Dax was right, the moon was pure and sharp and silver, but as they picked their way down the icy steps of Shelby’s apartment, Lucinda pretended to slip so she wouldn’t have to agree.
“Whoa there.” Dax steadied her. He plucked the HAPPY BRTHDAY bag from her arms.
“I’m fine.” But she let him take it. The bag was stuffed with the sort of trinkets old friends knew to gift you. Redolent with backstory. Their value born of meaning, not price. Her childhood neighbor Richard, for example, had given her Kim Kardashian’s sex tape. When the series premiered she’d been seven, and the tape seemed a flag of adulthood, flown by TMZ and her parents’ whispering friends.
“Cold enough for you?” Dax held open Lucinda’s door, then moved to set the bag in the car’s storage compartment.
“I better hold that.”
Richard had air dropped the file, but presented her with a slip of paper. (“This gift certificate is good for one dose of porn and nostalgia,” it said.) But Shelby’s present was breakable. Lucinda settled the bag’s bulk on her lap.
In the driver’s seat, Dax stared forward without blinking. The delay while the old car scanned his retinal serial code had to have lasted forty seconds. On their second date, he’d apologized, but she could see he was proud of something; thriftiness or values, she assumed.
“Tell me more about the grandpa thing.” Dax asked, once he could blink and drive.
“Oh.” Lucinda shrugged. “That.”
She and Shelby had been buying each other awkward greeting cards since high school. Happy Quinceanera for Christmas, God Bless your Newborn for graduation. Tonight’s gift was a leveling up. “Is this what we’re doing now; joke gifts?” Lucinda had asked after Shelby collapsed, laughing.
“Coffee is a hug from Grandpa in a Mug,” her college friend, Jill leaned over, reading.
“It’s vintage,” Shelby managed to say.
Now, Lucinda tapped her seat-warmer. “I don’t miss coffee, but it still seems depressing to drink tea out of it. Plus, most of the kitchen is reserved for communal stuff. I guess I should keep it though. Maybe I’ll use it for storing bracelets or pins.”
Dax nodded. “If it makes Shelby laugh, that’s what counts.”
Shelby was one of those people whom time had made circumspect. When they were kids, she drank pickle juice at slumber parties, and knew all the dirtiest song lyrics. If offered the choice, she always chose dare. But her mother had died of cardiomyopathy when she and Lucinda were in college. Her father had been an early adopter, using the life insurance policy to purchase an Alpha. The technology had been in its infancy, and there’d been glitches, then a period in which it had seemed Shelby’s father himself might die of heartbreak, having lost two wives in two years. Yet prepping Dax for the birthday party, Lucinda hardly touched on Shelby’s mother’s death and her father’s adventures in technology and depression. The defining features of her friend’s life had shifted. In her late thirties, Shelby was Crushing Debt and Son Whose T-Ball Coach Molested Him. Alex had been the one to scrawl the misspelled birthday greeting on Lucinda’s bag.
Lucinda watched Dax navigate the car out of the unplowed cul-de-sac. What made life unsatisfying, she thought, was the lack of end-zone. Death didn’t count; yours was really other people’s experience. It wasn’t like you made it there to towel off while officials reviewed the score. Looking back, her own life had divided into sections. The Chicago Years, The Solid Skincare Segment, The Job Where Everyone Spent Summer Fridays On Rooftops Drinking Red Wine. It was only recently that she’d learned perspective: Ten years from now, she might live in the rustic suburbs like Shelby. She might be in her Book Group Epoch, like her mom’s friends. Now wasn’t forever. She knew that from experience. Each time she thought she’d made it into life’s meat, she’d been wrong.
“You didn’t have to drive me.” She shifted toward the cold window.
“It’s your birthday.”
“That was yesterday.”
Dax knew that. He’d left azaleas in her mailbox when she turned down his dinner invitation. A nice gesture, but she’d skittered back up to her studio after she found them, ducking as she passed the wide common room windows that faced the street.
“I got an Uber to Shelby’s.” Lucinda knew her voice sounded prickly. “My plan was just to get one home.”
Instead, all her old friends had filtered out slowly, the last, Jill from college, taking the hint when Shelby yawned.
“This one has school tomorrow.” She’d gestured at Alex.
After a tumult of coats and boots and Tupperware, Shelby’s boyfriend went to load the dishwasher, and Shelby stood with Lucinda near the door.
“Thanks for appeasing Alex. The Pictionary game was my parent’s. He’s obsessed with it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Lucinda zipped her coat. “No one’s ever done anything like this for me. I don’t know what I did to deserve it. You could have asked me to play Pictionary with Putin and I would.”
