This was a deceptive read that drew me in almost without me realizing. It’s hard to review this book without giving away too many spoilers. Fortin’s portrayal of Liz’s character is brilliant—every episode that shocked CC was completely uncontrived, and totally fitted the progress of the storyline. Fortin’s writing style is lovely—good characterizations, great dialogue, and just enough angst to keep me gripped without feeling as if I was wallowing in it. A great surprise of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
“Just sayin’, CC, for real, everybody knows if you want to keep a secret you don’t go telling me nothing right?” Kayla declared as she passed the blunt from the passenger’s seat of CC’s 1998 Volkswagen Jetta.
CC looked around to make sure she didn’t spot a police car before she took a quick hit from the marijuana cigar as she merged onto I-87 South. She gave it back to Kayla before agreeing with her self-assessment. “Right, I never tell you anything unless I don’t care if everyone in the office knows about whatever I’m telling you. I learned my lesson when I realized everyone and their mother knew I smoke weed barely a week after you started riding to work with me. I was sure I’d get fired.” Kayla didn’t drive. When she’d transferred to the Quality Assurance Department, where they worked together, she’d wasted no time asking to ride with CC every morning. Her boyfriend picked her up after work. CC lived in Cohoes, New York, and Kayla was right across the Hudson River in Troy so it was barely a detour on their way to Albany, as long as there was no traffic.
Kayla snickered in that slow, deep and slightly evil way only she could. “Exactly. If that bitch didn’t want everyone to know she’s sleeping around like a common whore, she should’ve kept her fucking mouth shut. Just sayin’.” CC couldn’t help but laugh, almost admiring Kayla’s unrepentant attitude. Kayla Munoz was an unapologetic force of nature. She was funny, witty and smart, especially street smart, something CC was definitely not. She was also gorgeous; she had long curly hair and eyes so dark they almost looked black. Yes, she was slightly overweight, and yes, her personality was decidedly abrasive, but she owned her shortcomings with such pride and assertiveness that CC was compelled to like her. And liking Kayla was even easier since CC’d learned that she could not, under any circumstances, trust her to keep a secret. She had a good heart but a big mouth, another trait she refused to apologize for. Kayla’s motto was “take me as I am or fuck off,” and as long as you accepted that, you could have a wonderful time in her company.
It had taken CC only one week to understand and accept Kayla for who she could be to her: a great coworker and hilarious passenger who contributed to making going to work something she was looking forward to rather than dreading every morning. She worshiped Kayla’s confidence. The woman seemed to be known and respected by everyone in the office. Much more discreet and timid, CC talked to only a handful of people daily, and although she’d been working for Dixon & Brown Communications for three years, two years longer than Kayla, she wasn’t convinced everyone knew her name yet.
She also envied Kayla’s pride in her figure. She hated her own curves so much she did all she could to disappear, hiding under baggy clothes and behind the safe walls of her cubicle all day long. She hadn’t gone on a date since her breakup with Michelle, and that was over a year ago. “Pathetic” was the term she most often used to describe herself these days.
She took their exit ramp and turned right onto Wolf Road, glancing at Kayla who swiftly put the blunt away before they pulled into the parking lot of the office building to make sure no one would catch them. The car’s clock displayed seven twenty-five a.m. They were five minutes early and her Jetta was the first car there. Even Beth Andrews, their boss and head of the QA department, hadn’t yet arrived. Fortunately Beth had convinced management to trust CC with keys to the building, pleading that CC was such a dedicated employee that she would come in during the weekend if she had access to the building, even though CC had done so only twice in her two years in QA to meet tight deadlines.
CC unlocked the one-story brick building and opened the heavy glass door, holding it politely for Kayla. She watched Kayla’s long nails, decorated with colorful patterns, as she took one last puff of the cigarette she’d attempted to smoke in the twenty feet that separated the Jetta from the building door. CC coughed when Kayla exhaled and most of the smoke ended up in her face. At last Kayla threw half the cigarette into a large ashtray set by the door for that very purpose and walked in front of CC with a half grin that was meant as a thank you.
CC followed Kayla through a large room crowded with over sixty cubicles. They were empty now, but by eight thirty most of them would be filled with “account representatives,” aka telemarketers. The distinguished people of Dixon & Brown Communications who occupied the few closed offices set against the right wall of the building frowned upon the term “telemarketing.” In CC’s opinion, no matter what you called it, it was still a shitty job. She’d been about to quit after a year of doing it. Fortunately her supervisor had sensed they were going to lose her, and they’d transferred her to the QA department.
