I first met Caleb Allen at the twenty-four-hour Kroger where he stocked shelves third shift. He was only twenty-one and had failed out of college the year before because he found it beneath him and told me “the services rendered were not worth the costs incurred.” I was an insomniac, and near nightly went to Kroger at three in the morning to meander among the concentrated fruit juices and cans of condensed soup, under fluorescent lights that tricked me into believing I should be awake anyway. I often found Caleb on his knees, deftly tugging items to the front of the shelf, face-forward, while he sang old blues songs and occasionally broke into bursts of air trumpet. He was the only living thing in a dead place. Over several months we got to know one another, me stuffing roast chicken and Oreos into my basket, him trudging along beside me, telling me fish facts, monologuing about Marxism. He was always chewing gum, snapping it between his teeth, blowing bubbles. I found him annoying and told him so, frequently, yet he was never deterred, probably because I sought him out every time I showed up, pajama-clad and melancholic, begging for a distraction. When one of my tellers quit to tend to her vintage typewriter eBay store full-time, I suggested that Caleb apply for her position.
I was Lead Teller, with no authority to hire or fire, but the tellers were still my responsibility. Caleb came into the branch a few days later looking lost and young, clutching his resume in both hands. Brenda, the branch manager, was still interviewing the previous applicant, a woman who arrived wearing camo cutoffs and a sequined halter top. By comparison Caleb’s rumpled dress shirt and khakis looked formal. He was wearing the nonslip shoes he wore at the store, and he kept kicking his head to the side to keep his bangs out of his eyes. His maroon bow tie was tied like shoelaces.
He glanced at my nameplate. “Gloria. All these months and I never knew your name.”
“You could’ve asked.”
“The longer it went on, the more awkward it became.”
“Where’d you get the tie?”
“Garage sale. It was a quarter,” he said proudly.
“You look like a chimp dressed you. Don’t you own an iron?”
He frowned. “Of course, I don’t own an iron. What year is it?”
I glanced into Brenda’s office. I could see her placid yellow smile as she nodded along to what appeared to be a rant by the halter top applicant. “Come here.”
Caleb rounded my desk. I yanked his bowtie apart.
“Hey, I watched like, ten tutorials for that.”
“Well, it sucks.” I set about tying it properly. “Listen, Brenda is all about appearances. You don’t look good, she won’t listen to you.”
“So, how’d you get the job?”
I glared at him. “You want my help or not?”
“That depends,” he said. “If I get the job, will you be my boss?”
“More or less.”
He smiled in a way I refused to find attractive, all glinting teeth and dimples. “Then I’ll take all the help I can get.”
“You won’t be allowed to flirt with me.”
“Better get it out of my system then.” He winked. He actually winked. God, I hated him.
“Look, when you get in there,” I said, “play up your sales experience.”
“I don’t have sales experience.”
“You sell me shit all the time.”
“You ask me where to find stuff, I tell you what aisle it’s in.”
“Then make something up.”
For once he sounded sincere. “I don’t like lying.”
“This is a bank,” I said. “Get used to it.”
I finished his tie and rolled his collar back down. We were the same height when I was wearing heels. His breath smelled like Big Red, a smell that would come to remind me of him, and I would spend the years that followed buying cinnamon-scented candles, eating the one cinnamon-sugar doughnut among the dozen, brushing my teeth with cinnamon toothpaste.
I stepped away just as Brenda opened her office door and laughed shrilly, in a way she reserved only for the people she most hated.
I held up a trash can to Caleb. “Spit out your gum.”
Brenda decided to hire Caleb just a day after his interview. She was smitten, couldn’t stop talking about how funny and charming he was and “what a sweet boy.” I chose not to mention that he thought deodorant gave you cancer, and so he occasionally reached under his shirt to rub his armpits with wet wipes. On my lunch break, I sat in my car and called him.
“Hello?” he answered, suspicious sounding.
“It’s Glo. From the bank.”
A pause. Then, excited: “Did I get the job?”
Away from the phone: cheering, shockingly loud.
“Caleb, listen to me. I’m not calling to offer you the job.”
“Brenda is going to call in a few hours and offer you nine-fifty—”
“Shut up and listen.”
“You know I like it when you’re mean to me.”
“She’s going to offer you nine-fifty, but you can talk her up to eleven.”
“You want me to negotiate a rate that’s already way more than I make at the store, for a job that I’m drastically underqualified for. I don’t know, man, I’m just grateful to get the position.”
“You can’t let gratitude compromise your success.”
“You’re like, the opposite of a therapist.”
“Tell her you have an offer at another bank for ten-fifty. She’ll tell you she has to check with HR, and she’ll call you back the next day. She’ll say she can’t offer you that much but tell her you’re going to take the other job, thanks anyway. Then she’ll give you eleven.”
“Are you sure?”
Caleb, newly hired at eleven dollars an hour, came in on his first day carrying a backpack and a sack lunch. For a week, he shadowed me, and at several points I feared I would strangle him with his own necktie, which, over time, he got better at tying. He’d also purchased a better wardrobe of pastel-colored button-downs and a couple pairs of dress pants.
Caleb asked hundreds of questions, most banal, several outright idiotic. “Why is all our cash the same size? In other countries they’re different sizes so you can tell the denominations apart,” and, “If a negotiable item isn’t legal tender, just words on paper, could you technically write out a check on the side of a cow?” and, “Is money still based on gold?” which wasn’t a stupid question, but I didn’t know the answer. When he didn’t have a question, he ruminated on whether or not currency was truly necessary for a civilized society and eventually determined that with a standardized bartering system, it was not. I was grateful any time the other tellers, Camille and Mona, took him off my hands, but inevitably, after a few hours I’d find a reason to get his attention, and the cycle would begin again. I couldn’t stand being around him, and I couldn’t stand being without him.
He had a vague sense of professionalism insofar as he did stop flirting with me, but in its place, he began referring to me as “tsundere,” which I googled several times to no avail, presumably because I could not spell it. I sensed it was something only a younger person would understand, a generational inside joke, and moreover, the answer would be lascivious in nature, so I did not ask what it meant. I was only thirty-three, yet everything he did and said and was made me feel ancient, our ages an expansive divide, impossible to traverse.
After two weeks, Caleb was ready to run his own drawer. He had mastered the basics—deposits, withdraws, cashed checks—but nearly everything else was over his head. He couldn’t remember the difference between a Currency Transaction Report and a Suspicious Activity Report. He had a fascination with depository regulations and, even though I handed him every jargon-filled binder at my disposal, his curiosity was never satisfied. Who puts these regulations into place? Do people vote on them? Why are there so many? If this is a free society and businesses are constitutionally considered people, why is the government infringing on the rights of the bank? The entire time I worked with him, he never managed to order a debit card. When a customer would ask for one, he would pretend to type for a while, hit Enter with a flourish, and tell the customer it would arrive in seven to ten business days, which obviously it did not. They would then come back in, and I would have to put in a rush request.
