Quincette stared at the water cooler, trembling. From the room behind her, across the hall,there was a tumult of noise- chairs scraping over tile, voices rising and falling in conversation, broken by ripples of coughing or laughter.
The sound was a wall, a wave, pressing her toward the water cooler -trying to force her to get a drink.
Quincette swallowed. Her throat felt stuck together; it was hard to breathe. She licked dry lips, and looked again up and down the hall, searching for a water fountain, although she’d already walked it twice. But all there was was this damned cooler, humming as it chilled the water to at least a degree or two cooler than a fountain would.
She couldn’t drink water that was too cold.
“How dare you?” she whispered at the unit. It only sat there, humming, mocking all the systems Quincette had developed to handle situations in public buildings. Systems that depended upon a water fountain.
Not a cooler.
She tried to imagine taking one of the little cone-shaped cups. When she was very young, she’d thought they looked like ice cream cones, and had begged her parents to let her get a drink every time they were near one.
Quincette remembered the last ice cream cone she’d eaten. She’d been ten then, and she and Mom had gone out shopping for her first bra. Quincette had cried – none of her friends, at school or at gymnastics, were anywhere near ready. Why did she have to be first?
And Mom had smiled sweetly, told her time would change the way she saw these things, and bought her a double rocky road cone with rainbow sprinkles…Quincette could almost taste it, nine years later. Ice cream had always made her thirsty. And she didn’t see her body’s blossoming ripeness any differently now than she had then.
Mom had been wrong. Ice cream and time were just pretty platitudes.
She needed a fountain. The room behind her settled; they’d started, then, and, if she walked in now, it would draw everyone’s attention, and they would all be watching and guessing…
A fountain. If there was a fountain, she could walk up the length of the hall, counting out the steps, and take three sips as she returned. Two more laps, and six more sips, and she would be protected from their stares, insulated from what they would think.
But just the thought of touching one of those paper cones was enough, almost, to make her vomit- if there were anything in her to bring up.
She thought again of ice cream, and empty stomachs, and empty promises, and her stomach convulsed in warning.
Quincette ran for the door, making it barely in time to avoid hearing her retching echo up the hall to blend with the sounds from the water cooler.
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