The corner deli kid, Omar, was happy. It did not suit him, Jenna thought. She was used to Omar being fat and miserable, with his underbite and her coffee.
But this morning he was rosy-cheeked. Different after two weeks of being away. His brother, Hasim, had told her he had been “overseas,” getting a wife. Now he was back behind the deli counter looking changed: Jenna couldn’t tell if he was sunburned or just laid.
The deli guys were Muslim, foreign born, but with American accents. Hasim was older than Omar, but still young, and already married with a kid. Hasim was good looking; Jenna thought Omar might be slow.
“Overseas,” Hasim had said, not naming the country. He’d told her Omar had not met the girl before, but that if it wasn’t a match, the girl could say no.
Those two weeks he was away, reminded daily by his absence at the deli, Jenna had imagined Omar on a masted boat, sitting on the deck, looking at his hands. She imagined the girl he would marry wearing gold with kohl-lined eyes waiting in some palace, then seeing him for the first time. Omar would walk toward her, all lopsided, drooling.
The girl would duck from her window, hide, and whisper “no.”
Now, looking at Omar, she wondered what this girl was really like, this girl who had said “yes” and let him take her away from her home. Jenna imagined her at her new house somewhere in the Bronx, waiting for Omar, stirring stew.
Omar smiled, his lower teeth jutting out as he filled her coffee mug. She could not remember if she had ever heard him speak.
“Doesn’t Omar look happy?” Jenna asked her husband, Joe, when he got back that night from the deli. Each evening he would go after they finished dinner, whether they needed something or not. Sometimes he would stay for an hour, come back with only two beers left in his six-pack, forgetting the milk.
“I know,” Joe said. He opened a beer. “They showed me this video of them dancing in this circle at his wedding. Only the men. All wearing white. It was so weird.”
“Yeah, that’s what they do,” Jenna said. It had been almost a year since they had been married; two years since they first met online. Still, sometimes it surprised her what Joe found strange, unfamiliar, or even funny.
“I know, it was just strange. You would think so if you saw it.”
Boys showing boys things—even dancing—happened at the deli in the night. It had been clear since they moved there after their wedding: the deli Joe went to in the dark was not the deli she entered each morning.
The next day, Jenna stopped by to get her coffee on her way to work. When she opened the deli door, a bell rang above her head. Behind the counter, for the first time ever, Omar was alone.
“How ya doin’?” Omar asked. Jenna looked around for Hasim but could not find him.
“Fine,” she said. “How is it being a newlywed?”
“Excellent,” he said, smiling, his bottom teeth out.
“Well, congratulations again!” she said.
“Not again,” he said, finally filling up the mug she brought each day from home.
“What?” she asked.
“That was the first time that you said ‘congratulations’,” he said.
“Oh, oh! I guess I just must have thought it and not said it. I’m sorry.”
Omar rang her up, smiling. She realized she had liked those weeks he had been gone—she had gotten to talk to Hasim alone, see pictures of his new baby. One morning she had even joked about what her husband was always doing there at night.
“You’d rather he be here, trust me, than somewhere else,” Hasim said seriously.
She didn’t know where she should start. Perhaps she would try to explain to him later that she wasn’t actually worried, though then it would probably be too late. It was not like her to let things go: she did not like when Joe avoided conflict by labeling people as “stuck in their ways.” She was offended when people said “it is what it is”; she hated that people were resigned to change.
But it was morning, she needed her coffee and she was late for work. It was too hard to explain she was kidding, so she quickly paid and left.
Friday evening, after going to the wine store, Jenna walked into the deli. The bell rang and Omar looked up from where he was scratching a lotto card. She wondered if he had to pay for the cards and she wondered if Hasim knew. Again, Omar was alone.
“Hey,” Omar said, “you drinking tonight?”
Jenna looked down at the plastic bag she held with the name of the wine store on it.
“Oh, yes,” she laughed, walking over to the refrigerators. “I have to get something for Joe, too.”
She took out a six-pack of Heineken and brought it to the register.
“I bet he’ll be by later anyway,” Omar said.
She wanted to ask him if she could see a picture of his wife. Each time she looked at him it seemed more and more impossible—the way his eyes were so far apart, the way his belly hung out—that this woman could even exist.
Jenna smiled. “Maybe,” she said.
“I’ll make a bet,” he said, putting his elbow on the plastic counter, making a fist and sticking out his pinky.
“No,” she said, “that’s okay.”
“No, really. Men like to get out of the house. When my wife starts up, I leave.” Omar stood there, pinky wiggling, ready for Jenna to touch him. He was talking about his wife this way; he had only been married two weeks.
He annoyed her, with his new smugness. She put her finger through his and felt his horrible, fat sweat. She smelled him for a second, and took her hand away. “I’m going to win,” he said, giving her her change. She walked out of the store, wishing he had never left.
“Have you noticed how talkative Omar is now?” Jenna asked Joe at dinner. “I know. I guess he’s just psyched he’s getting laid.”