His drawer was out of balance more days than it wasn’t, usually by a factor of nine, a clear sign he was inverting numbers when entering figures into the system. Inevitably came the day he was short by ninety-nine dollars, just one dollar shy of being written up. I audited his drawer and found his cash was facing different directions, backward and forward, upside down and right-side up; his denominations were out of order, the hundreds before the fifties and the twenties before the tens; he had a five-dollar bill tucked into an overflowing stack of ones; and worst of all, I found a slip of paper on which he had written “5$” with a clumsy sketch of Abraham Lincoln wearing a comically large top hat.
I waved the slip of paper in his face. “What is this?”
“The taco truck only takes cash. I borrowed five bucks from my drawer.”
I ripped up the paper and threw it away. “You’re now a hundred and four dollars short. I have to write you up.”
“What? What does that mean?”
“It means I file a report with HR, you go on probation, and if it happens two more times, you’re fired.”
“Two more times? Ever?”
He looked at me like I’d just licked my finger and shoved it in his ear. “But there’s no one here. You can just give me a slap on the wrist and tell me not to do it again.”
In just a few weeks, Caleb was no longer the boy who didn’t like lying. I wondered if he would have been better off at the grocery store, where he could listen to music and chew gum, move around as much as his restless, wiry body desired.
“This is my teller line and you’re my teller,” I told him. “I expect better from you.”
“I thought you were my friend.”
“You’re not here to make friends, Caleb. You’re here to make money.”
He leaned against the wall, arms across his chest. “Okay, Mom.”
I slammed his cash drawer shut. He startled.
“Do not call me that,” I said.
“Strap your cash and batch out,” I told him, and stormed off to my own window, where my hands were shaking too badly to balance my drawer.
After the write-up, I began auditing Caleb’s drawer once a week at random. The first few were fine, the only error a strap of ones that had forty-nine in it instead of fifty. Caleb was resentful of the audits and passive-aggressively accused me of micromanaging him. Then I did an audit on his drawer mid-morning, well after he should have batched out and deposited his excess cash to the vault, but I noticed he hadn’t, and when I counted his drawer, I found it over limit by nearly ten grand. He paced while I counted, too nervous even to ramble about whatever Wikipedia binge he’d just finished. I strapped his cash, set the vault timer, and had him follow me into the conference room. We didn’t bother taking a seat.
“Tell me what you did wrong,” I said.
“My drawer was over.”
“By how much?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what’s in your drawer.”
“I did the ATM deposits this morning. And Pizza Hut.”
“That was three hours ago. You’ve had plenty of time to put it in the vault.”
“We’ve been busy.”
“No, we haven’t.”
“It’s a few thousand dollars. It’s not a big deal.”
I stepped closer to him. “A robber comes in. Slides a note across the counter. It says he has a gun, and he wants you to give him all your money. What do you do?”
“How attractive is this robber?”
“I give him the money. Obviously.”
“And what will the bank do if you hand over thousands of dollars more than you’re supposed to have?”
“I don’t know, fire me?”
“They’ll sue you. A good bank robber cases a bank for days, sometimes weeks. He watches the deposits, watches the tellers. He finds the weak links. You’re the weak link here, and you put all of us in danger.”
“If I get robbed—”
“It’s not if you get robbed, Caleb. It’s when.”
Tellers had a referral goal of six accounts per month. Mona and Camille struggled to get just one, and whenever a random customer wandered in to open something, I would tack their names to the referral box so they would get credit. Caleb had been working at the bank five weeks when he sold his first savings account. It was to a father who came in with a check for his eight-year-old daughter, birthday money from a grandparent. Caleb looked at the check and whistled through his teeth. “Twenty-five bucks. You can get a lot of candy for that.”
“I’m going to save it,” the girl said.
From across the bank, I watched as something ignited in Caleb’s brain. “Is that right,” he said, and proceeded to sell the girl, not her father, on our kids’ savings account, which came with a money-themed coloring book. It explained things like APY versus APR in thought bubbles above anthropomorphized coins’ heads.
Caleb was a changed man. The fervor with which he’d memorized depository regulations was soon directed to memorizing the ins and outs of consumer products. And once he’d memorized those, he moved onto small business, merchant services, mortgages, private wealth management. He had a solution to every problem, and if a customer didn’t have a problem, he’d invent one for them. At first, Brenda was thrilled with his interest in sales, until she realized that she would be the one opening all the accounts, and that meant she didn’t have time to play spider solitaire.
Thursday mornings came to be the highlight of my week. I scheduled Caleb to open with me so we could balance the ATM together. He was at his most tolerable in the mornings, before he opened his first can of Monster, when he could withstand silences for more than two seconds at a time. The ATM was outside, and the back of it opened into a small, locked room without any cameras. It wasn’t much larger than a closet, and Caleb stood beside me, breaking straps and putting cash through the counter while I slid the stacks into the canister. It was nothing more than a crush. I was just bored, and he made his interest in me apparent. He was forthright to a fault, and I knew if I gave him even a little slack, he would be down on one knee in an instant.
“Hey, tsundere,” he said, and I still didn’t know what that meant, and he knew I didn’t know. The answer clearly held some secret, some truth I could only access if I asked, which I refused to do. “You’re married, right?”
I had no pictures on my desk, but I wore a ring. I didn’t often talk about Mike, not for any specific reason, just that I never thought to talk about my personal life. My bank life and home life were two separate things, and to merge them felt dangerous.
“To a man? Woman? Both, neither, all?”
“A man. His name is Mike.”
“Mike. That’s a very husband-y name. Does he have a beard?”
“Barrel chest, bit of a gut?”
I broke a cash strap with more force than necessary. He did.
“Does he make craft beer in the garage?”
“His favorite band is The Cure, and his favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption.”
“Velvet Underground. Saving Private Ryan.”
“Close.” Caleb fell silent for all of thirty seconds. “Do you love him?”
“Could you love someone else?”
I stopped counting and looked at him. “You need to be careful.”
He usually hid behind cunning smiles, but he stared at me then without any expression at all. “Careful people don’t get what they want.”
I closed the canister and slid it back into the ATM. I should have started scheduling Camille on Thursday mornings after that. I didn’t. The next week, Caleb stood beside me once again shoving cash through the counting machine. That time, he asked, “Do you have kids?”
“No,” I said, then amended, “I used to.”
Caleb opened his mouth to reply, but stopped, closed it again.
“Her name was Doris, after my mother. We called her Dee.”
There was something satisfying in his response. I was so used to sympathy, pity. It was nice to be met with horror, an acknowledgement that he couldn’t and would never understand what I’d been through. Too many people tried to empathize. I hated it.
“She was seven. Leukemia. It’s been a little over five years.”
