Teo and Jeff were driving through rainy Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on their way from Wisconsin to Texas, when Jeff got even more feverish. They stopped at a hospital called Reid Memorial, where the examining doctor thought Jeff might have spinal meningitis. The hospital admitted Jeff, then set Teo up in a separate room. Teo didn’t realize right away, because no one came out and said it, but he was under a sort of quarantine—or, at least, they expected him to stay put until they knew what was what.

Even before the fever, it hadn’t been a great trip. Teo had left the gas cap on top of the car at a filling station outside Rockford, Illinois, and Jeff had worried aloud so much about whether it was safe to drive without one that Teo had snapped, saying if Jeff’s Taurus caught a spark and exploded, he’d buy him a new one in the afterlife. Then they’d pulled off the interstate into what they’d thought was a gas-and-food plaza until a guard in a uniform shouted that they were outside a state penitentiary—sure enough, a few skinny dudes in orange jumpsuits stood just feet away. It should have been a funny story to repeat and embellish—maybe a good scene for Teo’s screenplay—but they were both quiet and cross after. At some point they’d realized they didn’t enjoy each other’s company nearly as much as they had back in Madison, where they would race pallet trucks after hours at the printshop and page dirty names over the intercom.

Reid Memorial was slated to be closed within the month, and it was already emptying out: whole wards vacant, corridors unlit, everything eerie and still. The room where they stashed Teo had four beds, but he was the only one there—until Sheila appeared, dumping her purse and umbrella on a mattress and ignoring Teo’s warnings that he was maybe, possibly, contagious.

Sheila was skinny and slight and wide-eyed. She had flat red hair with a tuft of gray over her right temple, though she wasn’t much older than Teo, in her mid-twenties perhaps. A small hearing aid looped around her right ear, but she didn’t seem to have any trouble hearing when Teo asked why she was there. She answered tersely that she’d just gotten off work in the commissary and was waiting for her roommate to pick her up.

Teo was grateful for the company. It had been a hard day on the road, and an awful month before that. Last week he’d broken up for good with his fiancée, Amanda. The week before, he’d tanked the CPA exam once again, done so badly that his parents had even backed off on their insistence that he keep trying. And while it was a relief not to have that pressure, it wasn’t pleasant to hear the lowered expectations in his father’s uh-huhs during their phone calls. After all this, Jeff had said he knew a guy in Texas who could set them up with pile-driving jobs that paid twice what they made at the printshop. Teo had seen no reason not to go.

But now he was in this dying hospital in Arkansas, sharing a room with this unhappy stranger. For the first hour Sheila went to make pay-phone calls every few minutes, coming back madder each time, glowering and grinding her gum. After that she lay on the bed in her raincoat, her dirty shoes on the clean linens. For a while he thought she was sleeping. Then she sat up again.

“Sorry, I don’t feel like talking,” she said in the same buzzing accent he’d heard at the last couple of gas stations. “I’ve had my fill of talking for today.” But then she kept on, telling him how she’d just finished another of those terrible shifts where she would have given a week’s pay not to smile at another stupid person and answer questions that would answer themselves if people just bothered to think. And now, the topper, she was stuck here making conversation with some guy she didn’t even know.

Teo tried to sympathize, even though he was the guy she was complaining about; even though there seemed no good reason for her to wait in his room rather than any of the other empty rooms along the corridor. He’d seldom met anyone as displeased with the world as himself, but Sheila’s list of annoyances was impressive. They shared many: both hated pretty much everything on TV, Beverly Hills, 90210 and Home Improvement and the rest; both hated “Achy Breaky Heart” and “I Will Always Love You” and all that other shit on the radio; both hated Slick Willie and the last guy, too; both hated their jobs, of course. Teo told Sheila how sometimes, riding his bike over the bridge to the printshop in the eye-watering morning brightness, the traffic roaring around him, he already felt filled up, as if by eight in the morning he couldn’t absorb another sight or sound. Sheila nodded hard, said she’d felt that way, too, that during a long shift her brain felt like a hot engine running without oil.

