Julia left work late. When she finally got off the bus, it was nearing 7 p.m. Her neighborhood looked different at this hour. The shadows were a shade or two darker amid the glowing orbs of streetlights, and lamps shined in living room windows, casting oblong slabs of yellow onto snow-covered front yards. Despite the din of traffic, there was a stillness to the city that was only present during the midwest’s bleak winter months, when residents were confined indoors. The street was devoid of pedestrians, save for two men coming toward Julia on the sidewalk in front of her.
Pulling her coat collar up to her ears, Julia shuddered as the wind threaded through its fibers. She’d constructed it from fabric she wove on her loom, sewing pieces together in a patchwork of Navajo-inspired panels of indigo and rust. Home was two blocks away, and she tried to think warm thoughts, but the image of her husband nudged its way toward her. Ever since she’d discovered the account Randall had been using to hook up with random women via Tinder, she couldn’t visualize anything besides his profile pic when she thought of him. Form-fitting white T-shirt, jeans. He was 38, with the body of a 15-year-old boy—tall and lanky with mild acne on his back and upper arms. His hair was chin-length, curling around his ears in quotation marks of brown, and perched upon his nose were John Lennon-esque glasses. In the galaxy of her mind, Julia gave Randall an elbow to the chest and watched him spin away from her like an astronaut adrift in space.
She nearly collided with the men as they passed on the sidewalk, and she was forced to stumble into the alley. One was tall, the other stocky and low to the ground, like a French bulldog. They both wore baseball caps underneath the hoods of their sweatshirts so that their faces were obscured by shadow.
As Julia turned away, the collar of her coat suddenly tightened around her neck and she careened backward. The cityscape blurred into a swirl of concrete and ice. She cried out, propelled toward the brick wall of an apartment building. Her ankle caught on the wheel of a dumpster, and she almost rammed into the wall before the grip on her coat pulled her upright. The glint of a gun. Its silver sheen caught the light of a streetlamp and then faded into the shadows. She tried to scream, but before any sound could escape, a gloved hand pressed over her mouth. Tall Man was behind her, pulling her back into his chest. His breath was moist on her neck. Covered in rubber dots for grip, the texture of the glove felt like the skin of a lizard on Julia’s face. She struggled to breathe. The gun’s cold metal pressed above her ear.
“Shut the fuck up,” Stocky Man said, “and we won’t kill you.”
Tall Man moved his hand away from Julia’s mouth, her neck cinched within the crease of his elbow. Stocky Man stood in front of her in a pair of skinny jeans and suede boots. His legs—in combination with his oversized sweatshirt—made his body appear disproportionately top-heavy. The curlicues of a red beard protruded from his hood.
“Don’t look at my face!” Stocky Man shouted. “Don’t fucking look at me!”
Tall Man pushed the barrel of the gun harder against her skull, causing her to wince. Her purse was ripped from her shoulder, and Stocky Man rummaged through her bag. Julia’s chest began to heave. She tried to control the sounds that came from her face—the sniffles and gasps for breath.
“Where the hell is all your cash?” Stocky Man asked.
When Julia opened her eyes, he was holding her wallet, which was filled with nothing but receipts. She couldn’t formulate a response.
“I said, ‘Where—is—all—your—money?’”
“I—I don’t have any,” Julia finally said. “I never carry cash. I have credit cards—take those.”
Stocky Man shook his head. “Take off your coat.”
“I said, ‘Take—off—your—fucking—coat!’”
Tall Man released the grip around Julia’s neck, instead pushing the gun into the back of her head. Her hands shook as she unbuttoned her coat. Now she understood what was going to happen to her. She tried to imagine a happy place that was anywhere besides this alley—at the helm of her loom or amid a tranquil forest—as Stocky Man pulled the coat off her shoulders. He tore the pendant necklace from her neck, the chain digging into her skin before snapping. Her wedding and engagement rings were yanked from her finger.
“Up against the wall,” Tall Man said, forcing her toward the brick of the apartment building. “On your knees.”
Easing herself onto the pavement, Julia felt bits of asphalt jab her kneecaps. Wind cut through her silk blouse. Her teeth chattered in concert. She thought about her 33 years of life. “Short” was the only word that came to her. The brick in front of her face blurred into a murky mess, and she closed her eyes. She filled her lungs with air and slowly let it escape from her mouth, steeling herself for the bullet. Hopefully it will be quick—a sharp jolt, followed by nothingness.
