Miguel walked into Il Vitto’s in the East Village. He was meeting his boss, Gabriela, for dinner. She had invited him at work today, made it for ten to give him time to go home and change. She told him she had something important to discuss with him, and she couldn’t do it there. It was her treat. She only asked that he come alone. He figured nothing inappropriate could happen: he was gay.
When he had first joined her Insurance Receivables team six years ago, she had clearly been attracted to him. She had invited him for an afterhours drink more than once. He had deflected her advances. Although a decade older than he was, she was attractive, in a repressed nun kind of way, with a pretty face she never applied makeup to and a shapely body she always covered up. Alas, he had known he was gay since he was nine, when he would daydream about marrying Edwardo, his brother’s best friend. Edwardo used to call him “patito” with the slightest hint of, perhaps imagined, affection.
Six years ago, Miguel was a twenty-five-year old, overweight, socially awkward virgin. He had been living with his mother in Jackson Heights since graduating from NYU with a useless English degree and no money for grad school. Soon after being hired, he had met Angel, an aspiring actor and lover of all kinds of drama.
Miguel had lost thirty-five pounds during his and Angel’s five-month-long relationship; if Miguel was a stress eater, he would have gained fifty. After their breakup came his super-gay phase, tight jeans, frosted tips, meticulously plucked eyebrows. Desperate to get over Angel, he looked like a new man, and had a new man every week. Even Gabriela, who didn’t know RuPaul from Rand Paul, had to have taken the hint. She never suggested another afterhours rendezvous, until today.
Although Miguel was perennially single, at least he had the occasional Grindr hookup to divert him. As far as he could tell, Gabriela had nothing in her life but work. He couldn’t reject her dinner invitation. With the havoc wrought by Medipay, she had been through enough.
“I’m meeting someone inside,” Miguel told the maître d'. The restaurant had a charmingly rustic interior, brick walls, iron chandeliers. Miguel hadn’t eaten at places this nice since his “sugar baby” phase.
He spotted Gabriela in the back. She wore a black dress, lipstick and mascara. He had never seen her so dolled up, yet she looked as ill at ease as ever, sitting as rigid as a statue. There was another woman at the table. He saw her profile. She was African American, slender, slouching, dressed in a hoodie and jeans. Momentarily, he wondered if Gabriela was now a lesbian, and this was her partner. Was this mysterious meeting about securing his sperm? He felt relieved for Gabriela, that she would have this now, a child.
“Miguel, so glad you could make it,” Gabriela smiled stiffly. The other woman turned to him. It was Kendra, who used to work in Insurance Receivables. She transferred out two years ago. She currently worked on-site at the hospital, a few blocks from his office.
“Miguel?” Kendra said, as surprised to see him as he was to see her.
“Hi.” He sat down. Now he had no idea what to think.
Gabriela suppressed the residual longing she felt for Miguel. He looked handsome tonight. She was flattered that he had dressed up. He wore a suit and tie, like he had for his interview six years ago. It wasn’t the same suit, of course. He had shed all that weight. She had liked him pudgy. He had seemed more solid, manlier.
She never understood why he insisted on being gay. There wasn’t much one could do about feelings, but acting on them was something else. She desired Miguel, for example, but she wouldn’t act on it. She didn’t agree with his lifestyle, but she wouldn’t hold it against him. He was her best worker.
It didn’t surprise her at all that Kendra was dressed like she was going to the McDonalds on the corner. Gabriela had only hired her because her mother, Marcia, had been a fine employee. Marcia had worked in Insurance Receivables for over thirty years. Unfortunately, the apple had fallen far from that tree. Kendra did the minimum work possible, rolled her eyes when given orders, smirked when scolded. Gabriela nearly jumped for joy the day Kendra transferred out to Cashiering. Only now, she needed her.
“You must be wondering why I asked you to come tonight,” Gabriela said. While at home, she had made an outline of what to say on a sheet of paper. She had memorized it on the subway ride here, then tore up the paper, deposited it into several different trash cans, just to be safe.