“Isn’t it weird how marriage gives people confidence?” she asked.
“I guess,” Joe said, sipping the last sip of his beer.
“Did you get more confident?” she asked.
“I guess,” he said.
Jenna cleared the plates from the table and poured herself another glass of wine.
“I’m going to go to the deli,” Joe said. “Want anything?”
She purposefully didn’t tell him about the bet, hoping that Omar would forget. She lay on the couch and turned on the TV show Intervention. She loved the rhythmic narrative of the show, and the way the stories always made sense. In the hour she watched, there were reasons for everything.
The reality-show formula was always the same: there was the person, present day, but looking like a ghost of themselves, falling down stairs, on meth or anorexic or drunk. Then a rewind sound would start and “before” pictures would float through black space. The pictures showed a beautiful child, then a cheerleading teenager, or a promising sports star. Once, the pictures showed, there had been hope.
But something had gone wrong. They had been molested, or there had been an accident. Often, someone had died. Then the rewind sound turned into fast forward, and again, the face of the sum of the past would appear. Glassy-eyed, shit-skinned, helpless.
For the “intervention,” they lured the addict to a hotel room where all of their family members waited. They each read letters, telling them how much they had changed, urging them to get on a plane, now, to go to a sunny rehab. They could do yoga there, but no drugs.
Tonight’s episode was a double-whammy. It featured a former beauty who had also once been a cellist, and an anorexic mother who exercised six hours a day. The mother put pressure on the girl to be perfect, then eventually left the family and moved to an empty apartment with only a bed and an exercise bike in Chicago.
The father was bear-like and loveable and wanted to keep the family together. He would give his daughter money for drugs so she didn’t have to be a hooker. When the mother came back from Chicago for the intervention, the father bought her flowers.
Joe had been gone to the deli for almost forty-five minutes; longer, it seemed, than usual.
She called him, but his cell phone rang in the other room.
“What took you so long?” Jenna asked when Joe finally walked through the door. The mother had been crying by then on the show, and Jenna had dried her own tears.
“Nothing,” Joe said, taking his spare change from his jeans and putting it on the kitchen table. He opened his beer.
“Tell me,” she said, turning off the TV.
“Omar told me about your bet,” he said. His affect was hard to read, but this was not unusual.
“He won,” she said, laughing.
“I know. If you had told me I wouldn’t have gone.”
She felt like she was in an alternate universe with no gravity, and somehow humor had fallen off the earth; she was suddenly covered in torn-off beer labels, made in the shape of a dress; Omar’s fleet of ships was docking, and his whims were now her burden. It felt like all this had been decided without her, in the deli, in the night.
She swallowed and sat down on the couch, then turned the TV on mute. They were in the past now, the screen flashing photos back to the days before the damage. Calmly, without noise, every child was beautiful.
“Obviously it wouldn’t have mattered,” she finally said. “You stayed so long.”
Joe took another sip of beer and looked at her. “Have you been watching Intervention again?”
On Monday, when Jenna opened the deli door, she was glad to see Hasim with Omar behind the counter. She had had a good nights’ sleep and the deli in her mind had shrunk back to its regular size. Plus, everything was better with Hasim.
“Hi,” she said.
Omar reached his hand out from the safety of the bullet-proof plastic and took her mug without saying anything.
“I hear you’re making bets with my brother,” Hasim said.
She laughed and planned to take it up later. Another day, surely, when all this had passed. For now, she took a note from Joe. “Yeah, Omar, you won,” she said as she took her coffee from his hand. “What do I owe you?”
She watched as the two men looked at each other.
“A kiss,” Omar said, smiling.
Jenna laughed again, but felt like the world was sliding.
“Do you have another idea?” Omar asked.
Jenna looked at Hasim who looked down, then at his brother. Surely the cereal boxes would begin to fall any second, eggs and bottles breaking in the aisles; laughter in the form of projectile vomit would hurtle out of people’s mouths and disappear into the universe; her dress of labels would tear and tear, until she was naked in the store.
“I’ll think about it,” Jenna said, backing away toward the door; its frame, the walls, the building, just about to fall.
“Omar wants me to pay up the bet,” she told Joe when he got home. “Oh yeah,” Joe smirked. “How much did you bet him?”
“I didn’t,” Jenna said, sipping her wine. “He asked for a kiss.”
“What?” he said.
“He said he wanted a kiss,” she said.
“What the fuck? I’m sure he was kidding.” He picked up the mail from the counter.
“That’s hysterical,” Joe said, but he didn’t smile.
Jenna drank the rest of her glass and poured another one.
“I’m going to go to the deli,” Joe said. “Do you want anything?”
Jenna turned on Intervention. A boy whose family had once been singing, traveling Christians was now going to be intervened upon. When the boy was younger, the family had let a priest into their lives somewhere in the South, and the priest had befriended and then molested him.