Julia waited. Then she heard the men’s shoes hitting the pavement, receding down the alley. When she opened her eyes, she was alone.
Julia pressed the buzzer. She’d made the one-block trek home with her arms wrapped tight across her chest. The wind was unyielding, and she’d nearly lost all sensation in her fingers. After a few moments, Randall’s voice came over the intercom.
“It’s me,” Julia said. “Buzz me in.”
“Where are your keys?”
“Just open the fucking door!”
She trudged up the steps to where Randall was waiting for her in the doorway of their condo. His beige cable-knit cardigan flapped open, exposing a chest that was both pale and hairless.
“Jesus Christ!” he said. “Where’s your coat?”
As Julia moved past, Randall stared incredulously at her.
“I got mugged,” she said, collapsing onto the couch. Lying on her side, she covered herself with an afghan. She had interrupted Randall’s post-work ritual: He’d been listening to The Beatles while preparing Julia’s lunch for her to take to work the next day. Abbey Road played over the stereo. He lowered the volume to a whisper of sound, and she felt his weight on the couch. “These two guys,” she said. “One of them had a gun.”
“Oh, my God. Are you OK?” Randall placed a hand on Julia’s hip. “Did they hurt you?”
“No. They just scared the shit out of me.” Tears rolled off her face and onto the upholstery, creating patches of moisture. “They took everything—purse, wallet, phone, keys, all my jewelry. They even took the coat I made.”
“I don’t believe this. I mean, I believe you. I’m just shocked.”
Lifting up the afghan, Randall got underneath and wrapped his arms around Julia’s waist. Although she didn’t want him touching her, the heat of another human being was luxurious. This I am allowed, she thought. I’ll literally use him as a warm body. She closed her eyes.
No one said anything for a while. Randall’s breath tickled her neck, along with the scratch of stubble from his chin. Her flesh tingled with sensation, as though she could feel the blood begin to flow beneath her skin.
“I suppose there’s a compliment in there somewhere, right?” Randall said after a few minutes of silence.
“Your coat. They must have thought it was so avant-garde, it had to be designer or something—that’s why they stole it.”
Julia frowned. “That doesn’t even make sense. My coat’s not avant-garde.”
“I’m just saying, maybe you should feel honored in a roundabout way.”
“To have my coat ripped from my body?” Julia sat up to glare at him. “How gratifying.”
“Sorry,” Randall said. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Will you call the police?” she asked, wishing she’d thought of this earlier. “I should file a report. And the credit cards—can you cancel them before these guys go on a shopping spree?”
Randall nodded. He got up from the couch and retrieved his cell phone from the kitchen island. As he was about to dial, he paused and said to Julia, “I had a Toastmasters meeting tonight, but I won’t go.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll stay here with you.”
She sighed, lifting the afghan over her head. She watched him through gaps in the yarn. Toastmasters—a public speaking and leadership club—was Randall’s go-to excuse for when he planned to meet up with someone from Tinder. She thought about her wedding and engagement rings. Given Randall’s infidelities, it felt appropriate that they’d been stolen. This made her want to say something snarky, but Randall didn’t know that she knew about his philandering, so she held it in, not dignifying his pseudo act of kindness with a response.
Julia knew that her mugging paled in comparison to other crimes in the city, but still, the police officer’s lack of urgency was disconcerting. As he stood in the living room, he said he would file a report, but muggings usually went unsolved. The items the men stole might turn up at a pawnshop or on Craigslist, though this was unlikely. The only helpful bit of advice he offered was to change the locks on the doors to their condo, as the muggers now had Julia’s keys and her address from the driver’s license in her wallet.
After the officer left, Randall went to the hardware store and brought back a new set of locks. He worked on the front door first, then the back, which opened up onto a wooden deck that overlooked a courtyard and an alley two stories below. Cold air rushed into the hallway of their unit. Julia pulled on a winter coat and watched her husband as he fumbled with a screwdriver. Randall wasn’t particularly handy, and part of her assumed he was installing the locks wrong.
Moving past her husband, Julia went out onto the deck. Light from a three-quarter moon outlined the contours of the landscape in silver. The wind had died down, though the temperature was still in the mid-30’s. Her hair was elbow-length and unruly, and she tucked her curls into the collar of her coat like a scarf. Resting her forearms on the railing, she gazed across the alley to the back of an office building. Sentry atop its roof was a plastic owl meant to deter pigeons. Its yellow eyes were reflective, and as it glared at Julia, it appeared to be mocking her. It reminded her of Randall—this wise, snooty owl—and his superiority complex.
