There was a hole in Jenny’s kitchen. It was not a normal hole— not a hole corroded from water damage or dry-rot or punctured by Jenny accidentally dropping a heavy pot on the floor while trying to rearrange the kitchen because she was so sick of how her apartment looked.
No, it was a perfectly round hole, smoothly circumscribed and excised as if by a god’s compass. It was the size of a single person, and that person was Jenny herself.
What was in the hole was not normal, either. You could not see the layers of linoleum, wood, concrete, and steel beams stratifying the perfectly smooth circumference of the hole, nor the kitchen of Miss Abbergast, the crazy cat lady, down in the apartment below Jenny’s. The hole was simply black; plunging, impenetrable black. No light or gradation of shadow shown in its depths whatsoever. It was a smooth well of black ink. It allowed no light and gave no light. If Jenny dropped something down the hole it would not return, nor would it make a sound. There seemed to be no bottom within the realm of the hole.
But there were voices coming from the hole. Whispers, groans, moans, wails, hateful laughter, screams, shouts. They but rarely remained quiet for long. When these voices did stop, the singular and friendly voice of a man would speak to Jenny.
“Jenny, it would be so nice if you could stick your head down here so we could have a look at you. We just want to say Hello.”
When Jenny said nothing, and backed away out of the kitchen, there would be a silence from the hole for a moment, and then the cacophony of overlapping voices would return, loud and urgent and incomprehensible. At such times as these, Jenny would turn her television on and sit and watch Wheel Of Fortune on mute. It was like the noises from the kitchen were coming from the game show’s audience. She was not of a settled mind as to why she did this. It was like embracing the hole and disavowing it at the same time.
Jenny told no one about the hole. She was glad she had no regular visitors. She was also glad her mother was confined to the nursing home where she could not visit her daughter anymore. That old hatchet would have blamed the hole on the fact that Jenny never married. In particular, she would have blamed it on the fact that Jenny had never married Arty Witzman. Her mother blamed a lot of things on the fact that Jenny had never married Arty Witzman. Jenny’s middling job as a secretary was because she had not married into the Witzman family trust. Her father’s early death was because he was stressed from fear that Jenny was a closeted lesbian in denial of her own natural inclinations. Her mother’s failing health also stemmed from Jenny’s relationship status, as did the Yankees not winning the Super Bowl. When Jenny pointed out to her mother that the Yankees were a baseball team that could never play in the football championship, her mother blamed her single status for that as well.
“No grandchildren to keep our name going,” the old matriarch would say on the phone. “No grandchildren to keep your father going. I’ll be passing soon, too, and then my poor baby will be all alone.”
“I’m fine, momma,” Jenny would say. “I am happy alone. I really am.”
“You should have married that nice boy, Arty. He would have been good to you. He would have made you happy.”
“He would have been good for you, momma. He would have made you and dad happy.”
“But now who are you going to marry? Nobody! Maybe you should have been a lesbian. You would have found someone then and been married. It’s legal now.”
“Mom, I’m fine being alone…”
“And you could have been artificially inseminated. That’s legal now, too! You could have chosen any father for the baby you wanted. Tom Selleck! Your son could have looked like Tom Selleck!”
Sometimes things came out of the hole. They walked on two legs, mostly, but sometimes they crawled on their hands, too, if they had hands. Jenny could not see their faces. Male or female, their heads were blank and bald. They tried to speak, but their mouths were muffled. They stared blindly at Jenny from the kitchen. Mute and blind and deaf. Eventually they would crawl back into the hole— not unlike rats into tunnels— and speak from there. Of course, they would all drown each other out until their voices died away and that one singular voice spoke up again.
“We really would like to meet you, Jenny. We could be such wonderful friends.”
Jenny had friends, despite what her mother believed. They were work-friends, of course, but friends just the same. They would invite her to parties, or ask her to go out with them to bars after long shifts at the Firm. Jenny declined everytime, but it was nice to be invited. That they thought of her at all sufficed for her.
When not working, Jenny spent much of her time watching true-crime television programs and being grateful she had not entered into an abusive relationship, or had been murdered for an insurance policy. Life was simpler on this side of the television screen, and it made her grateful for the simple life she had. Things always became complicated when there was more than one person mixed into Jenny’s daily routine, like a whole handful of extra cogs in a clock that did not need them. That was one of the many reasons why she stayed away from her mother. That old woman had no life of her own, and so she sought to control Jenny’s life. Even when her mother had her own life— before the nursing home— she had sought to control Jenny’s life.
Jenny lived in New York, but she did not feel like a New Yorker. Walking the streets was like navigating an alien landscape with hostilities lurking under every passing face. She had been born in New York— in a taxi, no less, while her father cussed the afternoon traffic— and yet she felt like an illegal immigrant trying daily to trick the “true” New Yorkers into believing her faulty facade. She feared that, sooner or later, they would deport her. Her paranoid mind paraded delusions constantly. A bus full of witch-burners. A flash mob at the park ready to crucify her to a tree. The other New Yorkers—the true New Yorkers— would all turn as one and scowl at her, then grab her roughly, telling her she did not belong here, and then take her to the outer city limits and heave her into the Atlantic with a face-breaking splash into that cold, briny water.