“I’m not going back without a raise of 5K. I know Insurance Receivables is a hot mess. People talk,” Kendra huffed. She glanced back to her menu. “And you’re paying for dinner, even if I refuse, right?” Gabriela shuddered, horrified by the mere notion of Kendra rejoining her team.
“A ‘hot mess’ is an exaggeration,” Miguel said. He was always diplomatic, one reason why he made the perfect assistant manager. However, the time for bullshit had ended.
“We both know it’s not,” Gabriela said, going off script. She didn’t intend to mention her department’s recent strife, but it was relevant. “As you apparently know, Kendra, the hospital switched its billing system last year. Our contract with HealthCom expired, and an upstart company, Medipay, offered us a more attractive deal.”
“Only the system sucks and claims aren’t billing out right,” Kendra interjected. She nonchalantly buttered a bread roll and stuffed it into her mouth.
“Or they’re not billing out at all. Or charges are not being uploaded, even when physicians input them. Or payments are coming in, then disappearing, because the associated claims can’t be found,” Gabriela sighed.
“Medipay’s working on it,” Miguel said, the line he and Gabriela had been using with the staff for fourteen months.
“Medipay filed for bankruptcy three weeks ago. No memos were sent, of course. You can still find it on Google. Finance estimates that we’ve lost a billion dollars in revenue since Medipay was implemented,” Gabriela said. Miguel gulped. That figure had shocked her too, when Sam in Accounting had confided it to her.
“Do you know if the veal parmesan is good here?” Kendra asked. Gabriela shook her head, no, trying not to let her disdain show. Kendra had never cared about anything but what she’d eat and if she’d leave on time.
“We’re struggling to keep operational. We’re in talks to outsource thousands of positions in billing, customer service and payment processing.” Gabriela winced, remembering that “we” was unlikely to include her much longer. The only manager who didn’t have to worry was Prisha in Patient Receivables. The hospital would need someone who spoke Hindi.
“You invited us out to warn us?” Miguel asked.
“What’s the point? We’re still screwed,” Kendra sneered.
“No, and no, but I can’t explain here,” she said. The waiter approached.
“I’ll take the chicken parmesan, ooh, and the fried calamari, and a rum and Coke,” Kendra said. Miguel asked for the salmon. Gabriela ordered the first thing she spotted glancing down, linguini alfredo. The waiter walked away.
“I asked you out because I have a plan. We’re all going to be fired. It could happen now, or six months from now, but it’ll happen.” Gabriela drew in close, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Before then, we can use the hospital’s disordered state to our advantage. It’s bleeding money. Why not catch some in our hands?”
Kendra couldn’t wait to hear Gabriela’s plan, not so much because she was eager to take part, but because watching Gabriela turn into a criminal was too hilarious. When Gabriela was her boss, she would write her up for cursing, dock her pay for each lateness, even monitor how long she was in the restroom. Kendra couldn’t take a shit without getting flack.
Kendra knew she wouldn’t turn Gabriela down. She needed the money. Kendra had college loans to pay off, even though she dropped out when she became pregnant with Cory. She was a month behind on her rent. Her mother, Marcia, had been helping her, until the cancer diagnosis. By the time Marcia died, all her savings had gone towards deductibles and copays. She and Cory ate Chef Boyardee every night. It was no wonder each dish on the menu made her mouth water.
Gabriela wouldn’t go into details out in the open. As curious as Kendra was, she forgot all about it once the waiter brought out the meal. Marcia used to spoil her with good food. She had kept an old, worn book of Jamaican recipes, handed down over generations. Though she tried to pass her skills down to Kendra, Kendra was never interested in learning. She hadn’t appreciated Marcia enough. She had disappointed her so often, but never on purpose.
She couldn’t help doing bad things, ever since she was a girl. She would go into a deli and leave with pockets full of stolen candy. She got into fights at school. She took up with Will, a player, just because he was hot. One of the few times she made Marcia happy was when she decided to keep Cory. Will’s features were too handsome; she couldn’t bear to destroy something that had them.