“Lucinda.” Shelby’s eyes went glassy. “You deserve everything. You’re the best grandpa there is.”
“Like Lucinda said, it really was generous of you.”
In Lucinda’s mind, the image appeared across a triptych. First, Lucinda and Shelby, then Dax’s arm snaking in to drape around Lucinda’s shoulder. Finally, Dax, centered and smiling. As if he had any right to still be there. To linger after all her old friends had gone home.
On their first date, she’d offered to make Dax a sandwich. They’d matched with a 98% A-rating and walked loops around the reservoir for three hours.
“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that.” Dax’s hair had been windswept. His cheeks flushed from enthusiasm and autumn air.
“I’m hungry and we’re like a block from my building.”
“What kind of food is your favorite?”
“Anything with chopsticks.” Lucinda tightened the belt of her mother’s vintage trench coat, iridescent silver, it captured the light of the waning sun.
The Thai restaurant Dax took her to was a damp warren. If she’d still worn glasses, they’d have fogged. Across the table, Dax smiled in a general way at the server. He pre-paid with his thumbprint. He ordered Drunken Noodles with seitan.
“That’s a guy on a first date staple.” Lucinda stirred her rice.
“Have you been on a lot of first dates?”
“Not recently. It’s just something my coworker Amber used to say.”
“Tell me about your job.” Dax forked up a mushroom.
“I’m a Brand Wizard with Amazon’s content division.”
“No kidding? Anything I’d be familiar with?”
“You remember Coke’s polar bears? I’m the one who nixed them. Or, my boss did. He said now they’re gone it would create the wrong kind of nostalgia.”
“What’s the right kind?”
“The consumer has to believe they can reach it, the thing they’re nostalgic for. Extinction kinda puts a damper on that.”
On the walk back to Lucinda’s co-living space, Dax talked about his biking route and his pet rabbit. “I like having something to be responsible for.”
“Like, you’re putting money aside for his college?”
“Mostly, I make him salads and clean up his pellets.”
“With that on your resume, you could get a job as a celebrity assistant.”
Dax laughed. “You’re funny. Actually, I’m an Optical Architect.”
As they walked, Dax said things like ‘building networks,’ and ‘playbook of solutions.’ Lucinda found herself leaning into him, his voice a distant shushing of waves.
“Do you want to see me again?” On the steps of her building, Dax faced her. Even after the grease and garlic of the restaurant, he smelled like peppermint and cloves.
“I’m free this weekend.”
After he kissed her, he turned at the base of her porch steps. “Would you really have made me a sandwich?” he asked.
“Shelby’s right about you deserving things,” Dax said now. “You should expect me to drive you. It might literally be the least I can do.” He corrected into the swerve as the car slid onto Main.
Lucinda pictured Dax popping up like a prairie dog while she said goodbye to Shelby. She liked rides as much—probably more than—anyone, but leaving with someone had meaning. That moment—its avoidance—was the whole reason she’d opted to travel to her party alone.
As they crossed over into the city, the streets became dry and tidy.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “When I was in school the suburbs meant two car garages and iPads in every classroom. Now we’ve got three suburbs sharing the same plough. How did it switch like that?” Lucinda gestured, an imitation of the suburban/city do-si-do.
“It has to do with class stratification. Wealthy suburbs were never a given. In 19th century Europe the well-to-do lived in the city center and the working class in suburban rings.”
She didn’t need a history lesson. “We’re no different from coyotes or prairie dogs. Our environment shifts and we have to adjust.”
“There are so many ways to feel helpless.” Dax’s voice tinged with empathy. Course-correcting, the way he had with the swerve.
When Lucinda was four, her mom found her swaddling one of their cats in her baby blanket.
“Babe, cat’s don’t like that,” she said, rubbing ointment on Lucinda’s scratch.
“But I’m cold.” Lucinda had watched the orange tabby thrash his tail.
“It’s good to use how you feel to understand another person,” her mom said. “That’s called empathy. But no two experiences will ever be exactly the same.”
Still, as a Brand Wizard, Lucinda relied on people using themselves as a template. Her most successful ad content showed a pair of small children touching fingers. “Are you like me?” the tagline read.
Lucinda felt certain Dax thought she’d balked at his offer for the same reason he refused her sandwich. He thought she was timid, that like him she aimed to please. But her friends knew different. Just that evening, when Shelby brought out the cake, Richard had whispered loud to his husband, “If she can’t blow all forty out, she’ll keep us here relighting them until she does.”
“I did that once when I was eight.” Lucinda stared down at the candles, a march of torch-bearing villagers on a buttercream hill.
“Was she asthmatic?” Richard’s husband dipped a mock shrimp in cocktail sauce. “Who can’t blow out eight candles?”
