Tia insists that everyone in the entire world has a job, well, not just a job, not just any job, but the right job. A job that's perfect for them. A job that they're actually meant to do.
It just, she adds, takes some of us longer to find out what that job is than others.
Tia is a job dilettante, a flitter who leaves positions I never even knew existed. She's made her living in the strangest ways, most of them dubious if not strictly illegal. I haven't wanted to ask, but somehow I don't think that a lottery-reselling scheme involving three countries can be entirely on the up-and-up.
But then Tia's never as interested in her own work experiences, strange as they may be, as she is in the imagined work of others.
"Those aren't jobs," I say, snorting. "Those are perversions."
Tia is used to this. My bluntness has long ago lost the ability, if it ever existed, to even dent her obsessions. She's fascinated with the fringes of daily existence, as if her own position wasn't fringe enough. Her favourite daydreams involve strange kinds of work and the women she imagines doing them. She can't keep her mind off the jobs that, not to put too fine a point on it, nobody else wants.
"Think about it, cara," she says. This is a pet name she uses whenever she tries to evade my rational side. "Morticians, for example. What do you think they think about?"
"Probably the same thing the rest of us do," I say . "Lunch."
Tia smiles tolerantly. "Think about touching the dead," she muses wetly. "Think about what it must feel like."
"Sausage, I expect." Truth be told, I'm uncomfortable with this conversation. There's something a little too naked about Tia's urges, something almost obscene. Shame, that's it. I wish she had a little more, that she was less, well, open about her avidity.
"Do you know how many morticians are lesbians?" Tia continues, ignoring me. "Way more than the average. I wonder what that's about." She falls into silence again, imagining, no doubt, those chilly lesbian morticians with their knowing hands.
"Oh, I knew one of those," I say. "She said she didn't like to deal with living people."
Tia turns limpid eyes on me. For a moment, I read fascination there, the face I used to see when she looked at me. "Really, cara? Tell me more."
I shrug, pleased despite myself. "Nothing, really. I mean, she looked just like anyone. You never would've guessed."
Tia's off in her own world again. "I wonder what kind of lovers morticians have," she's saying, her eyes glowing. "I bet it's the skin they look at first. Morticians' lovers must have the finest skin, all white with the blue veins showing through, like marble."
"No way," I say. "They want to get away from their work, not bring it home with them. Besides, what about black lesbian morticians?"
She looks at me, clearly disappointed. She doesn't want to think about real lesbian morticians, the ones like you and me, just trying in their ordinary way to get through days that are no more or less remarkable to them than anyone else's. No, Tia wants to imagine that the morticians are somehow different, that they hold the key to mysteries she's never even put into words. Ordinary issues and daily hassles don't occur to these women; they exist somehow on a higher plane, one without distinctions, leached of colour.
I wish she would find a mortician lover. Then she'd see. They're no different from anyone else, certainly not possessed of any secret knowledge that only they could impart. Maybe then she'd get over this little fixation, realize how arbitrary she's being. But that's it about Tia. She's a person who, I'm convinced, prefers her fantasies to real life. She'd never knowingly do anything to shatter her preconceptions.
"Anyway, cara," she says finally, inconsequentially. "I guess I should go."
I ask her what she's doing this week. I'm not surprised to hear that she's worked out some complicated arrangement with a man she's just met. She calls it introductions, although I suspect there's more to it than that.
"We just go out together," she explains with perfect boredom, as if this is a job like any other. "He shows me the girls he likes, and I go over and strike up conversation. He doesn't get to meet many people in his work."
She glances over and seems to take in my unspoken doubt. "He needs a companion," she explains, more earnestly now. "He can't do it himself. He'd lose face." She settles back satisfied, as if she's successfully dismissed the weight of these cultural imperatives from her own calculations.
