This is the piece that I turned in as my final for Becoming a Writer

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Catalyst

“Hey Isa! Do you want to grab some drinks later?”

Isabelle looked up from pipetting buffer into the test tubes. “Jeremy! Is it time to go already?”

Jeremy nodded. “You’re the last one working. Again. Anyway I was thinking we could all go for some drinks, at that bar on 23rd and 3rd?” He gestured to the group of graduate students lingering by the door.

“I don’t know if that’d be such a good idea…”

“Come on Isa, we all just got paid yesterday!”

“It’s not that, genius.” Isabelle said, moving around him as she packed up her things. “I don’t think that Chris would be very happy about it. Besides, it’s a Wednesday!”

“But you only live once! And just because he’s your boyfriend doesn’t mean he’s in charge of you.”

Isabelle sighed. Chris had changed a bit lately; his job had become stressful, and he started using alcohol to take the edge off. She hated being around him when he was drunk. Isabelle smiled, maybe she could avoid that tonight. “Yeah, I’ll come.”

“Yes! We’re all going to meet there around 8. See you then!”

Isabelle smiled as she watched Jeremy leave the lab. They had become good friends when Isabelle started working in the lab the previous year, and they remained close, even though he was awarded her fellowship, when it was renewed.

She packed up her things and got on the subway towards her apartment. She had time to change out of her lab clothes and grab a quick dinner before heading over to the bar, and maybe leave Chris a message. Hopefully he wouldn’t be too annoyed that she was going out with her co-workers.

                                                                                                —

Isabelle checked her watch with the light from the neon sign over the bar. 10:07. She should probably head home soon, Chris would probably be less angry if she didn’t stay out too late. She looked back the tables her group had commandeered. Isabelle rarely got to see any of her co-workers outside of the lab, and the change was interesting. At work they were all serious students, working on Master’s Degrees or PhD’s, but here they were just young adults who didn’t care that they had to get up and go to work the next day.

Isabelle smiled and turned back to the bar to grab her refilled glass. On her way back to her friends, she noticed she had a few texts and a voicemail. They were all from Chris. Her heart sunk as she skimmed the messages.

“Where are you?”

“Who are you with?”

“Why are you ignoring me?”

Isabelle deleted the voicemail without listening to it. She didn’t want to listen to him yell at her, and she couldn’t defend herself to a recording. She went back to her table, half-heartedly joking around with her friends as they all told stories about each other, and savoured her drink, trying to make it last. Then she said goodbye to everyone and headed home.

Chris was waiting for Isabelle, watching TV, when she got home. “Did you get my messages?”

Isabelle looked at him as she took off her coat, wondering how angry he was going to get. “I didn’t check my phone until I left the bar.”

Chris nodded, his eyes returning to the television, and Isabelle sighed in relief; maybe he didn’t mind much.

Still watching the show, Chris asked “Was Jeremy there?”

“Yes” Isabelle replied, careful to keep her voice even.

“You know I don’t like it when you go out with him. I really wish you would respect that more.”

“Chris, Jeremy is just a friend. Besides he wasn’t the only one there. A bunch of the guys came.”

Chris ignored her and continued, “Also, it was kind of inconsiderate to just leave me a note instead of calling me. Or inviting me. What if I wanted to go? Not that you care.”

“Chris that’s not true!” Isabelle tried to think of a way to get him to listen to her. But he just kept going, complaining and blaming her for things until she was in tears. “I’m sorry Chris. I won’t do it again.”

Chris smiled, carefree again. “It’s okay Isabelle. I have to get home, but I hope you don’t have any plans for tomorrow night. I want to take you somewhere really nice!”

Isabelle smiled weakly, still upset, as he kissed her on the way out.

“I love you, babe.” Chris called over his shoulder as the front door shut between them.

“I love you too,” Isabelle whispered to the empty room.

The next day Isabelle went to a thrift shop to treat herself to some new clothes. All of Isabelle’s clothes were second-hand, except for the suit she had for business meetings and interviews. She used coupons to buy food, rarely ate out, lived in an economy apartment, and tried to maintain some kind of savings, all on a tiny budget. She was, unfortunately, getting desperate. Isabelle was a scientist, who was overstaying her welcome at her post-doctoral fellowship; she was paid practically nothing to mutate the same strand of DNA in different ways to see what would happen. Her supervisor, Dr. Johnson, was very kind to keep paying her once the fellowship ran out, but she was having trouble finding a job. Isabelle had sent a resume out to every major medical and pharmaceutical company she could think of, but hadn’t had any luck. She knew what job she wanted, and had even made it to the final round of interviews, but she didn’t want to get her hopes up. What was the likelihood that the World Health Organization would hire her anyway? Besides, if she stayed local, she could stay close to her sister.

