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Karen, the Morning Person

Karen always felt her best in the morning. She was a self proclaimed
morning person. Karen excelled in all things mornings. She was a great Breakfast
Maker, specializing in frittatas and French toast and Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes
that her daughter wouldnt eat because she was getting too old for but that her son,
James, loved and would go on to ask for in a care package when he went to college.
Both turkey bacon and regular bacon found home on the kitchen counter, because
Karen firmly believed that variety is the spice of life! and two types of bacon was
just one small way of ensuring that her family had spice each morning. Karens
daughter, Jenna, loved freshly squeezed orange juice which was always in the
fridge, and Karens husband, Rob, liked his strong black coffee with a splash of Half
& Half in his to go cup every morning. Rob was a busy man, and Karen liked to make
his mornings better in any way she could. After all, who wants to have a bad
morning?
Each morning, when Karens internal alarm went off at 6:15, she slid her feet
into her slippers and happily slipped out of bed, being sure not to disturb Rob, as he
slept in until 6:35. She trained herself to wake up every morning, set her alarm
during college even though she didnt have classes until 9, until she got so used to
hearing beeping that she started hearing it in her head. She walked quietly from her
bed to the bathroom, where she showered and curled her long, naturally frizzy
brown hair, applied a touch of mascara to open up her warm, equally brown eyes,
and put on the clothes she had laid out the night before. In college, she
incorporated bandanas and scarfs into her up-dos, experimented with winged
eyeliner and bright lipstick, shopped from thrift and consignment stores, determined
to find the perfect bargain. However, when she got pregnant, she decided it was
time to put all that aside and buy Adult Clothes from Adult Stores. Her wardrobe was

now almost entirely monochrome, though she did like to wear white quite a bit after
Labor Day.
After giving herself one final lookover, she stepped quietly out of the closet
and bee-lined for the kitchen, opening and closing sliding cabinets with automatic
stops that were built to never, ever slam. Karen tried not to repeat what she made
the morning before, looking up recipes in her cookbooks and trying new things she
saw on the Food Channel.
By 7 AM, Karens house was quietly bustling. The kids were awake and
moving, James rap music pumping and Jennas hair dryer going. Rob was
showering, steam filling the bathroom and fogging the mirror. In the early days of
their marriage, Karen used to leave him little notes in the mirror that he read when
he stepped out, I love you, or Dont even put clothes on! with a coy winky face
at the end. Nowadays, Rob barely looked at the mirror before he headed to the
closet to dress for his job as a full time consultant and manager for a successful
hedge fund. Karen didnt really know what that meant, but knew it was important
and very business-like. Years ago, when they still lived in the little studio above an
Indian restaurant in Brooklyn and owned barely any furniture and Karen spent most
of her time in Robs shirts and Rob spent most of time just wearing boxers, Rob
would ask for Karens opinion on which tie matched best with which button-down,
and shed pick the one that looked best with his bright blue eyes. Shed hastily grab
her camera and point it in his direction with the sun just coming up over his left
shoulder, and hed make a silly face, and theyd laugh together, and the laugh
would linger long after Rob went to work, long after Karen begged him to stay and
bribed him with an entire day in bed. It felt like a life ago, Karen thought, that they
spent rainy Sundays holed up in the flat, ordering take out from downstairs and
taking pictures that hung around the apartment in every crack and crevice in the

exposed brick. Karen tied string up from wall to wall and pinned new pictures every
day, documenting the life that she loved so deeply with the man that she loved
even more. So silly, Karen now thought, that she couldve ever pursued
photography as a real job! Her mother always told her that it wasnt practical,
photography, that it would never be practical. Karen now knew she was right, of
course. How much happier she was that she could be a Full Time Mother, a Full Time
Wife, without the silly distractions that art once provided. Now, she had all the time
in the world to prepare the perfect breakfast for her family that she loved. It was a
different kind of love, she often thought, than the love her life was filled with in the
years before. But love is love! And love makes everyone happy.
Rob, as great as he was a muse, was even better as a Professional Business
Man, and made his way up through the company, bringing home more money and
less smiles. Karens first pregnancy, according to her former best friend Diane, was
an accident, but Karen preferred to call it a surprise. She cried a lot when they first
found out, but quickly decided it was time to become a Real Adult. Real Adults, Rob
said, that sold their beloved flat that always smelled like curry and had their entire
life floating above them; lips curved up, exposed teeth, half naked torsos and long,
long legs hanging down from the ceiling, from around the walls like a living,
breathing dismembered body with a heartbeat. When their place sold, Karen sobbed
for the entire day, taking down pictures and placing them in boxes, labeling
cardboard with Sharpie, categorizing photographs by song titles that reminded her
of when they were taken. Come As You Are, Alive, High and Dry all marked
memories that were deep in the depths of the garage now, where the kids Porsche
Cayenne pulled out of and into every day. Closing Time was on the final box
packed away, pictures that Karen had taken the very last day they lived in the
apartment. Rob never cried, but Karen knew there was a photo of him with one

