In other words, I was old.
If Petra hadn’t called for security by the time I made it to the front of the line, she might be amenable to listening to a middle-aged woman in a dated power suit, sporting a farmer’s tan. We’d kept the script simple, direct, and professional. The advertisements already lined the walls of the conference room, blown up to poster size and somewhat intimidating. Lukas decided to play all bases—some featured the photo of Petra from her book cover, wide-eyed and dewy skinned, and others featured the products, the aesthetic and design heavily borrowed from the kitschy-hipster style of Anthropologie with the clean, inviting lines of Restoration Hardware. It felt derivative to me. Too safe.
As a general rule, I liked safe. Or, I used to. But then my safe life betrayed me. Jesse and I built our lives around cultivating security. We took risks far fewer times than other couples our age, and when we did, like canceling one life insurance policy before taking up with another, it not only bit us in the ass, but it chewed and chewed until we couldn’t sit down.
A woman like Petra Polly needed something so far outside the box that the box could no longer be seen. This wasn’t it. But then Lukas seemed to understand Petra on a deeper level than the rest of us. I kept my mouth shut.
“What are you wearing tonight?” Lukas had come up behind me while I mused.
“What? I thought I’d wear this,” I said. I had on a gray linen suit, with a coral shell underneath for a pop of color. I’d even scrubbed out under my fingernails and painted them to match. When I left the house in the morning, I’d thought I looked pretty good.
“No,” Lukas said with a moan. “No, no, no. We do not want Petra Polly thinking we’re suburban. Suburban equals slow. You look like an advertisement for the LOFT.”
The shell I was wearing came from that very store. “What’s wrong with the LOFT?”
“Nothing. That is, if you’re selling Tupperware.” Lukas glanced over at Glynnis, who wore a mustard-colored shift dress with a crazy pattern at the hem. Then Rhiannon walked by sporting loose-knit, almost too-revealing leggings, a T-shirt with an iron-on unicorn emblazoned on the front, and a bright blue beret. Rhiannon was surely over thirty—weren’t there rules?
“Jackie’s look is so dated it actually almost works,” Lukas said. “But you? You need to change.”
I mentally itemized my closet. Did I have anything remotely hip? “It’ll take me at least a half hour to get home and back. Maybe more.”
“You don’t have that kind of time. We need to be at the bookstore an hour before Petra arrives. You’re creative, Paige. Figure it out.”
“I look ridiculous.”
I stood inside Mykia’s truck, wearing her ratty overalls, grubby tank top, and floral Doc Martens.
“How do you think I feel? I’m the one who looks like somebody’s mother,” she said.
“That is not a bad thing,” I sniffed. Mykia looked good. The gray suit softened the hard lines of her body, and the coral shell complemented her dark skin. “You look better in my clothes than I do. That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair,” Mykia said. There was a catch to her voice, a sadness that I had to explore, whether she was open to it or not.
I lowered myself to the flat edge of her truck. Some people nearly passed her stall, struck by the oddness of her appearance, but then stopped when they noticed the scarlet tomatoes, deep green cucumbers, and glossy black eggplants. Mykia might’ve looked like she sold insurance, but her produce was anything but boring. She attended to them, working slowly, as if she wanted to eat up my available time.
“What is it you don’t want to talk about?” I asked when the last customer walked away.
Mykia avoided my eyes. “Nothing. Let’s talk about what you’re going to say to that Petra person.”
“Mykia . . .”
“Paige . . .”
This mother type knew how to work this one. I didn’t say anything else, letting silence do its job.
“Oh, okay,” she said after a moment. “I made an agreement with my father. I’m going back to dental school in the fall.”
To a parent, news of a child returning back to school should elicit a thrill. I felt anything but. “What about the farm?”
She shrugged. “Maybe I can work it part-time.”
“Aren’t you the one who told me part-time and farming don’t ever go together?”
When Mykia finally met my gaze, tears sparkled in her large brown eyes. “I am twenty-five years old, and I’m still being semisupported by my father. He will need to continue to do so if I keep doing what I’m doing.”
“If he’s okay with that, I don’t see the problem.”
“But I see the problem, Paige. All he’s asking is that I be practical. I’m trying to do that. Going back to dental school assures my future.”
“If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that our futures are never assured. You need to do what you love. You’ll be miserable otherwise.”
The side of her mouth quirked up. “That’s pretty good advice. Has it worked with Trey?”
She had me there. I’d fought Trey’s pursuit of photography with every tooth and every ragged nail. “Touché. But it doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It might just mean I’ve been stubborn and obstinate.”
She laughed. “With you, those aren’t necessarily bad qualities.”
“Will you at least give it a little more thought?” I said softly. “Please, Mykia.”
“All right,” she said.
“And anyway, who’s going to go to a dentist with a missing tooth?”
“All part of my charm,” she said with a smile. “People will love it.”
I walked back into the office, bracing myself for a flurry of comments, but everyone was so nervous and distracted they barely noticed me. Lukas offered a quick nod, which told me he approved. In T minus twenty minutes we were heading to Tomson’s, the cute indie bookstore in the center of our town.
“Can I speak with you a minute, Paige?” Jackie lifted one heavily penciled eyebrow. “In private?”
I followed her into the hallway. She fidgeted, moving her phone from hand to hand, and picked at a stray hair caught in her lip gloss. “I need you to do something for me,” she said. “Please.”
“When you bring Petra to the office, I want you to steer her in my direction so I can make the first impression. You know I like Glynnis, but I think you understand how difficult it would be for me to find another job at my age.” For the second time today, a woman teared up in my presence. “Please,” she said. “I’m desperate for this to go well.”
I wanted to tell her that I thought the chances of Petra Polly stepping foot in the offices of Guh were slim to none. I wanted to tell her that I thought one of the two of us was definitely going to be let go. But I couldn’t. Her hope, frantic as it was, shimmered as brightly as her frosted lip gloss.
“I’ll try,” I promised. “I really will. But I won’t purposefully block Glynnis. I hope you understand.”
Jackie touched my shoulder. “I just need a chance. I’m really good at what I do.”
“You don’t need to tell me that. I know.”
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