You Owe Me One ~ Karen Wunsch

As Georgia was walking Sam, the dog of a friend, he lunged after another dog and
Georgia was so startled she dropped the leash. Before she could get it again, Sam ran away. They were on a residential Manhattan street, but there was steady traffic. Georgia was calling “Sam!” and crying when a young man who lived in her building appeared and offered to help. A few minutes later he found Sam sniffing a tree trunk a few blocks away. Georgia, who’d stopped crying, burst into tears of relief.

“I’m so grateful!” she said.

“You owe me one!”

Georgia assumed he was kidding.

His name was Jesse. Although she’d seen him around, their building had sixteen floors and two elevator lines, and she didn’t know anything about him. Skinny, just a little taller than her five feet five, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties. He had a narrow face, longish dark hair, and wore a pea coat and tight jeans. Georgia, almost forty, decided there was something feral about him, sexy rather than handsome.

As they walked to their building, she kept stopping to check Sam’s leash.

“I have a poodle,” Jesse said. “She was my mom’s.”

Georgia, not sure if his mother was alive, just nodded.

When they got to their lobby—beige modern furniture and ornate chandeliers—he
said he lived with his father in the three-bedroom line. Georgia was in a one-bedroom, on the side of the building without a view of the Hudson.

She wondered if she’d seen his father around.

“He’s a lawyer, but basically he helps rich people buy art. He travels a lot.” Jesse
gave her what she thought was an appraising look. “He was a young dad.” He bit his
thumbnail. “Women are always telling me how charming he is.”

Georgia touched her curly dark hair, which she wore pulled back. There was
something about Jesse that made her feel off-balance.

He said he’d dropped out of NYU for a few years to work in the music business.
Now he was back in school and had an internship writing copy for an ad agency. They’d promised him a full time job when he graduated. He couldn’t wait to get his own apartment.

“So, Georgia, what do you do when you’re not dog sitting?”

She said she worked in admissions at a pre-school.

It turned out he’d gone there.

“I probably couldn’t get in now. I hear it’s become one of those Baby Ivies.” He
bit his thumbnail again. “Do you have kids of your own?”

“No kids.”


“Nope!” She’d stopped telling people that she’d been married, briefly, right after

“Actually, I should go,” she told him. “I don’t know how to thank you. If there’s
ever anything I can do….”

She waited for him to say how he was happy to have helped.

“We’ll see.” He gave her a big smile. “I’ll think of something.”

A few days later she noticed an attractive man in his early fifties, wearing a
leather jacket and expensive-looking boots, going out of the building. If she’d seen him in a different context she wouldn’t have noticed a resemblance to Jesse, but it was there, although his hair was a lighter brown and not as long.

“That man who just went out…” she said to the doorman, “does he have a poodle
and a son named Jesse?”

“That’s him. Ethan.”


The next time Georgia saw Jesse he was coming in and she was going out, carrying her late mother’s fur coat. She could still faintly smell her perfume.

“Nice coat,” Jesse said.

She was embarrassed. “It was my mom’s. I don’t believe in wearing fur, but she died three years ago and I can’t bring myself to just get rid of it.” The coat had first belonged to the wealthy daughter of an older man her mother been kind to when he was ill. Although her mother had had it altered, Vivienne, the woman’s name, was still embroidered across the lining.

“I’m taking it to a tailor to see if he can line my winter coat with it.”

“Don’t you know anything?” Jesse said. “Fur is really sexy.”

Georgia was taken aback. Part of her job was interviewing parents, and she prided
herself on her ability to read people, but Jesse was confusing. He wasn’t exactly
flirtatious. Maybe he was gay, although he didn’t seem gay.

“Don’t forget, you owe me one,” he said pleasantly as they parted.


It was application season and especially busy at school. Every season had its own
rhythm, but things were never quiet and Georgia enjoyed this about her job. Although the parents tended to be privileged and have a sense of entitlement, the application process made them anxious and Georgia liked helping people who were under stress.