As though summoned by her thoughts, Randall joined her on the deck, carrying with him a Tupperware and fork. They hadn’t eaten dinner, and in the container was a salad of chopped tomatoes, red onion and cucumber with balsamic vinaigrette. Randall stabbed a bit of salad onto the fork and held it out to Julia. She hesitated for a moment, then part of her softened. There was hopefulness in his face, and she acquiesced, letting him feed her. The salad was crisp and acidic, and Randall appeared pleased as he watched her chew.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, scooping a bit of salad for himself.
“I don’t know. Crappy, I guess. I suppose I should feel lucky to be alive.”
A siren blared a few blocks over. Once it faded into the sounds of the night, he said, “How do you feel about getting a gun?”
Julia paused, thinking she’d misheard. “What?”
“A gun—for protection, of course. It’ll make you feel safer.”
Julia stared down the alley, half expecting to see Stocky Man and Tall Man ambling toward her. From this vantage point, she supposed she was somewhat safe from them and others like them, though guns made it possible to kill from great distances. This brought a pang of unease. Randall as a child had gone hunting with his dad, though guns were largely unfamiliar to Julia. Of course, she’d seen them on TV and in movies, but having one pushed against her head was a sensation she’d never forget—the blunt barrel grinding into her skull.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Think about the mugging—how differently it would have gone if you’d had a gun. You could have fought back.”
Julia paused. The men had caught her off guard. The thought of pulling a gun from her purse amid this state of surprise seemed unrealistic. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“It’s an option,” Randall said. “All I’m saying is to think about it.”
He offered her another fork’s worth of salad, holding the container underneath to catch any vegetables that might fall. She found comfort in this simple act of sharing food—a sign that life would go on—and she accepted the bite of salad from her husband.
As Julia lay in bed that night, she couldn’t sleep. Thoughts and images lunged at her from all corners of her brain, like the jeers of an angry mob. She sat up. The room was dark, save for light filtering in through the blinds, casting a barcode pattern across the comforter. A tapestry depicting a rock with moss growing on one side hung above the headboard. It had been a gift from Julia’s boss, Deirdre, who owned the weaving shop at which she worked. Below it, Randall slept on his back with his arms above his head, as though he were freefalling through space. Julia wondered if this position encapsulated how he was feeling—lost and out of control, with no sense of what he was doing or when he might hit bottom—but she doubted it. Knowing Randall, he was in complete control.
Getting out of bed, Julia grabbed her husband’s phone from the nightstand and brought it with her into the bathroom. This was a habit of hers: snooping through Randall’s Tinder profile while he slept. She’d figured out his passcode a few months ago, after growing suspicious of the frequency of his Toastmasters events. She’d gone onto his chapter’s website and saw that there wasn’t a meeting on an evening that Randall said there was—in fact, the chapter only met once every other week. Then, when she went through his phone, the Tinder app was running in the background.
Closing the door behind her, Julia sat on the toilet seat and unlocked Randall’s phone. He had created a persona for himself on Tinder. Instead of going by Randall, his name was simply Rand. He’d updated his profile picture since the last time she’d checked. Julia had no idea where the photo was taken or who had taken it, as he was perched atop a motorcycle. Randall didn’t own a motorcycle and had never expressed interest in riding one. He was staring off into the distance with a squinty glare to his eyes. For a brief moment, she felt bad for him. And what types of women does he want to attract looking like this? Then she was reminded of the obvious answer: women who weren’t anything like herself.
Julia scrolled through his recent messages. He’d canceled tonight’s date with a 29-year-old named Georgette by saying he was stuck at work. In her profile pic, the woman sat on a gold-embellished throne while sticking out her tongue. Julia could tell Georgette’s hair had been dyed blond, her brown roots peeking up from her scalp. This unkemptness made Julia feel a little better. Rand had also been talking to 35-year-old Susanna, who’d drawn a cartoonish wreath of pink flowers around her head, and 34-year-old Vicky, who wore thick black glasses that were supposed to make her look both nerdy and sexy. The women Randall was courting were moderately good looking, though they weren’t gorgeous by any means. Julia had tried to find a pattern in the women—as though they had some shared physical trait that she didn’t possess—but these efforts were futile. They simply provided whatever variety Randall felt he needed.
