The Space Between Two Sentences
Stefanie Freele

As the Mexican hands me the salsa, I can tell that he has murdered someone. That’s all I know, other than he could do it again. His culpability shows in the grim way he holds his chin, as if his face never knew a smile, not as an adult anyway, but maybe as a child under five. I see him often at lunchtime and I watch, looking for murderer-type signs, but he doesn’t carry a weapon or make threats; he scoops chips out of a bin into yellow baskets.

The chick at the gas station counter skims the till; her extroverted and inquisitive questions indicate that she’s getting braver and greedier. She tosses my change onto the counter, ignoring my outstretched hand, and snorts, “I just can’t keep money in my hands, falls through like water.”

A man with red hair passes me in the parking lot, his mouth tightened with rage. He tries to contain himself, but I can’t blame him; without consulting her husband, his wife recently invested their entire savings into a bunk business deal.

I don’t always see clearly into people, more like a hazy flicker. I mentioned this debatable gift to a co-worker at the post office. I minimize, revealing just that I get “vibes.” Velma and I speculate on the customers who come in to mail packages. This one eats Spam and calls his mother every other night. That one drove a VW Bug in college when he was free, but his new wife doesn’t want to know about his past, just wants him to keep the SUV clean and the checks coming in. One lady buys clothes at Goodwill, but pretends they’re from Macy’s, another hires younger men for massages and kids herself that they really enjoy her company. Our stories are for our own pleasure, to laugh, to pass the time, to make the job more interesting. Velma doesn’t know that I see many of these attributes.

My brother’s new girlfriend is coming over tonight. I don’t want to meet her. He doesn’t really want me to meet her either, because I’m usually cold and rude to his dates. On the other hand, he wants me to like them, so he brings one around now and then. Since we live together, he always lets me know if anyone is stopping by. The last date had herpes. The one before was molested at age four by several uncles. One girl, fixated with money, would have emptied my brother’s account in no time. Another hated men, but wanted to make her girlfriend jealous. My bother confirmed the molested girl and my neighbor knew the money-hungry one. The rest I’ll probably never hear about.

The bank teller is cheating on her boyfriend with a man who wears silk shirts. She can’t control herself because the obsession is unstoppable. The man next to me in line at the movies is dying of liver disease. The woman next to him doesn’t know about his illness; they met online and this is only their third date. She’s concerned that someone is following her, could be an ex-husband. No, an ex-boyfriend she also met online, a situation she regrets. She gave him too much of herself via the Internet and when they met face to face, his neediness repulsed her. The woman behind me grieves over her dead husband. Her cousin next to her thinks a movie is the perfect grief-avoiding event, and loves to eat. She binges at night on pasta, taking huge bites.

* * *

I can’t read everyone and I don’t even know if I’m right most of the time. Perhaps my imagination is overactive? It’s not like I can walk up to the girl at the ATM and ask, “Is it true that after you quit the San Francisco Ballet Company, you gained thirty pounds in four months and now avoid your dancing friends?” Or, could I approach the parking lot attendant and ask him to confirm that he spent one high-school summer on an aunt’s farm in Kansas where he shot his first and only animal: a rabbit that lay dead, eyes opened, in a perfect curled pose, reminding him of a sleeping child?

I haven’t told my brother about my ability. I almost did, but one day after I turned a corner, I bumped into someone. The man didn’t say anything; he kept going. The way he tilted his chin toward his neck and looked wide-eyed toward the sky illustrated that he was a guilt-free rapist. At the time, he had never been caught and didn’t plan to quit. His M.O. included offering rides to drunken girls who hung out at the lakefront. I stopped to watch him creep along the sidewalk as two police cars arrived out from the alley. Black-clad officials quietly arrested him. I read about him in the paper, the next day on the way to work. Scenarios of how my brother would react, if I revealed my secret, played in my head. But by the time the bus ride ended, I decided not to tell.

* * *

I whiz through the front door, pretending I’m in a hurry and jot right over to my room. I can hear my brother and the girl in the kitchen. He’s using his “I’m-charming-and-you-are-the-center-of-the-universe” voice. She’s giggling in that way girls do with guys they don’t know well, a completely different giggle than if she was with girlfriends.

The interesting thing is, I can’t read people until I see them, so I remain in my bedroom, listening.

He’s enthralled. “You have the smoothest skin.”

She protests. “No, I don’t.” Giggle.

He sniffs. “Mmm. And you smell so good.”

The other weird thing is that I typically can’t read people I know. Only strangers. So even if I entered the room, I wouldn’t feel anything from my brother. But then again, maybe I don’t need to. I already know him well enough.

Even though I didn’t plan to meet her, I’m curious. It’s hard for a woman in her own house to avoid checking out a strange woman in the other room. I enter the kitchen. She’s sitting on our counter. Her skin does appear smooth. Her black hair looks Egyptian in that round, straight-bang look.

“Hey, this is my sister.”

“Nice to meet you.” We shake hands.

In the span of time between his introduction and my response, I see that she wants to know what it is like to date an older man, because all the men her age have turned out to be scum. I’d say they’re ten years different. Her ex-boyfriend slept over two months ago while his new girlfriend was out of town. She naively hopes her ex will come back, but knows and doesn’t want to accept that he just came over to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. She wants to find a good guy, but barely clings to the notion that one might be out there. If my brother doesn’t work out, or if a man with good morals doesn’t come into her life soon, she’s afraid she’ll slide into a jaded depression, or worse, her honesty might sour and she’ll join the marching crowd of ruthlessness.

“Your kitchen is huge. Makes me want to cook.” As she compliments us about our house, I understand that she’s pregnant and doesn’t know it.

My brother and the Egyptian chick look at me oddly. I should be answering them, but I can’t yet. This is the first time I’ve known of someone unaware of their own pregnancy. That could mean that I’m catching the vibe of the unborn baby. I stare down at her stomach and try to capture more. The baby is content, but his skull has too much fluid and his heart is struggling.

The girl looks down at her belly because I am staring at it. “What?” She looks at my brother for support.

He squints at me. “You OK?”

I tell them, “I’m fine, just thinking,” even though I’m not fine at all. The girl has a sweet integrity I don’t often see. She struggles with the smallest fib.

I reach into my pocket and pull out my check stub. “Payday. How about I take us to dinner? To celebrate your new friendship.”

The girl’s shoulders drop in relief. Her eyes are grateful that I’ve welcomed her.

My brother relaxes, amazed; he thinks I finally approve of a date.

He opens the door for us and we all walk through.

I wrote this back when I had one of those jobs that pays but is psychological torture from dealing with constant public interaction. A co-worker and I used to entertain ourselves (keep ourselves in a modicum of sanity) by making stuff up about people—that guy loves Hungry Man salisbury steak dinners on a folding tray, this woman is just waiting for someone to admire her orange feathery hair clips—she can’t wait to say “I made them myself!” There were also those times when we’d get “the bad vibe” about a customer and we’d be dying to know if our intuition was true. I’ve always been interested in people with that gift of discernment. Do we all have it? Can we tap in somehow and develop it—take it to the gym and beef it up? An earlier version of “The Space Between Two Sentences” was originally published in Pebble Lake Review.

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