The Arrangement – Robyn Harding

The Йrst thing Nat noticed when she awoke was the taste in her mouth: metallic, burnt, chemical. Jesus . What had she drunk last night? The pounding in her head answered: too much. She reached for the glass of water sitting on the floor next to her mattress. The tepid liquid soothed her parched throat but made her stomach churn and roll. She Мopped back down, willing the nausea to abate. She didn’t want to vomit into her overМowing wastebasket. And she didn’t want to stumble through the apartment to the tiny bathroom she shared with her two roommates. Her insides were just starting to settle when she noticed Miguel, sprawled on his back, snoring softly beside her. Shit. Nat must have been really wasted to have brought her coworker home. Again. She had made a vow not to hook up with Miguel anymore.

Not because he wasn’t sweet, and funny, and hot—he was. But he was also a little in love with her, and she didn’t want that to turn into a lot in love with her. They were just twenty-one, both students who worked at the same bar. A relationship with Miguel would be complicated, was bound to get messy. Nat had already been involved in one toxic, twisted, ultimately catastrophic relationship. She wasn’t going to do complicated and messy again. She lay there, for a moment, observing her sleeping partner. Next to Miguel’s warm, brown back, Nat’s naked body looked Йsh-belly pale. Her father’s Gaelic genes, the dismal winter weather, and her poor diet were to blame. When Nat was properly nourished and getting adequate sunshine, her skin was peaches and cream, in pleasing contrast to her thick dark hair. When she was perpetually bundled in a winter coat, hat, and scarf, subsisting on packaged ramen and frozen pierogies, her pallor became ghostly, her hair a Мat, mousy brown. She needed sunshine, citrus fruit, and protein.

But Mother Nature, and her bank account, were conspiring against her. The third thing she noticed that morning—after the toxic taste in her mouth, the pounding in her head, and the bartender in her bed—was the noise from the kitchen. A cupboard door banged aggressively. Pots and pans crashed together as they were dropped into the sink. Her roommates were pissed about something and were relaying it in their usual passive-aggressive manner. “I’m so fucking over this.” The muЖed voice belonged to Mara, an angular, ginger-haired NYU student. She was getting her master’s in economics. Or was it political science? Something dry, dull, cerebral—at least to an art student like Nat. Mara was intense and easily irritated and borderline OCD.

What normal college student organized her canned goods by expiration date? Cleaned the fridge and sink twice a week with a bleach solution? Carried her toiletries back and forth from her bedroom to the bathroom, because, if left there, they’d be contaminated, with . what? Mildew? Urine? Feces? “You were right,” Toni grumbled, loud enough for Nat to hear, “we shouldn’t have letan artist move in with us.” The jab smarted. Toni and Nat had been friendly when Nat Йrst rented the spare room in the Bushwick apartment, a couple years ago. Unlike Mara, Toni was funny, messy, normal. Nat had felt an instantaffinity for the girl with the bright smile, dark skin, and thick mass of braided hair. The pair had stayed up late drinking wine on a few occasions, had bonded over their love of salacious reality television and their adulation of Mariah Carey. But they’d grown apart recently. Toni was a fourth-year nursing student now, who kept long and grueling hours. Apparently, she no longer had time for trash TV.

Or a sense of humor. There wasanother bang, a jar being slammed onto the countertop, and more cursing from one of the roomies. Nat knew she had to get up, had to apologize, had to make things right. The rent for her tiny bedroom in the rundown apartment was straining her budget, and she was already on unoГcial probation after breaking Mara’s Crock-Pot. A note had been slipped under her door after she’d attempted to cook a frozen pot roastand cracked the ceramic vessel. If you can’t respect my appliances and use them as per instructions, I’m going to have to reconsider your tenancy. Mara’s name was on the lease, which gave her the power to choose her roommates. It was obvious she wanted rid of the messy, hard-partying art student in the third bedroom. Nat wasn’t even sure what she had done to anger them this time, but she hoped it wouldn’t constitute a second strike. Her Bushwick home was aАordable (just), safe (relatively), and accessible (forty-two minutes by subway) to the Manhattan campus of the School of Visual Arts.

