All the Pretty Girls Look the Same
When the guy eating ice cream on the subway, wearing jean shorts and an Argos tank top, stands to offer his seat, Joan hesitates but takes it. He smiles at her and hugs a pole, hooking his bowl arm then spoon arm around it. When the train lurches, when the guy stumbles, there’s a slapstick inevitability to how his bowl drops, to how he clutches it messily against his chest. The guy stares around at the other passengers, looking more amused than embarrassed at the ice cream spilled down his stomach. He smiles last at Joan, as if she should appreciate his folly even more than the rest.
The guy gets off when Joan does, strips off his tank top, wads it and his plastic bowl into a garbage bin. He’s pale and slouched, soft gut swelling above the waist of his shorts despite his bony shoulders. He’s not exactly following her. But he’s walking close enough that she can smell him.
“Are you going to Scarborough Center?” he warbles, and Joan is confused until she remembers it’s the name of the subway stop. She slows to let him move ahead, pretending to hunt through her purse, though the guy dawdles too, makes a show of studying a TTC wall map. Joan waits until they’re at the turnstiles, squeezes through the shorter line on the right before she accelerates, thinks she hears the guy speaking once behind her in dismay. The burst of speed carries her up the escalator to the street, blinking and out of breath, feeling foolish too as she realizes she has no idea where she’s come up.
An hour later Joan is sitting with Isabella, finishing dessert on the restaurant’s outdoor patio, when she spots the familiar slouch in the passing crowd. Though it’s ridiculous, she’s not wholly surprised to see him again. He’s still sans shirt, his collarbones and the bridge of his nose pink from his hour in the sun. She can tell he’s spotted her too from how his gait changes, straightening, slowing. He comes toward them, one hand waggling from his hip.
“Don’t look at him,” Joan whispers, but Izzie has looked, is looking still, which emboldens the guy enough that he makes a second, closer pass and halts beside them, stomach pressed into the cedar railing. Joan stares down at their cups and smeared plates, thinks about how she didn’t even want dessert, how, without it, she might have been safely away by now.
“Hey there.” The guy speaks to Joan as if she’s a small, timid animal.
She turns further away, frowns down at her phone
“Can we help you?” Isabella asks, and Joan prods her thigh, feels like kicking her. They don’t know each other well enough anymore to give or receive signals.
Joan can see in the periphery of her vision how the guy is swaying, how he’s breathing heavily, stomach distending with the breaths that hiss from his nostrils. If he’s going to cuss her out, say something cruel, some final chest-beating to save face, she wishes he would get over with.
“All right, then,” the guy says and sucks his teeth. “You have a nice day.”
The sturdy waitress with the biceps is edging over. The guy doesn’t look over but seems to sense it, turns abruptly to leave.
“I tell you, buddy, it’s a fucking shame.” He’s singing again. “All the pretty girls, well they look the same.” Joan recognizes the melody, an old Iggy Pop song she has on vinyl somewhere. Though she’s fairly sure the guy has the lyrics wrong.
The waitress offers Joan a commiserative eye roll as she refills their coffees. Isabella is still looking from Joan to the distant figure. “Well, that was interesting.”
Joan blows on her coffee and nods.
“Welcome to Scarborough.” Izzie laughs.
“He was on the subway with me earlier.”
Isabella’s brow works a moment. “Wow. That still happen to you?”
Joan thinks of lying, of minimizing, but she’s tired. “Now and then.”
A silence then, the first long one of the lunch. Joan sees her opening.
“I probably should be heading out,” she says, sees Isabella’s quick frown, a measure of surprise, maybe some hurt, in her eyes.
“Sure. I know it’s a long ride back. Thanks again for coming all the way out here.” They say their goodbyes and hug, Isabella leaning in, hooking her chin into Joan’s shoulder, the pressure just a little painful, before they separate. “Try not to pick up more on your way back.”
“Pick what up?”
Izzie laughs. “Admirers.”
