Erica from User Experience-Benjamin Reed

tbr-2

Artwork by Shristi Singh

Granted time enough and luck, Ghoshank’s dream could have come true, and the software engineer may have found himself with Erica from UX. However all that he will ever possess of her comes to him in the form of a free local arts and culture magazine, which he finds in a coffee shop early one morning while on his way to work.

The free magazine is the kind you always find stacked in plasticised wire racks just inside the thresholds of cafes and overpriced clothing stores. Ghoshank is surprised at its thickness, at the quality of the paper. Clearly, it wants to be on a coffee table.

Inside, the magazine has more advertisements than actual content and features photographs of upscale bystanders attending this or that opening, benefit, party, gala, etc.—everyone looking as if they are afflicted by a disease that won’t let them stop laughing. And then, at the magazine’s centre: a photograph of Erica, who is standing next to an enormous painting hanging on a plain white wall.

To anyone who hasn’t read Erica’s employee profile seventeen times, who hasn’t studied, godlike, the terra cotta roof tiles of her house in Google Earth, and who hasn’t lain awake late at night ruminating on the most banal details of her existence, the woman in the photograph could be anyone. She is looking away from the photographer, slightly bent over, a passel of her brown hair partly covering her face. But Ghoshank knows it’s Erica at first glance. Her diminutive frame. Her bare and freckled shoulder. The sudden heft of her chest. The lustre of her hair. He can pause and hear her voice without trying very hard at all.

Using a metal ruler, Ghoshank carefully tears the page with Erica’s picture out of the magazine and thumbtacks it to the inside of his cubicle, to keep it from getting creased or torn before he can take it home. He drops the rest of the magazine into a recycling bin.

*

On a rare passage through the dim eastern corner of the fourth floor—returning from her best attempt to resolve a petty clash between one of her copywriters and that battleaxe Sharon, the company’s one-woman SEO department—Erica spies herself in the photograph tacked up in Ghoshank’s unoccupied cubicle. She pauses, recognising herself incrementally—first her purse, then her hair, her chubby knees below the sequined fabric of the black dress she had worn to the gallery—when? A month ago? The opening had been for an artist from Serbia or Siberia or Something-istan, and she’d only known about it from a local nightlife email blast that she could not recall subscribing to.

Erica remembers standing in her bedroom, still undressed at eight o’clock in the evening, asking her cat, “Why am I going to this thing again?” Rumi had leveled his yellow eyes at her. Because you’re always whining that you never do anything. Now, Erica nods to herself deep in the warren of grey cubicles, studying the photograph. She is disturbed, finding her image pinned like a moth to the wall of someone’s workspace. She tempts herself to step inside the cubicle, and now that she has, it’s not such a big thing to reach out and snap the picture from its tack. She resists.

Erica is walking back to her office, distracted—What magazine had she been in? Whose desk was that?—when suddenly she woozes, pitching forward, only barely catching herself against the wall. She fights to steady her breathing as she makes her way back to her office, where in the top drawer of her desk there are a number of plastic prescription bottles, one of them Pronestyl, which will slow her pulse and help her heart regain its rhythm.

Erica swallows one of the yellow capsules, then jiggles her mouse, waking the screen. She switches her status from Free to Busy. The Pronestyl will delay her movements and submerge her higher functionality into a murky confusion. Soon Erica will feel steady but insensate, like a dropped anchor.

Now she remembers: when the camera flash came, she’d been holding a clear plastic cup of free cava, leaning too close to the painting, drawing repeated stares of concern from the grey-haired woman who must have been the gallery’s owner, or patron saint. Erica had been standing near two girls who were both thin and blond, and much younger than she, both of them in tight white jeans and silk halters, as interchangeable as paper dolls. She had thought the photographer was trying to get all three of them into the same frame, tokenising Erica. Like, See? Even thick-bodied and absurdly uninteresting people come to these things!—though now it is clear that the photographer had focused solely on her for some reason. In the picture she seems shy, or embarrassed, but she hadn’t meant to look away from the lens. Erica had been gritting her teeth, overcome with her first major dizzy spell in months, praying she wouldn’t faint and fall in the gallery—no no no, not in front of all these people and definitley not in this dress.

Her heart already jangling off of its rhythm, Erica looked up and saw Tom Sahlstrom, her boss and long-ago boyfriend, arrive at the opening with Linda, the reedy, jewel-bedazzled woman who had given Tom a photogenic nuclear family, the idea of which he had consistently impugned while still in his twenties. Before Tom or Linda could see her, Erica stuck a Pronestyl in her mouth and recused herself through the gallery’s rear exit.