“Lucinda had eighty.”
“Why did I do that?” Lucinda squinted across the flames.
“In case you didn’t make it to eighty, you said.”
“That’s morbid.” Richard’s husband reached for a canapé.
“Remember those insane cakes Lawrence used to buy us?” Amber gestured with her wine glass.
“Hey, Lucinda—” Shelby moved toward her.
“Real eggs and everything.” Amber poked her husband. “Remember? I brought you a slice of mine, and you hadn’t tasted real chocolate since we were kids—”
“Lucinda.” Shelby touched her arm.
“—and you made us save it the way you do with a wedding cake. We’d take tiny bites every year.”
“Real chocolate?” Dax asked. “Where did this Lawrence guy get it?”
Lucinda stared at the candles, avoiding Shelby’s gaze.
“Our old boss,” Amber said. “He was crazy rich, he could afford it. It was sweet though, he could have been buying his wife yachts and instead he was all focused on employee morale. What?” Amber turned, her wine sloshing. Droplets like pinpricks peppered her husband’s white shirt.
“Lucinda, the wax’ll melt if you don’t hurry.”
Behind Shelby, Amber’s husband whispered something to Amber.
“Shit. I’m sorry.” Amber shook her head. “I’ve been nursing. I’m not used to wine.”
As Lucinda drew in her breath, she caught Dax inhaling along with her. He applauded when her exhale took out the flaming mob.
On their third date, Dax invited her to a Halloween party some colleagues were throwing.
“Tell me about this.” He gestured at her costume, a woodgrain oval extending from the top of her head to her calves.
“I have a nut allergy.” Lucinda pressed against him so a Martian and a Sexy Mushroom Cloud could pass. “Why Lord Byron?”
He glanced down at his frilly blouse and cloak. “In my work, I’m always predicting outcomes. I want to be someone things happen to instead.”
His earnest answer hurt her stomach. “So you’re hoping to relapse from malaria?”
He laughed. “You came dressed like an almond and you’re picking on me?”
“I wanted to wear a costume with real world ramifications. Vampires aren’t even around in daylight, but if I eat the wrong kind of biscotti it’s curtains for me.”
Dax set his beer bottle on a bookcase. “The thing is, I really like you.” Behind him, engineers bobbed for apples. “Do you feel at all the same way?”
His forehead was flushed again. Maybe he really was dying of malaria. Maybe they both were. Lucinda swallowed the last of her beer.
“I’ll get you another.” Dax’s cloak shifted as he turned. The way the velvet hung from him, Dax looked like a Sabine woman mid-rape.
“Wait.” Lucinda exhaled. “I’m just a little far back into myself.”
“Tell me more about that.”
Someone started up a recording of Halloween sounds. Lucinda raised her voice above the scrape of chains.
“My parents met in French class. That used to be normal.”
“What’s normal evolves. Arranged marriage was normal once too.”
“That’s easier. You don’t have to know you’ll keep liking someone. You just have to work together to rule Britain or herd cows.”
“Man overboard,” one of the engineers shouted. Dax pulled Lucinda aside as water sluiced across the linoleum; another apple bobber had upended the wooden tub.
After the party, Dax lingered again on Lucinda’s porch steps.
“You’re sure it’s not the Alpha thing that makes you uncertain?”
“Of course not.” Lucinda shivered. The hem of her costume was still soggy. “It was right there on your profile.”
“Some people are fetishists, or they think they can handle it, and then they’re creeped out.”
“Has that happened to you?”
Dax spread his hands. “How about we just get to know each other, no expectations.”
She pictured, on purpose, his flushed face and puppy dog shuffle. She pictured a sharp-heeled executive pulling on a silk dressing gown, and pointing sad Dax toward the door.
The App had been Shelby’s idea. “You need to start dating again.”
“I am the last person we should be talking about.”
They’d been on the phone during one of Alex’s appointments. In the background, Lucinda heard the clanging bustle of the cafe in Alex’s therapist’s building. (“Nothing like a nice latte while my son talks about the bastard who sodomized him,” Shelby sometimes said.)
The abuse had begun when Alex’s coach invited him over to use his VR system. Today, his therapist had pulled Shelby aside to tell her Alex felt responsible because he’d gotten something out of it. Shelby had started the call weeping. “As if a game of Super Mario VR could be an even trade.”
“I’m talked out at this point,” she said now. “You’re tragic too, in your way.”
“I’m not pining.”
“Lucinda, it’s been five years, and a lot of what happened wasn’t even literal. Hang on a sec. Can I get a matcha latte with cricket milk? I’m back.”
