Not a Chance by Brenda Salinas Baker
My calendar’s automated alerts remind me to check up on my enemies. Once, twice, three times a year, depending on the severity of their insults. I occasionally come across a detail that brings me satisfaction, but generally, my enemies seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Everyone seems more accomplished online. I know that even at knifepoint they couldn’t recall the humiliations seared into my memory. If pressed, they might wave their hands and apologize, saying they were working through their own trauma at the time, trauma a self-help podcast had helped them see. Or worse, they might invert the story and say it was my fault for being a know-it-all scold with no skin. Either way, I guarantee they’re still up to the same shit.
I track my enemies’ locations and affiliations to either avoid or orchestrate run-ins. It depends on how thin or accomplished I feel. I don’t like being caught off guard.
Within minutes of his annual alert, LinkedIn said my first ex-boyfriend started working at my conglomerate. You see, this is precisely why we get ahead of these things. I couldn’t risk running into him puffy-eyed and unprepared. I waited until the day I was the featured speaker at an important industry event to send him a direct message.
“Hey. LinkedIn tells me we work for the same parent company. Welcome to the team.”
“Well looky here howdy do. Longtime! We should get coffee.”
“Sure. It’d have to be today because I’m leaving for Copenhagen tomorrow and my travel schedule is crazy after that. I have an event tonight. What about 4:45?”
An hour before reencountering the first guy to boost, and then crush, my self-esteem, I changed into a Chanel-style suit and got a blowout.
When I saw him climb up the stairs, he looked as though he’d shrunk. His head and hands looked large for his body—the combined effect of a coarse mop, cartoon eyebrows, and a bushy beard. Not even my grandfather would have worn those glasses. I couldn’t reconcile the übernerd in front of me with the guy whose cruelty had almost sent me to the convent. I wouldn’t notice this man if he were the only other person in my subway car, not that I take the subway anymore.
I had recently combed my high school diaries searching for a certain poem. The poem was terrible, but that’s beside the point. Through the pages, the motif of his manipulation became clear to me. Our tragic romance transformed into a sinister calculation. He had smelled the loneliness on me. He had seen me sitting at the edge of the bench where the cool kids had lunch. He had heard how loudly I laughed at their jokes. He had watched me pass out my teacher-mother’s permission slips. He was the first boy who didn’t ask to copy my homework. We exchanged screennames and started chatting after school. I invited him to a party where he and his brother sold drugs. He kissed me in front of a crowd and started calling me his girlfriend. I floated off into the kingdom of chosen girls.
Months after his older brother started having sex, he said, “I don’t understand the point of dating if we don’t even do stuff. All I do is listen to you complain.” I made myself do things before I wanted to and now I can’t do them without remembering. Within the pages of my diary, my wrinkled eyes saw the truth. He dosed his cruelty to make me break up with him, without considering my self-hatred. When he finally said the words in front of our shared locker, I vowed to stop eating until he changed his mind. My parents told me to cut it out or get sent to a convent. I learned to hide it better. He kept selling drugs at my friends’ parties, but now I spent lunch at the library while he laughed at the edge of the bench. He reserved words for me in the hallways. The day I got into college, he said, “You must finally be feeling good about yourself.”
Fifteen years later in the corporate café, his voice had risen by an octave. I didn’t know men’s voices could change in that direction. When he talked about the A.I. research he collaborated on, he positively squeaked. I asked him how he had chosen his field.
“My brother got me a job at his mentor’s research lab.”
I resisted pointing out he was still following his brother. The girlfriend featured on his Instagram was inexplicably pretty. My engagement ring glittered while I gestured sympathy for his overdosed and drug-dependent friends. He talked about the class clown.
“Around college we started getting on different paths. I was done experimenting and he couldn’t stop. I went camping with him while he waited for a bed at a rehab, but we don’t talk much.”
“Well, I hope he finds something that’s good for him.”
“Me too,” he said.
I asked about his parents and siblings. I told him how it felt to watch my sisters become mothers. I was ready to reply to any rude remark he might have made, but no cruelty came. To our coworkers in the corporate café, we were old classmates catching up. That’s what he thought was happening too, I’m sure. There were no apologies. Asking for one would have been admitting I was still a little broken. I thought of my handsome husband, and I said goodbye to the shrinking man. I had to run, I said. I was the featured speaker at an important industry event.
Brenda Salinas Baker is an MFA Student at The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. She was a finalist in The Breakwater Review’s 2021 Fiction Contest.