Excited they had so much in common, she clutched her bedsheet and asked Teo if he ever, late at night, saw outlines around people, rays of blue and orange just out of sight. Teo said he hadn’t, but after he’d been driving for twelve hours, his eyes sometimes saw phantom road signs and mile markers still floating past. She ignored this and described the shapes and hues of her visions until he began to wonder if she was perhaps a little nuts.

The empty ward was scary. The flickering fluorescent lights made Teo think of autopsies, and he heard the occasional muffled noise that might have been an old furnace, though in the stillness it sounded more like some large mammal baying in the distance. No one came by, no night nurses or orderlies. They seemed to be well outside the part of the hospital where anything still happened.

Sheila sat on Teo’s bed and talked about the people she hated: Her mother. Her aunts. Her idiot coworkers, of course. Her cousins, whom she despised for so many reasons she couldn’t even get started. But she kept returning to her roommate, the one she was waiting on to pick her up, who sang “Lollipop” to her gross cat; who stole food and never did any dishes and kept musty washcloths folded on the bathroom counter; who knocked on Sheila’s door late at night, saying she had a secret, and the secret was always some new guy. It all made Sheila sick—literally sick to her stomach.

Sheila must not have minded that Teo possibly had meningitis, because she asked him, still sounding grumpy, if he wanted to kiss her. Though thrown at first, he agreed. Sheila’s lips were dry, and she dug her fingernails into his arms and wiggled her tongue against his palate so it felt like kissing an adder. Still, it was strangely enjoyable. Teo might have been agreeable to going further, even in this eerie place, but they stopped there.

He dozed for a while after, and when he woke, Sheila was in the bed across from his, sitting up straight and watching the dawn light creep in.

Later that morning Jeff was discharged with no meningitis, just an ear infection that was already clearing up. At their reunion in the lobby, Teo proposed that Jeff go the rest of the way to Texas on his own. Jeff looked at Sheila, scowling over Teo’s shoulder, but he didn’t ask any questions.

So Jeff left for Beaumont, and Teo and Sheila headed in a cab back to her place.


Sheila’s key wouldn’t work in the lock. As she banged on the door, Teo wondered if this was even her apartment. Finally the roommate, wearing a bathrobe, let them in, and she and Sheila had a testy exchange. The roommate was plump with a faint moustache. She had a guy in her bedroom, and she hurried back to him while Sheila hauled Teo by the hand to her own small room, past old Disney posters and battered wicker furniture.

They had to listen to the roommate and her guy fucking for what felt like forever. It was funny at first, then not. The guy kept shouting things like “I ain’t done with you yet!” while the roommate yipped like a schnauzer. Sheila pressed a pillow over her ears, moaning that she was going to have to move again. As soon as the roommate and her swain left for work, Teo and Sheila both fell asleep hard on her narrow bed and didn’t wake until noon.

The rain had stopped, and they kissed again for a time until Sheila sniffed and made a face. Teo asked if he should shower, and she agreed it was a good idea. Standing beneath a trickle in the grimy stall didn’t leave him feeling much cleaner. Low water pressure was what Teo hated most about cheap apartments, and the reason he’d promised himself, in more optimistic days, that someday he’d be done with cheap apartments forever.

After Teo’s shower, they kissed on the bed before Sheila sat back, rebuttoned her blouse, and reapplied her lip gloss with a kind of finality. “Well, you’re stuck in Pine Bluff now,” she said. “Like the rest of us.” She laughed.

Teo was disappointed. He’d imagined they were going to do more than kiss after he’d spent a morning pressed up against Sheila’s skinny haunches in her narrow bed. Maybe her disgust over her roommate’s activities hadn’t been just about the tackiness. Maybe Sheila just wasn’t particularly interested in sex.