That was why Jenny stayed home in her small apartment when she was not stuck behind her secretarial desk. Her apartment was a refuge from the alienation of her birthplace. Her mother knew how Jenny felt, how Jenny had always felt, and had scolded her for it her entire life.
“You are a New Yorker, Jen, and you need to start acting like one. This meek and mild nonsense has got to stop. The city would eat you up if not for me protecting you.”
“I’m fine, mom,” she said. “I’m okay with being alone.”
“It’s not healthy, Jen,” her mother said, disapprovingly. “It’s not natural. You need someone to protect you when I am gone.”
“I’m okay with being alone.”
The faceless figures nodded in the kitchen.
Jenny had done what she could to reinforce her apartment with her own identity. As a result, it was quite bare and plain. The truth was that Jenny did not know what she wanted. She had vague inclinations, like bran cereal and the urge to watch gameshows with the sound off and the subtitles on, but she did not know what she wanted in life. Her mother had crowded Jenny’s head with many expectations and admonishments that the old matriarch deemed crucial to a happy life. Since moving out on her own, Jenny had followed a scorched earth policy to those mobs of nagging expectations. Yet, in the burnt-out void of her mother’s demands Jenny found herself standing amid nothingness with little conception of which direction to go, or, indeed, which direction lay where.
Jenny was forty-three years old and she did not know what she wanted in life.
She did know what she did not want in life. She did not want to listen to her mother. She did not want to go out in the city after dark. She did not want to talk to people outside of work. She did not want to open the blinds of her apartment windows and look out upon the cityscape, whether it be day or night, dark or light. She kept them shut, and thus kept the alien sprawl of the city out of her wary head.
Jenny feared the silent, sullen-eyed skyscrapers as much as the people milling around them. Those glass-and-steel monoliths loomed over her like overbearing parental figures, silently mouthing criticisms and demands while she tried to live her life the quiet way that suited her sensitive nature. The giant buildings told her that she had become pudgy, that men were disgusted by the way her belly bulged over the buckle of her belt. They said she should stop eating pepperoni pizza and cherry cordial ice cream because it pitted her face with acne. They warned her that she was getting older and uglier, that one day she would wake to find herself in dread of her future and in regret of her past, having squandered her life by living like a solitary nun.
She wished she could shout the skyscrapers down, topple them with a word, create an expanse of silent land echoing all around her, the rubble swept away in the outward sweep of the pronunciation, only herself remaining where once an overwhelming multitude of busily bustling mobs and machines battled daily for meager inches of breathing space. Sometimes she wished she could shout herself away, too.
And through all of this the hole waited. It babbled and it waited.
Then one day Jenny saw an advertisement while reading some online articles on her computer at the Firm. It was an ad for a matchmaking site called “Reel Love”. The site’s logo had a fishing pole with a heart-shaped hook on the end of its line. It boasted of having united over “One Million People In Matrimonial Bliss”.
It was Jenny’s lunch break. She was eating leftover spaghetti that she had brought from home. The spaghetti sauce was cold and wet and salty on her lips. For some reason— she did not know why— the combination of licking the cold spaghetti sauce and seeing the “Reel Love” logo made her eyes start to water. She dabbed at her cheeks with her paper napkin and then, on impulse, clicked on the advertisement.
She gasped. This was a company computer. Now she feared that the ad might have been a viral portal and she felt a heart-quickening terror at having infected the entire network. The whole business communications array would shut down and her boss would be furious. They would trace it back to her computer. She feared she might even be terminated.
Within a moment, however, she was brought to the main “Reel Love” website. It was a free dating site, evidently. She did a quick Google search for its ratings and reviews, all of which seemed to regard it as an authentic website. Out of curiosity, she perused some of the profiles and blushed to think of all of the men on the site that she found herself wanting to know more about.
Telling herself that it was all for fun, she hastily filled out a profile for herself and used her old employee ID photo in the Human Resources file as her one and only photo. She was skinnier then, nearly eight years ago, and her hair was not so faded or thinned as it was now. Her glasses in the photo were a bit thicker, though, and her brown hair was shortly cropped, unlike her drab, poorly straightened longer hair she had nowadays. Still, she justified the innocent subterfuge with the excuse that she had no other photos and, telling herself that she was making the profile only as a novelty and not with any serious interest or intent in dating.
Her profile completed, Jenny logged off and finished her bowl of spaghetti before she had to get back to work.