She scarfed down her meal. Realizing that she had saved nothing to bring home to Cory, she ordered a side of meatballs. Gabriela barely touched her plate, saying she didn’t like pasta, as if she hadn’t asked for it. Miguel ate even less. He was one of those prissy, suck-up gay men, the kind that always seemed to be assistant managers, whether at an office or an H&M. She doubted he had the stomach for what they were about to do, hoped he wouldn’t screw it up.
She wasn’t shy about asking for their leftovers, which they gave her. Once Gabriela paid the check, she invited them to her uncle’s apartment, so they could talk in private. From Il Vito’s street full of trendy bars and restaurants to the Alphabet City tenement, it was only a ten-minute walk. All the young, white people in designer clothes disappeared, replaced by tired looking African Americans and Latinos, and the occasional drunk and crackhead.
“Tito Hector, it’s me,” Gabriela said over the intercom. There was no reply, but someone buzzed them in. The glass door was cracked. The lobby smelled like weed. The elevator took five minutes to arrive and rattled on its way up.
Kendra could smell the cigarettes from the hall. Gabriela knocked on the door. An old man with a walker opened it. He had a white, plastic collar around his neck, which she recognized from her time at the hospital. She couldn’t imagine how he smoked, physically, after a tracheotomy.
“Uncle Hector, these are the friends from work I told you about,” Gabriela said. He smiled, then slunk back to the television blaring in the living room. They sat down in the kitchen. To Kendra’s relief, Gabriela got on with it. Kendra wanted to leave as soon as possible. Decrepit Hector gave her the creeps.
The plan involved a claim for a patient Robert Cohen billed to a small insurance carrier, Panacea Health. Miguel remembered it well. As it involved a high balance, it fell under his receivable. Although the hospital was out-of-network, Panacea Health had approved Mr. Cohen’s kidney transplant. Unfortunately for Mr. Cohen, his employer switched insurance plans during his extensive inpatient stay, leaving Panacea Health with little incentive to make good on its promise to pay. Panacea Health deemed the approval null and void. Ostensibly, the services rendered did not match the preapproved service codes.
One week ago, three years after Mr. Cohen’s transplant, and after a lawsuit filed by Mr. Cohen’s estate, Panacea Health issued the hospital a check for eight hundred thousand dollars. The claim was paid at total charges. Some out-of-network carriers, Gabriela reminded them, used in-network companies for pricing claims. What if Panacea Health, Gabriela asked, was entitled to remit payment at, for example, Unified Care’s contractual rate? Panacea Health would be due a refund of roughly half-a-million dollars.
Miguel would prepare the refund request form. Gabriela, as his manager, would sign off on it. Soon thereafter, Kendra would print it out and stamp it with the hospital’s signature. Uncoincidentally, Hector Rivera, a longtime patient at the hospital, was currently owed fifty dollars for mailing in his copay twice. It could easily appear to be human error if Kendra were to switch the names of the payees. However, if no one caught the discrepancy, Gabriela, Miguel, Kendra and Hector would find themselves substantially richer, with the errant refund being split four ways.
“It’s best to do it as soon as possible. As you can see, my uncle’s in very poor health,” Gabriela said. Having watched her negotiate with insurance carriers, Miguel saw through her tactics. She always said the biggest mistake was allowing the opposing side time to think it over.
“How do we know your uncle’s not going to keep it, or give you your cut and screw us over?” Kendra asked. Miguel hoped she would turn Gabriela down. The idea of committing a crime made him feel sick. He didn’t know Kendra well. When at Insurance Receivables, she had kept mostly to herself. He remembered that she was constantly exasperating Gabriela, though he never saw the attitude Gabriela claimed she had. He did spy her once slipping a bottle of dish soap into her purse.
“You’d tell the police, wouldn’t you, leave an anonymous tip?” Gabriela said. Kendra nodded.