She took out a thick photo album bound in what looked like denim, opened it across her lap, and paged through. It was filled with photos of birdbaths and bulldozers and desolate views of backyards or industrial lots. Many were out of focus. Teo asked if she’d taken them, and Sheila made a duh face. When he said they reminded him of Russian movies, she scowled.

“I don’t watch movies,” she muttered and slapped the album shut. Teo was disappointed again. He would have liked to compare notes, maybe talk about his screenplay-in-progress. While he tried to make conversation, Sheila went to smoke by the open window. He noticed her hearing aid lying on the bedside table like a pink mollusk, and he asked her about it.

“I don’t need to wear it all the time,” she said a little fiercely, grabbing the aid and looping it around her ear. “It’s just this one.” She flicked her right earlobe. “When I was in sixth grade, Mama was rushing me to get ready for church. She pulled my sweater down over my head and didn’t see I had a Q-tip sticking out my ear.”

“Jesus.” Teo reflexively cupped his own right ear.

“It punched right in, and I went down flat. That’s what it does to you when that happens. I couldn’t even stand.”


“I still get vertigo sometimes when I have a bad cold. Like gravity goes away. No up or down.” Her eyes went dim. “I had to go to the hospital for it and have some surgeries. Mama told them I’d done it to myself.” Sheila laughed.

“That’s awful.”

“No, I get it. She couldn’t say it was her that done it, because they would’ve been all over that, wouldn’t they?”

“It was an accident. I think they would’ve understood.”

“Maybe where you’re from,” Sheila said, regarding him with something like pity.

To change the subject, but also because he’d realized how famished he was, he asked if she had anything to eat.

They wandered into the kitchen, where the sink was heaped with unwashed dishes. “There’s nothing in there,” Sheila said, motioning to the fridge. “She kept eating my stuff, so I stopped buying groceries.”

“Is there anywhere we can walk to?” Teo asked. “A store or a restaurant or . . .”

“I mean, if you have to eat.” That pitying look again. “There’s usually something stashed away in there,” she said, pointing to the roommate’s bedroom.

The gnawing in his gut was urgent enough that he ventured in. A row of stuffed animals sat along the window ledge, and what looked like a prom dress covered in plastic hung from a bare curtain rod. Sure enough he found a bag of French-onion chips and a sleeve of fudge-covered grahams in the bedside table; also half a loaf of white bread and a jar of jelly in the closet. He brought it all to the kitchen table and dug in. He knew Sheila would be blamed for the missing food, but she watched without concern, refusing his offer of a bite. In no time he’d scarfed down almost everything and felt hot and sick.

“I’ll leave her some money for this,” he said, belching, leaning back in his chair.

“I can’t believe you ate it all.” Sheila laughed and laid a palm on his stomach. “God, I can feel it: like a snake that swallowed a baby goat.”

Teo crumpled the food wrappers into a wad, which he tried to stuff into the overflowing kitchen trash can. He thought again about the waste of it all—this whole stupid trip, whatever he had hoped to find in Texas. “I can’t get the lid closed,” he said, pressing on it with both palms. Only when Sheila added her meager weight did it click shut. “You might want to clean all this up.”

“Well, she won’t wash them when it’s her turn. So why should I?”

He’d also endured such stupid standoffs, which was one reason he’d promised himself: no more roommates with their bothersome bullshit. “I’m just saying it’s only going to get worse,” he said. “I’ll help if you want.”

“Doesn’t bother me.”

“You’re going to get bugs or rats. You might even get sick.”

“God,” Sheila said, sighing. “Why are these the things we worry about?”


“Rooms for bodies. Food for bodies. Rooms for the food. Furniture for the rooms. Jobs for the money to pay for all that stuff.” Sheila grimaced. “It takes all our fucking time. All our energy. Why do we even have bodies?”