Later that day, when Jenny was ready to turn her computer off, she received an email notification. Going to her inbox she found a message from Reel Love stating that someone had commented on her profile. Jenny dithered for a beat, not knowing whether she wanted to ignore the message and forget about her profile or to open her profile to read the comment. Curiosity prevailed briefly and she started to log into the “Reel Love” website. But then she stopped. She feared what she might find. What if someone had written something mean-spirited and captious. She could barely handle criticism from her mother anymore; criticism from a stranger seemed worse.
Another email alert popped up in her inbox. Her curiosity won out, at length, and she finished logging in. The two comments were from the same person. With great expectations she read them, her heart in her throat..
“Go kill yourself, Velma!”
The secondary comment was from the same anonymous person.
“Seriously, Scooby Doo’s not the only dog in your show!”
Crying now, Jenny logged off and turned off her computer. She went home.
Riding the bus while crying was embarrassing, so Jenny pressed her face against the bus window and pretended to watch the streets and people pass by. It was midwinter and the days were short, shortened further by the tall skyscrapers that huddled together to block out the setting sun. The busy streets were already swimming in gray shadows, threatening to darken to night just as Jenny stepped off the bus and entered her apartment building.
When Jenny arrived at her apartment, she immediately went to the kitchen and began washing dishes in the sink. Jenny enjoyed washing dishes by hand. She never owned a dishwashing machine and she never would. It wasn’t that she enjoyed playing in the hot water— though she did— nor the simple reassurance that she would have clean dishes available when she needed them. No, instead it was the gratification of personal liberty and personal responsibility. It was a ritual of independence and self-reliance and an exercise in self-motivation and maturity. It was much the same as what a bachelor might feel as he was washing a beloved car just before a night spent cruising town on a Friday night. It reinforced ownership and strengthened the idea that these were her dishes, her apartment, her life. She belonged to herself, for better or for worse. No one had a say in how or when she washed her dishes. Her mother was not there, like some nagging supervisor, to shovel her bank-load of two cents down her daughter’s throat.
Jenny also liked playing in the hot water, and the simple joy of submerging a dirty plate, scrubbing it, and then lifting it from the water, squeaky clean. If only the city itself could be so easily, magically cleaned— cleaned of all the people who ignored her like some trash caught in a sewer grate.
After washing the dishes, Jenny ate a peanut butter sandwich for supper and watched tv on mute. As she sat on the couch— listening to the voices in the hole—she heard a chime. It startled her and she glanced around, confused. Her eyes alighted on her cell phone. She picked it up and glanced at the screen. She had an email from Reel Love. She pushed the icon, but then set the phone down. She did not think she could handle another hateful message from another stranger.
Jenny continued to eat her peanut butter sandwich. She continued to watch tv on mute. She continued to listen to the voices coming from the hole in the kitchen. Occasionally she glanced down at the phone, fighting against her own curiosity.
Curiosity eventually won and she picked up the phone. Opening the email, she saw that she had a “Catch” and, so, logged onto her Reel Love profile. She did not open the message, though. She was still fearful that it would be another mean text. Instead, she set the phone aside and went to the bathroom to take a shower. She took a long hot shower, letting her pudgy body pinken in the steaming water.
When she came back into the living room, she watched the evening news. Figures were getting out of the hole in the kitchen. They stood around, arms hanging laxly at their sides while they leaned forward, as if ready to fall. The faceless people stared at her while she watched depressing reports about the world. The volume was turned off and the subtitles were on. The apartment was completely silent except for the softened noises of the sleepless city beyond the blinds and drapes. Eventually, Jenny picked up her phone and checked her online profile.
The “Catch” was a man under the username of “Ken-Do Attitude”. He had sent Jenny a message.
“Hi! I just wanted to say Hi!”
The redundant message did not seem to be sarcastic. When Jenny checked on “Ken-Do Attitude’s” profile she found him to be an average sort of guy whose only flaw was a fondness for not smiling in his pictures and having a combover that drew more attention to itself than it would have had the man simply let the bald pate show through.
Still, there was a familiar sentiment in Ken-Do Attitude’s eyes that made Jenny want to respond to him. She typed something simple and unadorned.
“Hi! It was nice of you to say Hi!”
A prompt message returned to her.
“You’re welcome!” Jenny typed, not really knowing why he was thanking her.
“My name’s Kenny,” came his next message. “You seem nice. I like that you like game shows. I like Jeopardy, even if Trebek is a little bit haughty.”
“You’re right!” Jenny responded. “He is a little bit haughty.”
“My favorite show is The Price Is Right,” Kenny said. “When I get the chance to watch it.”
“I like it too!” Jenny responded, not really sure why she was using an exclamation point to punctuate every sentence. “I don’t get to watch it often either. I’m always working when its on.”
The faceless figures watched Jenny from the kitchen threshold, staring blindly as she texted on her phone. They stood and stared for a long time. Then, with what appeared to be reluctant resignation, they loped back to the hole and crawled back in.
