Karma Keepsakes by Lorinda Toledo

Serena had lived next to Evan in their east Hollywood building for the past two years – ever since her father died. Still, she’d never actually thought about Evan being inside her apartment before. They spent most nights sitting out on their second-floor balconies drinking the beers that Evan supplied, but the only reason he was in her apartment today was because her toilet wouldn’t flush. Serena stood in the doorway, embarrassed for him to open up her toilet while her pee was sitting in there.

Sometimes she wished she knew more about the way things worked. Her father had encouraged her to focus on school, which she was terrible at (she’d dropped out of college after one semester), and her talents (singing, tennis) – which hadn’t amounted to anything more than a few local performances and some high school championships. Once, when she was a kid, she’d asked the cleaning lady to let her help mop the kitchen floor. Serena thought it would be fun, like playing house. When her father came home from the office and saw what she was doing, he’d scowled and said, “Serena, honey, those jobs aren’t for little princesses.”  As she grew older, he never wanted her to learn how to bake a cake or change the oil in her car. Maybe that’s why I’m alone, she thought. No wonder the guy she’d met online had stood her up last night. She’d made the mistake of telling him she had no job and didn’t even know how to cook a proper breakfast. She hadn’t had to when dad was around to hire the help.

“Let them do it, honey,” her father said. “That’s what we pay them for.”

Serena wasn’t paying Evan and, though she was grateful he was saving her the cost of calling a plumber, she wished she had something to offer in return. He didn’t seem to think twice about it though. He just took the back lid off and tinkered around for a minute, his long, wheat-colored hair falling forward over his unshaven face.

“Thanks for doing this,” Serena said, escorting him through her sparsely furnished living room.

“Anytime,” Evan said, pausing near the door. Despite his lanky limbs, a small paunch stretched his white t-shirt. He seemed to be waiting for something.

“Did you want some water or something?” she asked.

He smiled his stoner smile and met her eyes with a suggestive stare than slid down her body. “Naw, it’s cool.”

Serena looked away uncomfortably. Since his girlfriend left him six months earlier, Evan had been alluding to making their relationship more than it was.

“Evan, I have some things to do,” Serena said, unable to keep the irritation from her voice.

He snorted. “Sure you do.”

She scowled at him.

“What could be more important than feeling good?” he said, stepping closer to her.

She opened the door and gestured for him to leave.

He shrugged and walked out the door, calling over his shoulder, “See ya later.”

***

 After Evan left, Serena sat at her kitchen table, her pen scratching briefly at each sheet of paper before folding it up with the check inside. She licked each envelope with a swipe of her tongue, careful not to give herself a paper cut as she had the week before. After sealing the last envelope, Serena sat back and admired her handiwork. She had a stack of ten envelopes ready to go. It gave her a sense of happiness — sending donations to all the charities that had solicited her that week, explaining in their letters that little Native American boys and girls, wounded veterans, the Red Cross, and victims of various blood diseases all needed her help. The more she donated, the more requests for donations flooded her mailbox. Each envelope came bearing some small gift in exchange for her donation – a plastic gold coin with a heart on it, a guardian angel charm, cartoon stickers, notepads. They’d sent more return address labels than Serena could ever possibly use. Dutifully, she pressed each unique return label onto its respective envelope. She liked to imagine that someone opening her donation would notice she had put the labels to good use.

As she picked up the stack of envelopes, a credit card bill marked “LATE – SECOND NOTICE” screamed at her from the counter top. Serena sighed, and dropped it into the trashcan. As if on cue, her phone rang. It was a number she didn’t know but she picked it up anyway. No one ever called.

“Hello, may I please speak with Serena Claren?” a man’s voice said. She hoped it was her date from the night before, calling to explain his absence.

“Yes, hello!” she said.

“I’m calling on behalf of Bank of America. You owe a past due amount of $16,946.16. How would you like to pay for that today?” The man’s polite tone was transformed, forceful.

Serena felt unsteady. How had they gotten her new phone number?

“Um, I can’t pay that whole amount today…”

The man was getting louder now. “You have to pay something.”

“But I don’t have any money. My dad died…”

The man’s voice became hateful, the volume escalated: “That’s not my problem, miss. This isn’t daddy’s debt, it’s yours. This is your responsibility or further action will be taken”

Serena’s stomach was in her throat. She panicked and hung up the phone. Within seconds, it started ringing again. She ignored it.

She knew it made no difference what amount they wanted her to pay. She owed much more than that and she simply did not have the funds. The phone call left her feeling violated and afraid. Trying to shake the feeling, she went outside to mail her donations.

