This story is by Erica Scott Roberts and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The first time I saw Rita she was stealing malted milk balls. There she was, tall and lean in her 70s peasant blouse that drooped a half-inch too low to be right for the office, just enough to show that her uplift bra was doing its job. Without so much as a ripple in her miniskirt, she stooped to scoop up three shiny chocolate cylinders from the jar in our supervisor’s desk drawer and balanced them between two file folders as she made her way back to her own desk. She saw me watching and met my gaze. As she passed me, she said distinctly under her breath: “Fat people don’t need candy.”
All I could do at the time was try to swallow my laughter. Rita was right, of course—the supervisor was quite rotund, and from my observation that first day of work she used her power and her malted milk balls to show all the other women in her domain that she had something they didn’t. I didn’t know what to do with that kind of woman; I was just out of junior college, working at my first job since the movie theater gig I had in high school. I didn’t know what to do with Rita, either, stuck as I was between the housewifely advice my mother had given me and the enlightenment Gloria Steinem was pushing on me. My new wedding ring still felt odd on my left hand, but I noticed Rita’s long, slender fingers had no rings or tan lines, and I noticed that they ended in perfectly buffed and polished mauve nails. She didn’t even glance my way.
But for days I watched her, fascinated. She could do 80 words per minute on the Selectric typewriter without her nails touching the keys, and she could process an insurance claim faster than anyone. Both of those things seemed to anger our supervisor somehow, but Rita would just meet her gaze, give a half-smile and say “Yes ma’am” to whatever criticism she could come up with. I watched her pilfer other small things—a fancy pen, a 5-pack of Sweet and Low—always from the supervisor’s desk, and always with the same calm half-smile. I said nothing.
The reward for my silence (I surmised) came about three weeks later. Rita was passing by my desk, file folders in hand, and a card slipped out and landed on top of my inbox. In the most gorgeous calligraphy, it said:
Pool Party at my complex
3610 North MacArthur
Saturday at 2:00 P.M.
Meet at the cabana.
Dress like you mean it.
I couldn’t believe it, but I decided to go. My husband had taken a weekend job with a moving company, so I showed up at the cabana at 2:05, dressed in a sort-of-modest two-piece with a cotton coverup that I hoped disguised my thighs. Rita was already there holding court, surrounded by three men closer to my age than hers, wearing a hot pink bikini and showing off the flattest stomach I had ever seen in person. Her blonde mop was gathered up in a topknot that revealed the curve of her neck and shoulders, and I wondered how old she was, really. She spotted me, and introduced me to the men, and also to the women on the outskirts of the group, telling them how smart I was. How did she know that?
And that’s how it went that summer. Rita never talked to me at work, or even acknowledged me, but every week or two there would be a lovely, deftly-placed placed invitation on my desk, and I couldn’t stay away. Slowly, I began to learn a little more about Rita—that she was an incurable flirt, that she was witty and bright in conversation, that everyone liked her but women didn’t trust her. She seemed to have no family and no ties, but she wanted to know about mine. She began to send small gifts home with me—a monogrammed kitchen towel, a scented candle, a set of lacy coasters. At first, I worried that she had stolen them, but my mother inspected them and pronounced that they were all handmade. I never would have guessed; they were that well done. I wanted to give her something in return, but nothing seemed right.
In the fall, I got a small promotion and was transferred to a different department, so I lost track of Rita for a while. I heard that she had been coming in late to work, and might be written up. That didn’t seem like her—she was an expert at staying just barely within the lines of acceptability. And then, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, my home phone rang.
“Hey honey, it’s me, Rita.” She was trying for her witty tone, but not making it.
“Well hi. Long time no see. How are you?”
“Well actually, not fantastic. I’m having some female trouble, and I need to go to the hospital. I could call a taxi, but I thought that maybe you…” I was already grabbing my coat and handbag.
“I’ll be right there. But you have to tell me your apartment number. You know I’ve never actually been there.”