Lucinda leaned over the stove, stirring oatmeal. “I just can’t imagine summoning the energy to listen to some guy talk about how great Kerouac is.”
“You don’t have to be fascinated with a man to date him. This isn’t high school. You can just go to concerts or have sex.”
“But I always was fascinated. Remember Joe Ornato and the burrito wrapper? I slept with it under my pillow for years.”
“That’s being a teenager. You think I care who Karl’s favorite Beatle is? I just want him to stop lecturing me about how to load the dishwasher.”
“But you never cared.” Lucinda turned off the burner. Though the kitchen cupboards were stuffed with shiny mixers and sleek toasters, most of the co-livers used meal replacements; usually, she had the kitchen to herself. “I still have lists I made of every guy’s family members, and how he took his coffee, and what was the loneliest moment of his life. I don’t know how to start a relationship without that. What if this is just the new way that I am?”
“That’s why you should try an Alpha App,” Shelby said. “Then it won’t matter, because they won’t have pasts.”
“That seems disrespectful or…reductive. Like if you only dated fat women or people with no limbs.”
“An Alpha-Friendly one then. Just so you know they’re around.”
“They’re around everywhere.”
Obviously Shelby knew that. After the issues like her dad had, they’d only shut down production for a year or so. Then there’d been a rising tide of off-label usage, doctors prescribing Alphas for anxiety or depression, unrelated to death of a spouse. Then some legislative shift had freed them for mass production. Soon you didn’t even need a doctor’s note. The first Alpha protest came the year Lucinda graduated college. On her way to the ceremony, she’d passed a nursing home bracketed by picketers, and scrolled Twitter to verify the reality of what she saw.
“Everywhere except cemeteries,” Shelby said.
“You sound like someone’s backwards grandpa.”
The death thing still bugged some people. But really Alphas weren’t that different from Naturals. Their death switch was set anywhere from ninety-five to one hundred and twenty. Then their consciousness shut off and their bodies alerted the manufacturer. After they were picked up, sometimes they were refurbished or parts used again.
“I’m not a bigot. I’m the one who suggested you date one.”
“Anyway, I’d still have to care about their family history. Now they’re autonomous, you can’t disable their exposition anymore.”
“I wish someone would disable my exposition.” Through the phone, Lucinda heard Shelby pull at her straw. “I can’t stop thinking about how if I didn’t have this anti-screen anti-VR anti-everything-modern policy the coach wouldn’t have had anything to lure him with. You do everything you can think of to protect them, but it’s never what you expect. Do you think he knew bribing Alex would make him feel culpable? Was that part of grooming him?”
“People aren’t conscious of their own psychology,” Lucinda said. “It’s like art criticism. From the outside we can say, oh, that’s why Monet did that. From the inside, sometimes it’s just dumb luck.”
Lucinda’s parents had named her after a folk singer. To honor the place they’d fallen in love.
“You realize I grew up thinking Indianapolis was some kind of romantic destination,” Lucinda said once.
Her mother laughed. “The Midwest’s answer to Rome.”
“Go ahead.” Lucinda said. “Tell the story.”
“So, your mom and her roommate show up with a giant penguin.”
“A real penguin?” Lucinda did her part even into her thirties. When she was four, she’d meant the question for real.
“It was a photographer’s prop,” her mom added. “We’d bought it at a rummage sale on the way to pick up your mother. Afterwards, my roommate and I traded it back and forth for years.”
“Do the voice.” Lucinda would say, and her mom would go into her Russian accent. “I’m Stanley the penguin. I drink Wodka. I like women’s music festivals. Please point the way to Lilith Fair.”
On the trip, they’d slept under the roommate’s family’s pool table.
“They had one of those prefab McMansions, and we spread our sleeping bags down in their rec room. I kept trying to squitch my bag closer to your mom.”
Sometimes they talked about how before the trip they’d only ever spoken French to each other. Sometimes they argued over whether that trip was when they’d gotten henna tattoos. But always, the sleeping bags were the story’s cornerstone, their mutual longing across several feet of vinyl floor.
“When did you first kiss?” Lucinda asked when she was thirteen and Joe Ornato had suddenly stopped calling to tell her the plots of movies.
Neither of her parents could remember. “Probably not in Indianapolis,” her mom said.
“But you said you fell in love there.”
Her mother shrugged. “Lesbians take forever to get to the sex.”
When Lucinda googled once, she found the folksinger hadn’t even played at that festival.
“Is that so?” Her mother had shrugged, unruffled.
“We’ll have to think of a new origin story,” her mom said.