Dee took most of Mike with her when she passed. She haunted me at night when I couldn’t sleep, the house too silent, empty. But she was with Mike during the day. I could tell when he was thinking of her, when he’d hold the remote at the blank television without pressing any buttons. He kept her baby picture in his wallet. He liked to look at it, sometimes for hours, while I was stuck between wanting to forget and needing to remember. I kept looking for a lesson, something I could take away that would help me become a better, stronger person. Losing Dee wasn’t that kind of tragedy; I was made crueler, colder. I did not believe she was in a better place. She was dead. My daughter was dead. She existed, then she didn’t.
“That’s, like, the worst thing that can happen to a person. Objectively, literally the worst thing.” Caleb turned to look at me. “You’ve been through the worst thing.”
“Believe me, I know.”
Caleb wrapped his arms around me. It took me a long moment to realize it was a hug. I patted his back, but he didn’t let go, just held me tighter, almost uncomfortably, and eventually I gave in.
A girl, Katy, started coming in to see Caleb. I didn’t know if they knew each other already or if they’d met at his teller window. She was utterly nondescript except for her wardrobe of pink, low-cut tops, a giant bow pinned above her high ponytail. She put too much blush on her cheeks. Her purse had cartoon foxes on it. On slow days she loitered at Caleb’s window for an hour or longer. They laughed and spoke in hushed, manic voices. I don’t remember how many weeks it went on, Katy dropping by to check her balance or deposit a check, the two of them writing notes to each other on the scratch pad at Caleb’s window.
On an afternoon Caleb seemed particularly taken with her, the lobby was empty but the drive-through had a line. I took the tube from the chute, told the customer I’d be right back, and placed it on Caleb’s desk, loudly, having interrupted some grandiose story Caleb was telling about the time he got kicked out of a Wendy’s.
“Why can’t you do it?” he asked me, and after a moment of tense silence and eye contact, he told Katy, “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” Katy said, shooting me a dirty look, or so I thought. Possibly that was the natural state of her face.
Caleb processed the transaction, sent the receipt back to the customer, and said, “Take it easy,” even though I’d asked him a dozen times not to do that.
He came over and sat on my desk. “Jealous much?”
“You’re here to do a job. Katy prevents you from doing the job.”
“I think you’re jealous I’m flirting with her instead of you.”
I pretended to check my email. “I don’t care who you flirt with as long as you’re not on my time.”
“Your time. You mean as long as it’s not in front of you, and I don’t tell you about it.”
“You’re my employee. I don’t need to know about your love life.”
“My last boss, I went to his Thanksgiving dinner. I babysat his kids. It’s weird you don’t talk about your husband. It’s weird you don’t have a picture of him on your desk. It’s weird you don’t talk about yourself, like, ever.” He slid off the desk and moved to return to his station. “Most days it’s like you’re not even here.”
I stood. “You want me to talk about Mike? You want me to tell you what kind of beer he likes on tap, that he blows his nose too loud, that he was a better father than I ever was a mother? Or do you want me to tell you Dee’s death tore us apart, and we’re miserable together?”
Anyone else would have looked at me with pity, but I couldn’t read Caleb’s expression at all. “I don’t think you remember this,” he said, speaking more gently than I deserved, “but when you used to come into the store, you’d be really out of it. You’d stand in the baby aisle for, I don’t know, fifteen, twenty minutes. You never bought anything. I thought it was because you wanted a baby. I had so many questions about you, but I was too afraid to ask. I’m still afraid.”
He was right; I didn’t remember that. No one had ever wanted to ask me questions before. No one had ever been interested enough to want to know about my life. At once I wanted to let him ask all the questions that had been living in his head so long, but I also wanted to shove him. Slap him. Scream at him. Make him hurt. The thought surprised me. I’d never had violent thoughts before, never felt this angry. I feared I was going to start crying, could feel it rising up in me like vomit. I hadn’t cried once since Dee died. I didn’t want Mike to see me like that.
The drive-through tube dropped into the chute and the window opened. Caleb pulled the tube out and said over the mic, “I’ll have this back for you in just a minute.”
I received an email from Killian, our regional retail manager, asking for nominations for Teller of the Year. I deleted the email, but received it again a few minutes later, a forward from Brenda with the addition, caleb?????? write his nom pls!
Based only on sales numbers, Caleb was eligible for Teller of the Year. Based on job performance and general competence, he didn’t stand a chance. He still needed a few more years on the line before he would be ready for a promotion, and even then, it would only be to Lead Teller. From there, after several more years, maybe a decade, he could run his own branch. Or so I believed at the time.
I wrote Caleb’s nomination letter at home while watching TV with Mike. I wasn’t sure we’d spoken to each other all evening. The cursor blinked at me from an empty Word doc.
Caleb Allen is an incompetent buffoon, I typed. He has the maturity and emotional disposition of an untrained puppy. He never knows when to stop. He never shuts up. He lacks boundaries. He has skated through life on luck. Nothing bad has ever happened to him. Customers are happy to see him when they come into the branch, no matter how many times he fucks up their transaction. He is quick-witted and annoyingly clever. He is polite, but only when he wants to be. He is handsome in a way that is impossible to ignore. His happiness has made him kind; he loves babies and children and animals. Once I killed a spider in front of him and he looked like he might cry. He is exhaustingly earnest. I never stop thinking of him.
I deleted what I’d written and closed the laptop. Slammed, rather. Mike looked over at me.
“Someone was wrong on the internet,” I said.
I got the nomination letter submitted ten minutes before the deadline. I chose to focus only on the facts. I included how he had exceeded his sales goal. I gave verbatim examples of nice things other people had said about him, namely Brenda. I concluded, Branch Manager Brenda Maloney hired Caleb for his imminent potential. With continued recognition like Teller of the Year, he is sure to have a long and fulfilling career in banking.
In the days that followed, Caleb changed. He looked tired. He wasn’t smiling as much. He stopped calling me tsundere, or his new favorite, Glory Glory Hallelujah. He no longer stopped by my desk to ask if I wanted anything from the taco truck. I wondered if this was what I’d been like in the baby aisle those months ago. Here but empty. Like Caleb, I was afraid to ask.
About a week later, I received an email from Brenda, forwarded from Killian, informing us Caleb had won Teller of the Year. The prize came with the publication of his nomination letter in the monthly retail newsletter, a plaque for his teller station, and two hundred dollars.
I wanted to be the one to tell him. Even though we were busy, I asked him to meet me in the conference room. He looked paler than usual, and his name badge was upside down. And he wasn’t wearing a tie, which, since it wasn’t Friday, was against the dress code.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, with none of his usual buoyancy. He seemed to rally a little, for my sake. “So, what’s up?”
“I’m serious. You’ve been weird lately.”
“I’m always weird.”
“I mean bad weird.”
“Does that imply I’m usually good weird?”
“Yes,” I admitted reluctantly.
He pulled a chair out from the table and slumped into it, like his legs were too tired to hold him up any longer. I continued to stand.
“God. Don’t let this be the thing,” he said.
“There’s always a moment the tsundere goes from locked-up interest to ride-or-die. I don’t want this to be the thing.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Did you come in here to make fun of me for being a loser, or is there a real reason?”