*

The photographer, Jaime Menchú, loathed assignments for the free magazine, which he saw as a contemptible exercise in style over substance, a perfect-bound delivery device for marketing dollars, “acid-free” in both a literal and ironic sense. The perfunctory modicum of text-based content was typically written by a peroxide legion of unpaid interns who attended these events reeking of scented lotion, ignorant of death, and gamely on the prowl for easily-digestible moments of art and/or culture, broadly defined.

Jaime makes it his mission to find and photograph the most wholesomely ugly people at these orgies of silicone and designer handbags, bundling a long string of normals at the front of every zipped batch of image files he emails to Shayla, the magazine’s editor, burying only at the very end the compulsory shots of the bottle-blond Barbies and spray-tanned Kens who will actually end up in the next issue. Originally Jaime had done this as a kind of half-assed aesthetic activism, meant to cause a mild panic in Shayla as she paged through the images consecutively, though it was now little more than a tacit joke between them. The dark-haired girl with steep, overfed curves and unmanaged eyebrows was a choice specimen, and he smiled as he pressed the shutter release. She was so drunk that a second later she nearly crashed into a painting, stopping herself just in time, bending over to rest with her hands on her knees, like a woozy, exhausted sprinter.

*

Shayla Reynolds sits at her desk and opens Erica’s image. She thinks, Actually, there’s something counter-intuitively great about this one—especially the colour, and the way the girl’s skin seems to glow. The way you can’t quite see her face. The girl is on the short side, a little heavy, Ashkenazi or just dark with a roman nose, wearing something she pulled off the rack at Macy’s or somewhere—not exactly their core demographic of WASPy West Austin housewives pushing sixty, who look as if they’re just dipping their pedicured feet into the shallow end of their forties. Still. Shayla majored in photojournalism at Syracuse and believes she still knows a great photo when she sees one. Ultimately she calls Jaime’s bluff, and gives the photo its own page, with a dark red, pencil-thin border.

*

The magazine’s advertisers include four cosmetic surgeons, three fitness boot camps, two competing life coaches, a dental cosmetologist, a liposuction boutique, a cryolipolysis centre, and a body-waxing parlor that will also bleach the brown out of your anus. The idea is, readers will page through image after image of their ideal selves—laughing, drinking, and dancing at invite-only events, clinging to the taut arms of grinning, sun-kissed men in unbelted linen pants drooping immodestly to reveal the pelvic v of an underwear model—right before they land on a four by two-and-a-half-inch full-colour ad for an orthopedic plastic surgeon who will break all of your toes and re-set them, until your feet look cute in flip-flops.

*

The new issue arrived from the printers on a shrink-wrapped pallet bearing 125 cardboard boxes containing 40 issues apiece. Carlos, the magazine’s new delivery driver, yanks on the cling-wrap chrysalis, and as it stretches the plastic bites into the joints of his fingers. He caries the boxes to the delivery van and slides them over the grooves stamped into floor. It’s almost 10am when he finishes loading, and his work shirt is now drenched with sweat and pungently fruitful with the extrusion of last night’s well whiskey.

Carlos drives the van through a sun-soaked neighbourhood and turns down a street overlooking Shoal Creek. He parks in the shade of a massive live oak and sleeps for forty minutes while a spring breeze drifts in one window and out of the other. He dreams he’s kissing Sonia, his ex, who in the dream is a kind of mermaid, enshrouded by a cloudlike suspension of sea spray. Around them, warm waves crash in slow motion. She lifts Carlos’ hand and lays it upon her yellow, goose-pimpled breast. Carlos wakes suddenly, with an erection.

Sonia left Carlos around the time she went back to school to get her EMT certificate. Now she’s a paramedic with the county. Of everything that was said between them during the break-up, the thing he keeps coming back to is the text message in which she told Carlos that she had to start taking herself more seriously.

Now Carlos is with Rachel, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sonia. Both are morenas, tall, and thin. Rachel becomes Sonia completely when the lights are out, and Carlos gently turns her face away from the moonlight pooling across their bed, limiting the sounds he makes to a preverbal grunting, too afraid he’ll accidentally call out the wrong name.

*

Carlos’ third stop is the 34th Street Café, where Linda Sahlstrom is meeting her friend Paige for a late lunch.