Isabelle’s phone rang. She checked the name before she answered. “Sara! I was just thinking about you!”

“Weird!” Sara’s brassy rang out of the phone. “What’s up little sister?”

Isabelle adjusted her grip on her bag. “Nothing, I just treated myself with some shopping on my lunch break.”

“Oh, feeling fancy, are we?”

Isabelle laughed. “I wish! Honestly Sara, I really need to find a job.”

“Still haven’t heard from the WHO?”

“No”

“I’m sorry kiddo.” Sara’s voice filled with sympathy. “Why don’t you come out with me tonight to take your mind off it? My treat.”

Isabelle grimaced. “I’d love to Sara, but I can’t. Chris was really upset last night because I went out with some guys from work, and we got into a fight. He wants to spend some time with me tonight.”

“Isabelle I…” Sara hesitated. “You know I don’t want you to make my mistakes right? I’m here for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean? I’m talking about your relationship! It isn’t healthy Isabelle. I don’t want you to turn out like me.”

Sara had graduated college and moved straight in with her boyfriend. She found a job fast enough, but it didn’t pay well and she didn’t fit in with her co-workers. As the atmosphere at her office became more toxic, her boyfriend became abusive. It started with him wanting to know where she was; then he didn’t want her to go out, except work, without him. He started calling her names, but it progressed so slowly that Sara didn’t realize what was happening until he actually hit her. She couldn’t afford to pay for her own apartment so tried to fix the relationship. But it just got worse until she moved back in with her parents to get away from him.

“It’s not like that Sara! Chris has just been stressed from work recently. Everything will go back to normal soon, but I need to be there for him.” Isabelle protested weakly.

Sara sighed. “Isabelle you’ve been saying Chris ‘has been stressed lately’ for, like, six months!”

“It’s not what you think.” Isabelle checked her watch. “Look, I’ve got to get back to work.” The phone was silent. “I love you Sara.”

“I love you too little sister. I’m here if you need me.” Sara could hear the worry in her sister’s voice. She headed back to the lab, shaking off a feeling that Sara might have a point. She was just overreacting.

Walking in to her apartment after work that day, Isabelle started water for her shower and laid out her dress for the evening. Chris hadn’t told her where he was taking her, but he messaged her during the day, telling her to dress fancy and that he would pick her up at 8. She quickly checked the mail she had grabbed from the lobby before getting into the shower. Between a bill and a takeout menu for a new Chinese restaurant was a manila envelope with a return address in Geneva, Switzerland. Isabelle felt the envelope, trying to guess if it was good news or bad. Either way she should have gotten an email…

Isabelle dashed to her computer and opened up her email, clicking through every folder. After a few minutes frantic search she found an email from the World Health Organization Human Resources that had, for some reason, been sorted into her spam mail. She skimmed the email as fast as she could. They were pleased with her application, she had made a wonderful impression during her skype interview, she could be expecting an offer letter via post within the next five to ten business days. Isabelle ripped open the manila envelope, impatient to see what she was offered. It was almost perfect: slightly less pay that she had asked for, but still very reasonable, in Swiss Francs, and assistance with getting a work visa. Isabelle wanted to jump up and down and dance around her apartment, but she jumped in the shower instead, realizing that she only had 45 minutes before Chris showed up.

Halfway through her shower, Isabelle’s euphoria began to wear off a little. She realized she would have to pay the moving costs herself, and find a place to live. She would be leaving all her friends, her sister, and Chris behind. She needed a real job and working at the WHO would be a dream come true. That’s why she applied with them, even though she didn’t think she would actually get the job. But then she got an interview. Isabelle just put on her suit and her most dazzling smile, and decided to think about everything else later. She knew how competitive the position was and never expected to get an offer. But she had, and now she needed to make a decision. Isabelle weighed the pros and cons of accepting the job all evening, barely noticing when Chris picked her up, where they went, or what she ate.

Try as he might, Chris couldn’t capture her full attention. He got more and more frustrated until, when he had walked her back up to her apartment, he suddenly asked her how Jeremy was.

