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Trying To Be Caroline

by Janet Yung

It was the middle of the morning when the phone rang. She studied it for a moment, debating whether or not to pick it up. Maybe it was Matt calling to tell her he was sorry and “let’s try again.”

The phone rarely rang during the day. But how would she know that? She was usually gone during the day. On a week day, the house was completely different than the way it was on the weekend or a holiday. She plucked the phone from its port at the start of the third ring before the answering machine would click on.

“Hello?” she croaked into the phone, her voice barely audible.

“Caroline?” asked the voice on the other end, puzzled by the breathy response.

“I’m sorry, you have the wrong number.” Charlene was poised to hang up.

“You’re not Caroline?” The voice didn’t sound convinced.

Charlene was feeling woozy from moving from her bedroom to the living room. “I could be. Does Caroline have a more interesting life than I do?” It was a legitimate question.

The caller hung up and Charlene was left holding the phone. She stuck it back in its holder and went into the kitchen for something to drink.

The small refrigerator didn’t hold anything of nutritional value. She sniffed at the half gallon of milk she kept for her cereal. It was getting close to the expiration date. There wasn’t any orange juice. She wasn’t in the habit of drinking it since she was susceptible to canker sores. She pulled a can of cola from the box, dropped some cubes in a plastic cup, added the soda and padded off to the living room. Her white socks would be black by the end of the day.

Matt never liked that. “Why don’t you keep your shoes on or wear slippers?” They hadn’t been together long enough for him to be critical of her. For her, the relationship was still in the euphoric stage where she clung to his every word.

She imagined Caroline had perfect hair. Snuggling under the afghan on the sofa, she lowered the sound on the television so she’d be free to drift off to sleep without interruption. Caroline’s hair was probably straight and so perfectly coifed it fell naturally across her face. Not like hers.

She’d chopped it off in a fit at the end of the summer when the heat and humidity had caused it to frizz uncontrollably. No amount of gel or hair dressing would calm it down. She’d done it on a Saturday night when she’d been alone, feeling desperate with no access to her hairdresser.

She’d called in sick on Monday and begged Angie to squeeze her in sometime in the afternoon, subjected to endless “tsks, tsks,” while the beautician did her best with what was left of her hair. No one recognized her at first on Tuesday and she kept her head bent over her desk hoping for the fewest comments possible.

If they noticed, they didn’t say anything, just like when she’d abruptly stopped wearing glasses and switched to contacts. The only remarks were, “Do you feel better?” and she’d nod, feeling guilty about pretending to be sick. That was the last time she’d called in sick till today.

Today was better because it was Wednesday, the perfect day to call in sick. She pulled at the oversized lapels on her flannel bathrobe. Monday, people suspected you’d had too much weekend; Friday, you were starting the weekend early. But Wednesday was ideal. She’d been at work yesterday, coughing and sneezing. Monday had been terrible: a sore throat that made speaking painful, but no one was aware of it. She’d be back at work tomorrow and since she’d be at work on Friday, she’d be able to enjoy the weekend.

Her mother had had a rule about staying home from school on Friday. If you stayed home on Friday, you spent the weekend in the house. Charlene yawned and took a sip of the soda that was gradually being watered down by melting ice cubes. Maybe she’d be better off with a cup of tea.

Matt said he liked her the way she was. “You don’t need to change for me.” She was completely different from his last girlfriend, his only real girlfriend since college, the one who broke up with him because she didn’t see their relationship going anywhere.

Was Caroline young? The caller sounded young, maybe a friend. She didn’t sound like a sister although Charlene had no idea what a sister sounded like. Her roommate in the dorm had a sister. She was constantly complaining about her; she borrowed her clothes without telling her, dented her car and tried to steal her boyfriend. Caroline probably had a lot of friends, friends who were as attractive as she was.

Charlene felt her eyelids begin to droop. Maybe she had a temperature. If she had a thermometer she could check. She yawned. She should add that to her list of things to keep in the medicine cabinet. Right now, all that was in there were aspirin and iodine. She’d taken a couple aspirin when she first got up this morning and wasn’t sure how long she should wait to take more.

They hadn’t been surprised when she’d called in sick. That was good. They bought her explanation as to why she wouldn’t be in. She’d practiced what she’d say before she made the call, struggling to stay awake till eight-fifteen.

“Hope you feel better,” Tiffany said. Tiffany was her boss: five years younger and married with a baby. She didn’t like Charlene very much, saying “college girls” in a derogatory way when Charlene was within earshot. Tiffany had completed enough college to get married with the idea someday she’d go back and get her degree, but right now she didn’t see any reason. It didn’t hurt that everyone in the office who mattered thought Tiffany was pretty and perky. No one could say that about Charlene.

She must’ve dozed off because the noon news was on. It took a few seconds for that to register with her and she tried to focus on what the announcer was saying.

Matt was learning to fly and sometimes when he spoke about being airborne, waxing poetic, he’d say “You have to go up with me.” Any news of a small plane crash, she’d hold her breath, waiting for the pilot’s name to be announced, a small part of her hoping it was Matt. It was wrong to think that and she’d immediately regret it, believing saying things out loud made them come true.

How did you get a job like that? By not being Charlene; by being Caroline. There was some macaroni and cheese in the freezer and maybe she should eat something? She wasn’t hungry. After the weather, she threw off her covers and heated up her lunch in the microwave. There were only two cans of soda left. She might have to go to the market.

She sat at the tiny table watching the red package on the turntable. Matt was never coming back. She saw the engagement announcement in the paper. She wasn’t what he wanted and told her in the end he was getting back together with Cindy, his first, true love. He’d never really been hers.

It seemed as though she’d spent a good part of her life trying to be something that she wasn’t, leaving her certain someday she’d be uncovered for the fraud she was. Maybe Matt knew that all along. She supposed she couldn’t be Caroline but from the sound of the caller’s voice, she believed it would be better.

Copyright © 2008 by Janet Yung

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