Through their online conversations Jenny and Kenny learned basic things about each other. Kenny was a computer programmer and networker for a local company. He said he worked twelve hour days, on again and off again every three days with a fourth day being allotted for an eight hour shift to even out the forty hour workweek. His schedule was a mess, typically, and he did not have a lot of free time to pursue social activities. Nor did he have the “knack” of social interaction. This confession only reinforced Jenny’s fondness toward the idea that Kenny was her soulmate since she, too, failed at being adequately sociable. She told him, often, that she felt like a hermit crab looking for love, and he, being a like-minded introvert, shared the sentiment and assured her that he was willing to come out of his shell if she were willing to come out of hers.
So, before either one knew what their fingertips had done, they had agreed on a time and place for their first date.
The day of their date Jenny gussied herself up like never before. She put on her best white blouse and did up her hair with a brush and a red bow. She even was so cavalier as to wear a red skirt, albeit with black stockings to warm her against the Winter winds. Looking at herself in the mirror, she knew she would not have been most men’s first choice— she looked like Minnie Mouse on second glance—but she liked to think she was Kenny’s first choice, and that sufficed enough for her modest confidence.
Meanwhile the faceless figures in the kitchen languished by the hole as Jenny left her apartment, turning the lights off as she went.
They were to meet at a casual restaurant a few blocks from Jenny’s apartment. As she rode the bus her mother called.
“Mom, I’m going on a date!” Jenny blurted into the phone.
Strangely, there was a long silence on the other end, and Jenny thought, perhaps, that her mother had accidentally “butt-dialed” her. But then she remembered that this was her mother and she never did anything accidentally. After a moment, her mother spoke. Her tone was as stiff and blunt as a burnt baguette.
“What kind of man is he?” she asked.
“A nice guy,” Jenny said. “He works a lot of odd hours, but he’s nice. I mean, I haven’t actually met him yet. We’ve talked online, but he seems nice.”
“You haven’t met him yet?” her mother said, incredulous. “Jen, of all the nonsense you’ve ever done! Met him online? Ridiculous! He could be a serial killer and you wouldn’t know!”
“He is not a serial killer, mom,” she said. “He’s a computer programmer.”
“Computer programmer?” Her mother sighed raggedly. “I suppose I should be relieved he is employed at all. But did you know that Arty Witzman has become a doctor? A surgeon no less…”
“A computer programmer is a very important job, too,” Jenny said.
“Not like a surgeon,” her mother grumbled. “What’s his name? I bet I know his family.”
“Kenny,” Jenny said, glancing around self-consciously at the other passengers on the bus. She felt like they were watching her; judging her. “Kenny Mahoney.”
“A Mahoney? There’s no good that comes from a last name like that. Just imagine what the children will be called in school! Mahoney bologna. He was probably called that in school, which is why he never became a doctor.”
“Mom, you can’t judge people on their last names…”
“Yes, you can, too! It tells you what kind of family they come from. Whether they are respectable or not. In New York you know everything you need to know about a person by their last name. And Mahoney is not a good name. Not like Witzman…”
“Bye, mom,” she said, and then turned off her phone.
Jenny stepped off the bus and walked down the street toward the restaurant. The evening pedestrian traffic was thick. Normally Jenny would have shunned the streets at this time, staying at home and watching tv and listening to the hole in her kitchen. There were innumerable people walking with and against her, but she felt she could cope with the crowded sidewalk because she was going to meet who would, in her mind, be her soulmate. In fact, this hopeful thought made her feel a little less alienated from the city tonight. She felt like she finally belonged here, or at least would belong here once she and Kenny bonded together like all of those other couples that Jenny watched and envied on the street everyday. Together they would be stronger. Together they would be happier. Life would have greater meaning. Every day would be like the Yankees winning the World Series, except without the cheering and the clapping because ruckus like that upset Jenny’s nerves.
There were several people crowding the restaurant’s entrance. For a restaurant operating under the pretense of being casual, it sure appeared to be the “must-be” place. She wondered if they would need a reservation to get in. So many people were crammed together at the door that she thought it must be a fire hazard.
Overwhelmed by the crowd, Jenny lingered away from it. She did not want to try to infiltrate that shoulder-to-shoulder mob. It would have been worse than riding the subway train at rush hour. And she hated the subway, whether at rush hour or not.
“Jenny! Jenny, over here!”
It was Kenny. He was deep in the crowd, near to the doors and waving his hands frantically above the other prospective patrons’ heads. Jenny peered at him, and peered through the crowd around him, wondering how she was going to get to him.
“They’ll let you through,” he said, his optimism not quite believable. “Don’t worry. C’mon in.”
Against her better judgment, Jenny waded into the crowd. She got quite a few glares and grumbles as she bumped into people and slid between them and tripped over their feet. Eventually she arrived next to Kenny. She tried to return his smile, but found herself annoyed and frustrated and quite captious.
“You should have chosen a different restaurant,” she said.