“And my uncle’s dying. He doesn’t want the money for himself. I promised him I would track down the daughter he never sees, in San Juan. He’s giving his share to her. He needs me to find her,” Gabriela explained.
“What if the hospital does an audit? Won’t the bank find it suspicious, a man living at the poverty level depositing such a huge check?” he asked. He felt desperate to find holes in the plan, probably because, somewhere, he knew he would agree to it. With a hundred and twenty-five grand, he could go to grad school, get a job he actually liked. He should have been a professor; others often told him that. He had the perfect disposition for it, studious, patient and principled.
“An audit? Thanks to Medipay, our records are in shambles. Besides, no one wants to scrutinize the money we’re losing. A Cayman Islands bank account has already been created for my uncle. I suggest we all set up our own. You’ll find they ask very few questions,” Gabriela said. As usual, she had considered every detail. He never would have thought so before, but now, he realized, she made the perfect criminal mastermind.
“Okay,” Kendra muttered.
“Okay,” Miguel said. Despite his reluctance, he felt he had no choice. It was as if he was stuck in the wrong life and Gabriela, or fate, was offering him an escape.
“Let’s do it Thursday. That means the check will go out Friday,” Gabriela said. They agreed, then went their separate ways. Sparing no expense, Gabriela ordered Ubers to take them home.
Miguel didn’t sleep that night. He kept thinking of Robert Cohen. Miguel had written dozens of letters to Panacea Health. He had sent three sets of medical records, exhausting every level of appeal. Somewhere in his drawers were all the letters he had sent to Panacea Health and the upheld denials he had received back. If things went awry, Gabriela could claim it was his idea. It was quite possibly already her backup plan.
The next day at work, Wednesday, he searched through his paperwork the moment he arrived at his cubicle. If a claim was difficult, he kept all the documentation in case further follow up was needed. At first, getting payment filled him with pride. Eventually, he realized the absurdity of it all. If companies like Panacea Health did the right thing, he wouldn’t be needed. If the hospital didn’t have to pay his salary, the cost of services could be lower. Better yet, healthcare should be free. Patients should be treated because it was humane, not to earn a profit.
As Gabriela passed his cubicle, she gave him a worried look. Papers were strewn all over his desk and the floor around him. She either knew what he was up to, or thought he was losing it. Regardless, she wasn’t concerned about him, only her precious plan. It took him an hour to find Mr. Cohen’s paperwork. It was misfiled in his top left drawer, where his oldest accounts were. As he removed the rubber-banded papers, a glossy leaflet fell out, fluttering to his feet.
He gazed at it for a moment before recognizing what it was. He picked it up, setting aside Mr. Cohen’s file. He had kept it out of sentiment six years ago, and it still evoked tender feelings. It was the only thing here that mattered, he realized. These documents represented millions of dollars in revenue, but all he cared about was a playbill printed on cheap quality paper.
Kendra spent her morning daydreaming about what a hundred and twenty-five grand would buy. There were the little things, like new clothes for Cory. Twice, he came home crying because some asshole kid made fun of his patches. She could get him out of public school, into St. Xavier’s Academy. She knew school was where it started, where the future doctors and cashiers were separated.
She would buy things for herself too. She had never left the country, never met the relatives she had in Kingston. She wouldn’t go there, or anywhere in the Caribbean. Beaches bored her. She wouldn’t want to visit a big, cramped city either. She wanted to go to Iceland. She had read on Wikipedia that Iceland was full of volcanoes, not ice. Volcanoes had seemed strange and mystical to her ever since she was little. After she grew up, it always made her sad that she would probably die without seeing one.
Wednesdays were quiet, so she had hours to think about all the volcanoes she would visit. She could meet a man, or several. White, black, Eskimo: it didn’t matter, as long as he was hot. Iceland had a lot of clubs, she had read: clubs and volcanoes. She hadn’t stepped inside a club since Marcia died. Marcia would always watch Cory when asked, even if she grumbled a bit.
