The Octopus

The Octopus 

By JD Miller, with Illustration by Catherine Turk

On Thursday, Lorelei painted the cutest octopus. It was pink and blue. Its eight tentacles looked like soft jelly. Its eyes were closed, just two curved lines, like two little smiles. She held it up to look at it, smiling, and said out loud, YOU are precious. 

She hadn’t been painting for long. And she didn’t consider herself a natural, or even particularly good. But even when it was infuriating to her, when she failed twelve times in a row to paint what she wanted to paint, she still tried again. And now she’d created this octopus. From nothing. 

There were two clear cups of colored water standing at the edge of her table, beside a full cup of tea she’d forgotten about, and which was now cold. One cup was blue now, the other pink. She’d been told not to mix her warm and cold colors, or to leave her brushes sitting bristles-down the way they were now. But they looked better that way. 

In fact, everything looked good right now. She set her octopus back down on the table, pictured his squishy skin, his closed smile-eyes. He looked good on the wooden table, just the right kind of pink, the right blue. Bare wood underneath. Her teacup still full, paintbrushes standing up in their cups. 

It was perfect. She couldn’t even hear anyone else in the coffee shop. Not the baristas, or the hiss of the milk steamer, or the kid crying beside the fireplace. Not the ding of the door when someone walked in. She smiled at her octopus, at the tiny table that held so many of her favorite things, all at the same time. 

She felt light inside. Like there was a sweet breeze around her, when there was actually just a murmuring air conditioner. 

And then the door opened again and Rachelle crossed the room in a hurry, her toeless heels scuffing, her purse swinging. She sat down across from Lorelei so violently that the table shook. The water in the purple-blue and brown-pink cups almost spilled. Lorelei felt her stomach jump. She reached for the octopus, and lifted it gently from the table while Rachelle plopped her white purse down in her lap with an audacious sigh and eyes wide with things to say.

“Oh, honey,” she said in a huff. “You would not believe.” 

Lorelei held the octopus in her lap, her notebook tilted so that only she could see him. He was like her little secret. She looked down at his cute, noseless, mouthless, faceless face, that was just eyes, and he didn’t look back because, well, his eyes were closed. 

Rachelle pried open her purse like she was prying open a big catfish-shaped mouth. There was a catfish on the wall of her dentist’s office, with glass eyes and laminate-feeling skin, a mouth so wide that her dad once convinced her to reach her arm inside it. He’d hidden an Almond Joy in there. 

She didn’t like Almond Joy. But what a great trick. And what a mouth. 

Rachelle reached around in her purse for a second and then seemed to notice the paint cups, her eyebrows wrinkling. “Umm…what are these?” She asked. 

“Oh, watercolor,” said Lorelei, pulling the cups to her side of the small table now, so that Rachelle had enough room for her bag. 

“Watercolor?” Rachelle said without looking at her. “What’s that about? Do you paint now?” 

“Sometimes, I guess,” Lorelei said. 

“Huh,” said Rachelle, and then immediately, “So get this: I’m at work and Liza walks up and is all, ‘you would not believe what Trayvon did this weekend,’ and I was like ‘what?’ But you know I can’t stand Liza, so on the inside I was like, ‘who cares?’ But you know me, I’ve gotta know, right? So I act all concerned and I’m like, ‘what’d he do?’ And she got all huffy, and told me that Trayvon’s been texting another girl, and when she asked him who it was, he said it was his cousin. His cousin. Can you believe that?” 

Lorelei could believe it, but she didn’t really, because none of these names or events really meant anything. Did she know Liza? Did she know anything about Trayvon? Most likely she’d heard Rachelle mention them before, so maybe she should know, but really none of it sounded familiar. And she didn’t really care, even though she tried. She mmhmm’d at the appropriate intervals. But Rachelle didn’t really look at her face long enough to notice. 

“She’s all like, ‘well obviously he’s lying,’” Rachelle went on, “and I don’t know, maybe it was just his cousin, right? But you know Liza, so of course she loses her shit and, like, tells him they’re through and yada yada, but they’ve broken up like thirty times, so I doubt this one will stick, either. God, he can just do so much better than Liza. Anyone could do better than Liza, she’s like, the definition of low hanging fruit. You know what I mean?” 

Lorelei mmhmm’d again, even though she didn’t really. Rachelle pulled her phone out of her purse. “Hold on, I’ve gotta text Grace back. I was telling her about this over lunch but I didn’t get to finish.” 