Which was just fine with Lucinda. She’d grown up listening to MDR. But Joe Ornato was neither the first nor the last man whose capriciousness undid her, so Lucinda believed what her mom told her: that even though Lucinda listened to ‘moody chipmunk music,’ the original Lucinda must have seeped into her soul. She was yearning. She was needy. Ask anyone who really knew her. Ask Richard. Ask Shelby. Ask her boss at The Job Where Everyone Spent Summer Fridays On Rooftops Drinking Red Wine.
The first time Lawrence took her to lunch, Lucinda thought he was going to fire her. He was infamous for plying soon-to-be former employees with fancy food. But over real oysters, he’d asked about goals for her future.
“I was thinking I might get my vision corrected, maybe.” Lucinda’s face flushed as soon as she said it. This wasn’t what you told your boss to impress him, but she was tipsy from cloth napkins and red wine.
“Really?” He’d rested his chin in his palm.
“I’m always knocking them off.” Lucinda gestured at her glasses. “And I worry about them breaking in an apocalypse.”
“Remember that Twilight Zone episode? Nah, you’re too young.”
“Wasn’t that show on in the fifties?”
“I watched it in reruns.” Lawrence ran a hand over his thinning hair. “If I get a vote, I’d say keep ’em.”
“I will probably. My mom says if I got eye surgery I’d be defacing her property.”
“That’s what my mom said when I got a tattoo.” Lawrence rolled up his sleeve to show her: Minthra, Jeremy, Penny in their agency’s font.
“What can I say? I’m a dad.”
He’d ordered two entrees for each of them, and charmed their bored server. By the end she was describing the hacked-open horror of her daughter’s tumultuous birth.
“I was just being polite so she’d bring us an extra bread basket,” he whispered after the server lifted her shirt to show off her ropey scar.
When lunch was finished, Lucinda braced herself for a dismissal, but all her boss said was, “This was fun. You’re fun. We should do this again.”
Back at the office, she’d IM-ed him. “What was the Twilight Zone episode?”
For the rest of the afternoon she kept checking to see if he’d started typing, but he was still in meetings when she left for the day.
“Be careful of Lawrence,” Amber warned her. She’d gone through every man on every dating app. (“They all have big opinions on wah-wah pedals and order drunken noodles and whine about how they’re not themselves in the morning now that coffee’s extinct.”) Finally, she’d been reduced to hooking up with some guy she’d met in the elevator. He worked in a law firm on the fifteenth floor.
“Lawrence’s just an invested boss who wants to see what his employees are up to.” Lucinda repeated something Lawrence had said. He’d never replied to her Twilight Zone question, but a few days later, he beckoned her to the elevator. (“You hungry? Well, c’mon.”)
“What do you guys talk about?” Amber leaned against the break room ping-pong table.
“His kids. My parents.” By then, he’d taken her to a taco stand on the city’s outskirts, and a downtown luncheonette that specialized in farm-raised kelp. “He’s never done anything ‘me too-ish.'”
“That’s why he’s dangerous,” Amber said. “He thinks he’s a normal guy with good intentions.”
“What is he?”
“He’s a fucking billionaire who gets what he wants.”
As their lunches became dinners, Lucinda told all her friends about Lawrence. Back then, she couldn’t contain her own big feelings; she had to rent storage space in other people’s minds.
“He’s more like an Alpha than an Alpha,” Richard said when she confessed she carried on daily conversations with the Lawrence who lived in her mind.
“I know Lawrence’s his own person.” Lucinda propped one of Richard’s pillows behind her. She watched him fold his husband’s scrubs into neat squares.
“Subject not object,” Richard recited the National Association for Alpha Equality’s slogan.
This was after the ACLU won Ming v. Alabama, so everyone’s understanding of Alphas was evolving. Not like early on when BuzzFeed was still getting away with headlines like “Alphas say ‘Stop calling us helper dogs,’ and I’m shook.” Now liberals were virtue signaling all over Twitter, and when an old college photo of a senator with a bolt in his neck surfaced, he apologized for his ‘insensitive depiction of an Alpha’ and resigned.
“Seriously. What’s wrong with thinking about Lawrence?”
Richard shook out a shirt. “Remember when we were kids? You wanted to be older than me so bad you convinced me January nineteenth came before January twelfth.”
“It depends on how you think about it. January nineteenth 2035, for example, comes before January twelfth 2036.”
“That’s what I mean.” Richard pushed aside the hamper. “You see things how you want them. But you can only get someone to live in your version for so long.”
Mostly, the real Lawrence acted liked the one she imagined. He told her she was bright and promising. He leant her his coat when it got chilly. The only difference was sometimes, in her mind, they kissed.
“This morning, I was thinking how I want to be a better person.” she told him at one of their dinners.