Julia went back into the bedroom. As she sat on the bed and watched her husband sleep, she thought about throwing something at him—a sock, a slipper, the lamp on the nightstand—but thought better of it. Instead, she imagined her eyes as two laser beams, burning holes into his face. She glared at him with such intensity that she half expected him to wake up from an inexplicable sensation of heat. And what if he did wake up? Then what? Julia didn’t know what words she would use or if she possessed the gumption to say them.
Randall had been cheating for about six months, though they’d only been married for three years. Julia saw his philandering as a phase—a “Lost Weekend” in which he indulged in licentious behavior—and believed that he would eventually return to her devoted and anew. She’d once read a magazine article about how men in their late 30’s were prone to infidelity, only to outgrow it by the time they reached 40.
Julia wasn’t ready to give up on their marriage, and she thought fondly of the early part of their courtship. When Julia and Randall first met, she taught evening painting classes for adults. Even though she told him not to, Randall would show up at the studio as the class was about to end, introducing himself to Julia’s students as her assistant. He swept the floors and washed paintbrushes, dumping mucky water into the sink in swirls of gray. After the students left, he’d pull two bottles of beer from his backpack, and they’d sit at the worktable and chat in front of the storefront’s plate-glass window for the whole world to see. They made plans, talked about the future. Julia loved those nights and believed that those happy people would eventually return. It certainly didn’t feel as though they were on the verge of a divorce. She and Randall still got along. They didn’t berate and throw things at one another. There was no abuse, no name-calling, no slamming of doors. They didn’t hate one another.
Despite Randall’s infidelities, Julia was still attracted to him. They had talked about having children in a few years, and when she thought about the future, Randall was in it. She couldn’t imagine being with him if he was still cheating, so she simply made up her mind that he would stop. He worked as a managing editor at a textbook company in the suburbs. While Julia didn’t like to think about the financial ramifications of a divorce, the pragmatic side of her knew she was dependent on him. They’d built a life together. There was something to be said about making a plan and sticking to it. The thought of going back to her existence sans Randall was disquieting. She would endure.
Julia was the Chief Curator at a weaving shop. It was housed in an old factory that had been converted into commercial space, creating a mall of sorts in which most of the tenants were small businesses in the arts. The weaving shop had retail space up front, selling skeins of yarn, frame looms and instructional books. For the customers who didn’t want to do the weaving themselves, finished pieces created by Julia and a few other artists were for sale. The term Curator was used loosely, as it basically meant Julia did a little bit of everything: rang up customers, answered the phone, organized merchandise. Occasionally, she got to weave on a loom in the workroom in back.
The morning after the mugging, Julia busied herself in the shop, welcoming the distraction that work provided. She was tasked with decorating a display table with woven placemats and napkins designed in a wintery color palette of blues and purples. The shop kept a four-piece set of dishes for this purpose, and she began arranging the place settings. She stuffed the napkins inside the wine glasses in little poofs, but she didn’t like how this looked. She folded the napkins into rectangles and then triangles, though this didn’t please her either. Pulling out a chair from the table, Julia plopped down. She let her eyes drift in and out of focus, hoping that the table would somehow decorate itself.
At lunch, she joined Deirdre in the workroom and shared her harrowing tale. Deirdre was in her late 40’s, married with no children. Her hair was the color of eggplant, and she paired the colorful woven scarf around her neck with a black cotton dress to make it pop. After Julia finished describing what had happened, Deirdre offered her sympathy. This took the form of disgusted head-shaking and staring out the window as though pondering the vicissitudes of life.
“To have a stranger touch your body like that,” she said. “To experience the pillaging firsthand—it’s terrible.”
Julia wanted to respond but couldn’t. The word “pillaging” reminded her of the word “philandering”; these words were connected by the idea that men could do whatever they wanted to her. She felt a familiar knob in her throat that signaled she might cry. There were times that she wanted to tell Deirdre about Randall’s infidelities—to confide in her as a friend—but she feared that Deirdre would think less of her for putting up with it. Julia certainly thought less of herself because of it, so she kept this bit of information tucked away.