***

Later that night, Serena and Evan sat on their balconies with their beers, the way they did every night. For the past few months, Evan had talked about his ex – Sarah – and what a bitch she was. Sarah was a children’s television writer who’d cheated on Evan with her boss. When she found out she was pregnant, she left Evan and moved in with her boss. Tonight though, Evan was quiet. It was Serena doing the talking.

“I mean, I can’t send much – only a few dollars – but it’s worth the karma,” she explained.

For months now, Serena had secretly been sending weekly donations to all the charities her father used to support. She couldn’t help but feel like something good was going to happen soon. Frustrated that it hadn’t, she was surprised to find herself talking it over with Evan. Besides, that collections phone call had left her shaken.

“Karma?” Evan said, tilting back in his chair. “Shouldn’t you be focusing on, I don’t know, not spending money?”

She rolled her eyes and took a sip of beer.

“Please. You clearly know nothing.”

“I know you don’t have a job.”

“That’s the whole point!” she said. “The universe will bring me everything I need.”

“Like a job?”

“No, like a career!”

Serena felt her cheeks flush with anger as she watched his teeth flash white against his overgrown beard stubble.

“Evan! You know I couldn’t work another day at that coffee shop.”

“You think I like putting up with my son-of-a-bitch boss every single day?” Evan worked construction jobs on movie sets.

Serena tucked a lock of chestnut hair behind her ear and hugged her knees to her chest. “All I’m saying is, if I take care of the universe, it will take care of me.”

Then, she took a last swig of beer, and wished him goodnight.

***

            After she’d put on her pajamas, Serena sat on the edge of her bed. After the day she’d had, she really felt like she needed to talk to somebody. She picked up her cell phone and called her friend Cami. They’d been best friends at one time, high school classmates and college roommates. But they hadn’t talked in a while.

Cami picked up after a few rings, her voice hushed, but concerned. “Serena? Is everything okay.”

“Hi!” Serena said, excited to her old friend’s voice. “How are you?”

“I’m fine!” Cami said. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah everything’s good,” Serena said.

Cami sighed. “Why are you calling so late? I’m already in bed. Matt’s sleeping.”

Serena looked at the clock. It was almost midnight. Cami’s husband was a corporate lawyer for a popular nutrition company. “Oh, sorry!” she said. “I just wanted to talk to you.”

Serena could her Cami’s husband mumbling something.

“Now’s really not a good time,” Cami said. “We’re leaving for Montreal early in the morning. We’re not even packed yet because the baby’s teething and Marla didn’t have time to pack.”

“Who’s Marla?”

“You know — our nanny. She helps around the house.” Serena heard the sound of a baby crying through the monitor.

“I’ve gotta go,” Cami said. “The baby’s awake.”

She hung up before Serena could say goodbye.

***

That night, Serena found herself in a kind of half-sleep, where she was really just willing her eyes shut and her limbs seemed determined to move around of their own accord. Her mind wouldn’t stop spinning. A girl across the alley was practicing her singing, sliding her vocals up and down each octave as a warm up:

“Ah ah ah ah AH AH AH.”

Serena sat up in bed and clicked on the lavender-shaded lamp on her nightstand. The clock glared at her with lurid red numbers: 2:00. She ran her fingers over her torso, feeling her ribs beneath the softness of her flesh. She hadn’t had any dinner and her head swam from the beer. Yawning, she shuffled to the kitchen in her bare feet. The summer night was warm, and although the ocean was miles away, a coastal breeze drifted into the tiny apartment and lingered there.

Serena poured herself a glass of milk and pulled some graham crackers from the cupboard. She sat on the floor in her living room eating them at her coffee table with the TV off. Unless her girlfriends came by for drinks, she never used her kitchen table. Not that that happened much. She’d lost touch with almost everyone except Cami after he father died. Her lifestyle had changed a lot then. After her father’s business started to fail, it turned out that her father had lived his remaining years on borrowed credit and his good name. The few friends she’d had were now married and too busy living lifestyles she could no longer keep up with. There was no one she could talk to about her predicament.

Serena stood up and walked across the room to a little nook with built-in drawers situated below a window. She opened the bottom drawer, sticky from years of being repainted. It was filled with old birthday cards and faded family photos. She lingered over one in which she looked awkward, with braces and wind-tousled hair. But her father had his arm around her, his handsome face clean-shaven and smiling. Wish you were here, she thought, as if he could still come to her aid at a moment’s notice. Sighing, Serena took out the small inlaid box she’d been looking for and carried it outside on the moonlit balcony.

