When I was twenty-two and single, I worked behind the counter at a bakery. Customers would point at pastries in a case, and I would hand them those pastries, my hand sheathed in a thin vinyl glove. Sometimes they pointed at a particular pastry—the biggest cinnamon roll, for instance, or the darkest croissant—and I would have to move my arm slowly until I reached the right one.
When I went home my apartment was empty, except for two cats who avoided me. One of them hid under my bed and the other one cried until I let him outside. I slept alone every night for over a year.
There was an older couple who visited the bakery every Saturday and always came in holding hands. Sometimes the wife leaned into her husband as he pointed to the slice of pound cake he wanted. They seemed to be aging unevenly. Though she was lovely, with auburn hair piled loosely atop her head, she looked like somebody’s grandmother, while he still had swagger. I concluded that she was lucky to have him.
The following year I took a job waiting tables. I worked the breakfast shift and tips were terrible: two quarters left next to an empty cup, one dollar next to an egg-streaked plate.
One morning the husband came in, alone. He sat by the window and when I came to take his order, his eyes traced my body. I was wearing a black skirt with white socks and I became suddenly aware of my bare knees. He asked my name, and I told him, though some part of me wanted to keep it for myself. He left me a five-dollar tip for a six-dollar breakfast.
For months after that I crossed paths with him everywhere—in the bookstore, on the sidewalk, at the bar. Though I avoided him, he always he spotted me, even from a distance, and always he called me by name and spoke to me as if we had a history, as if he had touched me in all my tender places.
I am thirty-eight now and my bare knees no longer interest men, but my body is in demand. My children fight over my lap. In the middle of the night my toddler summons me and I leave one shared bed for another. I don’t run into the husband anymore, but I often cross paths with his wife when I run on a trail through the forest near my home. She is on her morning walk. Her posture is straight, almost regal, and she looks just as she did sixteen years ago, her hair pinned to the top of her head with a silver barrette.
I nod as I pass, unsure if she recognizes me from the years she handed me bills from her purse, the years that I poured water for her tea, the years that my gloved hand reached for her husband’s cake. As I pass I imagine her body, ample and soft, receiving pleasure beneath clean white sheets. This is the thing that I wish for her—pleasure—as I continue to run down the trail, alone and sweaty and breathless.
Jennifer Berney is a mother, writer, and teacher. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child, and her work has also appeared in The Manifest Station, Brevity, and Cactus Heart, among other places. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner and two sons.