Though this approximated one of the philosophical questions he’d learned about in his world-religions elective, he’d never heard anyone put it quite like that. Teo didn’t offer his opinion that having a body could be enjoyable sometimes. He could see in her searing eyes she didn’t want to hear it.

“I mean, why do we have to spend all our time on this shit,” Sheila went on, “instead of what we should be spending it on?” Teo waited to hear what that was, but she gave no examples, her face twisting in frustration. Teo was disappointed again—he would have liked to know. This brought more guilty thoughts about his neglected screenplay, how each week he pledged to finish the draft at least, but was always too tired from work, too hungover from the bar.

Sheila went to the bathroom, where the faucet ran for a long while, the old pipes rattling. Teo checked his watch: 1:30 PM. He could feel, along with the sugar crash, a more desolate weariness coming on. He couldn’t remember what vague hopes had led him here.

He found a phone book buried under some old pizza boxes and called Greyhound, meaning to ask about buses to Texas, but instead he asked about northbound destinations. A bus was leaving for Chicago in an hour. He was copying down the information when he saw her watching from the doorway.

“Hey,” Teo said. “So I’m thinking I might just—”

“It’s that way,” Sheila said, pointing somewhere between the cupboards and fridge, smirking in a way he didn’t like.


“The mall where the buses come. Just walk that way and keep going. You’ll get there.”

“Thanks. Sorry, I just was thinking it’s getting on, and—”

“No, it’s good. You don’t want to stay around here. There’s nothing here.”

If she were a normal person like Amanda, Teo might have taken this as a passive-aggressive attempt to guilt him into staying, but Sheila’s eyes said otherwise.

Before he left Sheila’s apartment, Teo scribbled his name and number on a gas-station receipt. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe because it would have felt rude not to. Maybe because it made the prospect of heading back by himself feel less lonely.


One night, after Teo had gotten back to Madison, he drank a few beers and built up the nerve to phone Amanda, but she had already “moved on,” she said with clear pleasure. And though Teo’s boss at the printshop had offered to hold his job for him, in case things didn’t work out in Texas, he hadn’t. Jeff, meanwhile, had gotten his old job back. He must have driven directly north from Reid Memorial to beat Teo there.

Teo mostly laughed it off. So typical. He even thought Sheila might have enjoyed hearing about these new developments, how they’d support her worldview. But he had little time to dwell on it while out looking for jobs in the too-bright morning sun, getting lost in office buildings and industrial parks, stopping for a beer at day’s end, then heading back to his apartment with its musty carpet and noisy pipes.

Finally he pulled out his CPA-exam prep books, studded with post-its. Looking at their dog-eared covers made him want to cry. He was lucky to have the opportunity, he reminded himself. Not everyone did. He called his parents, who, though wary, seemed pleased by his change of heart. His dad even offered to send money. Instead of making some show of pride, Teo just accepted it for once. Hearing the guarded optimism in the old man’s voice, he began to feel a little of his own.


He never expected her to call.

But, about a month after he’d returned north, Sheila did call. And she kept calling, often in the middle of the night. She never greeted him, just launched into a diatribe about some awful new job—a cashier at a car wash, a sunglass vendor in a mall kiosk—or some unbearable new roommate. She always reached the same conclusions about life. Then the calls got stranger. Sheila seemed to think they’d talked about topics they hadn’t, about people he didn’t know and events he hadn’t witnessed, even dreams she hadn’t told him about. It often felt like he was picking up in the middle of a conversation where he’d missed the first half.

One call started off on an uncharacteristically sentimental note, with Sheila sighing about the day they’d met at an old antique mall in Little Rock. Teo laughed and said she must have him mixed up with somebody else; they’d met at Reid Memorial Hospital, staying overnight in the same empty room.

She cut him off with a huff. “What are you talking about? It was Plum Antiques. Up in Crystal Hill.” Sheila detailed the things they’d bought and almost bought, insisting with such ferocity that Teo began to doubt his own memories.

He repeated feebly that he’d never been to Little Rock.