Paige, astonished, turns the open magazine towards Linda, saying, “Oh my God. This is her, isn’t it? In that cheap-ass dress?” Linda says nothing, her taut expression and unwavering eyes sufficient to confirm that yes, the woman in the photograph is indeed Erica Holtz, Tom’s old girlfriend from college—or had they overlapped into real life?

Paige knows all about Erica because Linda knows all about her, though Tom had only talked about Erica on two occasions—the first when they were dating, he and Linda having advanced to that stage when couples reveal to each other the various quirks and traumas of past loves, and again after they had been married for nine years, their boys already started at the Montessori academy. Tom sat her down on the settee in the foyer and explained that one of his managers had hired Erica to lead the UX team, and that he’d had nothing to do with it—Tom had been traveling, nonstop, and didn’t even known the current UX lead was leaving—and, well, he just thought she’d want to know. Tom added that Erica was more than qualified. She was so good at web design she was locally famous for it. She’d won awards. Linda barely heard any of this. “So…” she finally asked, “You’re not going to let her go?”

“Linda? Linda, hello?” Paige is snapping her fingers in the air between their faces. A moment ago Linda had been starving, post-Pilates, but now she can’t lift another forkful of her niçoise salad. “Weren’t you guys at that party?” Paige asks. Linda nods. It wasn’t a party, but an opening for a photorealistic painter from Slovenia, Ožbej Polona, who had been working in Austin for the last few years. Linda had become a follower of his work, and on the night in question she nearly bought one of his paintings—three pale men in dark swim trunks jumping into Barton Springs Pool, their fall frozen at the moment the first jumper’s feet break the surface of the black water, their inverted reflections rising to meet tem.

At the opening Ožbej had flirted with Linda openly, past what could be considered charming and well into an unsteady, subtextual probing, until she couldn’t tell if he was ardently trying to make a sale or if he sincerely wanted to fuck her. He was drunk, sure, and a slob, yes, but Linda warmed at the thought that whatever he saw in her was enough to jeopardise the five-digit figure on the little white card posted beside the canvas. More money than she’d spent on her first new car.

(In 2001, before she met Tom and was still working as a project manager at GSD&M, Linda bought a green Nissan Altima GLE 5-speed with leather for $18,200. This was after 9/11, when buying new things was supposed to be good for the country.)

When Ožbej touched her arm, his long fingers reached around Linda’s elbow and briefly brushed against her emerald green Givenchy cocktail dress, and beneath this, the side of her lifted, French-brassiered breast. He asked her if she’d like to get a drink after the opening, and Linda laughed, making a facile demonstration of her wedding ring. She said, “Oh, I’m married,” forcing a laugh, trying to obviate any perfunctory awkwardness, pointing at Tom, who was just across the room, talking to an elderly, cigar-smoking acquaintance. The artist asked, “Which one is he—Methuselah, or Adonis?” Linda blushed. It always embarrassed her when a stranger remarked on her husband’s obvious and uncanny handsomeness. “Adonis,” she said, with a sour taste in her mouth. Her face grew warm. “He’s quite the specimen,” Ožbej pronounced, shrinking away from Linda even as he spoke these words, with something in his voice that might have been bitterness. Linda stood there, helpless, as the artist excused himself.

Linda wonders to whom Ožbej transferred his swerving, arbitrary affection. Perhaps Erica Holtz. Linda hadn’t been aware of that mammary daemon in the gallery that night, but now, looking at the photograph, she’s convinced Erica saw her. Impossible that both women could have escaped each other’s attention in such a small space.

Linda wishes Erica would get hired away, or married, or abducted. Erica’s eyes dull over with a glassy distance whenever the two women are forced into an encounter, as if Erica is actively, in that fucking moment, redacting Linda from the substrate of her reality—like her and Tom’s ancient love is the living thing, while his and Linda’s is the fossil.

Linda didn’t want to take the magazine in front of Paige, so she stops at a Royal Blue Grocery on the way home to pick up her own copy. Alone with the magazine in her house, she can’t bear to break the spine. She leaves the ugly object on the Italian sideboard in their sparsely appointed kitchen, where Tom won’t be able to ignore it, his compulsion for analysis only exceeded by his fenceless curiosity.

*

At dawn the next morning Tom limps home early from his run, after rolling his ankle on a kerb. He hobbles through the front door, but only protectively; the pain is already diminishing to a low throb by the time he carefully sits on a stool in his heavily air-conditioned kitchen. Tom drinks ionised water from a glass bottle, looking through his dim reflection in the floor-to-ceiling glass, and then out over the chaparral of the eastern Hill Country, which reminds him of nothing as much as the overworld topiary in The Legend of Zelda, with its bulbous shrubbery spaced neatly along a grid of tannic earth. The only dramatic deviation on Tom’s horizon is the Balcones Escarpment, an emergent ridge a mile or so in the distance, made when two continents collided, three hundred million years ago.

