Are You Adaptable (part five)
“I don’t know,” Beloye said. “I don’t read thrillers.”
“We’re not talking about books! I want you to understand. I would never have invited Stenner along yesterday if I thought he was the kind of guy who just sidles up to women. I thought he was okay.”
“He is okay. I like Stenner.”
In the way Stenner had said he liked Nola. A tick late, Beloye saw her error.
Again, some struggle compressed Nola’s chin, drew a line between her eyebrows. Anger, disgust, incipient tears, Beloye couldn’t tell. “You haven’t eaten. Don’t you want something?”
“I want french fries,” Nola said.
Outside a walkup window, Beloye told her, “I’ll pay.”
A man waiting behind, one hand holding up a phone, the other thrust into his hair, kept inching, shifting foot to foot, pivoting out of line, craning his neck towards the cashier. When Nola said, “No…please,” and started grubbing for a coupon she thought she had, he threw a dramatic hand, hair to sky, gave a loud exhale, rolled his eyes and swore into his phone, as though he and his friend were sharing this moment. Nola mumbled, arm plunged to the elbow. Maybe it wasn’t in there, maybe it was in the fanny pack.
Beloye (albeit by an idiot) was embarrassed. Anyway, she wanted Nola to feel better.
“Pay me back.” She stepped up. “Two large fries, thanks.”
As they walked, she asked point blank about Arnold. Had they split up?
“Oh. I had the impression Arnold was still in the house.”
Nola shrugged. “The house is big enough for us to be separated.” She put a hand on Beloye’s arm. “It’s not like I can afford to move out. It’s not like he’s gonna move.”
“Sorry, it’s not my business.”
She thought about Nola and Arnold, tried to picture them avoiding each other, camping in rooms, waiting at the door for a durable silence before venturing out. Beloye threw away the empty fry box, tossing it guiltily into the back of a garbage truck. Maybe this wasn’t wrong…if she remembered, she’d look it up. Maybe the people in the penthouse were watching, and she’d get a ticket in the mail. She put her hands in her pockets, Stenner’s pockets. She found a card.
The card said: Stenner, with a phone number. No photo, no corporate logo, nothing on the back. What did she know about Stenner? He’d approached Nola, dated her a little…decided Nola wasn’t right. Nola, in Beloye’s private opinion, didn’t make enough of an effort. And that had nothing to do with Arnold. As long as they’d had the Tolhursts in common, Nola had said to Beloye, about clothes, career…even about Dan, “Oh, I envy you…”
When Beloye offered to help, or teach, or give outright (not Dan), Nola shrugged, and said, “On you, not me”, or, “No, I’m just complaining.”
Stenner had, at any rate, switched his attentions. And was he fun, or was he a jerk? Mostly, he talked about himself. He told Beloye things, watched her react. He backed off, or stepped sideways, claimed he hadn’t said what she’d thought. Dan might be right, but she didn’t think Stenner had made up the ghost story. He implied some connection with the high rise developers, but wouldn’t say so himself.
Did he want Beloye to make up her own story?
Towards what end? And then what line did you draw between looking out for yourself, and letting yourself get paranoid? She opened the apartment door, crossed to the sofa, flopped, opened her purse, dropped her keys in. Dan stirred in the recliner. Boz spread on his lap stretching claws. The television was going…it was always going.
“How are you guys?” His attitude regarding her cat, when speaking to Beloye, was hostile; yet she caught Dan now and then. “Did you have lunch?”
He stared. The expression on his face reminded her of Nola’s. He dragged himself sitting, kneeing Boz to the floor. Dan nearly spoke, stopped, looked Beloye up and down, waited as though he expected her to speak. Finally, he said, “Your jacket doesn’t fit.”
She was hurrying. She had three blocks to cover. Overtaken by conflict, Beloye faltered in her steps. She’d reached the corner, turned to cross the street, and someone had called her name. For reacting with an over-caffeinated start, she knew he’d seen her hear. Besides, she knew who it was. And now, for that second’s waffling, there was no help; the little bent figure outlined in bluish-white vanished, replaced by the red hand. She’d have to wait for the light, or truck off madly in the wrong direction.
“Wait!” Arnold yelled.
Last night she’d teetered. Then recovered, telling herself, Dan doesn’t live in my closet. I can face him down. If he somehow thought she was wearing Stenner’s jacket, he’d have to be the one to say so. He said nothing. He stood, took up his phone from the TV tray, walked with deliberation to the door, exited into the hallway…shut the door firmly. She guessed he was calling his brother.
Cars began to move.
“Arnold, you’re making me late for work,” she told him.
“One time, you can be late.”
“I’m always late.”
Are You Adaptable
(2015, 2018, Stephanie Foster)