They reached the back of the room and Kayla used her own key to unlock a much smaller room, outfitted with only three cubicles: theirs and Beth’s. Kayla sat at her own desk and immediately put on her headphones. CC did the same. They would not talk to each other for a little while, focusing on their work and enjoying their morning buzz. Work consisted of listening to recordings of phone conversations between telemarketers and their contacts/victims before determining whether these recordings would be sent as leads—potential sales opportunities—to their clients. The QA team had to make sure the conversation met the client’s criteria and expectations. A lead for their largest client, for example, consisted of a business that planned on evaluating accounting software in the next twelve months and had a budget in mind that would cover the approximate cost of the software their client sold. If the lead did not qualify, the QA representatives rejected it. If it qualified, they corrected the disastrous spelling and grammar of the lead notes and sent the lead to the client.
CC loved her job, even though some would say it was just as shitty as being on the phone. Every telemarketer had a lead disqualified at one point or another and some blamed the QA rep for it. Their resentment could be shocking at times. The fact that Kayla had found a way to remain so popular when she became a QA rep was only one more reason CC admired her. No one messed with Kayla.
Another aspect of the job most people disliked was its secluded nature, but CC enjoyed the peace and quiet. Much more social, Kayla took smoke breaks regularly and had even been written up for taking too many, but CC appreciated the isolation and only stepped away from her desk for lunch and rare bathroom breaks. She even liked her cubicle. Slightly larger than the cubicles in the main room, it was surrounded with blue walls that were taller than the usual cubicle walls so it almost felt like a closed office. There was no door, of course, but at least there was a skylight in the high ceiling of the room that compensated for the absence of windows. She was comfortable in her cubicle. Work wasn’t a burden for CC. It was her haven.
“Good morning,” Beth announced as she entered the QA room.
“Good morning,” CC and Kayla answered in unison. CC heard Beth set down her keys and purse in the largest of the three cubicles, and she salivated when she heard the familiar crinkling of a paper bag.
“Help yourselves to some bagels, ladies. Happy Friday!”
“For real, you’re the coolest boss ever,” Kayla said. She grabbed a bagel and disappeared after stating she was going to toast her breakfast in the breakroom. CC knew Kayla would also jump on the opportunity for a first smoke break. They’d been working for fifteen minutes.
“Thank you so much Beth. You know you don’t have to do this for us every Friday right? You’re spoiling us,” CC said as she approached Beth’s desk and the bag of bagels. Beth smiled tenderly and closed both of her eyes for a long moment before opening them again, something she did often. CC never could decide if the gesture was a very strange two-eye-wink or merely a weird eyelid-nod, but she had learned to recognize it as a sign of acknowledgment and an expression of Beth’s pure kindness.
“I know, but I love doing it. My team is very small, but I like to show how much I appreciate you. There’s one with sesame seeds for you.” CC smiled and reached into the bag for the sesame bagel before taking one of the plastic knifes and a small container of cream cheese from Beth’s desk. She started walking back to her own cubicle when Beth added, “Don’t forget your coffee.”
CC took the large Dunkin’ Donuts hazelnut coffee with cream that Beth had brought for her. She brought one every morning. She’d started when it was only the two of them in the department and continued to do so even when Kayla joined them. CC was certain Kayla’d noticed, but she didn’t seem to mind the flagrant preferential treatment that flattered CC. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re most welcome, Ciel,” Beth answered.
Ciel Charbonneau did not particularly dislike her name, but people had started calling her CC in Cohoes High School, and she'd let them. It was much easier than explaining how her name was pronounced “See-Elle,” not “Seal” or “Shell,” and how it meant “sky” in French. She’d learned that the explanation inevitably led to another long story about her parents’ obsession with their French-Canadian origins and the peace and love movement they’d embraced even though at barely ten years of age they had been too young to attend Woodstock, a tragedy that still brought tears to their eyes every time they mentioned it. Beth was the only person besides her parents who called her Ciel, stating her name was too beautiful not to be said and heard as often as possible. CC didn’t mind it at all.
Like most Friday nights, CC was getting ready to celebrate the end of the workweek by herself in her one-bedroom loft. She’d already changed into yoga pants and a vintage T-shirt, and a thin crust pizza from a small Italian place in South Troy was keeping warm in the oven. Although she smoked blunts with Kayla, she preferred a regular joint, and she was about to light up, sitting on the cozy built-in window seat tucked in the alcove of an open eight-foot tall window of her living room. She was letting the June breeze caress her face for a minute when she heard the distinctive and annoying sound of the intercom. She set the joint on the window seat with a grunt and went to answer, knowing it could only be her parents.
“Hey, guys, come on up.” She opened the door for them and got three wine glasses out of the kitchen cupboards, knowing her parents would bring a bottle. They joined her one or two Fridays a month to celebrate the weekend. CC suspected they always hoped they’d surprise her with a date or, better yet, that there would be no answer because CC would be out somewhere—as any twenty-nine-year-old single woman should be on a Friday night. But they never let their disappointment show when they found her home alone.