single tear sitting in the inner corner of his eye, threatening to drop. He wore a
smile on his face in the picture, but it didnt reach his eyes. That was the last picture
she ever took of him.
Jenna and James bounded up the stairs of 255 Long Lane, Far Hills, New
Jersey, 07931 at 7:25 every morning, grabbing pieces of toast and bacon, spilling
drops of orange juice on the counter and leaving the fridge slightly open. Karen
always asked how they slept, and they both always said fine, James already wearing
headphones for the drive to school because he claimed he just couldnt stand
Jennas pop music bullshit anymore. They were good kids, Karen knew, and Karen
loved being a mother to them so much, reminding them of that each day as they
walked out to leave. Karen didnt mind hearing her own voice barely escape into the
open space with them before the door slammed without a word back, knowing that
they were good kids, and knowing she loved being a mother to them so much. Rob
was always just a step behind, briefcase in hand, staring at his Blackberry and
absentmindedly reaching for his carrier cup before leaning in to kiss Karens cheek
purely out of habit before walking out the door. She often thought how well Rob had
adjusted to life in Far Hills. 12 holes on a Wednesday to close a deal agreed with
him He was much more tan in New Jersey than he ever was in Brooklyn.
Within fifteen minutes, all the noise of the morning was over. The kids were
gone, her husband was gone, and all that was left were juice droplets on the
counter and extra pancakes that James hadnt taken in the car. Karen liked it best
when it was she was alone, not because she didnt love her family so, so deeply, no!
Karen just liked it best when she knew she had satisfied her family, made their
morning great and therefore their day a little better, and when everyone was gone,
Karen could think again.
Karen cleaned up the juice, closed the fridge, and sealed the left over food in
zip lock baggies that she held delicately in her hand as she entered her Lexus SUV.

She opened the big garage door, turned the ignition, and made an immediate left
out of her drive way. Straight, straight, right at the stoplight, left. Straight again,
left, and into the parking lot of the park by the middle school that both her kids
went to, where she watched recitals and sixth grade plays, some with Rob, some
without when he was too busy being a Professional Business Man to go. She didnt
mind though. She always had her video camera with her for those events, recording
moments of her childrens lives to play back like a movie later, finding it just a little
too difficult to cope with still frame shots anymore. Karens mother loved getting
videos of the kids performing in talent shows and walking across the stage at eighth
grade graduation, calling Karen over the phone to tell her how much she
appreciated receiving the emails but also to make sure Karen didnt think that the
videos were worth anything more than just showing to family, really, and that Karen
wasnt a photographer or a videographer, or God forbid a director! Karen knew this,
of course, and reassured her mother that her full time job was being a Mom. Karens
mother loved to hear this, loved to know that her daughter was following in her own
footsteps and excelling.
Once, when she was young, Karen found old journals filled with her mothers
adolescent handwriting, etched with poems and stories and the beginning of what
seemed like a novel. When Karen asked her mom about them, Karens mother
became very upset and told Karen that they were her own personal property and
Karen should NOT be snooping through things that werent hers. Besides, Karens
mother told her, they were from a very long time ago. Karen never asked about
them again but took the one with the half-written novel and hid it in her room. It
was probably in an old box in the garage that Karen could find if she really wanted
to.

At the park, Karen parked in her normal spot across from the swing set and
Army green slide that Jenna pushed James down when they were little and could
agree on what music to listen to in the car. Woodchips filled the playground, and
Karen vaguely remembered what they felt like against her feet when she had worn
Birkenstocks while chasing her kids around one day. Hippie sandals, she
remembered another mom calling them. They, like most things from Karens preAdult life, were packed away somewhere too. The day was sunny, and the entire
park looked like it was colored in neon crayon.
Karen gathered up the untouched breakfast food, grabbing a bottle of water
from the backseat and locking the car door behind her. She walked to the bench
where a homeless man, Benjamin, sat, waiting for her. When Benjamin saw her, he
smiled, exposing a few cracked, half-gone teeth. Benjamin had a face that radiated
happiness, Karen always thought. For the first time all morning, Karen smiled too.
Good morning, Benjamin, Karen always started.
Good morning, Karen, Benjamin always replied.
I brought you breakfast.
Oh, you didnt have to do that, Karen. But, thank you. Thank you so much.
Karen only nodded and smiled, reaching into the plastic bag filled with paper
plates and white silverware, placing two still-warm pancakes on the plate and
setting the syrup on the table.
Benjamin lifted his hand delicately, as if he was used to dining with silver
rather than plastic. He easily cut into his pancakes, lifting them gently into his
mouth and chewing slowly.
Delicious, as always, Karen. I dont know how you do it!
Oh, its really not that hard. Youre too sweet.
Thank you, Benjamin repeated again and again, through mouthfuls of food
and sips of water from a crackling bottle.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
When he was finished eating, Benjamin told Karen about what had happened
over the night where he slept, how he slept, and what he planned to do today.

