Neon Lights

this piece was originally written for the NYC Midnight Short Story contest

It’s not exactly an uncommon story. One day you’re an aspiring actress, the next you’re delivering pizzas and attempting to console yourself with your theatre degree while you eat ramen noodles in a tiny studio apartment surrounded by books. Ivy wasn’t surprised by her fate, but that didn’t make it suck any less to be hauling Ricky’s Best Pizza to a nicer neighborhood than she could afford to live in on a rainy night. In the store they had always joked that rain was liquid coupons no one wanted to leave their house in the middle of a monsoon to get food. It wasn’t bad so long as they tipped well, but that didn’t always happen, even when her black converse filled up with water.

She hated when her feet were wet.

But it was this or being a cashier at Walmart and at least if she was delivering pizzas, she could listen to whatever music she wanted to in the car and had a chance to make tips instead of just minimum wage.

She never paid much attention to the names of customers. If they were a repeat customer, sure- and if they were an amazing tipper or an awful one, she might learn it out of necessity, but other than that, address mattered much more than name. L. Baker was an awfully generic sounding name in the suburbs and she didn’t pick up on anything weird about it.

The house was still under construction. The outside was nice and looked finished, but the window had no curtains or blinds and she could see an empty room and unfinished walls. A little weird. Maybe whoever it was figured the place was livable at this point and didn’t want to bother paying for a hotel? She could smell fresh paint and told herself to be mindful of leaning against anything. She couldn’t afford new clothes or to pay to touch up someone else’s paint job.

The door swung open and for a second, Ivy didn’t realize anything was out of the ordinary; then a brunette young woman who was standing in front of her and she realized that L. Baker was badly in need of an eye appointment because she was wearing the same pair of glasses that she had for the last six years. Long brown hair tied back into a messy pony tail, thick rimmed black glasses with a vintage feel, jeans and a striped sweater. It was Lauren, her ex-girlfriend. Lauren Baker, who she had shared an apartment with in the city before they had imploded. Lauren, who was supposed to still be living in the city, having forgone her art career to work at a bank.

So she did something stupid and risky: she pretended to not recognize her. “Hey, I have a pizza for Baker? That’ll be $12.95.”

She handed her a twenty dollar bill. “Keep the change,” she said, going to take the box. The good tip didn’t do much to keep Ivy’s stomach from dropping because Laura apparently didn’t recognize her. It would help buy her gas for the week at least, that was a positive. She just could dwell on the fact that her ex-girlfriend apparently didn’t recognize her, even though they’d lived together for two years.

Maybe Ivy should just be happy that Lauren didn’t associate her with wet hair, running makeup, and an awful t-shirt that smelled like garlic no matter how many times she washed it. Maybe it was good that this new her was so different from the recent drama student grad who almost always wore black with bright lipstick that intimidated people accidentally (Ivy missed being that girl) that she was now unrecognizable. As she got back into her car, she thought she heard Lauren call out “Wait,” but she did not stop to turn around. So she made her way out of the shiny new subdivision full of houses in various states of completion and drove back to the store and told herself to think about something else, but all she could come up with was that she was missing The Bachelor and she and Lauren used to binge watch it together and laugh about ‘straight people problems’. How apparently one dude “dating” thirty girls was okay but sometimes they would get heckled for holding hands while they walked down the street.

The breakup had been a solid two years ago. In theory, it hadn’t bothered her in a year and a half. Of course, maybe it wasn’t really because she felt that much better. Maybe it was because she’d been distracted by not getting an acting job and her savings running out and having to go sleep on her mom’s couch for three months until she’d saved up enough money to get her own shitty apartment.

The drive back to the store wasn’t too long, but Ivy was irritated and the radio kept babbling drivel about politics- she hated Talk Radio but her MP3 player was dead and the only channels playing music were playing either Latin or Country and those were even worse to her in that sort of mood. Every bump in the road made her feel a little more nauseated and she wasn’t even prone to carsickness.

 

Lauren.

 

Lauren with her soft brown hair and warm eyes that she used to stay up with every night pretending that she didn’t hate horror movies and Indian food because she loved them.