“In the morning, everyone wants to be a better person.” Lawrence was watching a couple at an adjacent table. “In the morning, I think I can balance my kids and my silly desires.”
“I’m sure you’re great with your kids.”
“My wife says I’m a pushover. Hug dad and he’ll buy you a jaguar, the cat, not the car. We have different styles, that’s all. For example, she likes to have affairs. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Hey, you’re good with those.” He watched her maneuver fried rice into her mouth.
“There was basically a decade where I refused to use silverware.” Lucinda swallowed. Before this, the real Lawrence had never said a bad word about his wife.
“Your parents must have been accommodating.”
“My parents loved each other too much to care.”
“Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Lawrence looked at her over the rim of his wine glass. “Hey, congrats on the ecotourism content. I like the kids with their hands touching. How’d you think of it?”
“I was inspired by The Creation of Adam, I guess.”
“You’re really something, you know that?” Lawrence brushed her cheek with his knuckles.
Lucinda felt her face heat. In the damp restaurant, the lenses of her glasses crept with fog. “It’s just because my undergrad is in art history.”
“Mine’s in Reese’s Pieces. That’s why I thought the campaign was based on E.T.“
“That old movie?”
“Christ.” Lawrence ran a hand over his scalp.”Elliot. Phone home.”
“What desires do you want to try to balance?”
“No way.” Lawrence set down his wine glass. “If I tell you, I’m gonna wanna try.”
It was only afterward that Lucinda realized the episode was common.
“A guy used you to imagine not being married,” Richard told her. “That’s the oldest story there is.”
But knowing that didn’t make it hurt less. Only time dulled the pain to a soft throb. Over the years, it crab-walked to the edges of her consciousness. When she slept, it projected images of Lawrence in high-backed leather chairs, sipping cognac. In her waking life when sometimes, she thought to reach for Dax, the pain kept her hands at her sides.
Their fifth date was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
“Surprise.” Dax opened the door wearing jeans and a thin white shirt. “I’m making you a real Thanksgiving dinner.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“I promise, it’s no trouble.” Dax touched her cheek and she turned away.
“Everyone should have Thanksgiving.” He pulled a striped button-down from the back of a chair.
“Whose books are these?” Lucinda trailed her finger along the bookshelf.
As if he was her only possible source of holiday fun.
“Mine. The moving men charged me extra. My housemates give me shit about it to this day. Want to see my favorite?” Dax pulled a green volume from the shelf.
“What does jocund mean?” Lucinda had opened the book at random. Surely Dax hadn’t read every poem.
“Jolly.” Dax leaned over her, buttoning his shirt.
“Do you think he should have chosen some word that’s less noticeable?”
“But what if he wasn’t? It’s a game I play. What if Bouguereau wasn’t Bouguereau? Would I tell him to knock it off with the luminous skin?”
Dax smiled. “What if Hemingway weren’t Hemingway; would I tell him to quit writing ‘said’?”
In the kitchen Dax bent over the oven.
“It’s hot in here.” Lucinda shoved her hands in her skirt pockets.
“I know. I’m sweating through my shirt.”
“Why did you put it on then?”
“I don’t like when it feels like people can see my nipples.” Dax peered at the pigeon. He sluiced golden juice across the slope of its breast.
“What do you do when you’re swimming?”
“If they see them directly, it’s no big deal. Here. You wanna chop?”
Lucinda lined up stalks of celery on a cutting board. “Is this some kind of Alpha thing?”
“What? No.” Dax waved a hand. “The idea of them poking through my shirt just wigs me out.”
“But I’ve never seen your nipples do that.”
“Of course you haven’t.” Dax minced onions. “Two shirts or no shirt, that’s the rule. So, hey, I wanted to give you a heads-up about something.”
Lucinda felt her pulse accelerate. “Besides your nipples?”
Dax laughed. “No. It’s about dinner. I couldn’t afford cranberries, so I bought cran-raspberry cocktail juice instead.”
“Cranberries are expensive.” Lucinda nodded.
“But they’re traditional. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
“You never even warned me this was happening. How could I be disappointed?”
“I mean, I would have brought something.”
Dax scraped the onions from the cutting board. “You brought yourself. Who could want more?”
Over dinner, Dax read to her from Wordsworth. His pie and green bean casserole were like out of a food blog. All of his earnestness, his naked desire to please her. She wanted to shove him in the oven with the bird.
Lucinda was late to work the morning after Lawrence finally went home with her. In the early hours, she’d heard him rustling, and reached for her dressing gown.
“Don’t get up, babe.” He’d kissed between her eyes.