It's more than a week before I see her again. We rarely run into each other; our orbits are entirely separate, mine the downtown world of suits with its meaningless, impenetrable bustle, hers the daytime realm of smoky cafes with their slow-moving habitues. Once she tried working as a cycle courier for a few days; I saw her on my elevator when I was coming back from lunch with one of the developers and the vice-president for my section. Everyone faced front, but she alone gave off a smell, a compound of sweat and plastic that said as clearly as we'd spoken that she didn't belong. Nobody said anything, but the meeting, I think, shook us both. She stopped soon after that.
The cafe we go to is a compromise, a warehouse on the edge of the industrial district. I come straight from work so I'm still in my suit when I slide into her booth. She reaches out to finger the fabric and makes a face.
"Still wearing these?"
"For the forseeable future." I don't tell her that I'm liable to get more, not less regulated from now on; Grayson is moving on and my boss has hinted that perhaps I'm next in line for the position. This wouldn't impress Tia. She'd see it as evidence that I'm getting further entrenched, more firmly placed in a world that she can't imagine anyone wanting to be a part of. My success is anathema to her, further proof, if proof were needed, that I share nothing with her except a past.
"What are you having?" The menu's written on a chalkboard above our heads. The music's too loud, but I don't say anything.
Tia orders a salad, and I get beef. I'm slicing into my steak before I remember to ask her about work.
"The guy was a jerk." She flips a dismissive hand. "I'm out of there. You know what I've been thinking about lately, though?" She leans forward without waiting for me to answer. "Butchers."
I pause with my fork halfway to my mouth, even though the smell of the meat, wafting up, is making my mouth water in anticipation. "Say what?"
"It's that thing about flesh." Tia's eyes are gleaming; she could almost be salivating. "And the knives. Imagine being around all that blood all the time."
I lose patience. "Tia, there is no blood in a butcher shop. They have regulations. Even I know that."
"Well, whatever it's called. The ones who work in the what-you-call-it, slaughterhouses. That do the killing." Her voice becomes rich, conspiratorial. "Can you imagine being a woman in there?"
"There are no women - " like Tia, I'm stumped for what the people who work in abattoirs are actually called - "slaughterers, or whatever."
"How do you know?" Tia's almost smiling. "Those short, powerful ones, with those faded tattoos you get in prison. The ones who don't talk. They have those floor-length aprons, white, just soaked in blood. I can picture it right now."
I put down my fork more loudly than I'd intended. "Tia, you're a vegetarian. What is your trip with this?"
She turns a pitying smile on me. "I've got an imagination, that's my trip. I think about things. Unlike some people."
"Oh, and that's supposed to be me?" I'm flushed, almost shouting. "I'm the one without the imagination, is that it?"
Tia looks suddenly stricken. She glances down at her plate, avoiding my eyes. There's a silence.
"How's your steak?" Tia says finally.
"It's okay. Fine."
We finish our meal in an atmosphere of strained politeness, aware that we've both, this time, gone too far. When the bill comes, I wave it over to my side of the table, give the waitress a card. Tia looks like she's going to say something, hesitates, and keeps her mouth closed.
"You aren't working," I remind her, unnecessarily.
"I will be." Tia's tone is belligerent. "I'm thinking of doing some stuff."
"Oh?" I hold the door open for her on the way out of the restaurant. I wonder idly what it'll be this time, the panties by mail, the long-distance title-search service, the paid training course in investigative methods. Outside, it's gotten dark; we both fall silent, watching the cars scrape their headlights against the sidewalk as they go by. I wonder briefly about the people working right now, about what they are doing, what they think of their impossible, invisible jobs.
"Cara?" Tia's voice is soft, almost caressing. In the dark, her hand finds mine. I close my eyes, trying to believe in her, believe in this. Trying, for a minute, to forget everything else that's between us.
"Cara? I'm sorry for what I said. Back there."
"It's all right." But it's not. Tia's right, I realize. I don't belong here, with these people. I don't belong in her mercurial world of fringe positions and dubious investments, in the places she lives, with their perilous certainty of falling. I'm not that brave. I could never be that brave. She was right. I'm nothing like her, nothing like them at all.
"Tia?" My voice is high in the dark, betraying my uncertainty. "Why'd you do it?"