I’d always felt a certain security in our interactions because I had more authority than him, more knowledge, more power. But right then I wondered if he’d been the one steering everything, directing an elaborate performance of which I had been unaware. Where was our audience? What were my lines?
I handed him the pages I’d printed. First, he read the email from Killian. Then he turned the page and read my nomination letter.
“Did you write this?” he asked.
“It reads like you’ve never even met me. Like I’m a referral robot.”
I refused to let my feelings be hurt, even though what he said was true. “I had to make it professional. Brenda already talks you up in sales meetings. I just added evidence to things she’s already said.”
“Whatever,” he said, standing, handing back the printouts. “I have to get back to work.”
Killian showed up the next day with a congratulations balloon and a dozen doughnuts. He was around my age, but his hairline was already receding at the temples. He had the kind of unearned confidence and charisma only affluent white men can pull off. He was tall and thin, and he wore stylish lavender and pink dress shirts, even though I was certain the older bankers made fun of him for it, as they did for any color that wasn’t white, grey, or blue. Brenda came out of her office. Everyone clapped when Killian passed over the plaque. Caleb brightened, pretended to be surprised and pleased. He looked a little better than the day before, but I could tell it was only part of the performance. Killian’s assistant took his picture with the plaque, then gathered us all together during a lull to take a picture of the whole team. I stood beside Caleb. I put my hand on his back. A happier Caleb would have side-eyed me, smiled wickedly, whispered some inappropriate comment. This Caleb ignored it and stepped away as soon as the picture had been taken.
Killian asked me if he could “borrow my star teller for a moment,” and I said sure. It felt strangely like I was giving away my son at the altar. I found several excuses to pass by the conference room, where the door was still open a crack, and I overheard Killian say, “Gotta put in some time on the bottom rung, pay your dues, then when you’re ready, touch base with me again and we’ll see where we can fit you in.”
I didn’t know what was more upsetting: Killian poaching Caleb from me, or my entire profession being referred to as “the bottom rung” and “paying dues,” Caleb receiving the opportunity for advancement so casually, inevitably. My only consolation was Caleb’s thinly veiled abhorrence that Killian didn’t appear to notice.
I was happy as Lead Teller, but I realized then it was only because it had become predictable, routine. I knew everything else could be taken out from under me at any moment.
Killian stood and clapped Caleb on the shoulder. “We’ll get you out of here. Just have to find the right time. Hang in there, kid.”
Our team rarely went out for drinks, but that Friday, Brenda insisted we all go out to Applebee’s for celebratory drinks and appetizers, “On the bank!” she said, waving her corporate card around like a sinner tempting God.
Caleb seemed a little more himself, if only because he couldn’t stand the drawn-out silences as we waited for our drinks. He ordered something that came in a glass the size of a fishbowl, neon green like Mountain Dew, and downed it quickly along with two orders of mozzarella sticks. He was sitting next to me, and as he ordered another fishbowl, he put his hand on my knee. Something big was about to happen, something life-changing, and I was as afraid of it as I was excited for it. All I had to do was walk away from it. But I couldn’t.
After a painfully awkward hour, Brenda yawned loudly, congratulated Caleb once more with a one-armed hug, and excused herself after paying the tab. Camille and Mona took the opportunity to leave also, and the second they were gone, Caleb let out a long breath and said, “I want a cookie.”
I ordered him a cookie.
It was one of those that came in a skillet with a scoop of ice cream and caramel drizzled all over it. Caleb insisted I help him eat it. I managed a couple bites before Caleb had demolished it like he hadn’t just eaten a pound of fried cheese and drunk a gallon of sour mix. After our server gave me aggressive eye contact that told me he wanted to be cut for the night, I paid for the skillet cookie and told Caleb I had to be heading home. He said, “Will you give me a ride?”
In the car I gave Caleb the aux cord, which was a mistake. He was unable to listen to the entirety of a song, would either skip past it immediately or listen to the first half only before getting bored and moving to the next. Eventually he had to turn the volume down to give me directions. I pulled in front of his apartment building—old and boxy, drab, probably the cheapest rent in town—and parked.
“I had fun,” I lied. “See you Monday.”
“I want to show you something.” He climbed out of the car and wobbled toward a dilapidated playground on the other side of the parking lot.
I called after him, “Caleb, I really have to go home.” There, I thought, I had put up a fight. I was less complicit in whatever was about to happen.
Caleb only gestured for me to follow him. I did. He led me up a questionably stable slide—up the slide itself, not the ladder—and sat down cross-legged on the tiny platform above. I could barely squeeze in beside him, precariously balanced on the edge of the platform, legs outstretched on the slide.
“I have something I want to tell you,” he said. “But it’s not appropriate. For work.”
“We’re not at work.”
“Yeah, but. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“Then don’t say it,” I said without thinking. Then, “Sorry. Just say it.”
“You know the girl who keeps coming in to talk to me? Katy?”
“We started, like, seeing each other. Well, I mean, we were friends. And I knew she liked me but—I don’t know. I just wasn’t into her like that. I should have just told her, but all my friends from high school went off to college, and I don’t have anyone to hang out with anymore. And she likes the same nerd stuff I like, so I focused on that instead of all the weird yandere shit she did.”
“You know I don’t know what that means.”
“Really into me. Like, creepy into me. I should have known.” He started playing with his shoestring. “I’m deredere. It means ‘lovey-dovey.’ We’re usually the two leftovers, the rejects, so I guess I thought it made sense.”
It still did not make sense to me.
“I don’t know what happened. One minute we were just making out and then she was just—doing stuff to me. And then she was on top of me. And then we were—and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know how to say no because, like, who would say no to someone like her? She’s beautiful and perfect and—she chose me.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. The wet in his eyes was reflecting a nearby streetlight. “I hadn’t really done anything before. I wasn’t ready,” he said again. “And she said, she said she was doing me a favor. ‘Getting it over with.’
“She’s like five feet tall. I could lift her above my head. I could’ve said no. I could’ve pushed her off me. But I just sat there, pretending to like it. And the most fucked-up part is that I’m still talking to her. She keeps wanting to hang out again.”
“I’m sorry that happened.”
He stared at me, disgusted. “No.”
“You’re supposed to tell me to get over it. Quit whining, stop talking to her, move on.” He covered his face with his hands. “You’re supposed to be mean.” A cracked sound came from his throat. “Please be mean.”
I put my arms around him. He leaned into me. Maybe he was crying, maybe just shaking. I held him like that for a long time. Eventually he calmed, and stilled, and said, “While it was happening, I kept thinking, you wouldn’t have done this to me. I wish it had been you.” He looked up at me then, and I could have kissed him, wanted to kiss him. “I want it to be you.”
The next morning, as I was doing the dishes, scraping dried oatmeal off a bowl with my thumbnail, I said, “The guy at work wants to sleep with me.”