Next time she rolled over, it was full morning. In common room, no co-livers stirred. At the stove, she brewed tea, then abandoned it. For the first time in years, she wished for coffee. Why did people miss something so bitter, that spiked your nerves and set your body aflame?
She arrived at work to find the work area vacant, and followed the sound of applause.
“What’s going on?” In the conference room, Lucinda fit herself in beside Amber. At the front, Lawrence patted an unfamiliar man’s shoulder. He’d changed his tie since yesterday, but she knew his suit was the same.
“…here’s to new opportunities,” Lawrence was saying.
“He just introduced the new CEO.”
“But that’s what Lawrence is.” Lucinda turned from Amber’s sympathetic gaze.
Lawrence raised his arms like a conductor. “Now mangiare!”
Around Lucinda, her coworkers applauded and descended on a long table covered with cake and rare fruit.
“Single file!” The office manager reshuffled them.
Last night too, Lawrence had said something about new opportunities. He’d talked about closure and, finally, desire. She’d clinked her wine glass against his: “I’d never push you to leave them until you’re ready.” He’d seemed struck dumb by her generosity. “You’re not like anyone else, are you?” he’d said, then he’d touched the velvet of her collar. “Okay, art history girl, but only if you’re sure.”
Next to Amber now, Lucinda watched Lawrence shake hands with a long line of employees. He was warm and patient. He talked about mangoes and restructuring responsibilities. He mentioned global possibilities and his son’s soccer cleats and Burj Khalifa. Lucinda hugged herself. Last night hadn’t been the first step toward a new life together. She was a guilt-free trinket. A splurge Lawrence had allowed himself, knowing he was transferring with his family to Dubai.
“You want to come to lunch with us?” Amber asked. The conference room had mostly emptied, her colleagues having picked clean the table like Brand Wizard ants.
“For your lawyer friend?” Lucinda nodded as Amber folded a napkin around a slice of almond-studded cake.
“He’s never tasted real chocolate.” Amber’s face pinked with pleasure as the fifteenth floor lawyer knocked on the glass door.
“Congratulations,” Lucinda said, when it was only Lawrence, the new CEO and a pair of executive assistants. That morning, she’d imagined Lawrence might take her to lunch at the kelp place. Amidst vines and swamp-scent they’d plan their shared life.
Instead, Lawrence leveled his dark eyes on her. “Did you get some of my Bon Voyage cake? Here. Take some home.”
“I’m allergic,” she reminded him.
“Of course.” He smacked his head.
“Lawrence, we’ve got lunch with Derek.” The new CEO tapped his shoulder.
“I gotta run, I’m sorry.” Lawrence caught her arm. “Hey. You made me brave, Lucinda. This is all you.”
As they headed out, Lucinda heard one assistant say to the other, “Making the nobodies feel valued is Lawrence’s gift.”
On the real Thanksgiving, Lucinda asked her parents about Stanley. “Does your old roommate still have him or what?”
“How about some tea?” Her mom pushed back from the table.
“You always said sometime I’d get to see him.”
“Lucinda,” her mother asked, “would you like another slice of pie?”
“Did I stumble into some dark family secret?” Lucinda looked between the two of them. “We’re talking about a stuffed penguin. What could you possibly have to hide?”
Her mom nodded at her mother.
“Your mom took him with her when she went to Los Angeles.”
“When did you go to Los Angeles?” Lucinda asked.
“A couple years before you were born.”
“Was it for work?”
At the table, Lucinda hugged herself. “Then what?”
“She fell in love with a doula she met on Reddit.”
“It was stupid,” her mom said. “It only lasted six months.”
Lucinda pressed her hands to her stomach. “And then you just went back to your life like nothing happened?”
“Your mother was very forgiving.”
“After I set fire to most of your mom’s stuff.”
“You burned Stanley?” Lucinda felt like her four-year-old self, asking. She’d thought of Stanley as a distant uncle. Someone she was fated to meet when the time was right.
Her mom leaned against the counter. “The doula was supposed to ship him, but he never showed up, and I never called to ask.”
Her mom filled the kettle. “It seemed unfair to be hung up on a stuffed animal. The poor woman cried the whole time I packed.”
“Why didn’t you guys ever tell me about any of this?”
“It feels like a different lifetime.” Her mother spooned cranberry sauce.
“It wasn’t really your business.” her mom said.
Shelby had suggested the birthday party on the phone during one of Alex’s sessions.
“He’s started saying he hates me,” she told Lucinda. “‘You didn’t protect me, mom,’ he says.”
“Why did you let me talk so much about Stanley?” Lucinda turned a slow circle in her room’s clutter. She’d unpacked her suitcase from Thanksgiving, but the detritus of her dates with Lawrence surrounded her. The almond costume crumpled in the corner; her mom’s trench draped over a chair.