(When Tom was twelve and trying to beat Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for the first time, his older sister stopped what she was doing to watch him play. The Nintendo was still a new thing in the house. Tom maneuvered his avatar of Link to the house of the Healing Woman, who led him inside and off-screen. He reappeared a moment later with his life meter fully restored. His sister said, “You know what’s happening in that house, right?”)

Tom finds the free art and culture magazine on the sideboard. He fans through it. Such a waste of paper. He glosses over the letter from the editor, his eyes alighting upon the phrase “simple but sophisticated,” smirking, thinking that transposing these adjectives would accurately describe their readership. Then Tom discovers the photos of the gallery show Linda had dragged him to a month ago, leading him by hand to the painting she wanted to buy, insisting it would appreciate.

Tom wasn’t playing dumb; he was genuinely at a loss. It was a picture of three fat guys jumping into a lake. No, wait. It was Barton Springs. He recognised the sloping lawn in the background. He said, “You want to put this up in our house?”

Tom finds Erica on page 54. He indentifies her body automatically, the way you know your own child by the smell of his breath. He knows her hair, the freckles on her shoulder, and the dress he unzipped and pulled over her head, a year ago this August, when he took the managers from UX and Dev to the Bay Area to workshop new apps with a startup his company had just acquired. As a surprise bonus, Tom had everyone put up at the Sir Francis Drake, in San Francisco.

Tom had kept his suite an extra day to have dinner with some friends at Google, and at first he thought he was mistaken when he returned to the lobby and saw Erica sitting by herself at the bar.

Hand to God, Erica insisted she had no idea Tom was also staying longer. She’d tacked a few vacation days onto the work trip so she could see the city—Chinatown, The Mission, Golden Gate Park. She invited him to sit. He could feel her watching him as he spoke to the bartender. Erica pushed her empty tumbler away from her body. She said she could probably have one more.

They flirted nakedly. Later, as arranged, he rode the elevator up four flights and walked the long hallway to Erica’s room. She let him in. Tom’s movements felt effortless, more like falling than an ascension. Their faces kept gushing into smiles, which seemed to indicate they both felt that what was happening was natural, almost predetermined. Not cheating, precisely, or at least not in its worst form. A brief resurrection.

The first pangs of guilt hit Tom the next morning, when he called home, hoping Linda wouldn’t sense that he was hung over and unshowered, sitting on the edge of a bed that he hadn’t slept in the night before. He could still smell Erica on his body. He heard his oldest boy laughing in the background and stopped pressing his phone so hard into his ear.

Standing in his kitchen and listening to the hum of the refrigerator, Tom has to confront the possibility that the free magazine is a yet-untranslated message. Did Linda and Erica speak that night? Tom hadn’t seen Erica, and had lost track of his wife shortly after they’d arrived. He recalls that she had seemed distant, later, on the drive home.

The affair in San Francisco had been brief, now nearly a year ago with no repetition, but Tom knew he’d fucked up, maybe royally. Erica was his employee; she could sue him, blackmail him, cause him to lose his kids. But even if Erica’s flattened persona at the office was a veil for something more sinister, he mostly just wanted to know how it was so easy for her to pretend that nothing had happened. She never texted him from a blocked number, never left a note on his car, never slipped into his office and closed the blinds. At work she spoke to him in the same voice she used with everyone else, which to Tom was a crushing kind of negation. Never so much as a suppressed smile at a meeting. Never a lingering look as they passed in the hall.

*

Years ago, just after she started working for Tom, Erica collapsed in the cheese section of the Whole Foods at Sixth and Lamar. She woke up in a bed at the Austin Heart Hospital, fingering her plastic bracelets, one white and innocuous, offering only her name, birth date, and an inscrutable serial number; the other safety orange, shouting VENT-TACH in an immodest black Helvetica. And a yellow one: FALL RISK. She was overcome with embarrassment at the sharpening memory of fainting at the grocery store, at realising some employee probably had to return all of the items she’d thoughtfully situated into her then abandoned shopping cart, and at the intimate view into her personal life that this had given them. She also wondered if her car was going to get towed.

The next morning, a cab dropped off Erica in the subterranean parking garage underneath Whole Foods. Erica passed people on their way to work, who looked over their shoulders at her as they rode the escalator upstairs. When she got into to her silver Audi Erica locked the doors and cried. Dr. Patel had thoroughly explained the possibility of sudden death.

