BY THE WAY, MY NAME IS PHOEBE

By Chad Cooper (10BA), 2019 Write Now Finalist

Love: If you don't post about it, did it even happen?

Tobias stared at his laptop screen, leaning back in his ergonomically designed chair in the offices of Sculpt, a social media marketing agency located in the gateway to Iowa City's Ped Mall.

At 22, Tobias was the second-oldest digital content writer in the office, and the current content on his screen was a tagline he'd just crafted for a Ginsburg Jewelers Facebook ad campaign. The line would pair with an image of a woman's hand sporting a sparkling diamond ring. It was 10:00 on a Friday night, and Tobias was two taglines short on a Monday morning deadline. Was crafting messaging for a jeweler's Valentine's Day ad campaign Tobias' dream? No. But as a recent college grad with an $80,000 student-loan tab, he was thankful to have any job that signified middle-class ambition.

As he reclined in his chair, Tobias surveyed his corporate confines. The Sculpt office had been pitched to him as "Millennial chic" during his interview, and he guessed it fit the bill. There were pearl-white sleep pods, a coffee bar manned by a live-in capuchin monkey named Chips, and a popcorn machine in the form of a beer keg that would spontaneously spurt craft beer on people retrieving a midday snack. Tobias didn't get the appeal, but everyone else in the office seemed to love it, letting out exuberant screams whenever they took a beer blast to the face.

As for Chips, word was he was a former rodeo monkey who'd traveled the country to ride a border collie for audience amusement. That is until the day he snapped and began throwing his feces at spectators while making the rounds on the dog, like a fecal-matter-ticker-tape parade. He was promptly relieved of his duties and bounced around the performing animal circuit until landing here. On Tobias' first day, he was firmly told to never order from Chips, but instead simply take whatever he made for you, whether it be a French-press cold brew or lavender latte with a distinct flavor profile.

Despite the in-office perks and competitive 401K match, Tobias found himself unfulfilled, both professionally and personally. He'd just spent four years on the campus of a Big Ten university infamous for its party culture, but he hadn't socialized much. Four years. A few parties. One awkward conversation with a girl where he'd felt the need to admit that he was a virgin. An admission that was capped with the girl vomiting. (Connection between the two unverifiable.)

He could now hear the crowd outside the office--students taking advantage of a mild February night to mill around the bars. Feeling lonely and experiencing a severe case of copywriter's block, a beer sounded good. He shut his laptop and took a direct walk across the Ped Mall to the sprawling Brother's Bar & Grill. Brother's wasn't intimate. In fact it was big and so crowded that a person could easily sit at the bar and disappear. That's exactly what Tobias wanted. The night's specials included $3 Busch Light pitchers, and though Tobias was more of the craft beer type, he couldn't deny a good value.

***

Tobias felt a gloved hand softly clutch his wrist. He'd wound up on a bench outside the bar. The Ped Mall was desolate. The glove was tattered and thin. The fingers had been cut off to reveal digits that were calloused but meticulously groomed. Looking up, even through glazed vision, he recognized the person next to him. He'd seen her on his way to work, from work, and over his lunch break.

She usually set up on the concrete tree planter across from Herteen & Stocker Jewelers. A shopping cart doubled as her home and transportation. That's why he'd noticed her. He'd always found it kind of funny how she'd quickly push her cart down the Ped Mall and then jump in and ride it out, like a shopping cart bobsled.

Tobias also recalled the times he'd seen her hassled by police, told to move or refrain from the shopping cart antics. She'd always calmly comply but return to the same spot each day. If you'd quizzed him, he couldn't have told you anything else about her, but now, face to face, he noticed lots of things: frizzy, shoulder-length, golden-blond hair partly concealed under a stocking cap, crystal-blue eyes that seemed to offer a periscopic view through the pupils, and a stunningly young face.

"Are you okay?' she asked.

"I'm drunk."

"No shit. I didn't ask if you were drunk. I asked if you were okay."

"Yeah, I'm fine."

He couldn't believe how clear her eyes were.

"You don't look fine."

"I've seen you before. Don't you live here?" Tobias made a sweeping motion with his hand around the Ped Mall.

"I live wherever I lay my head. You don't seem okay."

"I'm no--"

Wait, did he just choke up? Yes. Shit, was he crying? Sobbing was more like it.

At this moment, with his head in his hands, he could feel her lean to his side. He didn't know her, but she felt as familiar as anything right now. He turned to accept her embrace, but was blocked by something ... physical. The bench featured an armrest bar in the middle. A bar included to prevent the Ped Mall's homeless from stretching out to sleep. He tried to stand but staggered. He felt her rise to brace him.

***

Tobias awoke the next morning in the side entrance of his apartment building. He must have been conscious enough to at least remember his door code. As he rolled over, he felt a bulge in his coat pocket. He reached in and produced a hollow geodesic-like sphere made completely out of colored tape. Enclosed was a lime-green Post-it note:

Hope you feel better. By the way, my name is Phoebe

It wasn't tagline material, thought Tobias. It was much better. It was perfect. He repeated her name.


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