At the moment she was running a Q and A in one of the classrooms for a group of
prospective parents before their interviews with the director. They sat tensely in the children’s brightly colored seats. Trying to be informal and non-threatening, Georgia sat on the teacher’s table. Her dark dress was short but demure. She wore pearl earrings and subtle eye make-up; her curls were pulled back into a glittering barrette.

After her PowerPoint presentation, she patiently answered the often repetitious,
sometimes irrelevant or aggressive questions that were almost always covered in the school catalogue.

“And don’t forget to breathe,” she joked at the end.

When she went to her office she was surprised and happy to see her colleague
Jim, who was on child-care leave and had dropped in to say Hi. He was smart and funny and they’d often have coffee or lunch together. He’d been married when they’d met, and Georgia liked his wife, too. As they looked at pictures of his baby and Georgia filled him in on gossip, she realized how much she’d missed him.

After he left, she sat at her neat desk and stared into space. For the first time in a
long time she worried she’d end up alone like her mother, who’d fallen in love with one unavailable man after another. Georgia had vowed to be different, but she’d married a man who’d turned out to be an alcoholic. She’d gone on to have other relationships that seemed more promising, but nothing lasted. And now here she was, almost forty and still alone. Unlike her single woman friends she wasn’t desperate to marry, but she was lonely. Dreading going back to her neat and orderly—except for her unwashed coffee cup in the sink—apartment, she told herself to breathe. It didn’t help.


Over the next few days, as Georgia went in and out of her building she’d catch
herself looking for Ethan. But it was Jesse she saw one Saturday, carrying a shopping bag from Saks.

“Where’s your mink?” he asked her.

“’Your mink’” annoyed her. “It’s still at the tailor’s,” she said.

He held up the Saks bag. “I got some clothes for my mom.” He explained she’d
suffered for years from a neurological disease and now had early dementia.

Georgia could feel herself becoming sympathetic.

“The laundry in her nursing home is always losing her clothes. Or they give her
someone else’s. My dad gets her extra stuff in a thrift shop, but I won’t do that.”

Georgia was touched. Idly she asked where the nursing home was.

“Jersey.” He gave her his shrewd look. “It’s just across the bridge, but it’s sort of
a lonely trip.”

She couldn’t believe he’d ask her—as some kind of bizarre payback—to go there
with him. She decided he wasn’t that crazy.

“I’m not going to ask you to go with me.” He smiled.

He was really preposterous. She remembered how he’d told her how charming his
dad was, almost as if he were…pimping for him.

She sighed. “I’ve got to go.”

“That’s okay,” Jesse said.

The next time she saw him he was in the lobby with a fancily groomed poodle and
a skinny blonde woman his age in a belted tan coat. There was something about the
closeness of their bodies that made Georgia think they slept together.

“This is my mom’s dog,” Jesse said. “Jane.” He didn’t introduce the blonde.

Georgia decided that even if she met his dad and they really hit it off, no amount
of charm would be worth having such a weird stepson.


When her doorbell rang on a Saturday afternoon without the doorman having
called up first, she assumed it was her neighbor, an old man who occasionally asked for help with his computer.

“It’s Jesse.”

She partially opened the door.

He wore a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and jeans.

“I’m bored, and my dad’s home with a date.”

Georgia just stood there. It couldn’t be easy to have his dad dating, but she wasn’t
going to ask him in.

“Can I come in?”

On the other hand, he lived in the building. And he’d found Sam. Even now she
couldn’t bear to think about how she’d almost lost him. “Just for a minute. I’ve got work to do.”

He sat on the sofa. She sat on a chair across from him. She didn’t offer him
anything to drink.

He talked about one of his courses. Georgia half-listened.

“So! Georgia!” he said. He pointed out that the pictures on her wall were too high.
He asked about her exercise routine. When she admitted she didn’t sweat when she
worked out he lectured her about how she was wasting her time. He had a theory about how people should touch their toes every day. He went on and on about how bad the food was at a neighborhood restaurant she sort of liked. He told her she should get a dog. He couldn’t believe she used margarine and not butter.