“Right.” And then Joan’s underground again, passing through the turnstile, maybe relieved, though it wasn’t unpleasant seeing Isabella again, the culmination of a few exploratory messages then a month of planning on Facebook. The fact that she felt ready to leave today before the appetizers could just be that she’s worn out from her 7:30 AM meeting. Also, it’s only been fifteen years since college, which isn’t a terribly long time. She wonders now if this reunion with Izzie might have felt more meaningful, more poignant, if they’d waited another fifteen.
The subway car is near empty, and Joan settles in its corner, wonders again why her company put her up in the Yonge street hotel instead of closer to the trade show, though she’s not complaining, though she likes it downtown, has already found a decent ramen place. She’ll most likely go there again tonight, her third dinner in a row. One of the only things she likes about business travel -- the freedom to indulge strange whims.
It takes Joan two stops to suspect then a third to confirm that she’s boarded the wrong train, the eastbound. She hurries off, studies a map, mad at herself, so out of it that she gotten mixed up on a two-line system. She surfaces and calls an Uber, is waiting outside a falafel place that smells of rancid cooking oil when she sees the figure facing her. The alarm, the constriction in her guts, continues even after she reasons it couldn’t possibly be the same guy, just the same build and thinning brown hair. This one has nylon Adidas pants and bright running shoes, a mangy goatee. It’s possible he doesn’t look like the subway guy at all, that it’s only his expression, how he frowns at Joan now as if struggling to recall some crucial matter of which she is a part. The guy is just making his approach when her Uber arrives.
Joan gets in, relieved, chats with the driver, who is Iranian and friendly, who launches into his life story with little prompting.
“When I left Iran, it felt like I was shot from a cannon, you know,” the driver tells Joan somewhere down the Don Valley Parkway. “Like I was floating through space, waiting to land somewhere. So many places. So many bad ones. But then I came here.” He takes his hands worryingly off the wheel, mimes his body’s flight with his right fist, catches and cradles it in his left. “This city, Toronto caught me. This country, Canada, it held me.” He grins at her in the mirror.
“That’s really great,” Joan says and smiles back, though she can’t think of what to add. On another day she might be more touched by the driver’s earnest story, his pantomime. Is she so ill-humored today that she only hears something rehearsed, so cynical that she wonders if it’s a story he tells because it earns him good ratings, that he maybe uses a similar riff to pick up women -- the tender joining of the hands, the husky drop in his voice at his story’s conclusion?
Now she’s uneasy again, though the driver’s not doing anything untoward, just answering a phone call in Farsi and fiddling with his lumbar pillow. It’s too bad. She enjoyed their early conversation. But something has shifted, and she can’t tell if it’s her or him or just the long interval since either of them spoke. They ride in silence until he drops her.
That evening at the hotel, while Joan is filling the tub and trying to tell apart the little shampoo and conditioner bottles, her phone rings. Isabella.
“Just calling to say bon voyage,” Izzie says.
“Sure. Thanks.” Joan tests the bathwater with her heel.
“And I wanted to thank you again for coming all the way to Scarberia. I know it was out of your way.”
“No problem. It was fun.”
“Right. Fun.” Isabella laughs then blows out through her lips. It’s a familiar noise, one that signifies discomfort, Joan can vaguely remember from years ago.
“Nothing.” The sound again, the soft blowing.
“Seriously, Izzie. What is it?” Joan turns off the bath faucet with her toe, walks to the bed and sits.
Isabella laughs. “I’m just feeling a little weird.”
“I don’t know.” Izzie sighs. “I just wish we’d had more time today.”
“Sorry, I was tired. And it seemed like you had to get back to work.”
“Right. It’s just I had this feeling when you left that maybe you were, I don’t know . . .” Isabella makes the soft fricative again. “Bored. Disappointed. Something.”
“Of course not.”
