie to get more information, but Tanya had hesitated to drop in on a meeting for months.
“I’m just too busy to take on a hobby as time-consuming as this,” Tanya had said to Theresa. “The group meets in less than a half-hour and I’m exhausted.”
“You told me you spent the day rearranging the furniture in your empty office,” Theresa said. “You picked a fight with the kid who made your sandwich at Subway just so you could have a human interaction.”
“I very clearly told him no onions,” Tanya said, shooing Vi, the Siamese, off the kitchen counter. “You can’t take onions out of a sandwich once you put them in. Not totally, anyways.”
“Go to a meeting,” Theresa said. “Maybe you’ll find some like-minded folks.”
“Who even goes to a storytelling meeting?”
“Tanya, I really don’t have time for this. I’ve got a dinner to make.”
“Please, like that’s so hard to do,” Tanya said, looking up directions to the library. “Just open some cans and heat them up or something.”
“What works for you and your cats does not work for my family,” Theresa said.
Tanya wondered if Theresa would have been friends with her if they weren’t related. Her sister took after their mother, who never forgot an appointment, a birthday, or how many glasses of wine each guest had downed at dinner. Tanya was more like their father, both in the rawhide leanness of her build and in how she ate more than she talked when forced to attend cocktail parties and high school reunions. For as long as she could remember, her father had dwelled in a self-fulfilling, self-sufficient bubble. He had no friends, no saved numbers in his cellphone. None of their family vacation photos included him since he always elected to stay at home. When she brought him back souvenirs, he would hold the gift for a moment and then place the snow globe or the magnet into her hands and tell her, “Keep it safe for me, sweetie.” To Tanya, this had seemed like the most evolved way of living, a life whose flame fueled itself. She had been chasing this perfect mix of unconcern and detachment since she’d left home, and with every subsequent move, she had packed fewer and fewer boxes to bring along with her, until finally she’d arrived in Minneapolis with only a duffel bag and four cats, leaving the rest of her belongings in Theresa’s basement.
Moving was considered a great event for most people, but Tanya no longer recognized a cross-country solo drive, cats yowling in the backseat, as an interesting story. Which was why she believed that, up until Desy’s death, she had nothing worth telling to her Oral Memoir group, nothing that would grade above the small talk they already engaged in before the performances began. Maybe this was what kept her coming back to the group: the crazy vacillation of intimacies that allowed for a story about a stillborn baby to be sandwiched between comments about the weather; an environment as fever-inducing as walking in and out of an air-conditioned building in August. So up until now, she hadn’t signed up to perform, because up until now, she had had nothing intimate to share.
Tanya knew that telling a five-minute story about her dead cat was risky, but if she pulled the performance off, she would be that much more impressive. Desy’s passing had affected her, so why shouldn’t it affect everyone else?
“Talk about things that other people care about,” Olin had once said, counting off his fingers. “That means no dreams, no family arguments, and no pets.”
Her story involved all three. She had been tempted to float the concept past Olin at the last meeting. But when Tanya had raised her hand to volunteer to perform the next time, the way he’d crowed her name for Jessie to write down made her all the more determined to continue to surprise him. Also signed up were Gene, the retired cardiologist who always wore heart-shaped cufflinks when he presented; Jamie, who was a senior in high school and had once asked Olin for a recommendation letter; and Tristan, who always seemed to be retreating into the huge, purple scarf he wore in all kinds of weather. If Gene didn’t have one of his gory emergency room sagas—Tanya was pretty sure he’d run out by now—then she would have no problem standing out. Not to the rest of the group, but to Olin.
He would have to leave the people and places that he had convinced to accept and love the wrong version of himself, and it would be in this wandering that he would finally learn to be on his own.
He had a texture to him that made him matter to her in a way that no one else who came to the meetings did. She never stopped being frustrated by him, by his dismissiveness, his bravado, and most of all by his charm, which did its best to confuse her and her feelings. He was still young, she told herself, and she could remember what it was like to be that young. He clearly still believed he could be easygoing and patient. But in a few years, he would come to accept, as Tanya had, the things about himself that he could not change. With every stage, every molting of the false skin he had grown over his still-tender nastiness, he would have to leave the people and places that he had convinced to accept and love the wrong version of himself, and it would be in this wandering that he would finally learn to be on his own and apologize for nothing.
“I always recommend trying new things out,” Olin had said to her when he was convincing her to come to a meeting. “You never know what you’ll find out about yourself.”
She had shaken her head at how hopeful and childish he sounded.
“I think I’ve uncovered all of my surprises,” Tanya said. “You’re still a youngster, but I’m full grown.”
