When Chessa’s boyfriend of three years lost his job, she dropped him straight away. As with their arguments about health insurance and vacation policies, Chessa took the company’s side.
Please, he said.
Is this really happening? he said.
For Christ’s sake, he said.
He went on like that for a while. Eventually she had to walk out. She didn’t understand why he was so upset.
Neither did many of his friends, but for different reasons, related to the utter relief they felt when they realized the odds of any of them sitting next to Chessa at a movie ever again had decreased significantly. She texts during movies and taps the armrest when she’s bored. Those are the two horrible things she does when she’s out at a movie, but there are plenty more horrible things she does other places. Listen:
Chessa hugs on first meetings. By most accounts, though, she rarely hugs family.
Chessa likes to correct people. She wouldn’t say so, but she considers it the highest form of intellectual gamesmanship.
Chessa wears size two jeans. This by itself is not so horrible, although it is annoying. What’s horrible is knowing it, because if you know it, it doesn’t mean you have some intimate bond with her and she knows all about your jean size too, because you’re like sisters or something. It just means that you’ve known her for longer than a couple of days, because everyone who has known Chessa for longer than a couple of days gets to hear about her size two jeans.
Also, she probably does know your jean size, because she’s sneaky.
Chessa drives in the shoulder to get around traffic, then forces herself into the merging lane at the last minute. Several of her friends have interviewed her about this behavior, having for so many years observed it in anonymous others, always wanting to ask: who do you think you are?
The interviews ultimately yielded little insight beyond what could be simplified to a single lie: this is how you get ahead. Chessa is a loquacious interview subject who nonetheless says very little, as if protecting state secrets or her privacy.
Chessa is obsessed with yet faintly terrified by sex. That is to say she reads about sex and talks about sex and tries to be frank and no-nonsense like the sex columnists that she reads and also has terrible taste in, but word is, she pretty much has sex like she’s at a dinner party, fake-smiling and concerned about the linens. She only does cool weird sex stuff insofar as it inconveniences others. Such as: having sex in the shower when she had a roommate—a brief window of time outside of which she expressed little to no interest in shower sex.
That thing about sex? Obsessed, terrified? That goes double for black people. Chessa loves Jay Z and also secretly suspects that she will be raped and/or killed by a black man.
Once, Chessa and Maggie went to a play. This isn’t going to be an example of her being afraid of black people. This is a whole other horrible thing. At the intermission, Chessa excused herself and didn’t come back. This was not unusual behavior for Chessa; another time she left a movie after half an hour because she was convinced the actor was mispronouncing the word “triage” and she wouldn’t have it. Knowing this, and sensing her friend’s impatience all through the first act, Maggie suspected Chessa might slip out during intermission and text her later with a melodramatic excuse.
So, as the lights dimmed and Chessa’s seat remained empty, Maggie, too, left the play—which, she admitted later, was not very good, though she had sat through worse. She slipped out the side exit, looked both ways down the street, and spied Chessa smoking a cigarette on the next corner. Maggie stood and watched her for a minute, and when Chessa flicked the cigarette butt away and began to walk, Maggie hesitated, then walked after her.
Chessa walked uptown and Maggie followed, keeping about a block between them and occasionally looking back over her shoulder, half convinced that another friend of theirs would be following her in turn, ready to say: I caught you, I knew it, you care about what Chessa does. When not considering the ramifications of a friend-trailing train, Maggie imagined where Chessa’s walk might be headed. Suggestions, some reasonable and some constructed more like jokes at a Chessa roast, spilled out of her head, and she almost stopped at a bench to write them down and rank them by likelihood.
If she had done this, she probably would’ve arrived at certain key phrases repeatedly, like “rendezvous” or “married man” or “only store in Manhattan that sells” or “French” or “secret boring handbag” or “designer imported cigarettes.” So Maggie had to hand it to Chessa when she turned and walked into an ice cream parlor.
