The job took her first to Boulder, scenic city under peaks, then to Albuquerque, gritty city under peaks, and now down to the border, henpecked city under peaks, in a town named for crosses. Las Cruces, Gina says to people and they say it back with an upward inflection. Las Cruces, she says again. The crosses.
The English Department secretary, Mehan, wears a cross. It’s on the same chain as another pendant, a small gold cat. She has cats everywhere—a calendar with kittens airbrushed into needful puffs, a little white porcelain statuette. She even has a pillow she places on her padded chair, a needlepoint Siamese. To her cat, Alfonz, a Persian, she’s made a small shrine on her file cabinet.
Just this morning, during Gina and Veronica’s weekly seven o’clock coffee at the Starbucks in the failing strip mall, Gina had seen a woman in kitty cat pants, the flannel covered in tiny, smeary Siamese. “We should get those for Mehan,” Gina said. To which Veronica smiled in her characteristically empty way, her blue eyes the exact shade of the kitties’, and said, “Why, does she like cats?”
Veronica is the closest thing Gina has to a friend out here in the moonscape. She sometimes leaves candy or a little card on Gina’s desk, polite and polished gestures of goodwill, and Gina finds herself sufficiently moved, scouring the drug store for tokens of reciprocity. The two of them take frequent trips to the vending machine between rounds of grading, kvetching spiritedly about pagination issues and deadlines. Two years ago, when they were both new on the job, they bought only the trail mix and granola bars. But while Gina still maintains this resolve, Veronica’s fingers now migrate to the lower row of buttons, punching the codes for Hostess Cupcakes and tiny donuts. Veronica still hasn’t finished her dissertation, and so she spends most nights and weekends in a furious fit of despair, reading and rereading the same forty pages, the idea of tenure flopping around her like a school of landbound fish. As a result of these factors, or of the local cuisine (pork in lard, beans in lard), Veronica has gained nearly half of herself in body weight. Sometimes Gina catches a glimpse of her across the parking lot, or at the cubbies in the office, and it’s like seeing her through crazy glasses. She blinks, but Veronica stays distorted.
It’s a good job, or so say all the people around here. A rare thing, to get a tenure-track job in literature these days. It’s virtually impossible. And this is a state job, a job that delivers an official green pay stub every two weeks, money set aside for retirement, dental, medical. Grants available for the occasional conference. It’s not what Gina had envisioned in graduate school: a tidy office in a restored colonial on a woodsy campus, her students rosy-cheeked, bandana-clad. Oh, that life! The one where she taught all day in a soft brown sweater and made shrimp and green beans in the evening for David. The two of them gardening, watching a toddler play in the sun. She can still sometimes see it, or the tail of it as it races around a bend.
“It’s my adulthood,” she says to anyone who’ll listen, plucking the pay stub from her box in the mailroom, holding its thin greenness, its papery realness.