Lauren with tightly pursed lips suggesting that they just break up because if Ivy wasn’t going to give up and get a real job, she was never going to be able to help her raise kids or buy a house and she didn’t want to wait until her mid thirties before she got to have a real life.

Lauren with her glasses perched on her nose not recognizing her, as if she didn’t matter, who clearly didn’t need her, because she’d bought the fancy house all on her own, having it built to her own specifications, not waiting for it to be finished to move in because as always, she was inpatient as hell.

Ivy devoted a lot of time to telling herself that she wasn’t a failure and that people achieved their goals at different rates and just because she hadn’t succeeded yet didn’t mean that she never would. But telling herself that Van Gogh didn’t even start painting until he was in his late twenties didn’t do much to make her feel better when she was parking under the neon lights of the pizza place and driving a car she was borrowing from her mother.

“Hey Ivy, that last house you delivered to- they called back. You didn’t fuck up, but they put in another order. Was anything weird going on at the place?” The cook slash owner looked at her with some genuine concern in her eyes. Sometimes people really did weird things like placing two separate orders in one night- but sometimes weird behavior meant a scam. For a second, she was very tempted to say that he was freaked out at the address but also didn’t want to put Lauren on some sort of black list, never to order pizza again.

“No, it’s fine, must want extra food for leftovers or something,” she said. “Is the order ready?”

“Yeah, last one we took of the night. I’m just going to clean up in here while you’re gone.” She handed her the order so she could leave. “Don’t be afraid to call me or just come back if there’s anything sketchy going on,” she assured her.

“Yeah, it’ll be fine,” she said, feeling dread in her stomach.

 

She sat in the car for a few minutes trying to work up the nerve to talk to Lauren. She prayed that she didn’t recognize her again. Then she’d be able to drown her sorrows in a pint of Cherry Garcia without having to talk about it. That said, she wasn’t exactly surprised when she got back to the door and Lauren just quietly said, “Ivy. I thought it was you, but I wanted to make sure,” she said, handing her another bill to pay for a pizza that would probably immediately go into the refrigerator uneaten.

“Do you want any change back?” she asked. No familiarity, no signs of shared history.

“What?”  Lauren pursed her lips, confused. “What, no, of course not- I just… I wanted to talk to you. I know you’re working but, wow I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Ivy would hope that Lauren wouldn’t have expected to see her wearing a t-shirt covered in pepperoni grease. She was pretty sure she had mozzarella in her hair. “Yeah, I moved in with my mom for a little while and was in the area.” She wanted to say that she had some weird reason for taking a job at a pizza place- considered saying that she was doing research for some new acting gig and would only be at this for a week or so before she rehearsing.

Honesty won out, “Yeah, not many acting gigs in town, I need to get back to a bigger city, but I’m saving up money here,” she said. Bold faced lie at the end there, she didn’t have any savings and was barely staying afloat. It saved a little bit of dignity at least.

“Do you want to get coffee or something? Do you mostly work nights? I would love to catch up-”

“I’m really busy,” she lied. “Although you look great, Lola,” she said, easily falling back into the old pet name. She had her phone number still. She could do something about it if she wanted to. She didn’t dare give Lauren her new phone number- then she’d have to choose between answering or not. At least this way she would probably last at least until she got drunk off of a bottle of cheap wine and could send text messages she would eventually regret.

She turned to leave but felt Lauren’s hand grab for hers. “Ivy, wait, let’s talk,” she said.”I know it’s been a while and we didn’t part well, but-”

“How’ve you been, Lola?” she asked “So you bought a house. What’s next, a golden retriever and two and a half kids?”

“Only if I get to pick which half a kid.” A shared laugh at an old joke. “You know I miss you, right?”

The long walk back up the sidewalk to her car seemed to take an eternity. She double checked that Lauren’s number was still in her phone before she pulled out of her parking space. She had an audition booked for the next week. It wasn’t a paying gig, but maybe just being back on a stage would make her feel a little bit more like a person and less like a failure. She told herself that if she the part, then maybe she would call Lauren- but to be honest, she was still betting on it happening when she drank an entire box (not bottle) of wine in her underwear. The blue tinged lights of the pizza place were dark when she got back and all she had left to do was help lock up and cash out.

“How was your last run?”

“It was fine, nothing special.”

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