“You’re plenty young,” Olin said, but he was already waving at someone over her shoulder, one foot out of their conversation.
As she tried to rehearse her story, Tanya kept glancing out her window, her eyes drifting over to the place where the strange man had crouched. She looked back down at her printed notecards, crowded with her handwriting, the borders filled in with suggestions for what to do with her eyebrows, which had a tendency to knit together into a solid, black line when she wasn’t paying attention. Olin discouraged reading off notes, or even jotting down bullet points on palms.
“Storytelling should feel spontaneous!” he had insisted. “Spontaneous, but without any mistakes or hesitations.”
“So, practiced spontaneity,” Tanya had said, more to herself, but Olin had overheard.
“Well, that may be the case,” he said. “Storytelling doesn’t come naturally to everyone.”
“We can’t all be Homer,” Jessie said, shifting beneath Olin’s bag.
“The written word has really destroyed our ability to speak to one another,” Olin said, shaking his head. “What a shame.” He sat back down, next to Tanya, and leaned into his chair.
“You should write that down,” Tanya said, but he didn’t appear to have heard.
Would he guess that she had memorized her story? The tale was a complicated one. It required mapping out, a strict outline to make sure all the elements came together. If she forgot one detail, nothing would make sense. She had spent days piecing everything together, certain that she was building a knockout, but now she wondered if all her hard work only pointed to the fact that the story didn’t want to be told. She had rolled her eyes at Olin for his dramatic dismissal of written stories, but perhaps there was an intrinsic difference between stories that were lifted up by your voice and stories that just didn’t take to being sounded out. Her planned rebellion was in danger of falling to pieces before she even took the stage.
The man in the bushes. This story itched in her mouth. Maybe she would make this her backup. No rehearsal necessary; it was weird enough to tell itself.
Tanya was the first person in the children’s lobby. Though not for long. Olin strolled in only minutes later, his bike helmet tucked under his arm.
“Big day!” he exclaimed when he saw her. “Are you nervous?”
Instead of answering, she asked, “Are you ever nervous?”
“Always,” he said. “I can’t stand still. Jessie tried to get me to meditate before my performances, but I just ended up feeling sick to my stomach. Anyways, I think it’s good to be nervous. It’s energy after all, energy that you can bring to your audience.”
“You don’t seem very energetic once you start performing,” she said. She was trying to be contrary because he’d surprised her with his stage fright. His nervousness made him likable.
“Well, once I’m on stage, I’m in my element,” he said. Then, calling over Tanya’s shoulder to someone else, “Did you remember my tea bags?”
“Green and peppermint,” Jessie said, patting his bag as she shoved through the double doors.
“Will you make me a cup?” Olin said, passing his girlfriend on his way back out. “I realized I forgot to lock up my bike.”
“Would you like some tea?” Jessie asked Tanya as she headed toward the kitchenette. “The heat is good for your voice.”
Ten minutes later, Tanya was sipping peppermint tea out of a Styrofoam cup. The liquid numbed the roof of her mouth while burning her tongue. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, so she clamped the cup between her thighs. The performers went alphabetically, which meant she was last, a matter of inequity that hadn’t happened since grade school.
Tristan told a story about the time his father had fainted at the sight of Tristan’s cut finger and clipped his head on the kitchen counter. An easy story, and often funny, which was a good thing for Tanya since Olin didn’t like jokes in storytelling. Laughter interrupted the speaker’s rhythm. From watching video clips of his performance, Tanya had noticed that when audiences found a punch line that Olin had forgotten to strike from his own story, he would start the sentence over, fingers madly counting and tapping like a metronome to recover the beat. Tanya herself thought humor-based stories were a little too pandering, but Tristan was cutely startled by each round of laughter, almost lifting his chin from the folds of his scarf. He clearly had few people to laugh at his jokes outside of the group.
The story was weak, forgettable, but at least he hadn’t gotten choked up. Tanya never knew what to do with other people’s tears.
Jamie revisited her last debate competition, crossing the room depending on which side she was arguing. During the reenacted round of questioning, she had to jump from side to side, which left her out of breath by the end. Tanya clapped loudly so that she wouldn’t laugh, and she caught herself checking to see what Olin’s reaction was. He generally kept his thoughts to himself until all the performers had gone, but Tanya saw him flash Jamie a quick thumbs up. One had to be delicate with children, she thought.
Gene, her one real competition, surprised everyone with a sentimental tale about the first time he held his grandchild. The story was weak, forgettable, but at least he hadn’t gotten choked up. Tanya never knew what to do with other people’s tears.