*

There’s a knock on the exam-room door and then Dr. Patel appears, her expression a mixture of two things: the banality of the semi-annual checkup, and the quietly alarming concern she unfailingly expresses for Erica’s cardiac health. There are chest X-rays and an ECG printout under her arm. She describes the advanced physiopathology of Erica’s heart defect: a narrowed, misaligned ventricle, which no one has ever been able to diagnose as either congenital or acquired. Once again, Erica is warned against stress, strenuous exercise, and excessive amounts of caffeine. She checks the time; she has to be back at work before two-thrity. Dr. Patel jams the X-rays into the clip above the lightbox and explains the new direction Erica’s condition has taken, tapping her ballpoint pen here, here, and here. She wants Erica to have another angiogram. She wants her to start wearing her medical alert bracelet. She wants Erica to consider an ICD. “I can’t get a pacemaker,” Erica says. “I’m thirty-five.” Dr. Patel crosses her arms. She says, “Do you want to know how many people under forty die from this every year? Under thirty?” No, Erica says. She doesn’t. “Thousands,” Dr. Patel says.

*

Tom feels warm and pricklish as he drives to the office, taking the grey Maserati instead of the frank and black Tesla. Tom hasn’t driven the GT since the detail service last came to the house; he notices how they left visible grit in the seams between the leather and the carbon fibre console, and that there are tiny flecks of blue paper towel everywhere, and also a visible streak across the rear windshield.

Tom races down 71 under an overcast morning, the oversized engine growling as he hits 103 mph, his foot heavy on the gas, as if trying to escape the machine that contains him, whipping past BMWs and Escalades and dented Lexii and rotted-out pickup trucks loaded to the springs with lawnmowers and Mexican labourers.

At work, he’s startled to see the picture of Erica hanging in the cubicle of the assistant lead programmer, who is leaning back in his chair, parsing code. Tom pauses before he speaks, making sure to remember the man’s name. Gotam? Govinda? He softens his voice but can’t unfurl his brow as he says, “Are you into art, uh, Ghoshank?” Tom surprises the man, who is temporarily at a loss.

*

Ghoshank follows Tom’s gaze to the photograph tacked to the wall of his cubicle. Into art? Erica was clearly the photographer’s subject, the nearest canvas only fractionally in frame. Ghoshank considers his response.

*

Linda parks her Land Rover in front of the art gallery and exits gracefully, knowing she’s being watched by Ožbej Polona from the wide display window. She pretends to notice him for the first time and she smiles, waves. He raises his hand.

There is a brief discussion with Ožbej and the gallery owner before Linda gives the woman her Black Card. Linda signs the receipt and accepts a flute of Veuve Clicquot. She can feel the nearness of Ožbej’s body as they gaze together at the painting that is now hers. She studies the three men leaping into water, and feels the palm of the artist’s hand press against the small of her back. Ožbej tells her the painting’s story, that the three men are old friends from Ljubljana, who had visited the relatively tropical Austin last November, and how he’d made them jump into the frigid, spring-fed pool sixteen times before he’d finally got the right image, a photograph he could turn into a transparency and then project onto a blank canvas. How he changed the colour of their trunks, and made the water darker than it truly was. Linda feels duped, momentarily, like when she’s watching a car chase sequence in a movie and notices the hero’s muscled-up Mustang skidding onto preexisting tyre marks, left there from previous, less successful takes.

Ožbej leans into her ear and says, “I’ve been dying to ask—would you consider modelling for me?” Linda already knows, before he can explain in so many words, that he means right now, not hypothetically, and not at some nonexistent later date.

When he tells her that his studio is only three blocks away, Linda knows she will go there, and in her mind she is already undressed, deaf to the usual coterie of internal objections, finally realising she has long since allocated her entire capacity for care and concern to her boys, Matty and Sean. The joy she once felt at having her desires satisfied—and the other kind of thrill she’d relished at feeling them forestalled—have been transmuted into a currency of clumsy and forceful food-stained kisses, small arms around her neck, the waxen smell of Crayola caroming over butcher paper, and the living pressure of two warm-bodied boys still blind to their own trajectories. Compared to this eternally heartsick love, what is fucking? She texts Tom to tell him she’s having dinner with friends.

As she puts her phone back in her purse, Linda sees the deliveryman leaving a stack of the free magazine by the front door of the gallery. He must have heard Ožbej’s advance, and her response.