Mike had his head in the fridge, opening various Tupperware containers and assessing their contents for edibility. He sniffed something that might have once been tuna casserole and wrinkled his nose before upending it into the trash. I wondered if he’d heard me. I’d meant to say it flippantly, a funny joke, but it had come out like a question I didn’t know how to ask.
Mike pulled out the next container. “Okay, so? Sleep with him.”
I drained the dirty water, dried my hands on a towel. “I’m married.”
“To me. And I’m telling you I don’t care.”
“You don’t care?”
He closed his eyes and exhaled like I was being purposefully obtuse. In all our years together, we had never entertained the thought of bringing in someone else or having an open relationship. Monogamy was an unspoken agreement and one I’d never questioned until now, and I wondered how much happier both of us might have been if I’d brought up the idea earlier.
“I care,” Mike said. “I care about your happiness. And if this will make you happy, you should do it. Life is miserable. We are miserable. You shouldn’t miss out on any chance you have to alleviate that misery.”
We weren’t miserable with each other, we were just miserable. Mike was on more medications than I could keep track of, and he spent his evenings in an Ativan fog in the basement, playing Minecraft until four in the morning. He woke up around one or two in the afternoon. He worked part-time as a custodian at an elementary school, and most of his job involved folding up lunch tables and gym mats. In many ways, he was dependent on me, and I wondered if he resented me for that. He was on my health insurance, relied on my paycheck to pay the mortgage and most of the bills. He had only his car payment and the internet bill, but he also did the meal planning, cooking, laundry, lawn care, repairs—he managed the house. His dream had always been to be a stay-at-home dad. He’d grown up with a clear vision: a wife and three kids, a house in the suburbs. He would devote a couple decades of his life to raising a family and then reassess from there, maybe go to school for something, maybe write a book. But the family-raising was what had been most important to him. After Dee, he gave up that dream. Now he was a fly in amber, crystallized in a purposeless fatherhood.
I did love him. I loved him so much I couldn’t look at that love without becoming overwhelmed by it. Some days it was so enormous I couldn’t even see it. It wasn’t flowers and chocolates, kisses in rain. It was soldiers in war, brothers in arms. Ours was love in silence.
“It should be balanced,” I said. “You should get something too. Something you really want.”
He didn’t know any women who weren’t related to him. I didn’t think he had an interest in men, but more likely he just wouldn’t know where to start looking for one. We only had sex when I initiated it, which wasn’t often. I knew that going into a relationship with him: he was apathetic toward sex. I knew he found me beautiful, but I strongly suspected he wasn’t actually attracted to me, or anyone for that matter. Intimacy with Mike mostly involved him watching me masturbate, not touching me until I came. We both enjoyed it for reasons I didn’t think too deeply about. Sometimes we had sex after and sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we just looked at each other from across the bed, until one of us would reach out a hand and the other would hold it. I couldn’t imagine what he would ask for.
“I want to foster,” he said.
At first, I thought he meant a dog. Then I noticed he said I and not we.
“I think I’d be good at it,” he added.
I wasn’t sure how I felt. I wasn’t sure it was my place to feel anything. “You would.”
“You wouldn’t really have to do anything. There’s some interview and inspection stuff, but—”
“You’ve already looked this up?”
He looked guilty, far guiltier than I felt harboring feelings for one of my tellers. “I just want someone to take care of.”
“What if it…” I searched for words that simply did not exist, the depth of grief we’d both experienced losing Dee. “Hurts?”
“It’s going to. But your thing’s going to hurt too.”
He was right. If I pursued an affair with Caleb, there was no way out that didn’t involve me breaking his heart or he mine. Years later, the kids would still feel like strangers, guests in my home. I’d be cordial to them, talk to them like customers sitting down to open a new account. Two would be adopted after staying with us for a year: twins, seven years old. Another would go back to his mother when she finished rehab. He was twelve. A quiet boy. We’d have a girl with us for nearly five years, until she went away to college on scholarship. Whenever one leaves, I worry Mike is going to crumble, tell me it’s too hard to love them only to let them go. He remains undeterred. He has never asked me to be more engaged, more maternal. These are his children, and this is his home. Perhaps I’m the guest.
“And anyway,” Mike continued then, “it won’t be worse than what we’ve already been through. It might even help, you know, process stuff.”
I could see his reasoning: the practice of housing children, loving them, letting them go. Maybe it would help both of us.
We each agreed to think on the other’s proposition and come back together later that evening. It was clear Mike’s secret had been weighing on him. He’d never hidden anything from me, but the reason he’d hidden this was that he didn’t want to hurt me by bringing it up if I wasn’t ready. We never really talked about Dee. We didn’t talk about anything, since we weren’t talkers. We were doers, both of us, our affection offered in actions, considerate cohabitation: not passion, but harmony.
Mike broke out a five-year plan that involved a rough timeline of getting through the fostering application process while also building an extension to the house with an extra bedroom for a second foster child. He also wanted to build a deck, a playground set, and a treehouse, disregarding the fact we had no trees on our property. He had even printed out a spreadsheet cost estimation so I could begin applying for an equity line. We didn’t make much money—my salary wasn’t even forty grand a year and Mike only hit twenty if he took on handyman jobs around town, a service he never advertised but which had a steady stream of clients, nonetheless. Dee’s medical bills had drained our savings, and we had only just gotten on steady ground again.
Mike was so excited to have a new direction that he seemed to forget about Caleb. When I pitched my ground rules, he waved them all past without much thought. I told him I would be willing to give him any information he wanted, and he could revoke his decision at any time and I would agree without complaint. Lastly, I offered to stop having sex with him. That got his attention.
He looked at me with suspicion, like I was setting him up for a trap. “You would be cool with that? If we just...didn’t, anymore?”
I was worried I’d upset him. After a moment, he was near tears. “I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t—I can’t explain it.”
“You don’t have to. I get it.”
He took a long, relieved breath. Physically, he was the same, but I watched in real time as something changed in him, lifted away from him. I was glad I could give him that, at least.
I’d never acted on a crush before, so I didn’t know where to begin. Mike and I had been together since high school, where we’d been friends for a long time before we mutually decided it made sense to be in a relationship. We were voted “most likely to live happily ever after” and married a month after we graduated. I had only lasted through one year of college when I got pregnant with Dee. I was grateful for the excuse to drop out. I had been a mechanical engineering major and hated every minute of it. I wanted to do something I could reach out and touch. In retrospect, I probably would have been just as fine with a career in engineering as I am in banking. I would have made more money, but I would have had more student loan debt. Sometimes big decisions like that don’t actually have major consequences.
Monday morning, Katy came in with a gift wrapped in what looked like a child’s birthday wrapping paper, blue and white with dinosaurs on it. Either it was left over from an actual child’s birthday gift, or she thought it was paper best suited for Caleb. Both seemed equally likely. I watched them from my teller window, counting the same stack of fives over and over. Caleb opened the gift and said, “Oh, wow, thanks.”