“Hello? Hello? You are working?” a voice said. She turned to see a white woman behind the glass partition. She looked around Kendra’s age, in her late twenties. Kendra could tell from her accent that she was Russian. Each time a Russian came to her booth, she knew she was in for trouble. They fought over every penny.
“Hello, how may I help you?” Kendra asked.
“I cannot pay bills. I am not millionaire. It is outrageous, the prices. So crazy, is criminal!” the Russian snapped.
“That’s the U.S. healthcare system.” Kendra shrugged. “How can I help you?” she asked, certain that she couldn’t help at all, that the Russian just wanted to complain and be an annoyance.
“I’m Elena Petrov. You told me to bring this.” She lifted a manila folder so that Kendra could see it through the glass. “Is my taxes, my assets, my rent, my whole everything. You said bring to show I cannot pay. Who can pay? No one can pay that.”
“You’re in the wrong area. You want the social worker. Go outside, walk to the Second Avenue entrance and turn left. It’s down the hall to your right.” People always thought the cashier handled anything having to do with money.
“What you talk about? You send me that way, the guard send me this way. You’re all idiots!” Elena shouted.
“Excuse me?” Kendra huffed. She noticed a hand yanking Elena’s arm.
“What is it? What happened, mom?” Kendra heard. She stepped forward and peered down. A bald little boy sat in a wheelchair.
“I need give these forms. You take, please?” Elena pled.
“I can’t. I’m sure you have to sign something,” Kendra said. At this point, she would have taken it if she could, just to get rid of them. Sick children made her uncomfortable.
“Is very important. They tell me my insurance no good, but doctor tells me Leon needs come here. So, I give old insurance card, from when my husband still working. But good insurance ended, so bills come to me. Wouldn’t you do same, to save your boy? Now I must prove I am poor or pay up. Do I look like Kim Kardashian?” Elena’s voice choked with emotion. Kendra scowled. She had enough of her own problems.
“I can’t do anything,” Kendra sighed.
“Half a million dollars!” Elena shouted. Kendra gasped. It was the same amount that they were planning to steal. Even if Elena couldn’t possibly know that, Kendra could hear accusation in her voice.
“Will everything be okay?” the boy, Leon, asked worriedly. Kendra was usually careful not to be too helpful to patients and their families. They remembered your name, tracked you down each time they had a problem. Yet, she couldn’t just send Elena away. It was the mention of the money. She felt guilty, as if the half a million the boy needed for his treatment was the same half a million they were about to take.
“Calm down. If you can’t pay it, all you have to do is give the documents. Do you want me to walk you there?” Kendra asked. She stepped out of the booth and walked around to her.
“Just watch my son.” At once, Elena hurried off towards the exit.
“Hey!” Kendra called out, but she was gone. Leon glanced up at her. He had to be about Cory’s age. Following protocol, she should have taken him to the security office. It would also keep her from having to stare at him. The longer she did, the less victimless her crime seemed.
“Hello,” he said, smiling at her.
“Come on.” She pushed his wheelchair through the side door of her booth. Hopefully her boss wouldn’t drop by.
“Stay quiet,” she said, positioning him in the corner. She logged the morning payments, trying to blot him out. Though she avoided looking at him, she couldn’t help thinking about him. It felt like too much of a coincidence, the half a million dollars, the sick boy, Cory’s age, the mother, putting her son’s life over money. There were worse things than being poor. Kendra didn’t believe in God or signs. Marcia did, though. Marcia would have told her, this was an omen. “Forget that foolish plan,” she would have said. “Think of Cory. Think of all you have, and all that could go wrong.”
She could hear Marcia’s voice, begging, “Please, be good, for once, before it’s too late.” Of course, she had never listened to Marcia, or she wouldn’t have been a college dropout with a kid, but now that she was dead, it felt like she had to. You couldn’t ignore an angel.
“Can I play with your phone?” Leon asked, after five minutes of staring silently at the wall.