Kenny’s smile faltered, like a captain feeling coral on the underside of his ship as soon as he spots land on the horizon. He looked embarrassed and penitent, but instead of softening Jenny’s attitude, his hara-kiri smile only exacerbated her irritation.
“You’re right,” he said, nodding like a berated schoolboy. “Normally when I eat here it is 4 in the morning. It’s easier to get a table then.”
“It’s not 4 in the morning now, is it?”
“No,” he said.
“Most sensible people are in bed by then, anyway,” she continued.
“You’re right,” he said.
The wind was cold this evening, even with the people barricading the two of them from all sides, and that bitter wind seemed to invade Jenny’s lungs and heart and make her bitter and cold also. She suddenly wondered if the hole in her apartment was cold or warm or felt like nothing at all.
“You really should plan ahead for these things,” Jenny said. “You’re a grown man, after all.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling nervously. “You’re right.”
They waited in silence for a couple of minutes. While they waited, Jenny reflected on her behavior and wondered why she was so waspish. Kenny looked like a beaten dog. As she stole glances at him she realized that she should apologize. Yet some hard stone in the back of her throat refused to budge on the subject. The harder she tried to dislodge it to let an apology through, the deeper and sharper and more embedded it became.
And then Kenny— like a hopeful jester walking the steps up to the gallows— tried to tell a joke.
“Hey, want to hear something funny?” His hopeful grin was beyond naive. “What did the taxi driver say when the knight got into his cab with his jousting stick?”
Jenny did not say anything. She was not certain she wanted to hear the punch line.
“‘I’m afraid there is going to be an additional sir charge.’”
Jenny did not laugh. Her face became taut and she turned away, crossing her arms and tightening them around the pillar of irritability she had become.
“I hope we go in soon,” she said stiffly. “I will get a cold if I stay out here much longer.”
Kenny opened his mouth to say something— again with hopeful naivete somewhat brightening on his face— but then his face fell into an expression of glum impotence. Another minute passed in silence. The minutes seemed to last forever right now.
At length, Jenny and Kenny entered the restaurant and, after a few more minutes of waiting, they were taken to a small table in the corner. A waiter brought them menus, and took their drink orders, then left them to their frigid silence. The window beside them offered a view of the brick wall belonging to the building next-door, as well as the dumpsters. It was not exactly romantic, which irritated Jenny even more. With no good view, she could only look at Kenny, or else at the crowded restaurant and all of its livelier patrons— laughing, smiling, chatting in ways that Jenny did not know how to even parody. When she looked at Kenny she found herself analyzing all of his flaws, her mother’s voice categorizing and elaborating on them indulgently.
Kenny was pudgy the way Jenny was pudgy. He was not unhealthy, and certainly not fat, but he had relaxed too much into his sedentary job, slouching in front of his computer. Jenny could tell. Like herself, Kenny had forward-neck syndrome, his neck angled against itself at the nape and the shoulders instead of rolling smoothly up to the base of the skull. Looking at him, she knew the most exercise he had daily was equivalent to her own: stepping up and down from a bus and walking a block to get a coffee and a doughnut at a café.
Yet, Jenny was irritated by his pudginess. In her mind he would have looked quite fetching had he lost a couple dozen pounds. That there was potential made her all the more captious. It was like the healthier, handsomer Kenny was a bully mocking Kenny behind his back, and he did not have the strength of spine to confront him.
Finally, she spoke.
“You should exercise more,” she said. “It’s not good for you to be overweight.”
Kenny smiled sheepishly. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to go to one of those Cross-Fit gyms. I just feel so exhausted whenever I get off my twelve-hour shifts.”
“But all you do is sit in a chair,” she said, more outraged than she meant to sound.
“You’re right,” he said, blushing.
“Well, then you can go to the gym before going to work, and then rest while you are sitting in your chair at work. I bet you have restless leg syndrome, don’t you?”
“I do,” he said, cringing at the onslaught. “Sometimes.”
“Going to the gym would get rid of that problem. You should start tomorrow.”
Jenny assumed Kenny had restless leg syndrome because she suffered from it constantly at work also. She had tried to join a gym and make a habit of exercising before work, but never really took the first step. She knew, even now, that she was admonishing herself through Kenny, and yet she could not stop.
Kenny glanced around for the waiter, and adjusted his glasses.
“And you should change your glasses,” she said. “They don’t really match your face.”
“You’re right,” he said, deflating in his chair.
“And sit up straight.”
He straightened his back and pressed his chest out, though the look on his face seemed less determined than his tucked-in gut. He looked like might pop his gut.
“Don’t hold your breath,” she said. “You’ll give yourself an aneurysm.”
Kenny tried to laugh it off, but his laughter fell dead from his mouth. “You should have been a drill sergeant. You could make a supersoldier out of anybody.”