It was past two a.m. when Julia got out of bed once more. She went into the second bedroom, where her hobbies resided alongside Randall’s in a 10-foot-by-10-foot space. Rising up from the floor like a Grecian harp was Julia’s loom. On another wall were milk crates stacked floor-to-ceiling that held skeins of yarn in every color of the spectrum. Randall’s desk, with its computer and meticulously organized stacks of papers, was shoved into a corner.
Sitting at her loom, Julia stared at the tapestry she had started last week. She’d completed the bottom half of the piece, a white rectangle surrounded by free-form green shapes. She pulled her curls away from her face and into a loose ponytail. Then, picking up the shuttle, she glided it through the vertical threads of the warp. She did this a few times, running it back and forth to create horizontal bands. She pushed each row down with a weaving comb, tightening any blips of yarn. This normally had a calming effect, though it wasn’t doing much for her now. A sketch of what the tapestry would become sat next to her on a table. The rectangle was the base of a stylized house, and the finished piece would include trees in the background. It was all there in the drawing, but as she stared at her loom, she couldn’t seem to make sense of the shapes that the threads had created in relation to the sketch. It was like both the drawing and tapestry were the work of other artists.
Julia put down the shuttle. She considered starting on a replacement coat, but it pained her to think about the one that had been stolen. She wanted to know what had become of it, picturing it draped over a hanger in Stocky Man’s closet. There was also the question of her wedding and engagement rings, but she didn’t want to think about them. She stared at the colors of the tapestry in front of her face until her eyes played tricks. Then she got up and lay down on the couch in the living room.
A while later, a sudden sense of awareness came over her—awareness of her body on the couch in the rectangular space that the living room formed with the kitchen. She heard a faint clicking noise and sat up. The sound stopped, but the more she thought about it—replayed the clicking in her mind—the more she was convinced it had been the sound of someone trying the wrong key in a brand-new lock. She went into the kitchen and pulled a knife from a drawer. I guess Randall had a point, she thought, as she knew Tall Man had a gun.
Julia peered out the peephole into the lit hallway. She didn’t see anything, save for her neighbor’s distorted door and the rubber baseboard that ran along the floor in a concave arch. If someone were pressed up against the wall to the side of the door, would I see them? She didn’t know. Placing her hand on the deadbolt, Julia realized she was trembling. Despite this, she unlocked the door and pulled it open in one swift motion.
Light washed over her. She looked both directions down the hall, but it was empty. She closed the door, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness once again. She thought about the clicking sound. It definitely came from the door. Didn’t it?
“Julia?” Randall’s voice startled her, and she dropped the knife onto the hardwood.
“Damn it!” she said. “Did you hear that, too?”
“Hear what—you opening and closing the door?” Randall turned on the light in the kitchen. He saw the knife on the floor and picked it up. “What were you doing with this?”
“You didn’t hear it? It sounded like someone was trying to get in.”
“What? No.” Randall opened the door to the hallway again. “Julia, there’s nobody out there.”
She studied her husband’s face, the crease from his pillow that ran along the side of his neck like a misguided teardrop. An expression of bewilderment mixed with exhaustion.
As the week passed, Julia felt increasingly tired at work. Between projects, she sat at the front counter and gazed at the computer screen for minutes on end—not reading or typing, just staring, as though her mind had fallen asleep despite her open eyes and upright position. She yawned uncontrollably.
On the bus ride home one night, Julia fell asleep. It was a deep sleep, lasting two hours and ending with the gentle jostling of her arm. When she opened her eyes, a uniformed driver stood before her amid an empty bus, telling her that she was at the end of the line.
From the depot, she called Randall. It took a few calls and a slew of text messages before he finally answered.
“Can you come and pick me up?” Julia asked.
He told her he was at a Toastmasters meet-up, which she took to mean that he was with a woman from Tinder. She visualized Randall in some woman’s home, cursing his phone as it rang in the pocket of his crumpled pile of pants on the floor. He’d excuse himself, retreat to the bathroom to make this clandestine phone call to Julia. Randall spoke softly, though she sensed his anger—Julia could hear it in the way he released his breath. He told her to take the bus back into the city.
“But it’s eight o’clock,” Julia said.
When he told her to take a cab, she said, “The thought of being alone in a car with a strange man is frightening.”