She opened the latch and laid out the little trinkets and charms she’d saved from her charities. There were a hundred, at least. They didn’t send you a keepsake every time, but Serena liked it when they did. She found the cheap plastic and golden sheen charming, like when an elderly relative who didn’t know you, gave you a holiday gift that was all wrong for you. Serena never had the heart to get rid of them.

The sliding door next to hers opened and Evan stepped out on his balcony in boxer shorts and a t-shirt, blinking at her in the moonlight.

“Damn, that moon’s bright,” he said, lighting a clove cigarette. The spicy scent mingled with the slight dampness of the summer air.

“It’s two a.m., Evan.”

“I know. The chick next door woke me up with her singing,” he said. “But I don’t have the heart to tell her to shut-the-fuck-up.”

Serena smiled. “See, I told you. You’re a good person.”

Evan exhaled smoke out into the night. She scooped up her trinkets with one hand and put them back inside the box. He gestured at her with his chin. “What’s that?”

“Uh-uh,” Serena said. “You’ll just make fun of me.”

“Come on, what are they?”

She gave him a sidelong glance. “They’re just, you know, like, keepsakes. From all the charities I’ve donated to.”

“All of those?!”

Serena shrugged. “I like them.”

Evan was silent, staring at her, his eyes veiled by the darkness. “How much do you owe?”

“What?”

“You’ve hardly had a job the entire time I’ve known you. And that’s a lot of fucking charity crap.”

Serena was quiet for a moment before saying quietly, “Altogether? About eighty thousand dollars.” It was a relief to say it out loud. He was the only person that knew.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Is this, like, some kind of addiction?”

“Well it’s not from charity donations.”

“No, seriously, I think you have a problem. You are addicted to giving money you don’t have to strangers.”

She knew he was making fun of her. But a tickle had started at the base of her spine and was working its way up. She burst open with laughter and couldn’t stop. Before she knew it, Evan had started laughing too, and hearing him laugh made her laugh harder and then he laughed harder too. They went on like this for what felt like ages, hands clutching their sides, jaws aching. Serena gasped for air. Finally, they trailed off, silence hanging in the air as the smiles clung to their faces.

“You’re a good person,” Serena said. “The universe knows that. Something good is going to happen to you.”

“Well it’s not like I’ve ever killed anyone,” Evan said. “But the UNIVERSE doesn’t seem to be doing me any fucking favors. I haven’t gotten laid in like a year.”

“The right girl’s out there somewhere.”

Evan stubbed his cigarette out, and without looking up said, “Do you want to come over?”

Serena felt a jolt go through her body. “You mean, right now?”

“Yeah, why not?”

He was close enough to touch if she reached out her arm, past the cavity of space that hung between their wrought-iron fenced balconies. Serena realized then that there was no one else. Evan was the only person in her life left. She nodded.

“I’ll help you over.” He leaned forward, arms out toward her.

“Why don’t I just take the normal way in?” she said.

Evan turned to slip inside the sliding glass door, expecting her to follow. “Why go all the way around when we’re right here?”

Tentatively, still gripping her box of charity keepsakes in one hand, Serena crept toward the edge of her wrought iron-lined balcony. She felt dizzy when she looked down.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re only two floors up, you probably wouldn’t die.”

Serena nervously put out her arms to grip his shoulders while he helped pull her across safely onto the landing.

Serena trailed behind him, pausing to look around as she entered the living room. The place looked nothing like she’d imagined it.

“Isn’t it weird that we’ve never been in each other’s apartments until today?”

Evan shrugged. “I don’t even know anyone else in this building. Do you?”

“I wave at the Russian lady across the hall when I see her,” Serena said. “But I don’t know her name.”

Serena had assumed that all the apartments in the building were the same as hers – chocolate brown carpet (even in the bathroom), outdated tile counter tops (blue in the kitchen, pink in the bathroom), spare light fixtures. Of course, her apartment had very little in it, save for a salvaged and stained white leather couch, a heavy brown coffee table and her bed (a mattress on the floor with some floral-print sheets). But Evan’s place was not nearly as unkempt as she’d thought it would be.  First off, he had actual furniture. The sofa and chairs, upholstered in velvety earth tones and tied together with moss-green pillows, were modern and sophisticated. He had hung art pieces on one wall in a decorative pattern, and in the center of the room, a giant throw rug rested atop the plush honey-hued carpeting of the room. The kitchen, she could see, had actual wood flooring, and she was willing to bet the bathroom floor was not covered in decades-old carpet. Light fixtures were strategically placed throughout the room to cast a warm glow, and Evan’s disheveled hair and pale skin took on a softness that she hoped translated to her own. He stood in the center of the room, in his t-shirt and boxers, watching her look around.