“Yeah, sorry. Just being insecure.” Izzie’s voice is slurred, Joan can detect, a few glasses of wine perhaps. “I mean it’s not like I thought we were going to have some super deep conversation. But it was all so surface-level, you know. Just our jobs and our pets and the TV shows we’ve been watching. We didn’t talk about half of what I thought we would.”
Joan laughs. “Like what?”
“I mean, I can’t think of it now.” Isabella sighs. “Okay. Do you remember how we met? I was thinking about that this morning.”
“I kind of remember. Intro Soc? What’s-his-face with the sweater vests and the turquoise.”
“Yeah. I asked where you got your boots. And you said ‘Philadelphia’ and didn’t even look at me. And I remember thinking well fuck her too but also thinking hmm, I maybe need to get to know this individual.” Isabella laughs.
Though Joan doesn’t remember this at all, though she might have guessed they’d connected working on some group presentation or swapping notes before a mid-term, she laughs too. She’s heard before these descriptions of her younger self as haughty or aloof. They surprise her. She mostly remembers feeling shy back then in class, at the endless residence parties, terrified of being called on, of receiving unexpected attention.
“Okay, I maybe did want to ask you something else.” Isabella makes her sound again, the soft blowing. “Why did you get back in touch? I’ve been wondering. Was there a reason?”
“I don’t know. I have this bad habit of letting old friendships fade. So I’ve been trying to reconnect with people. I thought I told you all that.”
“But, you know, why me? Why now?”
Joan laughs. “I don’t know, Izzie. You were someone I had fun with. Had good memories with. I wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I was just surprised to hear from you. That’s all. I mean most of what I remember from back then is pretty cringeworthy. Following you around like a puppy. Talking like you and dressing like you. Getting my nose pierced like yours. You remember all that, right?”
“Not really,” Joan says though she mostly does.
“No, it’s embarrassing. I think I was just a little awed. You were like the coolest person I’d ever met then. You had tattoos and played drums.” Izzie laughs. “Were super hot.”
Joan groans. “Right.”
“I’m just saying it was probably pretty obvious back then that I was figuring out some things. Some feelings.” She laughs. “I mean, was it obvious?”
“Maybe a little.”
“Okay. I mean, I’m mortified. But okay.” Izzie laughs and sighs at once. “There’s another thing. Something else I used to wonder. I guess I should just ask.” She clears her throat. “So I know things were complicated back then with boys and, you know, complications. And I know this might be one of those situations where I’m misremembering things to fit what I want to believe. But later I wondered sometimes if maybe, possibly, you were figuring out things back then too. I mean I’m probably totally off base, but --”
“No.” Joan laughs. “No, you’re not off base.”
Izzie exhales. “Okay, I’m not going to lie. I’m a little relieved. Just to know I wasn’t delusional all those years. Yeah, I’m relieved.” Izzie’s explosive guffaw now that Joan also remembers, that makes her think of sticky bar tables and pitchers of beer. And then she can’t help but join in and laugh too. For a moment things feels good between them, a rhythm she remembers, a congruency that she’s missed perhaps.
“So all right, Joanie J. Let’s get down to it. What’s up these days? What’s happening? With you, I mean. You were so vague about it at lunch.”
“Nothing really. Or nothing serious. Married to the job. Seriously, it’s hard to find time for much else.”
“Okay,” Isabella says, is silent a moment. “So, listen. Now that the elephants are out of the room, and since I probably won’t be down Tuscaloosa any time soon, and since I know you won’t be coming back to Scarborough like ever . . . do you want to maybe get a drink? A redo of lunch. I could be down there in half an hour.”
“That’s tempting. But I was actually about to go to bed. I’ve got another seven-thirty meeting. And I fly out at ten.”
“I mean I just thought that now that we’ve gotten our bullshit, polite, catching-up conversation out of the way, we can have the real one. It won’t take long. One drink. Two at most. I have to get up early too.”