“I could just meet you at the cabana. They lock it in the winter, but I have a skeleton key that will get me in.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said in a tone that was suddenly bold. “If you need to go to the hospital, you don’t need to be walking all the way to any cabana.” And so the combination of my new found strength and her temporary fragility got me the directions to apartment 501 in Building C.
I arrived at the apartment with the brisk efficiency I had been cultivating in my new job. My eyes swept the living room, with its graceful curved sofa and loveseat and profusion of throw pillows. A meticulously groomed cat with one eye rubbed against my legs.
“That’s Eugene,” said Rita. “I lost a baby last year, so I got Eugene. He needed me. Looks like I’m gonna get another cat.”
We drove in silence to the Emergency Room. I waited while Rita checked in, making jokes with the staff while her fair skin turned gray and her eyes squinted with silent pain. She said I should leave and run an errand, but of course I stayed, first joking with her about the stories in the frayed copy of People in the waiting room, and then reading it cover-to-cover while she went back to be examined. Four hours and six cups of coffee later she emerged, pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse and looking even paler than before.
“She just needs lots of rest and lots of fluids,” said the nurse, looking at my nose and not my eyes. “She has medication for the pain and …cramping. You can pull the car up now.”
I searched Rita’s face for clues, but she wasn’t giving any. I reached out to pat her hand, but that didn’t seem right, so I just squirted out a smile and said I’d be back soon.
In the car, it was clear that Rita was feeling the effects of the pain meds, because she started talking. “Another one bites the dust, you know? I should know by now. It’s not going to happen for me. It’s not fair, but maybe it is. Maybe I’m supposed to be alone, you know?”
I didn’t know what to say. I had always been surrounded by people, sometimes too many people, sometimes people who loved me too much or didn’t give me space to be myself, but they were there. All I could manage was “I don’t think anyone is meant to be completely alone.” And then, “What shall we get you to eat?”
“Chicken noodle soup. Campbells. From a can. I have some at home.”
Once back at Rita’s apartment, I tried to make myself busy. I settled Rita on the couch and went into the kitchen to heat up her soup. I wanted to clean something or do dishes, but the place was so spotless there was nothing to do. Even the litter box in the corner seemed to have been tended to, and the refrigerator practically glowed with cleanliness. I found a broom and swept imaginary dust from the floor. Then the soup was hot and I dished it up to take to Rita.
“Bottoms up,” I said, covering one of her throw pillows with a towel and balancing the bowl on top. “Builds strong bodies twelve ways.”
As she ate, Rita was silent, but she kept looking at me, straight in the eye. Finally, she said “I’m not like other people, you know.”
“Conformity is overrated,” I said, trying for something light. But that was ridiculous, and we both knew it.
“My mother left me. She left me at an orphanage when I was five. I can remember her face, but that’s all. Some of the other kids there, their parents came back for them, and some of them were adopted. But no one ever came for me. So you see, I’m not like other people.”
The nakedness of that pain paralyzed me for a moment. But then curiosity crept in, and I said, “What was it like there?”
“Lots of hard work—cooking, cleaning, laundry. They kept us busy so we wouldn’t get in trouble. And the girls, they kept us away from the boys. They were always worried about us having sex and getting pregnant.” And she gave me one of those smiles, where the lips move but the eyes stay sad.
I tried a return smile while I thought about the boys and their roles, how they weren’t responsible for anything. And I wondered about the boys who became men, and how they were part of Rita’s present. “Did you love him?” I asked.
“This one was a girl, they said. And yes, I loved her. I loved both of them.”
“Will you try again?” I had to make the shift.
“They said I have an incompetent cervix. Incompetent. That means you just can’t do it, right? So no, I’m not supposed to get pregnant, ever again.” She shifted positions and held up the half-full bowl to show that she was done with the soup.
I took the bowl and looked down at the throw pillow, searching for something else to talk about. I seized on the intricate stitching and asked where she had gotten it. I heard her spit out some air and say “Shoot.” It seemed far too mild an expression for Rita, so I sneaked a look at her face.