Instead of laughing, Jenny scowled. She knew it was a joke— moreover, she knew there was truth in it— but she could not smile at it. So, she scowled. She wondered if she was looking more and more like her mother right now. If she had caught sight of herself in a mirror she probably would have ran off screaming to the nearest skyscraper and thrown herself off. Her eye glanced at the window, but instead of seeing her own reflection she saw faceless figures strangling each other in the side-alley. They seemed to get no satisfaction from the throat-crushing skirmish.
The waiter arrived and took their orders. When he left, Kenny tried to talk to Jenny more. He spoke of his family in New Jersey, his upbringing, his job.
“Eventually I hope to move to first shift,” he was saying. “Maybe live less like a vampire and more like a normal human being.”
“You should get a new job,” Jenny said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“My boss said I’m making good progress,” Kenny said, his tone more hopeful than boastful. “He said he wants me to be in charge of my own code team when we get the next contract. I’ll be the primary coder.”
“But do you get a raise for it?” Jenny countered.
“Well, no, but it would go toward my favorability with the higher-ups. And would look good on my resume…”
“So do it and then get another job,” she said. “A better job. Right now you’re basically a computer physician. You should be a computer surgeon.”
“I don’t know if that’s accurate,” he started to say. Her glare made him stare down at the table. “You’re right,” he said. “I should be a computer…um… surgeon.”
Time passed. The other diners came and went, all of them much happier than Jenny felt. She was becoming impatient. She was hungry and still cold and, above all, she was irritated with her soulmate for not being more perfect. The faceless figures stared through the window in anticipation, no longer strangling one another.
“What is taking them so long?” she complained. “We’ve been here for almost an hour.”
“There are a lot of people…” Kenny said, but then shriveled under Jenny’s withering look.
“Thank you, Mr. Obvious, but that doesn’t excuse bad service. Next time you should to take me to a better restaurant. Maybe some place less ‘casual’. It will cost more, but there will be less people and better service.”
The waiter eventually returned and apologized, saying that their order had been misplaced among what was an avalanche of orders from the other patrons. Apologizing several times, he took their orders again, and promised the meals would be free of charge. Kenny was delighted, but Jenny was furious.
“If we had come earlier we wouldn’t have been forgotten,” she said.
“We’re getting our food free, though,” Kenny said sheepishly. “I mean, that’s good, isn’t it?”
“We should have went somewhere else,” she said, her eyes daggers that stabbed every person in the room with merciless deftness. “And you’re just relieved that you don’t have to pay for me.”
“That’s not true,” Kenny said. “I like you, Jenny. I…well, I would take you to Hawaii for a pork roast if you wanted me to. I’d do anything for you.”
“I don’t like pork,” she said, dismissively. “And Hawaii’s too hot.”
The waiter brought them their food within quarter of an hour, with a healthy heaping of sides and apologies and well-wishes. As they started to eat, Jenny resumed criticizing Kenny.
“You shouldn’t eat mozzarella,” she told him. “It’s bad for you. It will give you a heart attack. My father died of a heart-attack.”
Kenny paused, the mozzarella stick suspended in front of his shocked face, poised between his pointer finger and his thumb. Some of the Italian sauce dripped onto his white shirt, red and promising a stain.
“And now you’ve gone and dirtied your nice shirt,” Jenny complained. “You really should be more careful when you’re eating. You’ll ruin everything you touch if you don’t follow etiquette and pay attention to what you are doing.”
The faceless figures in the side-alley nodded furiously in agreement.
“I was paying attention,” he said, sadly. “You just distracted me…”
“That’s no excuse to be a slob about your food,” Jenny said, horrified by her own words and yet unable to stop herself. “You’ll never correct your own bad behavior if you don’t own up to it. You have to acknowledge a problem before you can solve that problem.”
“You’re right, but…”
“And you seem very reluctant to find fault in yourself. That’s a bad sign. Maybe that’s why you’re in your forties and still trying to go on dates instead of being married with kids.”
“You’re right,” he said, devastated. “You’re right, Jenny. I hate being alone, if you must know the truth. I work so much and then I come home to sleep or watch tv. Sometimes I go out, to places like this, by myself, to convince myself that I’m ‘happy’. But I’m not.”
“You need to get over it,” she said. “Be a man. Grow up. Life sucks, but you’re your own problem. Deal with it.”
The remainder of the date was spent in silence. Kenny did not eat any of his food. When the waiter asked if anything was wrong, Kenny only said that he did not have much of an appetite today. Jenny did not eat much, either. She felt too angry to eat— too angry at Kenny and at herself and at New York and all of its happily bustling, chatty people— and so she just sat and fumed, a migraine coming on in earnest due to her anger and her hunger.
“Are you finished eating?” she said.
“Yes,” he said, not looking at her.
“Then it’s time to go.”
Stepping outside, they slipped through the crowd still waiting for their chance to dine. They walked down the cold, loud, scintillating street.
“You’re not walking me home,” she said. “So don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then I guess I’ll say ‘Good night’ now. Good night.”