“Sorry, Izzie. I –” A truck is backing up on the street below, its beep tinny from on high. “I’m making a presentation tomorrow. If I don’t get some sleep, I’m going to be useless.”
“Sure. I understand,” Isabella says, though in the pause after she makes her soft blowing noise again. “Sorry. I’m back to wondering. Was it that disappointing today? I mean, was I disappointing?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I said this at lunch. I’ll say it again. You look incredible. Remarkable. Like somebody put you in suspended animation.”
“Fuck off,” Joan snorts.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know it.” Izzie laughs. “And yes, I know that for me time has not been so kind.”
“I mean, you look the same to me,” Joan says then because she has to, even though it isn’t true, even though, arriving at lunch this afternoon, seeing the woman at the table with her crow’s feet and her matronly hips, she did feel a twinge of not just disappointment but something stranger, thornier, more like betrayal. Even though she has struggled all afternoon how to situate the woman from the restaurant, the one on the phone now, with the other Izzie, with the girl coughing over a hashpipe in the dorm room, frowning down into her The Good Soldier Cliff Notes, stretching to swap CD’s in the boombox. Once or twice the two of them dozing off together on the Joan’s futon, waking to feel the other body stirring, the pleasant alertness.
“Sorry,” Isabella says. “I know I’ve been blowing this out of proportion, you know, seeing you again. Thinking about it too much. Wondering too much. I know I shouldn’t assume that –"
“Izzie, I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t get in touch with you for that reason. I knew I was coming up here for work. I heard you were living here. I thought it was nice chance to catch up. That’s all.”
“Okay.” The soft blowing noise again. “Okay. Sure.”
Joan laughs. “Also, I’m pretty sure you told me this afternoon you were dating someone, right? That you were almost engaged.”
“It’s not -- I mean, it isn’t . . . ” Isabella sighs. “He gets along with my kid.”
“But that’s a good thing. That’s great.”
“You’re sounding super-condescending now.”
“I didn’t mean to. I honestly think it’s a real feat these days just to find someone.”
Isabella breathes evenly for some moments. “Okay, I know I’m being pushy now. But I also know how weird I’m going to feel if I just drop this and we don’t see each other again for another fifteen years. I still want to meet. Just to talk. Have the conversation we should have had at lunch. So I’m going to ask you one last time, okay?” The pause is solemn, is longer than it needs to be. “Do you want to get a drink? Just one drink? What do you say?”
Joan lies back on the soft hotel pillows, presses her eyes into the crook of her elbow. “I think there’s a bar in the lobby.”
“You’re sure? God, I feel now like I totally pressured you.”
“No, it’s fine. Let’s do it. Though you better start driving now, okay? Call me when you’re close.”
Joan drains the tub, re-dresses in her clothes from earlier, lies on the bed long enough to catch herself nodding off, the mattress’s soft gravity drawing her down. She sits in the hard-backed chair by the desk after that, pinches her earlobes to keep herself alert.
She’s thinking then, for whatever reason, not about Izzie driving out from the suburbs, but about the guy from the subway this morning, his sauntering walk and slow wave, the angry curl of his lips as he departed. His face like other faces in a moment like other moments. A variation on a theme -- other streets, even other subways. The bearded man who followed her last summer from the Barcelona Metro for blocks and even into a tavern and out, her Spanish not good enough to ask for help. And she thought she’d lost him until she was at the door of her rented flat, and he reappeared, like in some bad movie, hissing something incomprehensible in her ear then leaving her standing there, heart thumping hollowly.
And even that incident part of something older, something always. Walking down South street as a kid, her grandmother gripping her shoulders, propelling her, whispering not to look at the men they passed through, to ignore their words and faces, cheerful and teasing as she approached, harder as she passed by. And though she might have first guessed she was around fourteen then, she couldn’t have been more than twelve from the Esprit top she remembers wearing.