“I made those, girl. At the home—that’s what we called it, but it really wasn’t one– we were taught all those girly things like embroidery and sewing and darning. We all had to do those samplers, you know, where you make one piece that demonstrates all the stitches you’ve learned. But now, I can make up whatever designs I want, in whatever colors I want and even if nobody else sees them, they’re mine.”
“Could you teach me? I mean, I’m a total klutz with a needle, but could you teach me?”
“Sure, kid,” she said, as she leaned back on the couch and fell asleep.
And that’s how it started. Most weekends, when my husband was working, I went to Rita’s and she taught me how to embroider. And then she showed me how to sew the pillows. While everyone else was Christmas shopping, we moved around the edges, looking for thread and needles and hoops. As winter turned to spring, she introduced me to all the flea markets and garage sales and thrift stores she used to furnish her apartment. Sometimes we talked. She told me about the latest gossip from my old department and the antics of the supervisor, and occasionally she spoke of a man in her life. Sometimes I spoke of my husband and my life, but when I mentioned my plans for going back to school she seemed to pull back. So I changed the subject.
“You know I’m not very smart,” she said one day.
“That’s not true,” I started to protest, but she just held up her hand.
“At the home, when report cards came out, they announced it at dinner, in the dining hall. The goods and the bads, the As and the Ds and the Fs. And I got the Ds and Fs.”
“All the time?”
“Well mostly just in math. I just couldn’t do it. Still can’t. Can’t make change, even; that’s why I can’t get a job in a store. I get all flustered and confused.”
“Did anyone try to help you, or tutor you?”
Rita gave me a look that said that I was the one that was actually stupid. “The bus picked us up right after school and took us back to the home. There was no time for a teacher to help, and there wasn’t anyone at the home who wanted to teach a girl like me to do math.”
“That’s not fair, you know.”
She gave me another withering look. “I try to get things back from the world in other ways, dear.”
I thought of the malted milk balls. In my mind, I made a calculation about whether I would have time, between my job and getting ready to go back to school, to tutor Rita in basic math and making change. I made the offer, but she turned me down flat.
“I’m doing fine, just as I am,” she said, looking down at her always-perfect nails. “If it starts to bother me, I’ll just get another cat.”
Still, I wanted to give Rita something. As the days grew longer and warmer, I thought I could offer her a tiny piece of what she’d never had: family. So I invited her to my parents’ Memorial Day barbeque.
“I don’t do family. Don’t know how,” she said.
“That’s okay. You’re smart. You can learn,” I said, landing a glancing blow on the sore spot. Then, to soften it, I added, “You could read articles in Family Circle or Ladies Home Journal. They’ll be full of stuff about Memorial Day gatherings.” The muscles around her mouth relaxed a little, so I added “You’d actually be doing me a favor. I need a little less attention from my mother right now, and you would be someone new to talk to.” It was true: My mother had been making noises about grandchildren and I didn’t want to tell her that my husband had been working nights and overtime and there had been very few grandchildren-producing activities. And I also hadn’t told her about the Women in Engineering scholarship I had received, which would mean going to a college 300 miles away.
“Well, I suppose I could do it this one time,” Rita said. “You’re the only one I would do this for.”
And so it was that I arrived on Memorial Day to pick Rita up at her apartment. She was dressed in the kind of split skirt we called culottes in those days; hers were an orange-and-brown plaid and they hit just a bit above her knees (more modest than I would have expected) and she wore a sleeveless orange turtleneck. I complimented her on her outfit, and she showed me the Family Circle article with a woman similarly outfitted, only in green. “Just finished it,” she said, and I knew she meant the outfit, not the article.
As I turned toward the door, I saw her pick up a Tupperware pie container. Seeing my look, she said, “There were all these articles about what to bring to a Memorial Day picnic. So I figured I was supposed to bring something.”
“There’s nothing illegal baked into that, is there?” I asked. She let me wonder for a split second and then shook her head.