*

Carlos feigns obliviousness, knowing the woman is watching him. There are sirens in the distance, drawing closer. He pinches his damp work shirt, pulling it away from his drenched body. Maybe he’ll pretend he doesn’t speak English. To keep his eyes occupied, he gazes at a painting of a naked woman reclining on an unmade bed, a wide mirror behind her revealing the other side of her body. Except that something is off.

“You like that one?” a man says to him, appearing at Carlos’ side. Carlos adduces that this man is the artist. He’s grinning, holding a glass of champagne. He has to shout over the sirens and air-horn wailing of a passing fire engine: “They’re two different women! There is no mirror! It’s just a frame.” He sips his champagne and gives Carlos a smile full of yellow teeth. “They’re sisters, on two different beds.”

Carlos frowns, leaning towards the painting. The fire engine passes and its sirens fade into the distance. It’s true, he sees. The two women in the painting have slightly different hair colour, and the back of the second girl doesn’t quite match the front of the first. He reads the title on the white card tacked to the wall: Gemini Nude. Oil on canvas. $20,000. Jesus Fucking Christ.

*

Engine 31 of the Austin Fire Department is first on scene at a single-vehicle collision at the intersection of Ranch Road 2222 and Mesa Drive, where a grey Audi has been driven into a telephone pole, which now lilts to a dangerous degree. The front end of the car is crumpled like paper, buckling the rest of the frame and preventing the doors from opening. The firemen cut the car open and extract the driver and sole occupant: a Caucasian female, late thirties, approximately five-foot-three and a hundred and thirty pounds. A Travis Country EMS unit arrives. EMTs Sonia Rosales and Catherine Reid are working a 24-hour shift out of Station 8.

One of the fire guys advises Sonia that the patient is unresponsive and apneic with a thready, barely perceptible pulse. Sonia sees no obvious signs of trauma other than where the seatbelt has left a telltale purple contusion over the woman’s left collarbone. The patient’s skin is clammy, pale, and cool. Sonia hears nothing through the stethoscope. She notes cyanosis in the patient’s lips and in the beds of her fingernails, which are dusted with talc from the airbags.

It’s Catherine’s turn to drive. Sonia recruits one of the firefighters to assist with interventions and they load the woman into the ambulance, already en route to the nearest Level I trauma centre. Sonia commences a typical series of protocols: the fireman performs chest compressions while she administers bag ventilation at a rate of ten squeezes per minute, pausing twice for defibrillation. Nothing. The fireman resumes chest compressions. Sonia injects the woman with epinephrine, atropine, and sodium bicarbonate. She watches the pulse-oximeter report perfusion below 50% and falling. They continue but the patient never responds. She is pronounced dead by the on-call emergency physician at Seton Medical Center.

Sonia and Catherine give the fireman a ride back to his station. He tells them not to take it too hard. “You get to know when they’re not coming back. You fight it, but there’s nothing you can do.” Sonia looks away, doesn’t respond. She thinks this is a dangerous attitude for a first responder.

*

On the fourth floor of his company’s Austin headquarters, Tom’s phone buzzes in his pocket. He ignores it, still waiting for the programmer to reply. He tries to sound conversational as he tilts his head at the picture and asks the man, “Do you know who she is?”

*

“No, Sir,” Ghoshank says to the man who owns the company. He smiles. “I just love photography.”

In this awkward moment Ghoshank is fully aware of an Austinite idiom, how there is nothing under the sun these people simply like or prefer. They love-love-love a thing—or they loathe it outright, with a sneering, unchecked abandon. The things they emphatically demote or elevate to superlative status tend to be trivial objects, like a television miniseries, or a style of hat, or an East Side restaurant. But Ghoshank cannot begrudge them this usage, nor does “love” feel strange on his lips as he refers to a glossy piece of paper thumbtacked to the sound-dampening fabric of his cubicle. Love is safe from such insults; it is not a thing that remains fixed in one incarnation long enough to be scarred. Love is not for the taking. Love is a chameleon, a haunting, a shape-shifting ghost, alien to other emotions—anger, sadness, fear; love is much more like an acute spiritual possession, a thing that inhabits you, and then moves on.

Ben Reed’s fiction has most recently appeared in The Texas Observer, after he won their 2016 Short Story Competition, and on The Open Bar, the blog for Tin House. His stories can also be found in Big Fiction, Pank, West Branch, Seattle Review, Blue Mesa Review, and other places. Ben lives in Austin and teaches writing and literature at Texas State University.