Randall drove 45 minutes to the periphery of the city. When Julia got in the car, he didn’t say anything to her. His collared shirt was unevenly tucked into his pants, and his hair was tousled. There was a scowl etched into his face, and he gripped the steering wheel at ten and two. Julia wanted him to yell at her, to ask how the hell she fell asleep on a bus—to ask what was wrong with her. She imagined saying something like, “You know what’s wrong with me? You!” This felt healthy—an airing of grievances—and she willed Randall to say something—anything—but her desires had no effect on him.
At work one afternoon, a group of teenagers—two guys and a girl—came in and played dress-up with the merchandise. One of the boys had hair dyed an artic shade of blue. He took a scarf from a rack and wrapped it around his head like a kerchief. In the mirror he made a dopey, little-old-lady face while shifting poses every few seconds. His entourage giggled. Julia watched all of this from the counter, feeling her face grow warm. She could smell the teenagers—their stink of cigarettes and Pop Tarts and pubescent B.O. Blue Hair tied the scarf into a knot around his head like a turban.
“That’s enough, guys,” Julia said, coming out from behind the counter. “These garments aren’t toys.”
“Garments,” the girl said in a fake British accent. “These garments aren’t toys!”
Julia forced a smile, as though she was in on the joke instead of the butt of it. She removed the scarf from Blue Hair’s head.
“Hey, why’d you take my garment?” Blue Hair asked. He, too, had acquired a British accent. “That’s my garment.”
“How dare you!” This came from the second boy—also in cockney. “That’s his garment!”
“It’s not his,” Julia said, “but you’re more than welcome to pay—”
“Oh, wait, no,” Blue Hair said, picking up a new scarf from the rack. “This is my garment.” He fondled the fabric between his fingers. “Oh, wait, no, no—” he said, dropping it to the floor. “This is my garment.” His friends erupted in hysterical mirth.
“Stop!” Julia said. She started picking up the scarves, but with each one she grabbed, another fell to the floor. “God! What are you doing? Stop!” She waved her arms in the air, literally shooing the teenagers out the door. “Get out! Get out of here!”
This display of frustration caused them to laugh even harder, and they ran out of the shop in a barrage of merriment. Julia surveyed the space. Half a dozen scarves littered the floor, and as she bent down to pick them up, she realized her hands were shaking. She felt empty—as though the teens had sapped her of her dignity—and she sat on the floor. She tried to fold the fabric, but her hands wouldn’t cooperate, and she soon found herself hugging a scarf to her chest.
Deirdre came up front to see about the commotion. It was then that Julia realized she’d been crying. She could hear Deirdre talking to her, asking what had happened and if she was OK. Julia couldn’t respond.
Randall came home around midnight. Although he hadn’t told Julia that he was going out, she assumed he was with one of his flames from Tinder. When he stumbled into the bedroom, he brought with him the acrid stench of sex. She feigned sleep, listening as he undressed and took his nightly shower. She imagined him thoroughly rinsing himself of sexual juices along with remnants of sweat and perfume. She got out of bed and went into the hobby room, where she sat at the helm of her loom and eyed the half-finished tapestry. She began cutting the vertical strands of the warp, and after a while she heard the water in the shower turn off and the padding of Randall’s feet in the hallway.
“Hey,” he said.
Julia glanced at her husband in the doorway. Save for a bath towel wrapped around his waist, he was naked. His hair was wet, and his chest was pink. She turned back toward the loom.
“That looked good,” he said, after Julia didn’t reply. “Why are you taking it down?”
“I didn’t like it.”
“Are you all right?” he asked. “I feel like we should talk about the mugging. You seem rankled by it.”
“Everything rankles me. I’m easily rankled.”
Randall sat in his desk chair and rolled up behind her. She felt him watching over her shoulder. She smelled soap on his skin, a mild whiff of vodka on his breath. She tried to focus on the tapestry, cutting the strands of yarn with quick snips of scissors. She knew he wanted her to say something—some platitude regarding fear, a reassuring bromide about her violent ordeal—when what she really wanted to say was, I know you’ve been fucking around.
“Sometimes talking about it can help, Julia.”
She laughed, shaking her head.
“What?” he said. “Why are you laughing?”
“Where were you tonight? Another Toastmasters meeting?”
Randall didn’t say anything for a few moments. He reclined in his chair, the leather creaking as the moist skin of his back rubbed against it. “Well, since I had to leave early last time to pick you up, I got together with some of my Toastmasters buddies for drinks. I wanted to explain why I’d run out of the meeting. They didn’t know what was going on.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I did. I emailed you before I left work.”