That day, Rita was fantastic. It was like she was playing her greatest hits album. On the 100-mile car trip, she managed to pull my shy husband out of his shell by offering to get him a deal on some tires; she even gave him a card with her phone number to keep in his wallet. At my parents’ house, she sipped her white wine delicately because I’d told her my mother didn’t think ladies should drink beer. She told my father she had bought a house (which was news to me) and asked him what kind of grass seed she should use on the lawn. With my quirky cousin Fred, who had come back changed from Viet Nam and now wore tie-dye t-shirts and turquoise jewelry whenever he wasn’t at his accounting job, she flirted just enough to keep it interesting. At one point, she got a belly laugh from him that reminded me how long it had been since the sadness came into his eyes.
After the barbeque had been served, my mother brought out Rita’s Tupperware. Expecting a dessert, she instead pulled out something that looked a little like a quiche.
“Um, what is that?” I whispered to Rita.
“Huh? Like the sort-of meat that comes in a can?”
“Yeah. It was a favorite at the home. I got the recipe from the back of the can.”
My mother was saying she was sorry, she should have brought this out earlier. She dished up portions for everyone, and I said, “Yum. Is this ham or prosciutto?”
“Let’s just say ham,” Rita said with her face straight but her eyes dancing. “I used to love this when I was a kid.”
Then when my mother followed up with a question about where Rita grew up, I saw the panic. I diverted with my mom’s favorite pastime—the photo album. And Rita could relax and peer into someone else’s life, seeing the pictures from babyhood through high school, watching me grow up. She listened to all of the stories of my measles and my piano lessons. She saw me meet my husband at age 13, go to the prom with him at 18, and marry him at 20. Rita looked as if she were listening to a fairy tale.
In the car on the way home, Rita looked spent. I thanked her for coming and told her she was the best thing about the day.
“So what did you think of my family?” I asked.
“I think you should never say your mother pays too much attention to you. There’s no such of a thing,” she said, and she leaned her head against the window of the back seat. She closed her eyes, and went to sleep. Or at least pretended to.
The next Saturday, I was awakened by the phone. The glow-in-the dark alarm clock on my nightstand said 5:30, and by the fourth ring I was able to get to the phone in the hall. It was Rita.
“Hi, honey. It’s me. We’ve got a problem.” Oh no, not again. I started to make motions to get dressed, and leave a note for my husband when he got home from work.
“It’s your hubby,” Rita said. What?! He was with her? How could she?! My mind was spinning.
But Rita’s wasn’t. She was calm, like a mother with a hurt child.
“He’s been arrested, honey.”
“At Trenton Park. Near the rose garden. In that area where men….go to meet other men.” Her voice was as gentle as I had ever heard it. “He can’t help it, you know,” she said quietly.
But I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything about it. The sheltered life I’d had growing up, the one that made me chafe under its conventionality at times, must have been strangling to him. I asked Rita what to do next; she told me she’d meet me at the police station, and to bring my I.D. and checkbook. She led me through the process of posting his bail, and then waited in her car while I met (in some ways, for the first time) the man I loved. And I understood why he had called Rita and not me in the middle of the night.
The next few days were a blur. I drained our savings paying the lawyer and court costs. My husband, when I finally asked him what he wanted, said he couldn’t stay in our town. I took $500 from our checking account for his plane ticket to San Francisco, feeling it was the least I could do to make up for having misunderstood him for so long. But that left only $50 for me to make it to the end of the month.
That’s what I was thinking about as I drove to work the second week of June. The idea of going back to school seemed impossible, scholarship or not. The loneliness and the idea of managing on my own income made me wish, for a moment, that I had my mother’s kind of life. I pulled into a parking place at work, got out, and went in to find my desk.
And there it was. Sitting on my desk was that Tupperware container. I opened it to find, of course, Spam pie. And the note inside, in perfect calligraphy, said:
Two Bedroom House
Rent to be Paid in Companionship Only
See Rita in Claims Department
And so I entered the House of Rita, with Rita’s Rules. It was a tiny two-bedroom brick with a bathroom too small for us both to turn around in, especially if the two cats were underfoot. The kitchen stove was ancient, but it worked and Rita had scrubbed it to an antiseptic clean. The countertops were made of some softish black material that turned a washcloth dark when you cleaned them, but we made them work. In the evenings after work, we shared cooking and watched T.V. together, but we didn’t talk at the office because Rita said “Nobody there needs to know our business.” On weekends, Rita went out, but said I couldn’t go with her because she said I was a “good girl.” And though she often stayed out overnight, she never brought men home. No men allowed.