“Knock knock,” her mother said uselessly as she entered the loft. “God, I can’t get over how nice this place is. You can smell the history.” Marie Charbonneau looked up to the fourteen-feet-high ceiling and down to the original hardwood floors in awe as she always did. CC often thought the proudest she'd made her parents was when she moved to her loft. It was modern and looked as beautiful as something you would see in a magazine, which compensated for its small square footage, but what mattered most to her parents what that it was located in a converted 1870s cotton mill, a place where their French-Canadian ancestors had left their hearts and sweat as millworkers.
“Yes, it sure was a smart investment,” Charles Charbonneau added, hugging his daughter. She’d bought the loft after inheriting from her paternal grandfather. His success had been vaguely attributed to business and real estate and she’d always imagined it was not entirely legal, but the money he’d left her had allowed her to make a down payment large enough to be able to afford the mortgage on her own place. CC agreed that it had been a very smart move, especially since she would never be able to afford a home on her salary as a QA rep.
“So, how are you guys? Tough week?” She hugged her mother and took the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from her dad’s hands before going back to the open concept kitchen to open it.
“Yes, you could say that. George had another psychotic episode and refuses to take his medication. He had to be hospitalized again. I’m getting too old for that crap.” Marie ended her sentence with a heavy sigh and, as if catching herself, smiled and waved her hand in front of her face in a dismissive gesture. “But enough about me. How was your week, honey?”
“Oh, same shit, different week. Nothing to report. I worry about you, Mom. It seems it’s getting harder for you to leave work at work.”
“I tell her that every day, baby,” Charles added in support.
“Oh, would you stop, you two? What am I supposed to do? I can’t retire at fifty-five, can I?”
“Why not? The house is paid for. We wouldn’t live rich, but we could manage,” Charles argued. Marie gave him a tender kiss on the lips, as much to shut him up as to thank him, CC thought. CC looked at the tall, slim man in front of her and smiled at his clear, kind blue eyes and his grey mustache. Her dad was a good man. He worked as a French teacher at Cohoes High and never made much money, but she knew he meant every word he said. He couldn’t bear the stress his wife was under and would do all he could to convince her to retire early. Marie worked as a social worker for the community counseling center. Her work as a case manager focused on the social rehabilitation of patients suffering from severe mental illness. It had always weighed heavily on her emotionally, but it had become worse in the past few months. CC stared at the beautiful woman standing in her kitchen, the only wrinkles on her face taking shape in subtle crow’s feet on the side of each deep, almost navy blue eye, and vowed to help her dad convince her to retire before stress did more damage.
“He’s right, mom. You could manage perfectly well on one salary at this stage of your life.”
“Maybe, honey, but how can I abandon them?” And there was the real issue. Marie’s mind would be easy to convince, but her heart was another story. She loved her patients. Each and every one of them. Even George, the biggest pain in her ass.
“You wouldn’t be abandoning them, Mom. Someone else would take over. Who knows, maybe that’s what they need. Aren’t you the one who told me patients can only grow so much with the same person and change can help them grow further?” CC handed a glass of wine to each of her parents before taking her own.
“I know, I know. Okay, I’ll think about it. Now could we get off this topic, please? I propose a toast to our beautiful daughter,” Marie said raising her glass. CC winced at the word “beautiful” and Marie lowered her glass. “No, no, no, none of that, young lady. Come on, Ciel! Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately? That hair, those eyes, those curves. You’re gorgeous, honey. When will you start believing that?”
“I second that,” Charles added, raising his own glass. CC did like her eyes, always blue but going from the light sky blue of her father’s eyes to the dark blue of her mother’s depending on her mood, the weather or the color of her clothes. She also liked the thick wavy brown hair that flowed freely to just below her shoulders. But the curves, the curves she could not accept. “Curvy” was just another word for “fat.” She hated her fat. She smiled anyway and raised her own glass.
“I really wish I could see myself the way you see me. Here’s to trying harder.” They clinked their glasses together, and they each took a sip. “Oh that’s good,” CC said. “You know what would go well with this?” she asked with a wink, motioning for her parents to follow her to the window. They laughed when she showed them the joint.
“We raised you well, kid,” her dad declared when she handed him the joint and a lighter. Her mother’s laughing eyes agreed with a wink. Her parents had stopped hiding their smoking habit when they caught her smoking her own stash in her bedroom as a teenager. They started sharing a smoke once in a while, but never on a school night.
At first CC was conflicted about it all, knowing perfectly well her parents were not the usual parents. Like any teenager she hesitated to embrace her parents’ uniqueness, wanting nothing more than to blend in. Being raised by hippy-wannabes was not something she wished for. As an adult, however, she was grateful for her parents’ easygoing nature and most of all their boundless kindness and generosity.
“And you’re staying for pizza. I have way too much for myself,” CC declared when her mother handed her the joint.
“Ooh, Carlotta’s?” Marie asked between her clenched teeth, trying to hold the marijuana smoke as long as she could.
“You know it, Mom.”
“Excellent! I love you, honey.”
“I love you too, guys.”
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