Julia frowned, thinking of how she’d left the shop early on account of the teenagers. She hadn’t checked her email since. “Whatever. Did you have a nice time—you and your Toastmasters buddies?”
“Yeah, I like them. They’re good people.”
“Did you tell them I said hi?”
“Did you tell them I said hi—your Toastmasters friends?”
“Well, no. They don’t know you. They know I have a wife, but—”
“Oh, good. So they know you’re married?”
Randall grimaced. “How did we go from talking about you and the mugging to talking about me? You’re not yourself. You realize that, don’t you? Falling asleep on the—”
“You’re not yourself either.” Julia’s voice faltered. She set the scissors on the table. “We’re both not who we were.”
“What the hell does that mean? I know you’re having a difficult time. I hate—hate!—what those men did to you. You have no idea. I wish—”
“And then these teens at the store today. They were threatening me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This gang of teenagers came into the shop. They totally trashed the place, throwing shit around, swearing, laughing at me. It was horrible.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“Because you didn’t come home!” Julia felt the knob in her throat again. Hunching over in her chair, she braced her head with her hands.
“Did you call the police?”
“No. I mean, they were just kids. They didn’t hurt me, they were just awful—these awful punk teenagers. Future criminals—that’s what they were.”
“Julia, it doesn’t matter what age—”
“I don’t know.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t know what’s going on.” Randall’s hand was on her shoulder. It was clammy from the shower, and she pulled away. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“Why won’t you let me comfort you?”
She wiped her face with the backs of her hands. “I just have to learn to deal with this by myself.”
“But you don’t have to. I’m trying to be here for you.”
Julia turned toward the tapestry, picking up the scissors and snipping at the strands of yarn as though freeing it from its fetters was an urgent matter. She felt Randall watching her, but she ignored him. With the tapestry detached from the loom, she held the swath of yarn in her lap.
The next day, Julia called the shop and told Deirdre that she wasn’t feeling well. With Randall at work, she spent the day futzing around in their hobby room. Her barren loom was an unusual sight. She thought about starting on the fabric for her replacement coat, but this required more creativity than she felt capable of at the moment. She organized her weaving books and arranged her tools so that they were positioned on her table at right angles. This took up most of the afternoon. Then she sat in Randall’s chair and stared at the yarn wall. Rolling over to it, she began pulling skeins from the stacked crates. The yarn had been organized by type—cotton, hemp, jute, alpaca, mohair—but she decided that it would be better for the skeins to be sorted by color. When the wall was empty, she got down on the floor, feeling like a child amid the ball pit at a funhouse. She began separating the skeins into piles. She started with red, working her way to orange and then yellow.
It was then that the front door opened. Randall announced his presence, and a minute later he popped his head in through the doorway.
“Wow,” he said, eyeing the yarn on the floor. “Is this controlled chaos or just chaos?”
Julia forced a smile. “A work in progress.”
“I picked something up for you.” Randall sat in his desk chair. He held a black box the size of a thick novel out to Julia. “I know you weren’t too keen on this when I brought it up last week, but I’ve been worried about you. I want you to feel safe.”
She stared at the box, then at Randall, then back at the box. She took it from him and set it in her lap. It was heavy—the weight of a cantaloupe. Pushing up the metal latches with her thumbnails, she opened the lid.
There it was. Slate in color. Geometric detailing along the handle and barrel. It sat in a molded bed of velvet. She stared at it, as though waiting for it to move.
“I want you to feel safe,” Randall repeated, picking up the gun. “There’s a gun shop close to work. The owner recommended this one for its ease of use.”
Julia didn’t speak as Randall explained the safety and how to load and unload the gun: bullets into magazine, magazine into gun. She watched his hands as they moved around the weapon, loading and unloading. He repeated this process a few times before handing it to Julia.
“You try,” he said.
The gun rested in her palm. Julia had never held one before. The sheer weight of it was invigorating, and she moved the gun from one hand to the other, finally settling on her dominant right hand where it felt most comfortable. She released the magazine, filled it with bullets and loaded it back into the gun. She did this over and over. Randall was talking to her, saying something about going to the range so she could learn how to shoot, though she wasn’t really listening. The gun’s moving parts mesmerized her. They slid into and out of each other with precision, and she marveled at the craftsmanship. Julia suddenly felt silly amid her sea of yarn and this hobby to which she’d devoted so much of her life. A loom can’t protect me; it can only occupy me. After a while, Randall stopped talking. She sensed he wanted her to respond to whatever he’d said, so she nodded in agreement.