“And last, but certainly not least,” Olin said, half rising from his seat at the front to face the group. “We have Tanya Zydel.”
She took the stage, which was really a platform for an intricate miniature train set and barely raised off the ground. She almost tripped over the caboose. Her cup of tea was still in her hands, the Styrofoam squeaking in her tightening grip.
“You know, I couldn’t decide which story to tell today,” Tanya started.
“Louder, please!” Olin interrupted. “The people in the back can’t hear you.”
Irritated, Tanya made her choice, scrapping weeks of work just to show Olin that he couldn’t push her around.
“I saw a man hiding outside my window, in the bushes,” Tanya said, throwing her shoulders back. She put her cup down at the front of the stage. “He was in the bushes, and it was four in the morning. I live alone, but for some reason I wasn’t scared. Maybe because he was facing the wrong way. All I could see was his back.”
She paused to take a quick look around at the group. All eyes were on her. Tanya realized, then, that she’d forgotten the feeling of undivided attention. Somehow, for quite some time now, she’d only managed to grab people when they were busy trying to get from one place or task to another. The postman had a route to finish. Her work colleagues were in the middle of proofing an article, or just on their way out to a dentist appointment. Theresa, invisible over the phone, could be doing anything. Tanya had once heard the toilet flush over the line, and she hadn’t known whether to laugh or hang up.
“It didn’t make sense for him to be there,” she continued. “Since he clearly wasn’t trying to be a pervert. I just kept staring at him, seeing only him until, after a while, he just sort of fit into the scene.” For once, her thoughts and her mouth aligned, as the story seeped, bit by bit, out of her head. Incapable of examining and approving of the words leaving her lips, Tanya felt blinded, like she was driving too fast in a rainstorm.
“There was no reason for me to be up at this time,” she said. “I have a strict sleep schedule. Bed at eleven, up at seven-thirty. He was perfectly quiet, the entire neighborhood was quiet, and there was no sun, obviously, to glare through my window. I suppose his presence was what woke me up. I remember that when I woke up, my heart was racing. And instead of racing faster when I saw this man outside my window, my heartbeat slowed down. Because when I looked at him, a complete stranger, squatting in the hedges, I felt like he could have been a friend.”
She took a small bow, signaling the end of her story. She had almost no memory of what she had said, only that she had said too much. Barely a minute had passed. The group clapped, slow to start and never quite gaining enough momentum or volume for the noise to wash over her. She felt spat on by the applause. Olin’s forehead was scrunched as he considered her.
“So, Tanya,” he finally said, arms and legs crossed, his entire body closed off to her. “Why did you feel like telling this to us?”
“This story just felt like the most natural one for me to tell,” she said. “I hadn’t rehearsed any of the story, but it didn’t feel rough when I told it. This story was meant to be said out loud.”
“Well, that’s just the thing,” Olin said. “That wasn’t a story.”
“Excuse me?” Tanya knew she should get off the stage, but she felt suddenly caged in by the train tracks, by the stupid, grinning toy travelers looking out at her from their windows.
“You’re just a beginner,” Olin said. “So it’s excusable, although I thought that with the number of meetings you’ve attended you would understand the basic shape of a story by now. I don’t mean to call you out in front of everyone, but I just don’t understand why you thought this was something worth telling.”
“It’s worth telling because I say it is!” Tanya said, loud enough for her voice to bounce in the library’s muted corridors.
“I thought it was very interesting,” Jessie volunteered. “Very… introspective.”
“There is a time and a place for introspection,” Olin said. “And that’s Tuesdays at six with the Meditation workshop. Not here.”
“This isn’t a class, it’s a group,” Tanya pointed out. “Just because you founded Oral Memoirs, doesn’t mean you’re the leader. You can’t tell us what we can or cannot tell. You don’t have any right.”
She looked out at everyone else, hoping for some sort of consensus, but all she saw were lowered heads. Even Gene, the oldest member, was fiddling with his novelty cufflinks.
“You don’t have any right,” she repeated.
Olin put his hands up. “Hey now,” he said. “I never said anything about being the leader. That’s just my opinion. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Tanya, but you’ve got a lot to learn. In my opinion.”
She wasn’t an angry person, but what made her seem that way was that when anger did come, it ate away the future.
Tanya finally stepped off the stage, kicking over her cup of tea. She grabbed her bag and threw her jacket over her other shoulder. She wasn’t an angry person, but what made her seem that way was that when anger did come, it ate away the future. She never considered what would happen the next time she saw this person again, the awkwardness of all subsequent interactions. These were thoughts that bound other people and put bumpers on their rage. Tanya held nothing back.