She didn’t notice his speaking in monotone. I heard Katy say, “You’re welcome.”
“I just thought, maybe we could watch some shōjo next. Ouran High School Host Club or Fruits Basket or something.”
“What are you, a thirteen-year-old girl?”
“I just like romance.”
“Are you gay?”
“Is romance gay?”
“Ouran High School Host Club is. Next, you’re going to suggest Black Butler.”
“What’s wrong with Black Butler?”
I went over to his station, hovered behind him, looked Katy in the eye. “Is everything okay over here?”
Caleb busied himself slotting his fingers into the loops of the bow that had been on his gift. The DVD was on his desk, some cartoon with bold kanji on the cover. The English title read Cowboy Bebop. “We’re fine. She just came to give me something.”
“I need you to come open the vault with me,” I told Caleb. To Katy I said, “Is there anything else we can do for you?”
“No, thanks,” she said, taken aback, and looked meaningfully at Caleb whose eyes were still trained on the bow. “I’ll text you later, Cay.”
“Yeah, later,” Caleb said.
We watched her leave.
“She’s just going to come back,” Caleb said.
I began to wonder if I was in love with Caleb or only pitied him, if my feelings were misplaced maternal instincts. Mike had taken his misplaced paternal instincts and chose to foster children with them. I’d decided to do something far worse. It felt wrong, not because of Caleb’s age or that we worked together, but because I was capitalizing on love that would have worn itself out if I ignored it long enough. This was not like the love I felt for Dee or Mike, the kind that never leaves you, no matter how long you’re apart.
I avoided Caleb for most of the week, until Thursday when we opened together and had to balance the ATM. It was an easy, mindless routine, but that day, every bundle of twenties I handed over felt like a bomb.
“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable the other day,” Caleb said. I wasn’t sure if he meant our conversation on the slide, or me kicking Katy out of the branch. “That was really unprofessional of me.”
I passed him another stack of twenties. “Mike said yes.”
Caleb didn’t put the cash into the counter, and when I handed him another stack, he didn’t take it. I was forced to look at him.
“Said yes to what,” he said slowly.
“You know.” I put the twenties on the counting machine for him, watched the bills flutter to the bottom. “Us.”
“I have a bad habit of jumping to conclusions, so I’m going to need you to spell this out for me.”
“We can see each other. Outside of work.”
“See each other.”
I slid the cash into the canister and slammed it shut. “Sex, Caleb. We can have sex.”
A grin crept up his face. “There’s still something missing here, Gloria.” He only called me Gloria when he was trying to get something out of me. “Does that mean you want to sleep with me?”
He had me cornered. Technically, the room was so small we had each other cornered. I had been hoping to pose it as something other than it was—a concession, a giving in. Of course, he saw through that.
“Only if you want to,” I said. “If you don’t, I’ll understand.”
“Are you kidding? Of course, I want to. When do we—”
I grabbed his chin and kissed him. It was quick and hard and then I let him go.
“Wait, do it again.” He spit his gum into the trash. I pushed him against a wall and kissed him again. He was a terrible kisser, all tongue, but he had the decency to keep quiet.
I pulled away, started to slot the cash boxes back into the ATM. Caleb was just staring, wide-eyed and wet-mouthed. It had been a bad kiss. I hated it. I wanted another.
“I’ve been obsessed with you for, like, ever,” Caleb said in a rush. “I’m actually, literally in love with you.”
“Do you feel even a little bit the same, or is this just a sex thing, or…”
I closed the back of the ATM and locked it. “We have to get back to work.”
The rest of Thursday held furtive glances while we did our mundane tasks—night drop deposits, Friday morning rush, cashing paychecks, Brenda’s stilettos clacking against the tile as she twittered to and from the copy machine. I wished I could think of an excuse to use the ATM room, but we were too busy.
That afternoon, I heard the door ding during a lull. I was busy auditing our business depository records. Caleb was the only one on the line. He said, “I can help you right here.”
There was a pause, then I heard Mike say, “You’re Caleb?”
My head shot up. He was at Caleb’s window, and I felt a sensation akin to being caught between two planets about to collide. Mike was wearing his janitor uniform and holding a clipboard. He never came to see me at work.
“I’m here, Mike,” I said from my window.
Caleb looked at me as if to say, This is him? Really?
Mike, being somehow less tactful than Caleb, said, “This is him? Really?”
I quickly rounded the teller line and dragged Mike out of the building. When we got to his car, I asked, “What are you doing here?”
He showed me the papers on his clipboard. “I need you to sign the foster application.”
“Why couldn’t you give me this at home?”
“I wanted to turn it in before they closed today. I didn’t mean to spy on you or whatever.”
I had been so distracted by Caleb I forgot I was about to become a foster mother, or more accurately, married to a foster father. It was my last chance to back out. I thought of Caleb inside, probably watching us from the window. His cinnamon mouth, thin little body, how much more I wanted from him.
I scrawled my signature and the date.
“You didn’t tell me he was a kid,” Mike said.
“He’s not a kid,” I said, shoving the clipboard back at him.
“Yeah, well, he’s probably not old enough to know what’s really going on, either.”
I had never gotten this angry at Mike before. “Say it. Just say what you’re really trying to say.”
That I was the one playing mommy with Caleb. That I held his heart in my hands for the wrong reasons. That I was using him.
Mike unlocked the car door and threw the clipboard, carrying his dreams, his future, into the passenger seat. “I don’t think I need to.”
The next day, Friday, Mona was scheduled to be on the line with Caleb, but she called off because her son was sick. It was just Caleb and me. He hadn’t said anything about Mike, hadn’t tried to corner me for another kiss, but every time I looked at him, he was already looking at me.
I got a call from central with a check issue from a week before. The number on the imaged check didn’t match the deposit amount. It was for sixty dollars and no cents, but the zeros had been keyed in as nines. The rush slowed down and I told Caleb I would be right back. I went down into the basement where we filed our batched checks, pulled the box from the shelf and set it on a dusty filing cabinet. Camille and Mona’s batches were neatly rubber-banded, no more than fifty or so checks per batch, but Caleb’s—of course the error was Caleb’s—were thicker, hundreds of checks per band, and I would have to go through all of them.
I was thinking I should have made him do this, when from above I heard a crack like a bottle rocket. I dropped the batch, checks flying across the floor. We had nothing in the branch that could make a sound that loud. I held my breath, waiting for another, a scream of pain, but none came. I ran to the rotary phone sitting on an old desk in the corner, hoping it was still connected, and it was, thank God, but I had to dig into the back of my mind to remember how to use it. It took two tries but finally I heard, “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“We have an active shooter. I don’t know if anyone’s hurt. I’m in the basement.” I rattled off the bank name and address.
The dispatcher, a strangely cheerful sounding woman, said, “Stay where you are. I’ll send someone out.”