“Why’d you bring that charity crap over here with you?”

Serena looked down and found that she’d been absent-mindedly gripping the keepsake between both hands. She set it gingerly on the coffee table. They stood looking awkwardly at each other. They both knew what was going to happen. Serena was tired of being alone, and she felt sorry for Evan. It had been so hard for him after his girlfriend left. Maybe that’s why he was so angry all the time. Maybe she could help him. Her eyes met his, and then Evan came over and took her face in his hands, kissing her softly on the lips. She surprised herself by melting instinctively against him. But now, surrounded by all of his things, she had the sense that she didn’t know him at all, that he was a not altogether unattractive stranger who’d brought her home. She pulled away and looked into his eyes. She felt him hard against her and looked down to see his penis, poking out of his boxers, but he kissed her again and eased her onto the couch before sliding down her body. He slipped off her shorts, stroking her legs as he went down on her. She looked around the strange room. She never knew what to do when a guy went down on her, her hips moving independently, her hands groping aimlessly for something to grab onto as her breath quickened. She looked down at his blond head and put her hands in his hair. It was soft and fine, such a contrast compared to the roughness of his whiskers between her thighs. Afterward, they had sex. Right after he came, he stood up, still panting, and put his clothes back on. Serena couldn’t help wondering if sex counted as karma, too.

Evan grinned at her, and she wondered if he’d guessed what she’d been thinking. “Do you want a drink or something?”

Serena’s stomach grumbled audibly despite the graham crackers she’d eaten, and Evan grinned amiably before leading her into the kitchen. “Sit down,” he said, motioning to the bar stools facing the kitchen. He pulled out a skillet and cracked some eggs into it, along with a handful of spinach and a slab of ham.

“I had no idea you were so…domesticated,” Serena said. She felt happy, like this is what she had been waiting for all along – someone to take care of her. Maybe her karma was finally paying off.

Evan laughed. “I’m 35. What did you expect – crumpled up cans and a table for beer pong?”

“I’m turning 30 this year,” she said, studying his unkempt whiskers and blond hair. “I mean, you work in construction.”

Evan eyed her as he transferred the scrambled eggs onto a plate along with the ham. “I’m a skilled worker, not a goddamn Neanderthal.”

Serena felt her cheeks flush as she stammered at him. “That’s not what I meant. It’s just – your place is so much nicer than mine.”

He set the plate in front of her and walked around the island to sit on the bar stool next to her. Serena dug in gratefully as he explained that he’d made a deal with the landlady when he’d moved in, a couple of years before she had. He’d remodeled the place and she’d paid for half the materials.

“This is amazing,” she said, swallowing her last bit of eggs. “I never knew you could cook.”

Evan shrugged and looked away.

“So what do we do now?” she asked.

Evan glanced at the clock and yawned, not bothering to cover his mouth.

“Well, I’ve got work in a few hours. I better get to bed. Want me to walk you out?”

Serena sat there, heart sinking. He wasn’t going to invite her to stay? He read the expression on her face.

“Don’t worry, we’ll see each other. Balcony. Same time, same place.”

“It’s just that I thought…” she trailed off, afraid to say what she’d thought. That everything was going to be okay now. That this man, who she’d never considered attractive up until now was suddenly going to take care of her. She knew it was dumb.

He leaned over and kissed her dryly on the forehead. Serena could tell it was a friend kiss. Nothing more.

“I’ve just gotta take care of shit tomorrow,” he said. Then, jokingly. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to go back over the balcony. I’ll show you where the door is.”

Serena forced a smile, her belly full, her chest empty.

“I didn’t bring my keys.”

Serena smoothed her hair into a ponytail with her hands and then, because she had nothing to secure it with, let it fall again. “Goodnight,” she said.

“’Night,” Evan said, to her already retreating back. Serena grabbed her keepsake box from his coffee table and tucked it under one arm as she stepped outside onto his balcony. As she swung her leg over the railing and climbed across, back to her home that was not a home, the box slipped from under her arm, the lid flying open. Serena watched helplessly as her charity keepsakes spilled out onto the ground below, visible only by the faint glistening of their plastic sheen. Serena looked at her empty hands, the tears starting to fall now. But she wiped them away, and looked up at the overly bright moon, a lonely orb hanging in the dark sky. Maybe in the morning, she would see about getting a job. And maybe, she would also see about volunteering at a soup kitchen.


Lorinda Toledo is a Los Angeles-based writer and a graduate student in the M.F.A. program at Antioch University.