Lorelei didn’t say anything. She watched her octopus, still sitting in her lap, its restful face and her emotionless one trading all sorts of secrets. Or she pretended they were. But the octopus was asleep. She wondered what kinds of dreams it was having, recounted its legs again just to make sure she hadn’t forgotten one or anything. 

Precious, she thought in her mind again. 

A barista came over and asked if she was done with her watercolor cups. He was the cute one that she always saw, with his veiny wrists and curly hair. She pulled her brushes from the water and laid them out on a paper towel while he took the cups.

“How was painting?” He asked, smiling. He had four separate dimples—one on his chin, one on his right cheek, and two on his left somehow. He reminded her of an actor who’s name she could never remember. 

“It was good, thank you,” she said. Her fingers tightened on the drawing pad in her lap, the octopus still hidden from all eyes but her own. She’d show him if he asked. 

But instead he moved both glasses to one hand, and reached for her teacup with the other. “All done with this?” He asked. 

She gave an embarrassed smile. “I guess so.” 

His name was Drew.

“Oh hey,” Rachelle said, looking up suddenly. She put her hand out and actually touched Drew’s arm, her painted fingertips on his wrist, right below the tendon of his thumb. Lorelei felt like someone had just sucked something out of her stomach, or just vacuum-sealed it. 

“Could I get a nonfat white chocolate latte, please?” 

Drew smiled. “Uh, we don’t have caramel. Is a mocha okay?” 

“Sure, thanks,” Rachelle said, withdrawing her hand. She used both thumbs to type something on her phone screen. Drew walked back toward the bar. Lorelei felt like she had to force herself to breathe. 

She’d never touched Drew before. She’d never reached out and touched his beautiful wrist. And now he was gone. And he’d smiled at Rachelle the same way he smiled at her. Did he smile that way at everyone? 

“I think you’re supposed to order at the front counter,” she said sheepishly. 

“Hmm?” Rachelle said without looking up. And then all the sudden her face transformed into excited alarm. “Oh! That’s what I was going to tell you! I was leaving work, right? And as I’m pulling out, I see, like, traffic cones and cops literally everywhere, so I’m like, what the heck, right? Turns out some dude, like, plowed into another car and shoved it all the way up onto the sidewalk. Apparently he like, hit a fire hydrant, and there was water spraying everywhere. It was flooding the streets. That’s why it took me so long to get here, sorry. I should’ve texted and let you know, but you know I’m kind of a ditz sometimes.” 

She said all this without looking up. Her thumbs kept moving. Lorelei gave her half a smile. “That’s alright,” she said. 

“Anyway, I did finally get here, obviously. And I made eye contact with this, like, super sexy fireman, for like, five minutes, while I was waiting there. And I mean, sexy. Think, Channing Tatum mixed with, like, young Joe Biden.” 

Lorelei couldn’t begin to picture that. For a second she thought about asking Rachelle if she knew what actor Drew looked like, but she thought better about it. She had meant to tell her, today, that she thought he was cute, that she thought that maybe he was into her—he knew her order so well, by now, she didn’t have to ask for two extra glasses for water. But now she wasn’t convinced that he’d really taken any more notice of her than he did of anyone else. It was a coincidence. She’d just come in too many times. Maybe she should come in less. 

“Anyway,” Rachelle said, “you should’ve seen all the water, spraying up like  a—what’s it called? A geyser, right? Like Old Faithful? It was the kind of thing you would’ve wanted to stick around for.” 

Really? Lorelei thought. What did that mean? Her still-stinging heart objected to the idea that Rachelle knew anything about what she liked. But then she imagined the broken fire hydrant, spewing water up into the sky while firemen and police-officers tried to clear traffic. She imagined the rainbow caused by the sun piecing the mist, the small river that would run down the gutter on this otherwise dry, summer day. 

How strange would it be to be a few blocks down the street, not knowing what had happened, and see water running by? She tried to picture it. And then she pictured her octopus, splashing around in the water. Pictured it clear and deep and just the right temperature. Pictured other smiling sea creatures, their eyes closed, just two lines, their bodies divided into warm and cold colors in a big, warm-and-cold ocean.