I hung up and ran upstairs. Flung the door open. Looked back and forth across the teller line. Saw the toe of a scuffed shoe sticking out from behind the wall at Caleb’s window. I imagined him slumped down, bleeding out. Maybe he’d been shot in the head. I braced myself and rushed over. There was Caleb, clutching one knee to his chest, his drawers open, the cash gone. I kept staring at his face and chest and stomach, looking for a wound, but there was none. I sank down and grabbed the sides of his face, made him look at me. His eyes went to mine, but he didn’t see me, he was looking at something inward, beyond.
“Caleb. Caleb, are you hurt? Did you—”
“I was over,” Caleb said.
“We were busy all of a sudden. Subway made their deposit. Domino’s, AutoZone. I didn’t have time to strap it, I—”
I pushed his hair out of his face the way I did for Dee when she woke me up after a nightmare. “Caleb, it’s okay.”
“I didn’t give him the dye pack. I didn’t pull the alarm. I did everything wrong.”
It had started with what I thought was a bad cold that never went away. I took Dee to the pediatrician. The pediatrician told us to go to the ER. The ER transferred her to child oncology. The oncologist gave us the news. Mike and I were divided: he believed we shouldn’t tell her the severity of the situation because it would only scare her and mar what time she had left; I believed it was her body, and she had the right to know what was happening to her, regardless of her age. Against Mike’s wishes I told her. Dee was scared, but not for herself. She was scared for us, and what our lives would become without her. Mike hated me for telling her. I thought he would divorce me as soon as she was gone. She was sick for ten months. Near the end, we got to take her home.
Those nights Caleb found me in the baby aisle, I would look at the sweet smiling faces of babies on formula and diaper packages, and I thought of how, in those minutes after she died, I made myself memorize the shape of her fingernails, the swirls of her knuckles. The few teeth she had lost and the nubs growing in. Tufts of blonde hair around her scalp, curled behind her ears. The milky white of her eyes, paper skin. The last words she said were, I don’t want to leave you.
“I heard a gunshot,” I asked Caleb. “What happened?”
Caleb nodded to the wall behind him, where a bullet hole was punctured in the plaster.
What happened was so painfully clichéd I almost didn’t want to believe it, but that’s the thing about robberies. There are only so many ways to rob a bank. A guy came in, alone, wearing a red ski mask and carrying a gun. Those are the stupidest ones. If you get caught for robbing a bank, it’s two years in prison. No weapon, no one hurt. If you rob a bank with a gun, that adds seven years. Bank fraud departments are better funded and better trained than police forces. No one gets away with it.
The lobby was full, but the robber told everyone to leave. He pointed the gun at Caleb and threw him a reusable grocery bag from Whole Foods. He didn’t say anything. Caleb froze. The robber lifted his gun above Caleb’s head and shot. Caleb filled the bag with everything but the dye pack, because, he said to me later, it wasn’t money. He knew it wasn’t money, so he didn’t put it in the bag. It was just a worthless thing in his drawer like the cash straps and coin rollers. The robber took the money and left. Caleb didn’t think to look out the window to see what direction he’d gone. Brenda hid under her desk the entire time, didn’t call 9-1-1 even though her cell phone had been in her hand.
After Caleb gave his statement and the police left, I told him to go home and called Camille in to cover his shift. We were required to stay open the rest of the day. I taped over the bullet hole with a flyer for our increased twenty-four-month CD rates.
Killian stopped by just a half hour before close. He poked his head around as if looking for someone hiding. “Where’s the kid?”
“He got shot at today,” I said. “I let him go home.”
“That’s too bad. I wanted to talk to him about what happened.”
I’d had to report Caleb’s drawer overage, as well as all the things he did that went against protocol. “What do you want to see him about?” I knew Brenda wouldn’t have the guts to fire him. She loved him too much. Of course, she’d call in Killian.
He slid a manila folder across the teller window. I opened it. It was a letter on official bank letterhead. I zeroed in on a number nearly twice as high as my salary. I couldn’t read the whole thing, could only see the words “offer” and “Management Training Program.”
“You’re promoting him?”
“We usually only accept recent grads, but I put a couple calls through and we drew this up.”
I forced myself to read the rest of the letter. It was a year-long program where Caleb would get to travel, shadowing different positions at the bank, taking sales seminars, attending conferences. At the end, he would be offered a position in sales, probably commercial lending or private wealth management, or maybe he would be trained as an RRM like Killian. But first he would have to relocate to headquarters. Across the country.
After work, I drove to Caleb’s apartment where I parked and sat in my car for a long time, looking at my phone.
We were robbed today, I texted Mike. Caleb got shot at. Hes ok. Stopping by his place to see how he’s doing. Go ahead and eat without me.
I sent another message: Sorry.
I shoved my phone back in my purse and got out of the car. At the lobby door, Allen!! was scrawled beside the lowest button in Caleb’s illegible writing. I pressed it. A moment later the door buzzed, and I went inside, down a half floor, and knocked.
He opened just enough for the chain to pull taut, then closed the door again to unlock it and opened it all the way. He was wearing track pants and a big T-shirt that said OTAKU in block letters. I realized I’d never seen him outside of his teller clothes or grocery uniform. Before I could say anything, he launched himself into my arms and nearly knocked me over.
I wanted to ask if he was okay. I wanted to kiss him all over his face. I wanted to cry.
“Your apartment’s a fucking mess,” I said.
He pulled away and wiped the wetness off his face. “You’re such an asshole.”
“It’s my best quality. Now let me in.”
The only thing in Caleb’s fridge was what I assumed was a hard-boiled egg, deli turkey with a splotch of mold on it, and a couple Gatorades. I settled on the ramen I found in the same cabinet where he kept his dishware, which consisted of two mismatched bowls, an ancient-looking whiskey glass, and a single dinner plate that still had the thrift store twenty-five-cent sticker on the bottom. He had over a dozen forks but only three spoons, and no knives that I could find.
I fixed two bowls of ramen and brought them out to the living room, which was also his bedroom. His bed was a twin huddled up in a corner, and he’d propped up pillows on the wall so we could sit on it like a couch. He was on his knees plucking a DVD out of a case, which he then slid into an Xbox.
“What are we watching?” I asked, blowing on the hot broth.
“Toradora. It’s my favorite,” he said, using a controller to navigate the menu, which was all in Japanese, with happy-looking characters bouncing around in the background.
“Is it a shojun?” I asked.
“Shōjo. And yes, it’s the shōjo-est.”
We watched the first episode while we ate. Caleb’s knee was touching mine. When I finished my ramen, I set the bowl down on a side table that was cluttered with change and one of those bulbous glass lamps you see in old people’s houses. It cast a low-yellow hue over the room. I was surprised Caleb wasn’t talking. He seemed like the kind of person who talked through movies, but I guess the subtitles and bright colors kept him occupied. There was a small, angry girl everyone in the high school was afraid of, and a big, mean-looking boy who was not actually mean, and they decided to help each other hook up with their respective crushes. We were about twenty minutes in when it hit me.