The subway guy today might have been different than many of others, might have been too drunk, too stupid or fucked up to realize he was scaring her. Might have just wanted to talk old records. She can make excuses for him if she chooses to. She wonders again if she’s become overly sensitive, if she can’t tell anymore. She thinks about the Iranian Uber driver, who, from this safe distance, seems decent, admirable, who despite his cheerful optimism has probably endured things – the “bad places” he alluded to -- that would give Joan nightmares. And she can understand what he described too, the feeling of floating with nowhere to land. Of finding refuge. She can imagine herself telling a story like his to a stranger in the way he did, wanting nothing more than an appreciative listener.
By the time Joan’s cell rings, she’s dozing again, even in the hard chair. And when she reaches for the phone, instead of answering, it’s easier just to mute it and wait for the next call. But she doesn’t answer it the next time either, ignores it while it buzzes on the desk. And when the room phone rings shrilly some minutes later, waking her fully, Joan only sits up in the dim, watches the phone’s strobing light until it blinks itself out.
An hour later, Joan heads down and scans the hotel bar, a couple of middle-aged guys in golf shirts whose eyes rise to her, bright and momentarily hopeful. But no one else. Relief overtakes her, makes her feel a little weak, depleted, a hollowness inside that feels enough like hunger that she considers sitting and ordering food from the bar, though she’s fairly certain the bolder of the pair from the other table will be over shortly if she does, asking what she’s drinking, why she looks so familiar to him. Instead Joan walks the half block to the Japanese place and orders yet another bowl of the same miso ramen from the same shy, teenage waitress. And though this bowl’s not as good as the one just a few hours before, the broth weaker and the noodles overcooked, she relishes it, doesn’t know when she’ll get ramen as good as this back home.
She’s finishing when her phone buzzes at her elbow. She could ignore it again, she supposes, but she doesn’t.
“Did I wake you?” Isabella asks.
“What you doing?” Izzie’s voice is cool, casual, a little muted, as if she’s holding the phone a few inches from her mouth.
Joan laughs. “I actually went out for more noodles.”
“That’s cool.” The silence then, just the other woman breathing, swallowing. “So if you really, really didn’t want to meet. If it was that unbearable. You could have told me, right? Saved me the drive.”
“I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay.” The woman’s slow breaths again. “So I was driving just now, and remembering.” She laughs. “Everything back then feels so super intense, you know, so monumental. Like opera. And all this time, all these years, I’ve been thinking it was because important things were happening. Tragedies. Missed chances. Though I think probably it’s just that I was young, and it was new to me.”
“I was thinking about when we met too. In that Soc class. How sometimes you meet people, and they make a bad first impression, but then you get to know them and they become so special to you that you don’t know how you could have ever thought what you did. But other times, you think that’s what’s happening, that you got someone wrong at first, but then you find after a while that you’ve circled back right back to where you started.”
“Right,” Joan says.
“Yeah, you’re pretty much the bitch I first thought you were, aren’t you?” Isabella doesn’t wait for a response, hangs up.
Joan puts down her phone. Someone today, some person, was going to say that to her, those words or a variation. It was bound to happen. All that surprises her maybe is that it’s been this person, even though she’s the one who probably deserves to say it. Joan pays for her noodles and leaves.
The man who takes the seat next to Joan on the plane is about ten years older, tanned and heavy-jowled. She tenses a little as he settles his large body next to her, as he seizes her seatbelt by mistake. The clumsy negotiation of space. But after that he’s fine, friendly and avuncular. Steve chats about his wife, who teaches at Shelton State, shows pictures of his teenage boys. On another day Joan might have found this unwelcome. But she enjoys it this morning, asks Steve questions about his border collies, about his fan boat trips in the gulf. She is eager to know more, eager to talk, to the point that he’s the one to break off first, to open an in-flight magazine and frown down at a recipe for coconut shrimp. And she’s embarrassed then. The complicated etiquette of these situations.