“No,” she snapped. At that moment, she hated him. She would never see a volcano in her life, and it was his fault.
Miguel sat in the back as Angel performed onstage. Like most of Angel’s plays, Just Leap, was off, off Broadway, and not great. As usual, Angel was the best part. While the other actors flubbed their lines, were stiff or melodramatic, Angel was effortlessly captivating. Miguel was cast in the central role of Felipe, loosely based on a real patron during the raid on Stonewall, an illegal immigrant who leapt from a second-floor window to evade arrest.
Angel didn’t seem to notice him. Miguel hadn’t gone there to talk to him anyway. He just wanted to see him again. After coming across the playbill at work today, he had Googled Angel’s name, which brought up Just Leap, running at The East Harlem Playhouse.
During the last scene, as Felipe watched his friends rally on TV from his hospital bed, Miguel heard sniffling throughout the theater. Those tears were owed entirely to Angel’s performance, certainly not the ham-fisted script. As Angel took to the stage for his curtain call, Miguel stood and clapped; everyone did.
Once the actors left and the audience dispersed, Miguel lingered for a moment, reflecting on his and Angel’s relationship. All the things that had driven them apart, Miguel’s jealousy, Angel’s mood swings, Miguel’s being closeted, Angel’s erratic work schedule, seemed minor in hindsight. They had shared a connection that was beautiful and rare; he hadn’t appreciated it enough at the time.
Miguel turned to leave. Angel stood before him. He was in his stage clothes, ultra-tight Levi’s, a wifebeater and a corduroy jacket. Still slim and boyishly handsome, he had aged little.
“You look good,” Angel said. Miguel gaped at him, overcome with longing and regret. “You can compliment me too. Just a suggestion,” Angel said. Miguel laughed.
“You look great,” Miguel said.
“Great? That’s the best you can do?” Angel scoffed. “Didn’t you use to love using big words?”
“To be honest, you look like a cheap hustler from the disco era,” Miguel said.
“Bitch.” Angel broke into giggles.
“And you also look beguiling,” Miguel said.
“Beguiling, I like that,” Angel smiled. “So, what brought you out here? I know it wasn’t Just Leap. If the theater had windows, half the audience would pull a Felipe before intermission.”
“I found the playbill for Dayton Nights in my desk. I was feeling nostalgic, I guess,” Miguel said.
“For Dayton?” Angel said. Miguel shook his head, no.
“For all the fun we had. Going to your shows. Bringing you flowers afterwards,” Miguel reminisced.
“So, where’s my bouquet?” Angel asked. Blushing, Miguel shrugged.
“It’s all right. I remember you were such a sweetheart. Every guy I’ve dated since has been an asshole, including my current boyfriend,” Angel said.
Miguel frowned. He supposed, unconsciously, he might have wished for a reconciliation. Even if Angel were unattached, it would have been hopeless. Miguel was the same loser he always was. He thought, perhaps, he should have waited until he was a hundred and twenty-five grand richer.
“I should go. Congratulations, you were amazing. You always were,” Miguel said. He turned to leave.
“Do you want to walk me to the subway? I’m heading to the Village. I’ve got a bartending gig at ten,” Angel said. Miguel turned around, grinning. Maybe he did have a chance. Angel having an asshole boyfriend was more auspicious than Angel having a fantastic one.
“Sure,” Miguel said.
“I just have to change in my dressing room. You better come with me. Our usher’s a real huevón, hates loiterers,” Angel said, glancing at the uniformed man by the back exit. Miguel followed him through the backstage door. They walked past a closed door with a dressing room sign, where Miguel heard laughter and chatter.
“I have my own,” Angel boasted. He opened a door and yanked the light chain. Inside were shelves with plates, glasses, badges, batons and stethoscopes. Slumped in the corner was the mannequin used for Felipe’s dramatic fall.
“You dress in the prop closet?” Miguel asked, unsurprised. Angel had always been shy about his body.
