Short Story: “No.”

Today was the one-month anniversary of breaking up with Kevin, and Noelle wanted to celebrate. Her sleep-slow thumb nudged the snooze button on her phone alarm and checked the calendar. No meetings, no deadlines, no plans. Perfect. She debated faking a cold, but decided against it. She was going to call out well today.

More notifications blinked at the top of the screen. Noelle cringed. Creating an online dating profile may have been a mistake. Since everyone in the office though it was a laugh to share horror stories, Noelle had decided to get in on the fun, but it wasn’t as much fun to slog through the actual messages as it was to tell the stories. Hoping against hope that it wouldn’t be another frat boy, she clicked her nail against the screen.

A badly-lit photograph of a man appeared, including parts of his anatomy that she had decidedly not requested to see. At the bottom, text scrolled by. “Markie510 Says: U like it?!?”

“I don’t think so,” Noelle said out loud, and promptly deleted her entire account.

After messaging her boss to say that a personal day was in order, she took an efficient shower and put on a striped blue skirt and a black tank top. It was still hot here in August. Sandals were the shoe of the day. Her hair went up in a messy knot.

She left her apartment building and looked both ways before deciding to head west towards the better cafe. Even though the place didn’t serve pie, the air conditioning was top notch. Noelle tried to eat her breakfast in peace at the small corner table, but one of the two men sitting near her kept leaning back in his chair, bumping the empty chair across from her and making the tabletop wobble. After rescuing her smoothie from three near-floor experiences, she decided it was time to take her food and go. She stepped pointedly over the leg the other man was sticking out into the aisle.

Though never been a big believer in shopping therapy, she considered that today might be a good day to at least pick up some groceries. The store was around the corner. Grocery shopping sounded peaceful.

She unwedged a cart from the corral and meandered through the fruit. Raspberries. Clementines. A single apple. Maybe she would make smoothies. Heading for yogurt, Noelle noticed an old man starting at her chest. She grabbed the wrong yogurt and hurried away.

The line was short, and it seemed possible to escape in good time, but when the cashier pushed her paper bag towards her, he seemed like he was going to say something, so she paused.

“Heavy bag for such a little girl.” He looked concerned.

Noelle felt bubbles boiling in her heart.

“I will manage. Thank you.”

On the way out the door, she tried to unclench her teeth.

She dropped off her groceries at home and discovered that she wasn’t ready to sit still yet, so she changed into jeans and a looser shirt before heading back out. Her reflection in the bathroom mirror seemed acceptable. The day had already reached the point where dressing for the heat was less important than avoiding unwanted attention. Noelle shuffled her toes back into her sandals and flip-flopped back out onto the sidewalk.

The air felt ten degrees hotter now that she was wearing jeans, but four men passed her without a second glance on her way to the corner. She relaxed. Sweating was a small price to pay to fly under the radar. At the corner, she stuck out her arm. A cab pulled over. On top of the cab, an ad for cologne depicted a pampered man in a suit using a naked woman as a display table for scent bottles. Noelle rolled her eyes at it and got in the cab anyway, fully prepared to tip poorly as a small act of rebellion against the sexist absurdity. Glancing at the driver, she asked to be taken to the intersection near her favorite bookstore. New stories would provide much better therapy than grocery shopping. Maybe some high fantasy involving ladies with swords being vicious.

The cabbie was talking on his phone through an earpiece. Noelle tuned him out.

Maybe she would meet a boy in the bookstore.

Probably not.

Invitations had become awkward since breaking up with Kevin. All of her friends were half of a couple. Personal loneliness and grief aside, losing a partner was like losing a social limb, and she wasn’t seen as fully functional without it. No double dates. No one to praise or complain about. Sometimes she wondered if her friends must picture her spending all her time sitting at the window sill and pining. It didn’t matter that she’d doubled her workload, started a spin class, or finally gotten her hair cut the way she’d always wanted. People seemed to take her news less seriously now that it didn’t affect anyone else. A girl without a domestic life could thrive, but she did so in a social vacuum.