As the plane lands, Joan finally reads the flurry of texts from Isabella, first apologizing, then asking if Joan’s left yet, then if they can meet at the airport, then if she’ll call when she gets home. A second cluster of messages follows: Is she home now? Can they just pretend none of it happened, the unpleasantness last night? Will she please, please call?
At baggage claim Steve from the plane comes to stand beside Joan, lifts her bag off the belt even as she’s reaching for it then lays it at her feet.
“You should put a ribbon on it,” he says. “Make it stand out more.”
Joan thanks him, and Steve leans in then, and with the same avuncular smile from the plane, asks if she wants to share a cab, his hand lighting on the handle of her bag.
“I’m good,” she says and takes the handle from him.
“Sorry, I wasn’t . . .” He holds up his hands. “I just thought if we were both going the same direction we could save a few bucks. But never mind.”
“Someone’s coming for me.” Joan feels almost bad at the lie, wonders if she’s misread the moment, misread him, until she sees his face turning away, closed and hard, the frozen grimace. She rolls her bag a distance down the platform to the further taxi stand, is relieved when her driver is a sleepy, silver-haired African who barely acknowledges her, who pops his trunk outside her house and doesn’t even offer to help with her bag. She tips him more than she should, though he doesn’t seem to notice, his sour expression unchanged.
While Joan’s searching for her keys, her phone buzzes – another text. She closes the phone’s cover without looking.
Joan’s across-the-street neighbor, Glen, is out dumping cartons in his recycling. “The road warrior returns,” he calls out.
“Yup.” But she’s not in the mood for gossip or bitching about the HOA right now, just waves and retreats inside.
Joan’s house looks small and untidy, lit only by the foyer light. It’s stuffy with the AC off. Still she welcomes it, her space. A few sweaters, discarded at the last moment when she read the weather forecast four days ago, lie strewn on the floor. She doesn’t know why she’s surprised they’re still there. She returns them to her closet, lies in bed for a while in this place that has caught her, has held her, she thinks, and nearly laughs.
She finally looks at the last text, from Izzie again, of course. It’s a photo, she sees with surprise, a scan of an old snapshot, the two of them sitting at night in the quad in what she realizes must, strangely enough, be firelight. And she remembers it then, the power outage during senior year exam week, that wild night when it felt like all the old rules were suspended, where they’d sat out in the grass, and someone had built an actual bonfire, and they’d listened to a kid play guitar and felt like shipwreck survivors washed up on a beach. She remembers how later they’d walked out, the two of them, through the unlit streets, none of the lamps working, had held hands because it was dark, undeterred when a few drunk boys from the dorm across the road appeared from the shadows and followed, watching, calling out to them, begging them to kiss, just one little kiss. She’d whispered to Izzie to just keep walking, to ignore the voices, until the boys got tired of the sport and they were alone, walking until they reached the outer fringes of campus, strange streets, and only then felt uneasy, their hands unslipping at some point in the dark.
Later, after a gin and tonic and two DVR’d TV episodes, Joan texts Izzie that there’s no hard feelings on her end, that she’s tired now but will call soon. And she will call unless she doesn’t, unless they don’t. Unless Izzie is another of the old friends who slip away, which could happen because it’s easy, because what’s lost, whatever time or possibilities, was gone long ago.
After another g & t, Joan digs up the old Iggy Pop album, Raw Power, in its battered sleeve and puts it on. She hears, more than a little vindicated, that the subway guy did indeed get the lyrics wrong yesterday: “I tell you honey, it’s a crying shame. All the pretty girls, well they look the same.” She can imagine correcting the dude, wishes she had, pointed out that the singer isn’t speaking to some other dude, a wry observation. He’s talking to the girl, an accusation, as if his perception is her fault somehow. And then the other line comes soon after, the refrain she’s forgotten, the singer spitting it out with some rancor: “Honey, honey, I can tell. Your pretty face is going to hell.”
And Joan takes the record off then, returns it to the stacks where it will sit, retreats to her dim bedroom, to her gin, to her recorded TV shows.