Nat had to get out there and kiss some roommate ass. Ignoring her throbbing head and roiling belly, she dragged herself out of bed. Miguel didn’t stir. How could he sleep through the ruckus? Nat’s yellowing terry-cloth robe hung from a hook on the door, and she grabbed it, wrapping the musty garment around her. She noted then that she was still wearing panties. Maybe she and Miguel hadn’t had sex? She felt disgusted with herself for not remembering. The night’s events were hazy, blurry, jumbled. She’d gone to her job at Donnelly’s bar after her illustration class. Her lover had slipped her a few shots of vodka to get her through her waitressing shift. After closing, they’d shared a bottle of wine, and maybe a few Paralyzers.

Or had they been White Russians? She definitely had to cut back on her drinking. She stumbled into the kitchen and spotted the oАending mess. A couple of pots were stacked in the sink. An open jar of tomato sauce, its contents dripping down the side, sat in a red ring on the table. It came to her in a Мash of remembrance: pasta. She and Miguel had been hungry when they got home. Nat had made them rigatoni with jarred marinara. They’d sat at the tiny kitchen table and ate. And then Miguel was touching her, and kissing her, and they’d ended up in bed. Clearly, they had not halted their foreplay to wash the dishes.

“Sorry, guys. I’ll clean this up.” Mara whirled around, her ubiquitous bleach spray in hand. “You should have cleaned up last night.” “I know. I screwed up.” Toni, pouring coАee from a French press into a chipped mug, didn’t look up. “If you’re hungry at four A.M., go to a diner.

” Nat remembered Miguel’s suggestion to that eАect. But she barely had enough money to cover her next tuition installment, and it wasn’t looking good for her rent. Even a burger would have broken the budget. Miguel would have paid, she knew, but his Йnances had to be tight, too. She hadn’t wanted to feel beholden to him, so she had offered to cook. And then, they’d ended up in bed. “Toni and I aren’t comfortable with all the guys you’ve been bringing home,” Mara said, attacking the tomato sauce on the table as if she were cleaning up a chemical spill. Nat felt her cheeks Мush, a combination of humiliation and anger. All the guys? She could count on one hand the number of men she’d brought home since she’d been living there. Nat was not promiscuous; she was twenty-one.

And her roommates weren’t exactly virgins. Mara had had a Мing with one of her TAs just last year. And Toni used to have noisy sex with a hot computer science student, back when she drank wine and watched The Bachelor, and laughed, on occasion. Both her roommates needed to lighten up, probably needed to get laid. Nat kept her voice calm. “I don’t bring home many guys.” Toni smirked. “Really? Isn’t there a guy in your bed right now?” “No,” Nat lied. “We heard his voice last night,” Mara sniped. “It’s not what you think,” Nat retorted.

“A friend from work walked me home. Friday nights are crazy at the bar, and we were hungry and exhausted, I made us some pasta and invited him to crash.” It might have been true. She was still wearing her panties, after all. She watched the other women exchange a look. Was it doubt? Skepticism? Or guilt? Yes, that’s what it was. They felt bad for accusing her when they didn’t have all the facts. Nat hammered the nail in. “I’d appreciate not being slut-shamed when I was only helping outa colleague.” “Sorry,” mumbled Toni, dunking her lips into her coffee.

Mara kept scrubbing, probably formulating an articulate apology. That’s when Miguel walked into the kitchen—rumpled from sleep, hungover, handsome. And stark naked. “Iseverything okay out here?” he said, hands inadequately covering his crotch. “I heard banging. ” Nat observed the expression on her roommates’ faces. This time, it could not be misconstrued. Validation. And disapproval. 2 The Commute On Monday, Nat took the subway into Manhattan.

Outside, it was a brisk February morning, but the press of bodies in the car precipitated a drastic rise in temperature. She unfurled the fuzzy gray scarf from around her neck and lowered the zipper on her thrift-store wool coat. She kept her knitted gloves on. Public transit was crawling with germs. The L train from JeАerson Street station took her directly into Manhattan, to Third Avenue and Fourteenth Street, just a ten-minute walk from the School of Visual Art’s main campus. The train was packed, as was the norm when she had morning classes. Nat was lucky to get a seat, even if she was wedged between an overweight guy who smelled like salami and a kid whose music was so loud she could hear every word of the rap song he was listening to through his headphones. She kept her eyes on the Мoor—the big guy next to her precluded her digging her phone out of her coat pocket—her gaze blank. Locals didn’t gawk at the colorful cast of characters sharing their morning commute. More than two years in the city, and it still gave her a little thrill to think of herself that way.