“Just like that?” Jenny snapped. “That’s a bad way to end our date.”
“Well…” said Kenny, slowly and flabbergasted. “Do want a want hug or handshake or…?”
“No kissing,” she said quickly. “But you can hug me, if you want.”
“Okay,” said Kenny. He stepped forward, with a self-consciously awkward smile, and gave Jenny a brotherly hug.
“You do need to go to the gym,” she said as she released him. “Good night.”
“Good night,” he said, sighing like a tire on a nail.
Jenny and Kenny went their separate ways. He walked with a glum shuffle toward the subway terminal. She walked with a determined stride toward the bus stop.
It was only when she had halted at the bus stop that her mother stepped out of her— so to speak— letting Jenny see things clearly again and gain perspective on her own behavior that evening. Cringing at the painful reflections, she wondered why? Why was she so critical? Why did she badger and brutalize him so much? She was embarrassed. She was ashamed. Tears came to her eyes and she wished she had never gone on a date with Kenny. At least then they would still be on good terms with one another, and he would not think of her as a judgmental nag. Were there enough apologies in the world to tend to the wounds given to him?
Nearby, the faceless figures slouched despondently, as if ready to collapse in a pile on the street.
Acting on impulse, Jenny took out her phone and called Kenny. Miraculously, he answered.
“Hey,” he said, sounding like he was dying.
“Kenny, I want to apologize,” she said. “I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did.”
“No problem,” he said, his tone lightening.
“No, I mean it,” she insisted. “I was a real…a real bitch today and I want to tell you I am sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“No, it’s not okay,” she said, feeling her temper rise. “I normally don’t act like that. I am normally a quiet, kind person. Not bitchy. But you messed up and it irritated me to have to wait out in the cold around a bunch of strangers. And then they forgot our food, which is why you should have never brought me there. I mean, what were you thinking bringing me to that restaurant?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice dropping like an anchor into the deck of a boat.
“No, you’re not supposed to apologize,” she said. “I called you to apologize. Though you do owe me an apology for messing up our first date.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Well, you can’t just apologize for it and act like it never happened. I mean, it was our first date, and it’s been ruined, and all because you didn’t have the foresight to plan on the restaurant being busy in the evening. That should have been obvious to you. You know everyone eats out and drinks in the evening.”
“You’re right,” Kenny said.
There was a long, silent pause from Jenny’s end.
“Um,” said Kenny, “Jenny, are you still there?”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “I am waiting for something.”
“Waiting for you to accept my apology,” she said, irritated.
“Oh! Right! Apology accepted,” he said.
“And I accept your apology,” Jenny returned. “Just be more thoughtful in the future.”
“The future?” he said, the wariness in his voice as obvious as if he was being trained for a new job involving New York sewers and alligators.
“Our next date,” she said. “Be more thoughtful about it next time. Think it through.”
“What?” she asked, sharp as a filet knife in the ribs.
“My job is just so…untimely,” he said. “I don’t know when I will get my next evening off.”
“You said you worked four days a week,” she said.
“Yes, but one of our programmers quit so I might not be free for a while. Overtime work. You know?”
“Then we can text each other,” Jenny said. “Until your next day off.”
There was a long, silent pause on Kenny’s end now. “Right,” he said. “Sure.”
It had been two weeks since Jenny and Kenny went on their first, and only, date. Jenny had been texting Kenny, but he was not texting back except infrequently, and even then tersely. When Jenny logged onto Reel Love she found that his profile’s status remained as “Floating” whereas Jenny had already changed hers to “Hooked”. When she asked him why he had not changed it yet, he told her he just forgot. At least he had not changed his status to “Bobbing”, which was more or less an admission of getting “Nibbles” from other girls online.
Meanwhile, the faceless figures gibbered in the kitchen, staring after Jenny while hunched over in stances expressing uncertainty and anxiety and duress.
As time passed, Jenny became more and more determined to find Kenny and talk to him in person. Lately he was becoming so reticent in his texts that she could hardly expect more than a few words in his replies. So, feeling both peeved and anxious, Jenny wrapped herself in a long coat and headed to the restaurant where they had went on their one and only date. It was had been three weeks to the exact hour since that date and, she reasoned, that Kenny should be there since, according to her reasoning, he was not an especially creative guy when it came to dating.
The restaurant entrance was crowded. The patrons pooled out into the street in a chatty rabble. Jenny could not see Kenny among them. Yet, she had her suspicions. She walked down the alley beside the restaurant and looked in through the windows. Her heart and face both fell when she saw Kenny sitting at the table with a girl very much like herself— only cheery and blonde and glowing with joy. Kenny looked like a different person as well: he was not so hangdog and gloomy as he was on his date with Jenny. He smiled, quite a lot, and when he smiled he became very handsome. There was a good rapport between Kenny and his mysterious friend, which only stung more sharply in Jenny’s heart. This dinner date seemed to be everything hers had not been.