Except for—and this was what finally shocked me—my cousin Fred. He started coming over on Sunday afternoons to mow the postage-stamp-sized yard, and then kept hanging around until Rita invited him to supper. Then he eased into Wednesday nights, showing up in his accountant clothes, bearing ice cream and asking if we had any dinner to go with dessert. I thought she was just putting up with him because of me until I overhead them talking on the phone one night, her calling him Freddy Bear in a tone that would make my mother arch her left eyebrow. I asked Rita about it.
“So are you and Fred are—involved?”
“Maybe. Probably. He’s a great guy, ” she said with that misted-over look in her eyes that women have when they’re falling in love, and that other women recognize in a heartbeat.
My antennas went up. I had never, ever, heard Rita talk about a man that way. It seemed fraught with danger. Two people that I cared about so much but who were both so damaged—this could not end well. I proceeded with caution.
“Umm—is this a good idea? I mean, there’s really not much room here for another cat.”
“Don’t worry, honey,” she said with a sound that started as a laugh but ended as a sigh. “He’s shooting blanks. He thinks it’s the Agent Orange that did it, that stuff that they used in Viet Nam to kill the plants so that they could see to bomb things better. He may have scattered some seed while he was over there, but he’s plumb out now.”
I wept a little then, for both of them. For all three of us, for all our losses. Rita kept embroidering– something colorful, with flowers.
By the beginning of August, Rita and Fred were entrenched. Most nights he stayed over, and I could hear them from the living room, making love in long, hungry strokes or talking with an earnest intensity that seemed even more intimate. Either way, I felt like a voyeur, watching a private ceremony through a keyhole. I knew I needed to move out, but I didn’t know how I could make it happen or how to bring it up.
But as usual, Rita did it for me. At the dinner table one night, she said, “Honey, I’m afraid we’re going to have to find another place for you. We’re going to need your bedroom.”
My heart sank. I guess I worried as much about Rita getting pregnant as the wardens at the home had.
But Rita was handing an envelope to me. It was large and worn at the flap and clasp from so many openings and closing. I pulled out two pieces of cardboard, with a photograph nestled between them. It was a little girl, about 3 or 4 years old, with tawny skin and dark eyes. The sun was shining from over her right shoulder, showing faint streaks of auburn in her dark hair. On her left side, in the shadow, there was a puffy, pale patch about the size of a silver dollar over her cheekbone.
I looked at Fred. “Yours?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “But she needs to be somebody’s. I’ve been working with the orphanage in Viet Nam for a year and a half, and now she’s coming here. And she’s going to be ours.” He looked at the picture and then at Rita with so much adoration it made my chest hurt.
“Her name is Linh. L-I-N-H. It means ‘soul’.”
“She’s beautiful,” I said. Because of course she was.
Rita was elbowing Fred. He was fumbling around in his pockets, and then he pulled out a check. It was made out to me, in the amount of $500.
“The army came through with some compensation for my injuries,” he said. “We want you to go to school.” And that was that. In that one moment, they had handed me a future. By sending me away, they were giving me the space I needed to finally, really grow up. It was my turn. I could spend the next few weeks packing up my things, visiting the family I grew up in, and helping Rita paint my room to prepare for the new life to be lived there.
The last time I saw Rita, she was standing on the porch of that little house. My car was loaded up with everything I owned, and they were seeing me off to college. Rita wore striped hot pants with a green top, her blonde hair up in a topknot. Fred was wearing his turquoise rings and tie-dyed t-shirt, and between them Linh had on the bright summer dress with the flowers Rita had embroidered all over it. Linh’s hair was blowing over her face as the adults shaded theirs with their hands. As I backed out of the driveway, they all waved at me, smiling, with none of their scars showing.