Julia didn’t sleep that night. She kept thinking about the gun, snug in its box in the hobby room. She thought about her conversation with Randall on the deck right after the mugging, when he’d first asked her about buying a gun. She’d imagined how unrealistic it would have been to pull the gun from her purse, as the men had caught her off guard. Now, this didn’t seem so difficult. She pictured encountering the men like before, but this time, when Tall Man pulled her into the alley, she would spin out of his grasp, reach into her purse and fire off two pops—one for him and one for Stocky Man. These wouldn’t likely be kill shots, but she imagined the men limping as they ran off, clutching their wounds with bloodied hands. This brought her a sense of power that she’d never felt before, and it carried over into the morning.
Before leaving for work, she took the box from Randall’s desk and pulled out the gun. Releasing the magazine, she made sure the bullets were still loaded inside and that the safety was on. She stuffed the gun into her purse.
At work, Julia felt like an abridged version of herself. She and Deirdre had a brief conversation about the teens; Deirdre did most of the talking while Julia simply nodded her head. Sitting at the front counter, Julia smiled and was polite with customers, but she didn’t feel present within the space. She imagined encountering the teens. She’d approach them with a smile—like they were old friends—and maybe even greet them with a British accent of her own. Then she’d fish the gun from her purse. I’d scare them—that’s all—tell them they’re not welcome in my shop. This thought propelled her through the day.
When she got home, Randall was asleep on the couch. Rubber Soul played over the stereo, and a book was splayed across his stomach. Julia reached inside her purse and brought the gun into the light. Removing her coat and setting her purse on the island, she went out onto the deck. Her breath floated away from her face in dusty wisps, and the moon was a thin crescent of ivory. Glowering at her from across the alley were the owl’s yellow eyes. Julia raised the gun, taking aim at the owl’s plastic belly. She planted her feet squarely on the deck. She released the safety, squinting one eye to perfect her aim. Although there were no neighbors outside in the cold, the sound of a gunshot would be loud enough to cause alarm. Regardless, she pulled the trigger.
The force of the gun pushed her so that she toppled backward over a chair and banged her head on the deck’s wood planking. She lay there for a moment, supine and dazed. The gunshot’s metallic pang reverberated in the alley. Despite hitting her head, she didn’t feel any pain. She strained her neck for a glimpse at the roof of the office building. The owl was gone and in its place was a keyhole-shaped void of night’s sky. Julia shook her head, smile broadening into a laugh that emanated from the depths of her belly. She held the gun across her stomach, staring at the underside of her upstairs neighbor’s deck and at the sky peeking between the wooden slats. Despite not wearing a coat, she didn’t feel the cold. Rolling onto her side, Julia pushed herself off the floor and righted the chair. She collapsed into its wrought iron and set the gun on the table. She hadn’t been shaking when she fired the gun, but her hands shook now, and she shoved them into the pockets of her pants.
Randall opened the door to the deck. He looked surprised to see Julia sitting outside. Then he saw the gun on the table. He frowned.
As he was about to speak, a neighbor stepped onto a deck on the other side of the courtyard. The man peered down into the alley. Then, to Julia and Randall, he asked, “Did you guys hear gunshots?”
“It was a car backfiring,” Julia replied. “They just drove off.”
This seemed to satisfy the neighbor. He went back inside his unit.
Julia stood. She picked up the gun from the table and pointed it at her husband. Her hands had stopped shaking. With the gun, she motioned for Randall to move away from the door. He slowly sidestepped across the deck until he was leaning against the wooden railing with the courtyard at his back. Julia placed a finger on the trigger. She imagined the bullet ripping through the lapel of his cable-knit sweater, blossoming into an oval of red. She pulled air into her lungs and let it escape. Closing one eye, she aimed at Randall’s chest.
It was then that she realized he was crying. His cheeks glistened with tears, and his jaw trembled.
Julia brought the gun to her side. Randall let out a guttural moan and covered his face with his hands, folding over himself. He was sobbing. His feet slid out from under him so that he sat on the planks of decking, shielding his face behind his knees. His glasses were in one hand, while he cried into the other. His body quivered with each breath. As Julia went inside, Randall receded into the darkness.