This ice cream parlor didn’t sell anything imported, French, or handbaggy. It certainly wasn’t the only one in Manhattan. It probably wasn’t even the only one on the middle-upper west side of the island. It advertised great-tasting low-fat chocolate soft-serve to attract tourists and had a bunch of plush versions of cartoon characters in the windows to lure tourists’ children. Maggie kept walking, barely slowed down, her casual stealth a byproduct of pure disbelief; on some level, she thought the sight of Chessa stepping in for mass-market ice cream was a hallucination.
But it wasn’t, at least not the stepping in part. Chessa did not emerge from the store with ice cream but rather one of the Chipmunks, the fat one with the green shirt, in plush form. She squeezed it, like a one-fisted hug, tucked it into her purse, and turned to head back downtown.
This gesture reached out from across the street and struck Maggie with a crisp smack. Chessa had always rebuffed any attempt Maggie had made to enter a toy store while they were out together. Maggie even thought she saw Chessa roll her eyes when scanning Maggie’s bookshelves, particularly (though not exclusively) toward the handful of stuffed animals slumped against the novels about New York and the hardback books about different types of bugs—plush childhood artifacts mostly, plus a bunny Maggie won from a claw machine the one time that ever happened. Come to think of it: Chessa also waited outside when Maggie played that claw-machine game.
Then Maggie, standing on the corner thinking about her bookshelves, got a text:
Srry. Had to bail out. Migraine.
Chessa does not get migraines. None of her friends can prove this, but it is more or less universally accepted as fact. Other ailments that nine out of ten non-doctors would agree that Chessa absolutely does not suffer from include: Claustrophobia. Sensitivity to light. Seafood allergy. Low self-esteem.
Chessa says she’s going home to go to bed, then goes to another party.
Chessa never answers the phone before the third ring, unless you are the single most important person in the world, in which case she may get it on the second.
Once, I had a really good talk with Chessa, and I carry it with me in my head, not so much for the talk itself, but as an example of how maybe you could have a really good talk with anyone under the proper circumstances.
The conversation was about county fairs. We both went to a lot of them when we were kids. She stopped going because her friends at the time started thinking fairs were stupid and her parents always thought fairs were too dangerous to visit alone.
At that moment, I wanted to drive to another county and go to the fair with her, although preferably I would somehow be fourteen and she would somehow be fourteen because it sounded like we would’ve liked each other more back then.
I don’t know if Chessa actually dislikes me. Another horrible thing is that, most of the time, she talks to her friends and people she hates and people she’s not sure if she’s met before more or less the same way.
Chessa takes a lot of cabs.
Chessa wears heels almost everywhere.
To be honest, this next thing doesn’t have that much to do with Chessa. It’s just something else that comes to mind because Maggie was complaining about her when it happened.
But listen: I was in the park with Maggie and she was complaining about Chessa when these kids walked up. They were twelve or thirteen or fourteen. I can’t always tell ages. Three of them. They gave us this look, down at our little blanket, like they wanted respect or something. I don’t know. Maybe they were looking to see what kind of Doritos we had. But I caught their eye and I said to them: “No mischief.”
I don’t know why I said that. There was an old guy in my neighborhood when I was growing up who said it sometimes. I was looking forward to getting old and sitting somewhere and saying that myself someday. I jumped the gun, saying it in the park. These kids were maybe too old for it. They could’ve been fifteen.
So I said this to them, no mischief, and the medium-sized one—maybe he was in charge of the smallest and the tallest because he was the average of them, uniter of various heights—he stopped them, stared at me for a second, and then spit right on the blanket and laughed. I said something weird to him and that was enough for him to spit in contempt. It made me mad. I jumped up.
At this point Maggie was tugging on my shirt a little, murmuring something about leaving it alone, but my legs wouldn’t give way and sit back down, and I took off after those kids. And the best part was that they ran. They were still young enough to run away and I was still young enough to chase them. So I did.
I ran pretty hard through the park, and at one point I even slowed down to make sure I didn’t actually catch up to them because I hadn’t worked out what to do yet. At the end of the park, they hung a hard right and ran further into the park instead of taking a left out onto the street. I was assuming the idea was to get to the streets, because what was I going to do there? Running through the park is acceptable; out on the street, I’d look like a mugger or something. But I guess they didn’t want to look like muggers either, so they ran into a concrete skate park area that none of the skaters skated in anymore since this warehouse a few blocks away got abandoned.