“Tsundere,” I said, pointing. “The mean girl is a tsundere.”
“Congratulations, you’re an anime stereotype,” Caleb said with a mouth full of noodles. “Defensive hot person who aggressively pushes people away to hide their dark, tragic past.”
I didn’t like to be described so succinctly. “I aggressively pushed people away well before my tragic past.”
Caleb finished his ramen and laid his head in my lap. A moment later, he took me by the wrist and plopped my hand on his head. “Head rubs.”
“Pathetic,” I said, but obliged, and he made a smug, contented sound.
I was glad he didn’t want to talk about the robbery or my conversation with Mike the day before. I should have told him about Killian’s offer as soon as I came in, but in his shitty little apartment, running my hands through his hair, growing increasingly more engaged in a ridiculous cartoon, each second that passed made it more difficult to broach the subject. I wondered how long I could get away with not telling him. All night. All weekend, maybe. We could go to work on Monday, and I could pretend not to have known. But I also knew if I didn’t tell him, if I didn’t convince him, he wouldn’t take the offer.
Hours passed. Caleb had fallen asleep after the fourth episode. By the flickering light of the television, I memorized the curl of his eyelashes, the slope of his nose. I traced the shell of his ear with my fingertip, the line of his lips. I could no longer remember all the songs Dee liked to listen to in the car, which shirt was her favorite, the brand of frozen pizza she liked best. The shape of her was fading from my memory as the wound of her absence remained.
Ten episodes. Fifteen. Twenty. Every time I thought the series was over, a new episode would start up, complicating things between the two main characters and their respective crushes, while they fell deeper and deeper in love with each other. I could see why Caleb liked it—the encapsulation of youth, a world no wider than the four walls of classroom 2-C. Even the animation spoke to the nature of safety, of a greater aesthetic ideal in which blushing reveals one’s deepest desires; giant hovering sweat drops, one’s deepest fears. There is violence without injury, love without loss. Nothing can hide in depth or shadow.
Episode twenty-one, I gasped, shook Caleb awake. “Caleb. Caleb, wake up.”
“What?” he asked, disoriented.
“Taiga fell off a cliff.”
He laid his head back down. “I know.”
“She accidentally confessed her feelings to Ryūji.”
“What time is it?”
“Two. Why is it taking them so long to get together?”
“Tsunderes have a lot of self-hatred to work through. They always blame themselves for something that isn’t their fault, and they think it makes them unworthy of being loved. So do you sleep or do you just brood until dawn like a gargoyle?”
“What usually happens once the tsundere gets with the protagonist?”
“They usually have to protect them from some awful fate. Sometimes it’s like a monster or something, but in this, Taiga has to save Ryūji from having to get a job after high school, or like, live a life of toxic masculinity, when all he really wants to be is a house husband. They try to elope, but—”
“There’s something I have to tell you.”
He sat upright and paused the show. “Is this a love confession? Hold on, let me fix my hair.”
“Killian is going to offer you a position in the management training program.”
His hand fell from where he’d been flattening his hair. “What the fuck is a management training program?”
I explained it to him. I gave him the figure of his new salary and told him he’d have a couple weeks to relocate, his moving expenses paid.
“Oh, come on,” he said, “just because I can spot a cash hoarder and sell him a safe deposit box doesn’t mean I can be an actual banker.”
“This is a good thing born from something bad. We should be grateful.”
“Don’t you dare Old Yeller me. I don’t want the job. I don’t want to leave you. We just started—”
“An affair,” I said. “We’re not in a relationship. We’re not going to get married. We don’t have a future together.”
I’d never been able to see someone’s heart shatter before. He looked more shaken than he had after the robbery.
“So, it is just a sex thing,” he said.
The kind thing would be to say yes, break him all the way open so whatever was inside him had room to grow.
“No,” I said. “It’s not just a sex thing. I” —I struggled to say the words, had to spit them out like rotten food—“like you.” I paused, looked down at my hands which had just moments before been petting Caleb like a house cat. “You’re important to me. I care about you.”
My feelings for Caleb had always felt manageable, tidy. Small but significant. Something I could stuff in a box, cushioned by bubble wrap, and carry with me. I felt selfish, evil, to have kept him so contained.
“It’s not a love confession if you don’t say it,” Caleb said.
“I think it would be easier on both of us if I don’t.”
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.”
“We’re not in an anime, Caleb. You want to live like this forever?”
“In the lap of the woman I’m in love with, watching my favorite show? Yeah, actually, I do.”
“I mean this apartment. Friendless, bored. Barely making enough money to survive. Capable of so much more than what you’re doing.”
He brought his knees up to his chest. On the television, the characters were getting ready for Valentine’s Day, dancing around the rising tension for another handful of episodes before they would all find their bliss, to the satisfaction of an eager audience, wanting desperately to believe that we get to keep all the love that’s given to us.
“I’ve been stealing from my drawer,” Caleb said. “Well, not my drawer. I steal from deposits before I input them. Always weird amounts. I’ve been doing it since I first started. I’ve probably stolen like, a thousand bucks by now. I keep expecting you to figure it out, but you never do. You’re just like Killian. You only see who you can make me into, not who I am.”
He was right. I didn’t think he was capable of something like that, an ongoing lie just for the sake of it. Not because he needed the money, but just to see if he could do it without getting caught. Knowing that even if he did, I liked him too much to do anything about it. Killian was right too. Caleb had a bright future in finance. And I had been right. He’d been in control the entire time, had cast me into a role without my knowing. He’d betrayed me.
“If you don’t take the promotion,” I said, “then I’ll have to fire you.”
On Monday, I watched Killian and Caleb through the conference room window. I could see Caleb’s face, the back of Killian’s head. Killian slid the manila folder across the table to him just as he had done for me. Caleb took his time reading the letter, pen flipping around his fingers like a magician with a coin.
Dee had loved to come to work with me. She liked counting change. At first, she could only count the number of coins, but I taught her how to count by fives and tens and twenty-fives, how to roll them up in their little paper sleeves. She would roll them up, dump them out, roll them all again. I was always surprised by how much I loved her. I would have killed for her, died for her. Every day I look at the calendar and wonder what she would be doing that day, how old she’d be, how her love of counting and categorizing might have manifested, or maybe dissipated. Would she have kept her room clean without my asking? Would she have gotten good grades? Was it possible for her to disappoint me, or would I refuse to see her flaws, as I refuse to acknowledge now that she ever had any? I guess the only good thing about the dead is that we are free to worship them.
When Caleb finished, he looked up and found me, not listening to whatever Killian was saying to him. He was seeking something from me. Pleading. Maybe he wanted me to run into the room and tell him not to do it, that I couldn’t lose him. But that was what he didn’t understand—I could lose him. Like Dee, Caleb was only something beautiful I’d once held.
I plucked a stack of twenties from my drawer. From the corner of my eye, I saw Caleb’s shoulders fall, head lowered as he signed the dotted line.