As a local. A New Yorker. Not many kids from Blaine, Washington, made it all the way to New York City. To Seattle, sure. Some adventurous types might get as far as San Francisco. But Nat had outdone them all. She was ten the Йrst time she realized she was destined to outgrow her hometown. The community of roughly Йve thousand people abutting the Canadian border on a briny stretch of the PaciЙc was quaint, picturesque, comfortable. It had a seedy side, too, a kind of darkness, a toughness peculiar to the region. But it was too provincial, too constricting for an artistic soul; she knew it even then.

Her father must have had a similar revelation, because that’s when he walked out on Nat and her mom. It had been a difficult marriage, and Andrew Murphy wasa hard man to love. He was prone to angry outbursts, long silences, critical diatribes (he would later blame his undiagnosed depression). Nat and her mother had wept when he stormed out, never to return. But it was his rejection, more than his absence, that hurt. It didn’t take long for them to realize they were better off without him. While Nat resented her father’s desertion, she also envied it. Her dad had been restless, bored, and unhappy, so he had packed up and left his wife and only child. He’d gone to work as a pit boss in a big Мashy casino. Did the glitz of Las Vegas provide the stimulation he’d missed in Blaine? The excitement his wife and young daughter couldn’t provide? Nat wasangry at him; she hated him.

But this didn’t stop her fantasizing abouta life with him in Sin City. They would live in a small apartment just oА the strip. At night, when her dad worked, she’d wander the neon city, a girl alone under the lights. She’d meet blackjack dealers and showgirls, acrobats and maЙosos. In her fantasies, her dad was a peripheral character. Natalie was eАectively an orphan; a debauched Pippi Longstocking. But Nat was not as selЙsh as her father. She could not abandon her mom . though she needn’t have worried about Allana Murphy. The woman was blond and beautiful, only thirty-Йve when her husband left her.

The suitors were at the door as soon as word got out. (The dating pool was small but active in a town that size.) Her mom had a handful of boyfriends over the next couple of years, no one to whom Nat had gotten attached. And then, when Natalie was thirteen, her mom married Derek Heppner. He was a big man, a builder, with a reddish-blond beard that made him look like a Viking. He adored her mother, and had seemed fond of Natalie, at Йrst. But then everything changed, and Nat knew she could leave. Knew she had to leave. Salami-guy got oА at Bedford Avenue, his vacated seat quickly taken by a hipster who emanated a distinctly foresty fragrance. Nat was grateful her new neighbor didn’t smell like cold cuts, but she may have been allergic to his beard oil.

She wrinkled her nose in an effort to stave offa sneeze. No matter how uncomfortable her commute, how tight her budget, or how lonely she sometimes felt in the giant, anonymous city, Nat never regretted her cross-country move. Living in New York wasn’t supposed to be easy. It was hard, but it was worth it. Especially for an artist, like Natalie. She fed oА the creativity running rampant through these hallowed streets, drawing inspiration from the artists who came before her. The city nourished her soul, stimulated her mind, Йlled her entire body with a humming, vibrating, energy. New York meant possibility. Her life, had she stayed in Blaine, was easy to imagine. She would have gone to a nearby college and studied something practical: accounting, or marketing, maybe.

She’d have gotten a job ata bank, or in an oГce, or at the duty-free store. Her sketching would have been relegated to a hobby until life got too busy and she gave it up all together. She would have married Cole, her handsome high school boyfriend, and had a couple of kids before she was thirty. They would have settled into a small but comfortable home, purchased with a down payment provided by Cole’s parents, who owned several Йshing boatsand a mail company servicing Canadians who wanted to avoid cross-border shipping fees. And then . and then what? Would Cole Doberinsky have been a domineering husband, dictating her clothes, her hobbies, her friends? He was the only child of wealthy parents; he was used to having things his way. When they’d dated, Nat had seen glimmers of a controlling nature. He texted her constantly, required instant responses. He needed to know where she was and who she was with. What she was doing, thinking, feeling .

But she had never considered him obsessive, had not considered him dangerous. Until he broke into her house. She suddenly felt queasy, but it was not motion sickness, nota reaction to the abundance of fragrances wafting around her. It was the memory of Cole and that night, shortly after she’d articulated her plans to leave Blaine, that turned her stomach. He’d been hurt and angry when she ended it. She’d regret this, he’d said. After all, he came from money, a stable home, had been accepted into a nearby business school. Nat was the product of a messy divorce, a low-income upbringing, was heading down a dead-end career path. He’d been mean and condescending. But she could never have predicted what he had done.