She was pulled from contemplating how much it would cost to move by his question. “What?”

He snorted and ran his hands through his hair, looking agitated. “You’ve been thinking about him all night, haven’t you? Jeremy?”

Worried, Isabelle tried to count how many drinks he had with dinner. She couldn’t remember. She quickly denied that she had been thinking of Jeremy at all and reiterated that they were just friends, all of which was true. She almost told him about the job offer, but decided to wait until he was more calm and less drunk. Instead, she told him that she had been thinking about her apartment.

“It’s a piece of shit. You should just move in with me. You’d be stupid not to realise that.” Chris’ speech was starting to slur. He kicked the coffee table as he stumbled toward the bedroom, and Isabelle winced as the table collapsed. She would tell him soon. She would have to.

Chris gently shook Isabelle awake the next morning, to tell her goodbye and apologize about the table. He told her there was breakfast in the kitchen. She stumbled groggily toward the kitchen. Next to the plate of bacon and eggs that he left for her, there was a note. Chris wrote that he was serious about her moving in with him. It would save her money, and make finding a new job less important. He was sure they could work something out with her landlord.

Isabelle suddenly felt nauseous. Chris had been getting more and more controlling lately, but this was going a little too far. She knew this was what he wanted, but they had talked about it before, and it had never felt quite right. Now, with the opportunity she was considering, it felt completely wrong.

Isabelle jerked herself out of her reverie to check the time. Oh no… No no no! She was already late for work. She rushed to her closet, tripping over the broken table. She threw on a pair of jeans and an old shirt; a plus of working at a University was that no one cared about what she wore. Isabelle glanced in the mirror long enough to see that her hair was a lost cause, and she threw it up into a ponytail before tripping over the table one last time as she ran out the door. When she finally did get to work, she went straight to the cold room. She wanted to thaw one of the DNA samples from her last round of mutations. One of them had looked like it was actually expressing different characteristics. But one of the graduate students took over for her, saying that Dr. Johnson wanted to speak with her. Isabelle went to his office and immediately began apologizing for her tardiness.

“That’s not it, Isabelle. I mean, you shouldn’t be late, but…” He looked at his desk, as if embarrassed to be the bearer of bad news. “Jeremy’s fellowship is officially starting. I can’t afford to pay you anymore.”

Isabelle froze. She knew this was coming, but she thought she’d have more time.

“I’m sorry Isabelle.”

Isabelle could tell that Dr. Johnson meant it. “I understand. I’ll just… go home then.” She didn’t want to make him feel worse, but she just wanted to get out of the building.

Isabelle left as fast as she could, but Jeremy caught up to her.

“I’m sorry Isa.”

“Don’t worry about it Jeremy. It was only a matter of time until I had to leave. Besides, you should be happy that you got the fellowship. It’s a great opportunity.”

“I know.” Jeremy sighed. “I just wish that I hadn’t gotten it at the expense of your job.”

Isabelle surprised herself by laughing. “Don’t worry, I’ve got some golden opportunities in my future. I’ll see you around, Jeremy.” She shook her head as he walked back to his lab bench. She would definitely miss working there.

Isabelle thought about calling Chris, but she knew he would just use her lack of employment as ammunition for his ‘you should move in with me’ argument. She didn’t want to hear that at the moment.

She tried to call her sister instead, for some perspective, but there was no answer. Isabelle went to the nearest park and walked around, trying to make a decision. She wanted to take the job with the WHO. She was officially unemployed, and her relationship with Chris wouldn’t survive much longer if he kept trying to make decisions for her. But she didn’t want to leave her sister.

Isabelle’s phone rang; it was her sister, calling her back. “What would you say if I moved to Geneva?”

Her sister laughed a little, startled. “What, are you serious? You got the job?” Isabelle’s silence answered the question for her. “Well I would miss you, little sister. But maybe it would be a good thing for you. What about Chris?”

“I haven’t told him yet. But he won’t want me to go. I think you might be right about him Sara.”

“Oh.” Sara didn’t seem to know what to say to that.

Isabelle let out the breath she had been holding. She thanked her sister and hung up with the promise of another call soon. She sat down on the nearest bench and made her choice. She would take the job with the World Health Organization. She would break up with Chris and move to Geneva. She would figure out how to pay the moving costs. Isabelle knew she could do this.

 

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