At one point he shook his head and said, “Don’t you know anything?”

She wondered why she was sitting there listening to this twenty-five year-old
college student scold her. Still, there was something sweet about his shopping at Saks for his mom.

“Did you get your mink back?” Jesse asked her.

She was wary. “Yes.”

“Can I see it?”

“You want to see my coat?”

Without waiting for an answer, she went to her closet: the sooner she got this over
with, the sooner she’d get rid of him.

Her coat was black wool, with shiny black buttons and a round collar. Although
she’d had the new lining for a while, it hadn’t been very cold and she hadn’t worn the coat yet.

She held it so Jesse could see the mink inside.

“Put it on,” he said.

“I’m not going to put it on.” She showed him the front and the back. “Here. You
can see it this way.”

“Put it on.”

He sounded vaguely threatening.

She just stood there. Still, sooner or later she’d be wearing the coat and she’d run
into him and of course he’d see her in it. And it wasn’t as if he were asking her to model lingerie.

“If I do it,” she said slyly, “I won’t owe you one. My ‘debt’ will be paid?”


Shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe the stupidity of what was happening,
she put on her coat. It was closely fitted on the top and then flared out a little. It came to the middle of her knees.

“You missed a button,” Jesse said.

She felt irritable like when she was in middle school and her mom would make
her try on winter clothes in August.

“Not bad,” Jesse said. “May I?” He got up and walked toward her.

She stepped back.

“I just want to open the top button.”


“It’ll look better.”

“This is so stupid,” she muttered, unbuttoning it.

“That’s better. Look in the mirror.”

“I’m not looking in the mirror.”

“I want you to see how sexy you look.”

“Thanks so much,” she said sarcastically, taking off the coat.

Hanging it up, she realized she could no longer smell her mother’s perfume,
White Shoulders, a heavy scent she’d douse herself with every morning. Her mother was romantic and sentimental. She’d told Georgia she’d chosen her name so that “one day when your husband takes you to Paris, he’ll sing ‘Georgia on My Mind’ to you on the Champs Elysee.” Georgia hated the song, and her own perfume was light and delicate.

But she was sad she could no longer smell her mother’s White Shoulders.

“Hey! Are you okay?” Jesse asked her.

She’d forgotten he was there. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” He seemed concerned.

“I’m sure. I’ve got work to do.” As soon as he was gone she’d do something
relaxing like take a bath. It was still light out, but maybe she’d pour herself a big glass of wine and sip it while she soaked.
“You’re sure you’re sure?”

“Yes. I also have work to do.”

She waited for him to argue, but he shrugged.

After he left she realized that at least her stupid “debt” was paid.


Georgia started wearing her hair loose, and got many compliments. For several
weeks she went out with a friend of a friend, but they agreed it wasn’t going anywhere. She had the brakes on her bike adjusted and planned to ride it more often. She thought about applying for a job at an arts council. When she didn’t see Jesse for several months, she wondered if he’d moved out.

Late one afternoon in the spring, he rang her bell.

She barely opened the door. “What?”

“I’m miserable!”

“Did something happen with your mom?” She felt had for him.

“She’s the same.” He bit his thumbnail. “Can I come in?”

She opened the door, but didn’t move.

“What’s that noise?” he asked her.

“They’re renovating the apartment upstairs.”

“It’s loud!”

“I know.”

“What’s your neighbor doing for your pain and suffering?”

She lowered her voice. “Actually, they just sent me a fruit basket.”

“That’s it?”

She waited for him to lecture her.

“Let’s talk in my apartment. It’s quieter. My dad’s away. ”

“I have plans,” she said, although her friend had cancelled.

“It won’t take long.”

She’d never seen an apartment in his line and was vaguely curious. She checked
what she was wearing. Black pants and a blue and white striped jersey—neither sexy nor demure.

“Just for a few minutes,” she said.

