I glanced to my left and stopped myself from double-taking like a Looney Tunes character. I had to be contented with instead staring down at the waiting room tabloid magazine in front of me.
The girl on the cover. The girl next to me. Same girl.
Clearly, I had to do something — anything — if only because I couldn’t tell my friends that I’d sat next to Jessea Farr… and done nothing. But I couldn’t just start up a conversation with her either. What was I supposed to say? Something dashing, something witty, something urbane with just the right amount of delicate hinting towards an intimate liaison later.
‘So, if I can believe this headline, you’re single again, right?’
Surreptitiously, I took a sideways look at her. She looked like every picture I’d ever seen of her, only, in the flesh, so much more so. She was tall; so slim that she looked breakable; she lounged in the cheap hard plastic chair with her long legs splayed out in a way that would have made anyone else look lazy and bored.
I moved, and my chair creaked with a sound that was clearly audible throughout the room.
The clerk at the front counter, an older man with thinning, sandy hair and slack skin under his chin looked over the tops of his rimless glasses at me.
“Sorry,” I called, and I smiled awkwardly.
The clerk coughed once, quietly, and consulted his list. “Number one one four,” he said, his voice thin. “Number one one four, approach the desk please.”
I looked at my number. One one seven.
“Damn it,” I said under my breath, and shifted in my chair. It groaned uneasily underneath me and the clerk stopped speaking to 114, a Chinese woman who was stammering an explanation in bad English, to raise an eyebrow at me.
“Sorry,” I called again. I relaxed, and the chair squeaked, just once.
Next to me, Jessea Farr was covering a smile with her hand. I sighed, and went back to my magazine.
“Oh, I hate that picture,” Jessea Farr said. I looked, and she was pouting as she pointed down at the magazine in my lap. “I look like I’m about sixty years old!”
I had to play this one just right. I had to be cocky, but funny. I had to be approachable, but not impressed by her.
In the corner of my eye, I could see one of the two guys in shorts elbow the other and nod at me.
“No,” I said, pretending to scan the photo intently. “Forty-five if you’re a day.”
She laughed, and hit me on the shoulder lightly.
“Don’t be mean,” she said. “I’d just broken up with Tommy, I was coming out of my best friend’s house, and some photographer pops out of the bushes and starts taking pictures! My makeup was running, I’d been crying all afternoon…”
“Yeah, the same thing happened to me on Wednesday,” I said.
“You’re funny!” Jessea Farr said, and hit me again.
I was very aware that around the room, people were falling silent. I looked around. Men were opening newspapers with a little bit too much of a flourish. Women glanced away a little too quickly when their gazes met mine.
When I spoke again, I could feel the room straining to listen.
“My name is–”
“Number one one five. Number one one five, approach the desk please,” the clerk said into the desk microphone. A middle-aged woman got slowly to her feet a few seats down.
“Oh no,” Jessea Farr said, her face falling easily into that perfect pout again. She sank down into her seat and hunched her shoulders. “I’m one three five. I’ll be sitting here forever!”
“Oh no, I don’t want to be stuck here with you all afternoon,” I said.
Jessea Farr laughed. I heard a man in the row in front of me snort, and his wife quickly shushed him.
“What number are you?” Jessea asked. I showed her my stub.
“Oh, you’ll be out of here in ten minutes,” she said. She pulled her legs in under her chair, her knees pointing out in opposite directions. She pulled a loose strand of hair into her mouth and chewed on it absently.
“Do you think we could trade spots?” Jessea asked me, turning to look me right in the face. “I’ve got this shoot to do this afternoon, and the director and the photographer will both kill me if I’m running even a second late, and it’d be a big help. I’d love you forever.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “Yeah, that’s no problem.”
We swapped tickets as the clerk said “One one six. Number one one six, please approach the counter.”
No one stood.
“One one six?” the clerk repeated.
The clerk made a tiny mark on his sheet.
“One one seven,” he said, and Jessea was up. We all watched her as she crossed the room with a practiced strut. The men watched her, and the women watched her, and then the women watched the men watch her.
Jessea Farr got her forms stamped and, without a backwards glance, she left the room. As she walked out the door, another woman was walking in. The woman held the door open, and Jessea swept past her without saying thank you.
The second woman sat down next to me. She wore a cardigan with loose threads, frizzled and messy like her hair. She had a giant, battered leather handbag that she sat on her lap. She looked at the number I held in my hand.
“Hi,” the second woman said to me. “I’m sorry to ask, and I know it’s a bit rude, but I’m one three nine, and I’ve got to grab my kids from school soon. Could we swap numbers?”
The room went quiet. I leaned back.
“Not a chance,” I said.
Simon Smithson is an Australian writer who is moving to San Francisco. He has never seen a moose, has eaten crocodile (it was delicious), and has more ideas than he has time to bring to fruition.