“Wow,” she sighed. “Never took you for one of them.”

“One of what?”

“You know.” She laughed acidly. “One of those fuck-’em-and-forget-’em types.”

“Uh, I think I would’ve remembered that. We kissed a little. That was all.”

He heard the sound of Sheila’s rapid breathing. “Well, I don’t know why you would lie about something like that.” She sounded more wounded than angry, which was unusual for her. Before he could say anything more, she hung up.

It was the last time she called—or, at least, the last time he answered. There were a few times when his phone rang late, and he guessed it was her and never picked up.


When Teo moved to a new apartment with a new phone number, he felt bad that Sheila wouldn’t be able to reach him. She’d never given him her number, and he’d never asked. He imagined Sheila phoning from some shitty new apartment with some shitty new roommate, eager to gossip about people he didn’t know or to reminisce about imaginary events, and hearing the disconnection notice.

But so what? With his temp jobs and the money his parents kept sending, Teo had gotten an apartment with faucets that ran hard and pure, with a shower that wasn’t layered with decades of crud. He was through with shitty apartments, he told himself, and through with being nice to people who weren’t nice back. People who weren’t concerned about themselves. People with endless complaints but no plans.

When he ran into Jeff, printshop grease under his nails, Teo took some pleasure in telling him offhandedly that he’d passed his CPA exam and was weighing job offers. Later, after he’d started work at the firm, he ran into Amanda at a mutual friend’s birthday. Instead of telling her he’d been too busy working to date, he told her a lie about his recent engagement to a woman he’d met down south, guiltily enjoying the twinge in Amanda’s brow.

It bothered him a bit that the only person who might appreciate these petty triumphs was unreachable. He did try calling information, but Sheila’s surname was too common. It was best to let her live her life, he figured, and not bother her with updates from his. Anyway, he was fairly certain she would disapprove of all his new accomplishments.

Like the time he got invited to the Woodland Hills home of his new boss, Don. Before dinner, Don’s wife gave the guests a tour of their place. Teo tried not to gawk at the immaculate kitchen, the pool and spa, and the many bathrooms, including the one that had been taken over by their cats and the one Don used only to change into his squash clothes. They passed offices and the wife’s meditation studio and the room for Don’s guitars and “fun stuff.”

Teo was perplexed by this description, as Don appeared joyless at work. Even now he looked burdened, pacing the room, ignoring his guests. Teo vowed he wouldn’t become like that. If he ever had the good fortune to wind up in a house like this, he would savor it—every carpeted inch. But then he heard Sheila’s voice saying with equal certainty that he’d become just as sick of it all.

While washing dishes, grocery shopping, or trying to fall asleep, Teo found himself talking to Sheila in his head. Sometimes he imagined they had lived a version of events like the one she’d described in her last call: a chance meeting, a few sweet days together, a tearful goodbye. It was better than his actual memory. Sometimes he wondered what it would have been like to stay longer with Sheila in that apartment in Pine Bluff: to clean the place up, to work on his screenplay while she worked on her photography, to make love in her little bedroom. But then he imagined her sighing impatiently or staring past his shoulder at the ceiling.

Teo began having mental arguments with Sheila, determined to prove her wrong and to help her see beyond her cynicism. What was so wrong, he might ask her, with bodies and their needs? What’s the problem if that’s what drives us? We’re embodied creatures. Isn’t it possible that we are our bodies? To suggest otherwise is a luxury of saints or hypocrites. What’s wrong with bodily comfort if it comforts us? With bodily pleasure if it pleases us? With celebrating the material in a material life?

Though these arguments were convincing to Teo, the Sheila of his imagination kept scowling. No matter how eloquently he made his point, she wouldn’t agree, wouldn’t budge. She just sat there unmoved, skinny arms crossed, the way he’d first seen her in that hospital room. Like she wasn’t impressed by his fancy sentiments. Like she was having none of it. Absolutely, positively none.