“In my opinion,” she said, facing only Olin now, “you tell stories because you don’t care enough about other people to have conversations. Everyone thinks that you have a heart because your performances pull all the right strings. But you’re a manipulator. You make people feel things, you make me feel things, and then you leave them. You don’t have friends, you have audiences. One day, you’re going to realize how alone you really are, and good luck to you then.”
Tanya was halfway out the door when she heard Jessie say, “Tell us how you really feel.” For a moment Tanya waited for someone to stick up for her, but going through the people she’d left behind in the lobby she realized they were all strangers. So she understood when she heard the group laughing at her expense. They really didn’t have any other option.
Tanya held off from calling Theresa until she knew her sister’s kids were in bed. The sun had taken so long to set that Tanya didn’t feel bothered to turn on the lights when her apartment finally went dark. She was still angry, or at least her body was, and her blood jumped around inside her, making parts of her cramp and other parts tremble. Thinking about Olin, and about the argument, only gave him power over her, a room inside her mind, and so she cleaned her place to distract herself, scrubbing the grout between the kitchen tiles with a toothbrush until she could no longer see which corners she’d already washed. When she dialed Theresa’s number, she pledged that she would not talk about her group.
“Good to hear from you,” Theresa said when she picked up.
“You’ll never believe what happened to me today,” Tanya said.
“You got another cat?”
“No, shush,” Tanya said, dropping the toothbrush and sitting back on her calves. “There was a man outside my window at four in the morning.”
“Are you okay?” Theresa said, the concern in her voice sharp. The rustling she always made when she clipped coupons during their calls dropped away. “Oh my God, that’s so scary.”
Tanya paused. She looked through the doorway, into the next room, where anyone could have been hiding.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I shouted at him to go away. I said, ‘Hey Mr. Peepers, I see you. Get away from there!’”
“Jesus, Tanya. That’s so stupid!”
“I’m on the second floor. I have a bigger chance of being attacked by a squirrel than a thief.”
Theresa snorted. “Well, what did he do?”
“He ran off immediately,” Tanya said. “He didn’t even look up to see who was shouting at him. I could’ve been the voice of God for all he knew.”
“Can you imagine?” Theresa said. “This guy telling all his friends that God yelled at him for creeping in the bushes.”
Tanya laughed, harder than she meant to, pressing her hand on the floor as she almost lost her balance. Her cats scattered at the sudden noise.
“Now that’s a story,” she said, no longer laughing.
“Can you please just move back in with me?” her sister said. “I know you’re tired of me asking, but I’m not going to stop until you say yes. All your stuff is here. This could be a sign. You might not be so lucky next time.”
Tanya lowered the phone, the distance jumbling her sister’s voice into a pleasing, muffled squawk. Her decision was coming into bleak focus. She saw the sleek movements of her remaining cats, just barely in her eye’s reach—the nighttime play of Portia, Rosalind, and Viola. They were beautiful and untouchable in the dark.
Without bothering to put on shoes, Tanya ran out of her apartment, down the stairs, and through the building’s back door. Outside, the cloud cover had split open and the full moon gazed into the yard, casting the corners into shadow.
She crept into the space beneath the hedges where she remembered the lone man had crouched, rolling her knees into her chest and planting her heels deep into the grass. Her neck prickled as she imagined a pair of eyes tracing her long, curving back. What had he been doing down here? When she sniffed the area she didn’t smell alcohol or piss. The view she had imagined turned out to be nonexistent. The hedge was woven so tightly together that she couldn’t see beyond the well-stitched leaves.
Was this man’s fascination with the hedge itself? Tanya spread her fingers and roughly palmed the ground in front of her. Small twigs and pebbles crunched from the pressure. She reached farther in and unexpectedly felt, before she heard, something small crack. Her hand closed around a wet cluster of shell, and as she brought her hand to her face, Tanya realized that she was holding a broken bird’s egg. Her legs bowed out from beneath her. Blood slipped from the egg down her thumb. She flung the pieces behind her.
“I can’t see a thing,” she said, pressing her hands into the crush of leaves, which were stiff and terrible against her skin. “I can’t see a fucking thing!”
Her sister must have hung up by now. Her phone could only be ringing out a dial tone against her kitchen floor. Yet as she wiped her hands raw, Tanya thought that she could almost hear someone calling her name, over and over again, in a voice just quiet enough to ignore.
Lillian Li is currently a second-year fiction MFA candidate at the University of Michigan. In 2013, she was a Granta New Voice.