She understands perfectly; it's not for nothing that we've been friends so long. "I wanted something," she says simply. "Something I thought you had. Stability, maybe."
She pauses, thinking through it. "I think maybe with you I thought I'd be safe."
"And were you?" I say.
She squeezes my hand quickly, consolingly, the only form of comfort we can give each other these days. "You know me." Her laugh is short, harsh. "With me, being safe is like being dead."
"Callie." My boss pauses at the door. "Can I see you in my office for a minute?"
"Sure." I exit through various applications, save the work I've been doing. The firm works in website setup and design, creating one-dimensional worlds in a universe that doesn't exist. Sometimes it's easy to forget that, imagine that our work has a value independent of the costs we assign. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that we are the real workers, me and the other people here, that the vast part of the world that knows nothing of what we do is a shadow next to us, insubstantial, a pale universe of dancing wraiths.
My boss is sitting behind his desk, an unfamiliar position. He has a strange expression on his face too, one I only later recognize must have been pity.
"This is very difficult for me," he begins, and that is all he has a chance to say before a darkness begins to well up from the floor of the room, a wet black ink that slides up and over, mercifully overwriting everything that follows.
"Prison guards," Tia announces breathlessly on the phone. "Cara, you've no idea. Prisons are crawling with women like that. What separates them from the prisoners? What makes them believe they have the right to be on the other side of those locked doors?"
I don't say anything. I hold the receiver slightly away from me as I listen because I can hear my own breathing, the noisy exhalations, and it bothers me.
"I think they should start an association," Tia continues. "Not the prison guards, I mean, but the morticians. The Lesbian Morticians Association. Maybe they already have one, maybe they meet in secret, talk about what it is they love about their jobs, how little the public understands. What do you think, cara, are they meeting somewhere right now?"
"I don't know," I say. "Tia, I lost my job."
There's a moment of silence, stunned. "How?" Tia asks, quietly.
I wonder whether to tell her the truth, how much to explain. "There was a problem," I say finally.
She listens, not saying anything.
"With one of the managers. That's not what they said. They said it was, um, they lost business this year. Officially they're laying me off." Officially my skills are in demand. It should be easy to get another position just like the one I had, same pay, same benefits, same suit. Still, word gets around. Nobody's called me back yet. I shift my hand where sweat has begun to gather around the receiver.
"Oh, cara, I'm so sorry." Tia's voice is hushed. "How -- what are you going to do now?"
"I don't know. Anyway." I try for indifference, but it doesn't quite come off, and suddenly I'm pleading. "Tia, can I see you? Tonight?"
Tia's apartment building is beside a parking garage, a decaying complex inhabited mostly by people like herself. The stucco walls are stained and strange smells seep under the doors and into the hallway. Somewhere somebody is practicing the guitar, the same chord repeated. Badly.
"Hi!" Tia opens the door. "Come in."
"In" is Tia's thrift-shop couch and fifties appliances, not because they're cool, but because the manager's never offered an update. I don't care. Right now, her dented lime cushions are the closest thing to comfort I can imagine.
"How are you?"
"Okay." I lean against the doorway. Outside, the sky is pitched blue, deep as the inside of a shadowed bowl. I have the sudden sensation that I am falling through space, that I am inside of a container that is moving somewhere, silent and terrifyingly fast, with me in it. I take an involuntary step and Tia is there, under my arm, holding me up.
"You should sit down," she says.
I should. It's a philosophical point. There are a lot of things I should do, and thinking about it, I don't actually want to do any of them. That's a comfort, at least. That's something I know for sure.
Tia is still waiting, still looking at me with that expression of concern on her face. I wonder what she is doing right now, what improbable task will furnish the next month's rent, what night she will be out in and if she ever, looking up at the same sky as we can both see tonight, thinks of me, my absence, my comfort. This is all that I can give her now, my presence, my sudden, tottering fall. Give me an apron, give me a knife, I say to her in my mind. A real job. Make me into something you'd be proud of.