When she looked up, she realized that Rachelle was finally looking at her. She was smiling, her lips glossy, her eyes bright, her eyebrows neat. She set her phone down, like she was doing it very intentionally and said, “Anyway—I didn’t even ask about your day. Sorry. I know I get carried away sometimes.” 

Lorelei sighed, but not out loud. She wasn’t asking for anyone to notice. She just let a breath out, trying to alleviate some of the pressure in her chest. It was alright, she thought. I am here with my friend. My best friend. My oldest friend. My surest, dearest, last-resort-est friend. I am not alone. 

She looked down at the Octopus—Am I, Precious? 

But part of her, maybe, wished she was alone. She turned the thought over in her head. There had been a time, not that long ago, when being alone was just about the worst thing she could imagine. Every waking moment, she wanted to be somewhere, with someone.

But lately, she liked these quiet afternoons and mornings. She liked painting things nobody would ever see, and making friends that weren’t really friends, but felt like friends somehow. Even when it made her feel lonely. She liked the time she spent with herself, and all the times she found herself quietly humming a song she didn’t know.

She smiled. Ignored the fact that, technically, Rachelle still hadn’t asked how her day had gone. Sometimes you have to volunteer that kind of information, she thought. “I’ve been good,” she said, trying to think of what to say next. Her fingers squeezed the watercolor paper a little tighter. “But to tell you the truth, I’ve—”

She stopped talking when the phone started to vibrate on the table. The ringtone was a cutesy pop song that played all the time at Lorelei’s work.

Rachelle picked it up, rolling her eyes. She huffed out of her nose. 

Drew appeared beside the table, setting down a cup. “One nonfat mocha,” he said. He smiled, Lorelei could tell from her periphery, but she didn’t look at his face when she said thank you. 

Rachelle didn’t even acknowledge his existence. “It’s Margo—sorry, shitty timing—is it okay if I take this? We’ve been trying to nail down plans all week.” 

So have we, Lorelei thought. But she said yes. Rachelle answered the phone with an ostentatiously cheerful tone. A second later she got up and stepped out the side door, where Lorelei could see her talking animatedly through the tall windows. 

She took another deep breath, trying to make herself feel calm. Really, she was already calm. There was no raging in her chest, no torrent to quell. Just something quiet, but pressing, like there was a dull knife leaning into her ribs. 

She flipped the notebook closed, and stuck it into her backpack. She rolled her brushes up in their paper towel and put them in their flowery pencil bag. She tore a piece of paper out of a lined journal and scribbled: 

Sorry, something came up. I had to run. 

Outside, Rachelle was laughing on the phone. Lorelei added, Coffee’s on me, xo and stood up, backpack in hand. She fished around her pocket for her wallet when she noticed the writing on the paper mocha cup.

In the corner, behind the bar, Drew was sweeping the floor, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The cup said:

Lorelei’s friend

She looked from the note that she was leaving on the table to the writing on the drink, and tore another piece of paper from her journal. She scribbled on it, folded it up inside of six dollars, and handed it over the counter to Drew. For a second, as he reached out to take it, eyebrows askew, their thumbs touched. It wasn’t even very much, but she felt it. 

“Heading out already? One of these days you’ll have to show me what you’re working on,” he started to say but she spoke over him. 

“Nobody ever knows how to spell my name,” she said. He blinked at her, like he was surprised to hear it, but she thought she detected a trace of red in his cheeks. So I’m right, she thought. He must’ve looked it up. Or he was good at guessing.

Drew looked down at the money in his hand and saw the paper. He unfolded it, but before he could look back up, before she’d have to endure the discomfort of any more prolonged eye contact, Lorelei said in a flurry, “I’msureyougetthisalot-butyoulooklikeayoungHeathLedger-onlycuterandyoucancallmeifyouwant.” 

He grinned, all four dimples out, and right at her. “Alright, I will,” he said. 

Lorelei turned toward the door, walking as fast as she could with her backpack over one shoulder. “IgottagobyeDrew.”

“Bye,” he said to her back. 

She stepped out into the sun, blinking, her eyes on her shoes, heart beating like a high-hat in her ears.

She could still hear Rachelle laughing on the other side of the building as she climbed in her car. She set her backpack in the passenger seat, and thought very briefly of fire hydrants erupting, of Drew dressed like a fireman, of a seatbelt holding her octopus carefully in place. 

With her foot on the brake and the AC blowing stuffy hot air, she closed her eyes, and pictured the two simple lines they made.