“You know how modest I am. I’m a good Catholic girl.” Angel shut the door. “Now turn around. I know you’ve seen it all before, but it’s six years saggy-er.” Miguel rolled his eyes, but did as he was told. Miguel had dated Angel for a month before he had seen him naked. At the time, Miguel hadn’t realized how abnormal that was for a gay relationship. Looking back, he found it sweet. He liked that sex actually meant something to him.
“So, your boyfriend’s an asshole?” Miguel asked.
“He’s a no-good drunk who cheats on me. Too bad I’m not a country star. I’d get a good song out of it,” Angel sighed. Miguel was happy that Angel was opening up to him. He yearned for the intimacy they used to share.
“My boss has a scheme to embezzle half a million from the hospital. I’m supposed to go through with it tomorrow,” Miguel said. He needed to confide in someone; there was no one he had ever trusted as much as Angel.
“What?” Angel grabbed his shoulders and twisted him around. He was shirtless, but had on his jeans. He wasn’t saggy. If anything, he had more definition than he used to.
“I’ve got to do it. This is my chance to make something of myself,” Miguel said. He thought Angel would understand. He knew how smart Miguel was, how pained he was, constantly, by his wasted potential.
“You’re not a criminal! I mean, one time you found a fifty-dollar bill and brought it to a police station. All the cops laughed at you. You’ll get caught. Why are you telling me right now? Only a pendejo brags before he does the job!” Angel shook Miguel back and forth, shouting. Miguel couldn’t help smirking. Angel was always so dramatic.
“I should have been a professor. If I don’t do this, I’ll never be one,” Miguel said.
“We all ‘should have been’ something. I should have been the next Antonio Banderas. I’d settle for being the next Charo. We have to make the most of what we have,” Angel asserted. Miguel knew he could never be happy with what he had now, but he thought his life might seem less a failure with Angel in it. The tenderness in Angel’s eyes convinced him that Angel felt the same longing he did.
“Do you ever think ‘we’ should have been something?” Miguel asked. Angel let go of Miguel and glanced away.
“Sometimes,” Angel said plaintively. “Why don’t you quit that job, get away from your awful boss?”
“And do what?” Miguel asked. He wanted to hear more about how Angel regretted them breaking up. But Angel never revealed anything before he was ready. Hopefully, they would come back to it.
“Anything else. Do you know how many bars, restaurants and temp agencies I’ve got in my phone contacts? I can get you work in twenty minutes,” Angel said.
“You’d do that for me?” Miguel said. Angel crossed his arms and glowered at him, as if offended by even the question.
“Speaking of work, I’ve got to get going,” Angel said. He put on his shirt. “Come to the bar with me. Have a drink, on the house. I’ll try to talk you out of your terrible plan. Maybe you can talk me out of my terrible relationship.” Miguel nodded, accepting the offer and challenge.
Thursday at work, Gabriela arrived from the restroom to find an interoffice envelope sitting on her desk. Seeing that it was from Cashiering, she opened it immediately. She stared incredulously at the sheet of paper with two, handwritten words, “I’m out.”
Remaining calm, she tore it into quarters and dropped it into her waste bin. She chastised herself for ever including unreliable Kendra in her plan. She would think of something else. Mr. Cohen’s claim wasn’t the only one ripe for exploiting. Miguel was more familiar with high dollar accounts; she would ask him.
Miguel hadn’t been at his cubicle. She had assumed he had stepped away. Peering over, she noticed his coat wasn’t on his chair. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she glanced down at her desk phone. Her message light was blinking. She put the receiver to her ear, hit “play.” The call was made at 4:46 AM.
“Hello, yes, hi, um, Gabriela? Yeah, I…stop it, I’m trying to [laughter]…Sorry, I’m going to be out tomorrow. I mean today. I have something: an appointment, a sudden appointment.”
“Tell her you’re quitting,” a voice in the background said.
“I’m also putting in my two-weeks-notice…And I’ll be out tomorrow too.”