In the elevator she realized she was still wearing her slippers.


The living room, much bigger than hers, had views of the Hudson. Georgia didn’t
see any photos of Jesse’s mom. Ethan probably didn’t want his girlfriends to feel
inhibited. Georgia wasn’t sure if she approved. She sat in what she thought was an Eames chair.

Jesse offered her some of his dad’s scotch. She’d never tried single malt. He
poured her a big shot, then sat on the floor with Jane.

“You’re not drinking anything?” Georgia asked him.

“I don’t drink. Not even coffee.”

Maybe he’d had an alcohol or drug problem. It was hard to tell anything with him.
She waited for him to tell her why he was unhappy, but he just sat there petting Jane. Perfectly groomed, she looked regal. Georgia thought of Jesse’s mom, in a room in Jersey, wearing someone else’s faded pajamas.

“I really like this girl in my statistics class,” Jesse said finally.

He showed her Mia’s Facebook picture. She was blonde, not the blonde Georgia
had seen him with, but also very pretty.

He’d only talked to her twice, briefly, and he couldn’t tell what she thought of
him. He hoped that another student he’d seen her with a few times wasn’t her boyfriend.

“I really like her,” he said almost shyly.

Trying not to smile because he sounded so “normal,” Georgia gave him the advice
she often gave: try to make your own life so satisfying that you’d have to think twice
about changing it for anyone.

“It’s what I try to do in my own life,” she concluded weakly, remembering how
lately it wasn’t working very well.

Jesse was rubbing Jane’s belly and didn’t seem to be listening.

“So, Georgia, what music do you like?” he asked her after a while. “Jazz? Frank

Do I seem that old? she wanted to say. “I just sit around in my mink all day,”
she said, “listening to the Great American songbook!”

He didn’t even smile.

“Actually, my mom loved Sinatra,” she said. “I mainly listen to podcasts. I should
listen to more music.” She could feel the scotch. “I’ll tell you one song I hate. ‘ Georgia on My Mind.’” She realized he’d probably never heard of it.

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s about Georgia the state, but it could also be about a woman. Ray Charles
sang the most famous version.”

“I’ve heard of Ray Charles.”

He took out his phone and played the song.

When it was over, he said, “Not bad.”

He went to the bookcase, plugged his phone into the stereo, and played the song
again. “Do you mind?”

Maybe it was the scotch, but it sounded pretty good to her.

Jesse stood up. When Georgia realized he wanted to dance, she let him pull her

As he put his arms around her, Jane barked, then walked away.

He was a little tentative, as if he weren’t used to slow dancing. He didn’t have any
smell she could identify. Through his linen shirt, his body felt hard and skinny. She
couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard “Georgia on My Mind.” She should have
taken her mom to Paris. Her mom had never even been to Europe. Georgia had been there, twice, but she hadn’t gone to Paris.

Jesse drew her closer. Feeling him get hard, she pulled back a little. Neither of
them said anything. He kept dancing, and so did she.

Jane was barking again, but the music was so loud that for a while neither Jesse
nor Georgia realized Ethan was there. He wore a leather jacket and carried a suitcase and a briefcase.

Jesse and Georgia quickly moved away from each other, and he turned down the

“This is Georgia.” He bit his thumbnail.

Ethan gave her a big smile, but she was so embarrassed—the dancing, his scotch,
her slippers—she could barely look at him.

He told Jesse he’d come back early because he couldn’t find some contract. He
excused himself to go look for it.

“Don’t go,” he said to Georgia.

“I’ve got to go!” she whispered to Jesse, and rushed out.

Back in her apartment, quiet now, she washed the coffee cup she’d left in the sink.
Although Ethan was definitely attractive, Georgia doubted they’d be going to Paris.
When she saw him—or Jesse—again, she’d smile and keep walking. And that would be that. She felt weirdly happy. It was probably the scotch, but she had to admit it was Jesse, too. His desiring her was flattering and, maybe, just what she needed.