These kids dashed into the concrete skate park like it was home base, like there was a force field that would keep guys like me the hell out of there. For a second I wondered if that was true—or if there would be a bunch of other kids waiting there to hit me in the face with skateboards. I think I read about that on a police blotter once.
But no one came out and whammed me in the face with a skateboard, so I kept chasing them, into the skate park, until we all silently agreed to stop because we were close to the other end of the fence and the main thing we could’ve done was circle back and chase over some of the same ground again, and we were all getting winded.
And for a second the urge to do something about these kids, to these kids, escaped out of me like the air from my lungs, and we were going to be stuck here, awkward and adolescent, what are you going to do about it, waiting to make a stupid move. But then one of them spit again, not even on me, on the concrete, and instead of wondering if maybe there was a glandular problem at work here, I got incensed again, re-incensed, and then I had these kids right where I thought I wanted them. And then I took a swing.
It was such a bad swing. I punched the smallest of the three kids in the arm. If we had ever met before it would’ve been affectionate. The kid looked at me like he was made of metal, not solid steel or iron or anything; like he was tin, maybe, and I only dented him, and it wasn’t painful but definitely weird and inconvenient. Then he looked embarrassed, maybe because he wasn’t kicking my ass, maybe because the two bigger kids weren’t kicking my ass in retaliation, or maybe because that second thing was his first thought.
The biggest one did step up in his defense, though.
What the fuck, man, he said.
They didn’t run anymore. They walked away from me slowly, like how you might step around a puddle.
I stood there and waited for them to leave, and then I walked back to where we had the blanket, and Maggie was folding it up, using the wind instead of a second person to smooth out the folds.
What was that? said Maggie.
They made me really mad, I said. Fucking spitting on a blanket, I added, trying to recapture it.
Did you beat them up? said Maggie.
I don’t think I did, I said.
I think you’d know, said Maggie.
And then she said: I had to clean up that spit myself, while you ran off like a crazy person.
Sometimes I wish that people I don’t like would fight my battles for me, and against each other. Like: why couldn’t those kids in the park fight Chessa? I don’t think anyone would’ve been seriously injured.
I don’t know if I actually dislike Chessa. Unless you take into account whether I want to talk to her, or spend any time with her in the present day, or whether I think my friends should be friends with her. Then I probably dislike her. But I don’t hate her. I try to be cautious about who I hate. I think if Chessa disappeared from Earth without a trace, I would miss her. Conceptually, I would miss her. I would miss hearing about new horrible things from Maggie or noticing new horrible things at parties or watching how she raises the horrible babies I assume she’ll give a horrible husband.
That might be a horrible thing about me. You’d know better than most.
And I miss that about you.
I think I could think of more things to tell you, more ways to catch you up on what’s been going on. But that’s one: I do miss you.
We could catch up some more, maybe just on the phone. I could fill you in on friends of friends, and we could hear each other’s voices, listen for those changes in their tones: Low for joking. High for serious. Fast for complaints about our friends. Hitting all of those notes, the phone receivers like real microphones in a duet. I will sing talk to you tomorrow, even if it is the last conversation we ever have.
Chessa has money, so she’ll be okay.
If you call, I will stare at the phone in a moment of glorious disbelief.
If it’s you, I will answer on the second ring.
Jesse Hassenger was born and raised in Saratoga Springs, NY, which is why he gets really excited whenever a story or movie or TV show mentions Albany, Stewart’s, or Price Chopper. Now he lives in Brooklyn, edits textbooks, and tries to make his wife and daughter laugh. His short fiction has appeared in The Masters Review, Threepenny Review, The Toast, Southern California Review, Westchester Review, and Brooklyn Review. His film and cultural criticism appears in The Onion’s AV Club, Brooklyn Magazine, and Men’s Journal online. He is co-founder of SportsAlcohol.com, which is not what it sounds like.