The cab stopped.

She swiped her card, tipped cheap, and tumbled back out into the street. The temperature changes from cab to pavement to bookstore gave her a tiny thrill: Warm, oppressively hot, blessedly cool. Noelle lifted her chin and cut through the cold air like an icebreaker ship, heading for lands unknown.

Her fingers bumped their way over shelves of books. What would it be today? Elves? Terraforming? She was really in the mood for a good rebellion. With chilled hands, she picked up every book with the word ‘war’ on the spine, waiting for something to speak to her. Someone was in her way, kneeling on the floor and hunched over to pick at the tail of the clearance rack. He looked up at the book in her hand.

“Oh, that one’s good. The commander has to rescue his wife because his enemies-”

Noelle shoved the book back where it came from and sped into another aisle.

There. That cover. A woman wearing sturdy armor, holding a quarterstaff. She grabbed the paperback and marched off to pay.

From now on, she was going to be that woman with the staff. She would change her clothes, her posture, and the world. She would radiate such powerful light that all the overwhelming nonsense pushed on her for being a woman would cringe in shame.

The cashier ran the barcode scanner over her book and looked up at her.

“Smile, honey, it can’t be that bad!”

Noelle fumbled her debit card and glared at him.

“That…that’s a bit rude, you know.”

He made a face more appropriate for chastising a four-year-old than responding to another adult human. “If you think it’s rude to tell someone to smile, you must just be too sensitive for this world.”

Rather than wait for the machine to take her debit card, she threw a ten-dollar bill on the counter and left.

This was madness. She had faced all these creeps, these subtle discriminations, these major annoyances before, but never all on the same day. Usually she was allowed some time to forget about them before the next jerk would strike. Noelle looked down at her clothes and patted her hair. Was it her? Did she do something to make herself a lightning rod for douches today?

She closed her eyes and sucked a deep breath of hot city air through her teeth. Hiding in her apartment would be the easiest solution. They couldn’t get to her there. Stepping up to the curb, she started to raise her hand for a cab, but changed her mind. No cabs. No train. No more strangers, not with today’s luck. She would just jog home and then curl up with the window fan and read her book. She pushed up the sleeves of her shirt, tightened the strap of her purse, and started running.

Feet drumming north on the sidewalk, people subtly shifting to get out of her way, Noelle could almost feel it. Powerful. Forceful. She was in complete control of this little, moving patch of space.

Five blocks to home.

Four.

Three.

A red light.

She jogged in place.

“Heeey, chickchickchick! Where you goin’? Stop bein’ in such a hurry.”

Noelle turned.

A man from the utility crew working in the intersection was holding a messy paper plate from a food cart, leaning on a Jersey barrier and grinning at her.

Stop bein’ in such a hurry.

She reached into her purse.

His friend slugged him on the shoulder. “Learn to shut your mouth, man, now she’s gonna pepper spray you or some shit.”

Noelle pulled out her lipstick and opened it, throwing the cap over her shoulder and into the street behind her.

Walking slowly towards the catcaller, she dragged the bright oily red across her lower lip.

He looked surprised, but leaned forward. His friend backed up a step. The catcaller glanced at him. “See? She likes it. She’s a good girl, aren’t ya?”

He patted his thigh.

Noelle puckered her lips and then pressed them together between her teeth.

She was three feet from him.

Two.

One.

She put one hand on his knee to steady herself, then reached out with the lipstick and touched it to his forehead. His eyebrows came together in bafflement, but he didn’t protest in case he ruined what he thought was a magic moment.

Stop bein’ in such a hurry.

Noelle swiped gracefully across his face with the lipstick, signing her declaration of independence, forming the letters perfectly.

N.

The catcaller laughed uncomfortably, trying to see his own forehead.

O.

Noelle stood back, admiring her work, and nodded.

No.

This was what she had always wanted to say.

He started talking. She didn’t listen.

After a moment, she smiled and jogged away down the street.

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