Shelby scoops up Blinkie and heads back, takes her leashes and thanks Sarah. Together they walk toward the Ninetieth Street entrance.
“So what are your favorite girl names?” Sarah asks.
The park is much more crowded now. There are kids everywhere, or maybe Shelby doesn’t usually notice toddlers and babies in strollers.
“My friend’s daughter’s name is Jasmine.”
“That’s pretty,” Sarah says. “I love that.” They’d reached Fifth Avenue. “Are you going down Eighty-Ninth?”
“I’m going to think of her as Jasmine.” Sarah pats her belly. “Thanks for the name. Thanks for being happy for me.”
Shelby stays where she is. Sarah crosses Fifth, then turns and waves. Shelby waves back.
Then Shelby starts downtown. No cab will stop for her until Fifty-Ninth Street.
“I have to charge you extra for the animals,” the cabbie says. He’s nothing like the first driver.
“Fine.” Shelby gets in. “Go down Ninth Avenue.” She directs him to the veterinary hospital. She promises him an extra twenty bucks if he’ll watch the dogs for five minutes.
“But just five minutes,” the cabbie says. “Otherwise it costs more.”
Shelby goes to the entrance. She knows the maintenance guy, Leandro, who cleans the cages and watches over the kennel on weekends. When she taps on the glass, he waves and buzzes her in.
“It’s not Monday,” he says to her. Everybody is aware of her schedule. Everyone is aware of what she’s done. He seems concerned. “Are you sure the doc is expecting you?”
And then she knows. He’s got someone else back there.
“Oh, yeah,” Shelby assures Leandro, a nice man, about her father’s age. His worried expression isn’t changing, but Shelby takes off running down the hall. She can hear them before she opens the door. The murmurs of lovemaking; a girl’s thick voice, and then his, a voice she would recognize anywhere. Shelby walks in, braced for it; still she’s stunned to see him fucking a girl on the couch. She’s young, with masses of long black hair; maybe she works in the billing department, or perhaps she’s one of the veterinary students interning for a semester.
Harper gazes at Shelby, and for a moment it’s clear that he doesn’t recognize her. She just stands there as the girl pulls on her shirt. Then Harper’s eyes light up. He looks like he’s already thinking of ways to spin the situation to his best advantage. “Shelby, this is not what it looks like.”
She can’t believe he’s just said that. That’s dialogue from a movie that she doesn’t wish to see, let alone star in. “Really? Then what is it? You’re doing to me what you do to Sarah. Lying.”
Harper is pulling on his jeans. “Shelby. Don’t be like that.”
“Do you know her?” the black-haired girl asks.
“I’m Monday night,” Shelby tells her competition. “I assume you’re Sunday morning.”
“What is she talking about?” the girl asks, a break in her voice.
Every Monday for over a year it’s been the same. After she assists while he attends to sick dogs and cats, after surgery, after she mops the bloody floor and washes her hands, they come here. The couch, the desk, the calendars, the photos of Sarah. Shelby breathes in the scent of Lysol. How did she ever overlook that wretched smell? It reminds her of the hospital, of the floor of the bathroom, of the way she was treated like an object not a person.
Harper comes to take Shelby’s arm. “We can talk later.”
Shelby wrenches away from him. “I think we’re over.”
“You’re never happy. It’s never enough with you, Shelby.” Harper sounds wounded, as if he’s the one who’s been betrayed.
“By the way,” Shelby tells him, “it’s a girl.”
Harper looks at her, confused.
“Sarah’s planning on calling her Jasmine.”
“You saw Sarah?” Harper runs a hand through his hair. His expression has darkened. Shelby has moved outside of the box he put her in. One night a week, separate from his real life.
“She couldn’t have been nicer,” Shelby tells him. “I think we could have been friends. We’d have a lot to talk about.” She wants to hurt him, at least a little.
“Listen to me, Shelby, you leave her alone.”
Harper is no longer his usual charming self. See a charmer and you’re bound to see a snake nearby, Maravelle told her, and it’s turned out to be true. Maybe this is just a part of her punishment. She dumped Ben, she was thoughtless and mean, maybe she deserves to have wasted her love on a liar. All the same, she wants to salvage something out of this mess, so she does. She grabs Sarah’s painting off the wall. She’s always liked it.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Harper has moved from faux-betrayed to furious.
Shelby knows what she’s doing, so she ignores him.
“What’s going on?” the girl on the couch asks.
“She’s a maniac,” Harper mutters. “That’s what’s going on.”
The painting is heavy, but Shelby manages to get it down the hall. Leandro helps her by opening the door into the street. “You okay?” he asks. He’s a big, gentle man, and Shelby smiles up at him.
“I am,” she assures him. “Thank you.”
The painting fits neatly into the trunk of the taxi. It will probably be another ten-dollar charge, but Shelby doesn’t care. She wants to look at a field, a stream, a boulder, a blue sky, a landscape of pure white snow. Whenever she does, she’ll think she couldn’t save Helene, and she couldn’t save Sarah, but she can save herself.
The tattooed girl is in the deli, stealing an apple. Shelby is there by happenstance, since she’s rarely in Union Square these days. She doesn’t work at the pet store anymore, and only stopped in to see Maravelle. When she first resigned, they didn’t want to let her go. They offered more money. They kept saying she was too big an asset to lose, when all she did was boss people around in a way that made them think the decisions they made were their own. So she made a deal: Maravelle would be promoted to manager and Shelby would train her, without pay.
Now Shelby is picking up a Swiss on rye with mustard, lettuce, and tomato to scarf down on her way to class. It’s her last semester. She has zero downtime in her day. She’s gone from a pot-smoking failure to a workaholic. She is a tutor at school and works in a lab. She doesn’t know how it happened. It’s like a magic spell, one where there’s a transformation and everything that happens is invisible. One minute she’s a lost girl sitting in a deserted park in her hometown smoking weed, and the next she’s got a 3.8 average at Hunter College and is seriously considering vet school. Her biology professor suggested she apply for a fellowship, which she was stunned to receive. Now the City of New York actually gives her money each month. When she quit the pet store her employees took her out to a club in the East Village, where they danced on the bar and all got extremely drunk. She danced for hours with Juan, who has qualified for the New York City Police Academy and quit the week after Shelby did.