They showed pictures of the boy when he was small with his arm around the man, smiling. The boy’s face was pretty but boyish: a pedophile’s dream. They showed the mother, now, singing Christian songs and pushing back the boy’s hair behind his ear while he lay on the couch shivering, withdrawing from Oxycontin.
Jenna cried when they showed pictures of the family “before.” There was no father—it might have helped, she thought, if there was.
Or maybe not. Maybe the boy was just damaged. Maybe he would be in the same situation, except with both parents singing to him, harmonizing about Jesus as his sweat seeped into the pillows.
They were at the part where the family read their letters when Jenna looked at the clock. Joe had been gone for over an hour. She called his phone and it rang in the other room.
Jenna finished her second glass of wine and then poured herself a third. She heard the outside door click and then the door to their apartment open. Joe looked flushed, the lime green tie she had bought him for his birthday hanging from his pocket. He had a bag in his hands.
Her glass was not done but she poured herself more. Joe smiled, putting his bag in the fridge. He came over to the couch, sat down, and began to kiss her.
She kissed back, but he was kissing too hard and his stubble hurt. He opened the top button of her pajamas and stuck his cold hand inside. She resigned quickly and, drunk and loud, she climbed on top of him, watching his mouth alternate between making ohs and clenching his teeth.
After she came she lay there, still moaning. It usually didn’t take much longer if she told him to come for her, fill her up, she was ready. Now.
“Pretend you just met me,” she whispered, “overseas.”
“Ah,” he moaned, done.
The next day Jenna was hung over and needed her coffee. She knew it would be worse if she didn’t go.
Inside, there was only Hasim behind the counter. He put out his hand and she realized she had forgotten her mug.
“Oh, you are forgetful now . . .” he said, smiling.
She watched his broad shoulders as he turned around and poured her a Styrofoam cup.
“Where is Omar?” she asked.
He turned around and smirked. “You miss my brother?”
“No,” she said, but felt herself blush. The whole thing was so silly. She could just pay.
She reached in her bag and took out a twenty-dollar bill, slapping it down on the plastic counter. “Tell Omar we’re settled.”
She watched Hasim, waiting for his reaction. Instead, he stared at the bill. “I can’t take this from you,” he said.
Jenna sighed. She felt like she might sneeze or cry. Instead, she picked up the money.
“May I have $20 worth of lotto cards please?” she asked. Her palms were sweating. “And some Advil?”
Hasim reached above the counter to get the lotto cards, counting them out. He looked at her, holding them for her to take.
Jenna smiled, her hands at her sides. “They’re for Omar,” she said, turning around. She walked toward the door before he could object, forgetting her headache. “Wish him luck.”
Jenna took the long way back to the apartment after work and began dinner. Joe called and said he was stopping by the deli before coming home. “Do you want anything?” he asked.
Jenna turned on Intervention and sat back on the couch and watched. Tonight: a woman, the youngest of a big, middle-class family, had become a drunk and a whore. They showed a picture of her with all her sisters when they were young, all dressed in monogrammed sweaters with their initials, each kicking up one leg of their pleated, plaid skirts.
The father read his letter at the intervention, and told his daughter how devastating it was for him to watch his little girl change from a beauty queen to an ugly old woman. The woman buried her head in the lap of one of her older sisters, who looked younger than her. Jenna looked at the clock again. Joe was forty minutes late. She called him but he didn’t answer.
It was raining, so Jenna put on Joe’s big black raincoat and her rain boots, and walked out of her apartment. Cars sloshed street-lit puddles into the gutters. She wanted to feel warm.
It was strange to look inside the deli at night, to see her husband, standing by the counter; to think of herself, outside in the rain. It was dark outside so they couldn’t see her; inside it looked bright and cozy.
Jenna watched as Joe talked and smiled. She walked closer to the door. Hasim and Omar looked no different than when she went alone.
Jenna was close enough, now, that if they looked through the glass they would be able to see her from the outside lights. Joe’s hands made the motions of explaining things she could not hear. No one was looking out the windows.
She knew the intervention would take place in her living room. She would walk in in her rain gear, dripping water from her nose. The three of them would be sitting on the couch, waiting: Omar, Hasim, and Joe.
Each man would sit with their legs spread. She would stand in front of the TV, refusing to take off her boots, to sit or listen.
Hasim would start by saying how he knew she was not as happy as before, promising her he would try to change. He would say how hard it was, although he would not say why.
Hasim would hug her. Omar would begin to push himself up but she would put her hand out, sitting him back down.
“Are you finished?” she would ask them, pacing with her arms crossed. The rain water would scatter on their laps, but they would not move from their positions. Finally, they would look at each other, and then Joe would stand, holding his written letter, the yellow notebook paper shaking in his hands.
She would not even hear the words he was saying, until he paused and begged.
When he finally sat back down, she would stare at all three men. When it was time for their final word, their last plea before she left forever, Omar would stand up quickly, nervous-seeming once again, and tell her, man to woman, all of the ways she had changed.
“Intervention” originally appeared in Big Blue Whale (TLR, Summer 2016)