Tuesday was Can Day, and Karen handed him two Hefty trash bags to help with his
collecting.
Thank you, Benjamin said again.
Have you spoken to anyone at the home about meeting with potential
investors about that idea you had? Karen asked breezily, not wanting to sound
intrusive. I really will invest, you know.
Ah, Karen, sighed Benjamin, what have I told you about discussing
business over meals?! Unless this is a business meeting, Id like to eat my food in
peace. Thank you very much.
Of course, of course. I know better, youre right. She eyed him slowly,
watching the smile start to spread across his lips, until laughter buzzed out of both
their mouths like an infection. Karen always knew she could count on Benjamin for a
laugh. He understood her, understood her place in the world and understood how
lonely she could sometimes feel. She didnt know how or when, but over time,
Benjamin had become her best friend.
After Benjamin finished his meal, Karen stood to leave, telling Benjamin shed
see him tomorrow, same place, same time. She had been coming here for almost
two years now, ever since Jenna had gotten her drivers license and Karen no longer
drove the kids to school. The first day Karen had no place to go after her family left,
she decided to drive to the park she once loved taking her kids to before they had
grown up. There, she met Benjamin and saw his cracked-teeth smile. When Karen
had met him on a Thursday, she had yearned for her camera for the first time in
years. She wanted nothing more than to capture his radiant smile, his ragged
clothes, his unrefined happiness. So she talked to him. And she found out his name
was Benjamin, he loved spending time in this park, and he was hungry, he could
always eat. His teeth were missing due what he lovingly referred to as meth
mouth, a side effect of the drug that stripped Benjamin of his Business Man title, as
well as his family. Karen learned all this about him slowly, morning after morning,

breakfast after breakfast. They talked about both their previous lives, about family
life and social life, about art and literature and even business. Benjamin told her
about how he grew up with parents that made him feel like he was constantly
choking, how he had heard the word potential more times in his adolescence than
he could count. He also told her about how and when he started using in the first
place, doing it once after he got bored of cocaine breaks in the office and wanted
something a little more tough. Karen couldnt initially understand his limitless
happiness, often asking him how he could feel so secure in his life after losing
nearly everything to drugs and having to start all over.
I used to use for a reason, Karen. I was so unhappy I was constantly
searching for something to excite me, to make me care. When I got clean, after
Angie and the kids left me, and after I ODed that one time, I realized the drugs
didnt make me happy, either. I had felt like I was living in grey for so long. And I
thought to myself, If drugs dont make me happy, nothing fabricated can. So I
stopped using, put myself in recovery, and focused on things that made me actually
happy. Art, history, mans pursuit of happiness. You know, normal stuff.
After meeting him on the very first day where they had only exchanged
names and appetites, she told him to meet her back there in the morning, same
place, same time, and he did. She came bearing food and silverware, orange juice
and coffee, paper napkins and condiments. He came bearing his smile and endless
stories with knowledge laced through. Karen remembered why she loved taking
pictures in the first place.
Karen had met him at the very beginning of his recovery, when his teeth still
looked green and his cheeks were potholed and picked at. Two years later, Benjamin
looked much more like what Karen imagined his old self to be. Though still having
an imperfect smile that Karen quite admired, Benjamins skin had regained color
and his eyes focused instead of constantly spinning. He was once handsome, she

was sure of it, and she understood how he couldve been so successful. She thought
he was so smart, so charming. She thought he had a beautiful mind. She thought he
reminded her a lot of someone she once used to know, used to be.
She walked back to her car after they said their goodbyes and stepped into
the drivers seat, turned on the radio for background noise, put the car in reverse
and drove away. She put on her sunglasses, still seeing the green of Benjamins
teeth and the slide when she blinked, the sun searing her eyes in the best way. She
put down her sun visor and saw Benjamins face in a photograph she had taken a
week into their friendship, taped onto the corner of the fabric where moms usually
had wallet-sized yearbook pictures and CD-ROMs. He was squinting in the picture,
almost posing for lens of the camera, his teeth translucent and brittle. It was the
first picture she had ever taken of him. She had told him to act natural, and he did.
He smiled.
Her daughters current favorite song was playing, something by Maroon 5,
but all she could hear was the sound of Benjamins Thank you, over and over and
over again.