“So, you’ll come to my audition?” the background voice asked.
“Shhh…[laughter] I’m sorry, Gabriela, I really am. Um, see you Monday.” The phone clicked. Miguel was drunk. She could hear it in his voice. She hit “delete.” His desertion stung worse than Kendra’s. She liked him, admired his intellect and work ethic. It was a shame he was such a coward.
Not everyone possessed her strength of character. She never let setbacks stop her. She would get the money somehow. After working there for nineteen years, the hospital owed it to her. It had cost her every relationship. Each one of her boyfriends had told her, in so many words, “it’s either that job or me.” With the hours she put in, she should have been head of the department. Unfortunately, she had no talent for office politics. Pandering to be liked felt beneath her.
She was meant for more than this. She was so smart as a girl, at the top of her class. She was supposed to be different from the rest of her family, her father, who served time for armed robbery, her drug trafficking brother, and Hector, a former Latin King. She bombed her SATs; nerves got the better of her. She ended up at City College. If she were rich, a private tutor could have boosted her score. She could have gone to Harvard, paid the tuition like it was nothing.
Her job wasn’t completely devoid of satisfaction. She was good at dealing with insurance companies, outsmarting them, exploiting their incompetence. No matter what tactics she employed, she never doubted she was on the right side. Insurance penny pinching killed countless patients every day.
Right and wrong became less clear the day a conman from Medipay sold the hospital a piece of junk system. She had attended several of the early meetings with Medipay. Barry, the Head of Finance, had invited her, seeking her input. Though there were a dozen salesmen from Medipay, one in particular took the lead. His name was Devin. He was middle-aged, but handsome, tall and solidly built.
She saw through his phoniness immediately. His promises were so outrageous they couldn’t be true. He knew nothing about billing, had to Google what “ICD 10” meant. But he made funny jokes, sounded so convincing. She didn’t voice her concerns. She couldn’t have known that Medipay’s system would turn out so shoddy, but she had also admired his cunning. She had found herself rooting for him over her gullible colleagues.
Devin must have made a fortune off that sale. She couldn’t begrudge him. The sick didn’t deserve to be swindled, but suckers did. Devin saw an opportunity and took it. He didn’t need to be qualified or knowledgeable. All he needed was confidence and daring.
Her plan would have worked; she was sure of it. She supposed the prospect of prison had scared off Miguel and Kendra. Kendra must have thought of her son. She should have thought how her son’s life would now be as petty as her own. Miguel panicked, turned to a lover for comfort. Gabriela had no love in her life, no one to hold her back. Rather, her thoughts focused on Devin. He taught her to never underestimate the stupidity of others.
She opened up Medipay. Of course, it froze while loading. She had to “x” out and sign back in. She pulled up Robert Cohen’s account. She clicked on the refund form. As she entered the amount, “504,231.03,” her mouth salivated. After the refund was forwarded back to her for approval, the cashier would print it out and stamp the check. Would Kendra stop it? Only if she did her job and noticed. Gabriela wasn’t too worried.
“Payable to…” She stopped at that field. Did she have to include Hector? He was another unpredictable variable, like Kendra and Miguel. She could still give his share to his daughter. Or, she could not, and say she did.
“Gabriela Rivera,” she typed. She entered her home address. It was a risk, but no one got rich playing it safe. She clicked “Submit.”
“So easy,” she muttered. She grinned. By early next week, she would be holding that check in her hand. It was better than love. It would never hurt her, never betray her.
When Kendra saw it, she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She thought of Marcia, all the chances she had given her. Even now, she felt Marcia watching over her, protecting her. She shredded it without telling anyone, thinking, if it happened again, she wouldn’t be so kind.
Joyce Ker is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University whose poetry has appeared in TAB Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Tule Review, Louisville Review, and Boxcar Poetry Review. She is a California Arts Scholar and alumna of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Ker has been nominated for the Best New Poets anthology and the Pushcart Prize.