Turning away from the window, Jenny left the alley and walked back to her apartment. She did not feel like taking the bus. Feelings of alienation and loneliness overwhelmed her. Again came the irrational desire to scream the buildings down to rubble and blow everyone around her away. At least if there were no people around she would not be so starkly reminded of how alone she really was.
Except for the faceless figures— they followed her closely, like a marching parade without music or merriment or smiles or sounds.
As Jenny entered her apartment her phone rang. Thinking it might be Kenny, she hurriedly struggled to take it out of her purse. She was in such a rush that she did not look to see who the caller was, and instead answered immediately.
“Hello?!” she said.
“Jen, you haven’t called me today,” her mother said.
“Oh,” said Jenny, dejected. “Sorry, mom. I’ve been…busy.”
“You are never too busy for the woman who brought you into this world, Jen. That is quite disgraceful, you know. What would your father say?”
“Mom, I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood for a lecture. I just saw Kenny with another woman.”
Her mother did not miss a beat, but was at the ready like a gunslinger at high noon with a pistol aimed at the heart. “I tried to warn you about men with the last name of Mahoney. You cannot trust them. No good comes from that name. Now Arty Witzman would have never treated you like that. If you had just let him take you on a date you would have seen…”
The phone fell from Jenny’s ear, regaling the floor with all that could have been while Jenny walked into the kitchen.
“I don’t like my life,” Jenny said, staring down at the hole. Several of the faceless figures were crouched around it, and looked up at her expectantly. “I hate my life. I hate being me.”
The faceless figures nodded with unnatural rapidity and speed. Then they each, in turn, climbed into the hole. A voice called from the hole.
“Come home, child,” it said, “and be at peace.”
The hole was quiet now. It was dark and devoid of longing and of hopes and fears and expectations. It asked nothing, but gave everything; everything Jenny thought she desired. Solitude, peace, silence, nothingness. She slipped off her shoes and socks; she shrugged off her long coat and blouse; she let slip her skirt and pantyhose and undergarments. Then, after a long moment of standing bare in the stark fluorescence of her kitchen, she took a couple of steps and dropped into the hole, plunging soundlessly out of sight.
Voices rose from the hole afresh: laughing and shrieking and crying and shouting in unrest. And a moment later they hushed. The hole was gone, as if it had never been there.
Kenny returned home to his small apartment. It was nice to see his sister again and to take her out for dinner, especially since she was now eating for two. Knowing that he would soon be an uncle also made him feel happy.
As he took off his shoes, the thought of the coming workweek hit him hard with the dread of all of its grinding overtime and computer-code isolation. He tried to remain positive, but it was difficult, especially after his disastrous date with Jenny, which continued to haunt him weeks later with its humiliations and disappointments. He vowed to learn from it, however, and tried to remind himself that it had been his first date in years and that he would do much better with the next girl that responded to him on Reel Love.
Suddenly optimistic, Kenny checked his phone to see if he had gotten any “Nibbles” today.
“None,” he said, sighing.
He set his phone aside and stretched, feeling his gut swell around his belt buckle. He did need to lose weight. Suddenly all of the happiness he felt for his sister disappeared, leaving him feeling deflated and insignificant. He went into the living room and sat down on his love seat. What an ironic name for his couch, he thought: love seat.
To distract himself from his cynicism, he turned on the tv and played a videogame. It was an action-adventure game with a bikini-clad warrior woman fighting demons and other hellspawn. It embarrassed him to admit it, but if he went into a game store his eye would inevitably drift toward games like this one, featuring a female protagonist endowed with special powers and a special figure. That said, he knew that if he ever won a woman’s heart he would never need to play such games again. What would be the point? He would feel fulfilled. Complete. Whole.
Kenny played the game for an hour or so until it was almost time to go to work. He checked his phone once more and found no new messages. Standing up, he felt like he had been dissected by aliens, piecemeal, and they had chucked him into their waste disposal and jettisoned it into space. He went into the kitchen and grabbed a tv dinner from the freezer, putting it in his lunchbox alongside a thermos of coffee and a plastic-wrapped doughnut. He was about to close the lunchbox when he stopped, took the doughnut out and put in a bag of baby carrots. He almost closed the lunchbox again, but hesitated, throwing the doughnut in for good measure.
“I’m going to be there for sixteen hours,” he told himself. “Better bring all of the food I can.”
Turning off all of the lights in his apartment, Kenny went to the door. Hesitating, he looked back, surveying his apartment and its glum silence and brooding shadows and meaningless emptiness. Defeated by this perpetual bachelor’s lifestyle, he stepped out and locked the door behind him, then went to start another long, code-crunching, screen-staring workday.
And in the living room, next to the playstation and between the tv and the love seat, a perfectly round hole opened. Echoing from its black depths were voices that laughed and cried and screamed and moaned, and they waited patiently for Kenny to return from work so they might welcome him home.