Cole had broken a basement window and squeezed himself inside her family’s darkened home. He had crept toward Nat’s upstairs bedroom (across the hall from her toddler brother and sister; her mom and Derek slept on the main Мoor). What would have happened if her stepfather hadn’t woken up, hadn’t intercepted the younger man, hadn’t beaten him until he was barely conscious before realizing he knew the culprit? Would Cole have harmed her? Her young half siblings? Himself? “I just wanted to be close to her. I just wanted to watch her sleep, one last time.” That’s what Cole told the cops who arrived that night. Like it was totally harmless, totally normal. He was drunk and maudlin and sloppy. The oГcers seemed to pity him, brushed his actions oА as puppy love gone awry. But they hadn’t seen the way Cole looked at her as he was placed in the back of the squad car. He hated her.

She could see it in his eyes, feel it emanating from him in palpable waves of animosity. Would Cole have placidly watched her slumber? Or would he have grabbed a pillow and held it over her face? As always, the memory elicited a muddle of emotions in Nat: guilt (she’d endangered her family, her mother’s new perfect children); fear (was Cole still obsessed? Would he harass her again if only he could Йnd her?); anger. At Cole Doberinsky. And at herself. How had she not seen how needy he was? How unstable? Cole had told her he loved her, that he couldn’t live without her, but he’d only wanted to possess her. To keep her down. To hold her back. They didn’t press charges. It would have been scandalous in their small town. Cole’s family was wealthy, inМuential, well-liked.

Nat’s family could not take them on. And Cole was now “back to his old self,” her mother had informed in one of her e-mails. She and her mom didn’t talk about the incident; didn’t talk much at all, come to that. For a few years, Nat had been the only child of a single mother; more than just a daughter then. She’d been a friend, a conЙdante, a shoulder to cry on . But Derek Йlled those roles now. Her mom was too busy being a part-time real estate agent, a devoted wife, and mother of two adorable towheaded children, to focus on the daughter from her disastrous Йrst union. Nat had been resentful, at Йrst, but no longer. At twenty-one, she was Йne with the long silences punctuated by newsy e-mails (Astrid scored a goal in soccer! Oliver will play a squirrel in the school play!), the obligatory birthday cards containing professional photos of her half siblings frolicking in a hayfield. Her mom’s missives were just reminders of the life she’d gladly left behind.

The train eased into the Third Avenue station, and Nat and several fellow passengers moved toward the exit. This was her life now: one small drop in an ocean of people carving out a life in the world’s greatest city. Anything could happen in New York. Sure, thatanything might be a mugging or a terrorist attack (thanks for pointing that out, Derek, moments before she boarded the plane). But the scariest thing that had ever happened to her was as she lay in her own bed, under her parents’ roof, in sleepy Blaine, Washington. Nat would take her chances. It was her high school art teacher who had urged her to apply to the School of Visual Arts. Ms. Nguyen had conЙdence in Nat’s artistic talent. The teacher had helped with her portfolio, had pressured her to Йll out a multitude of scholarship applications.

(Tuition was outrageous, Derek had said. They would not/could not pay.) To Nat’s delight, she’d been accepted into the faculty of illustration. (She and Ms. Nguyen considered it the most practical of the streams. Still, highly impractical, according to her stepfather.) She’d received a school bursary and a partial scholarship that would cover a signiЙcant chunk of her tuition. She’d deferred acceptance for a year to work full-time at a Greek restaurant to pay the rest. In New York, her part-time bar job covered rent with a little (not enough) left over for food. She didn’t need anyone to support her.

Financially or emotionally. She was on her own. Completely independent. It was how she wanted it, she told herself. But the truth was . she had no choice. Emerging onto the street, the wind greeted her with an icy slap to the face. She had a short walk straight up Third to the Twenty-Third Street campus. Huddling into her wool coat, she hurried along the avenue, head lowered against the chill blast. With her gloved hands tucked into her pockets, she felt her phone vibrate.

Extricating it, she read the text from Miguel. Hang out tonight? She removed her gloves then paused, her thumbs hovering over the keyboard. No thanks, she should have texted. This is casual. Friends with benefits. Nothing more. But she couldn’t deny how nice it would be to go to Miguel’sapartment, to curl up beside him on his ratty sofa, and study. Later, they might watch NetМix or a movie. They didn’t have to make out, didn’t have to end up in bed together. Miguel could be her buddy, her pal, her refuge from the toxicity permeating her apartment.

She didn’t need him, she just . enjoyed him. She typed: kk Shoving the phone back into her pocket, she hurried to campus.

.

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