When you knew someone long enough you could infer from her tone, her gestures. Right now, Shelby was shrugging one shoulder, flipping her palm to the sky. “The therapist says it’s progress. Alex can’t heal if he can’t verbalize how he feels.”
“Remember when we were kids and healing meant itchy scabs and hot pink casts?”
“Now it means being told to go drink a latte while your son wishes you were dead. So how about it? I could make pigs in a blanket?”
“You have enough on your plate, don’t you think?”
“Life keeps happening,” Shelby said. “You can’t just put it on hold.”
“That sounds pointed.”
“You can invite whoever you want to. Matcha latte with cricket milk, thanks.”
“I don’t have that many people. Richard and Amber and their husbands. Jill and her boyfriend. Is that enough?”
“How are things with Dax going?
Lucinda kicked aside the almond costume. “That sounds even more pointed.”
“Lucinda, tell me you don’t still think Lawrence is coming back.”
“I always thought the worst thing would be if you loved someone and didn’t get to keep them. For the rest of your life you’d be this sad librarian. You’d live in the aftermath and yearn.”
“If you feel like that, maybe you should go back to therapy.” Shelby exhaled. “Then you could start hating me too.”
“I don’t though, that’s what’s disconcerting.” Lucinda bent to gather some hairpins. “It turns out I’m resilient, which was never part of the plan.”
“You know, now you’ve got me thinking about him,” Shelby said.
“Lawrence?” Other people had makeup bins and bamboo boxes. Lucinda set the hairpins back on the floor.
“Stanley. I just keep picturing this lost penguin wandering what’s left of Los Angeles.”
“It’s that old story. Midwestern penguin moves to LA to be a movie star, and winds up selling his body at Sunset and Vine.”
From her bed, Lucinda watched the trench coat refract streetlights and moon.
Back in the city, the snow was like fondant. Neat tarp of white, confined to roofs and front lawns.
“Here we go.” Dax idled the car in front of Lucinda’s co-living space. “I told Shelby I’d send her the recipe for the artichoke dip. I’ll have to remember to do that right now when I get home.”
He was so careful, Lucinda thought, to seem to expect nothing, but Richard had pulled Lucinda aside at the party. (“After four months of dating, a guy deserves to get his dick wet. I don’t care if he’s man or machine.”)
“Why didn’t you air drop it?” She asked Dax.
“What?” His face glowed in the dash light. Dax light Dash light. Lucinda shifted the HAPPY BRTHDAY bag in her lap.
Dax tapped his head. “Those settings aren’t enabled.”
“But you could change that.”
“I could get a little more access.”
“So why don’t you?”
Dax shrugged. “I don’t like the idea of an unfair advantage.”
“How is that an advantage? I could do the same thing with my phone. Besides, people—naturals—aren’t exactly all built equal.” Lucinda found herself hugging the bag and releasing it. “We’ve got institutionalized racism and only forty percent of us can digest milk.”
“I know that.” Dax’s voice was mild.
“It’s like being a Scientologist and not believing in therapy.” With each squeeze, the bag released a warm gust.
“Tell me more about that.”
“I’m just saying, if you have the option to improve yourself, don’t you think you should?”
“I never thought about it that way.” Dax nodded. “I’ll see about changing the settings.”
“I mean, that’s a big decision.”
Dax watched her feel for the door handle.
“I mean, don’t make some big change because of me.”
“Easy tiger, let me help you.” By the time Dax reached Lucinda, she’d slipped between a snow bank and the car.
“I’m wearing boots,” she said, “you’re wearing sneakers.”
“Let’s just get you safely up those steps.”
Another course correction: this time, Dax didn’t try to take the bag from her, just set a steadying hand to her arm. That part wasn’t bad. Someone beside her just out of her sightline. A warm hand against the cold. Dax had only ever read poems to her and memorized her food sensitivities. Accommodating and selfless. But who wanted someone who was less than himself?
“Remember the first time I walked you back here?” On the porch, Dax smiled like the memory was the Mona Lisa. Or like he was. Or he thought she was. Someone was the Mona Lisa for sure.
Lucinda squeezed the bag. “This long suffering good guy routine is getting old.”
“I’m not suffering.” Dax cocked his head. “Are you?”
“What does that mean?”
Dax seemed to study her. “You must know by now if you like me.”
“Is that what you think we’re waiting for?” Lucinda faced him across several feet of slick wood.
“You already know how I feel.”
“Relationships aren’t that simple.”
“Sure, but why not take the next step?”
“Me saying I like you won’t push us across some magic threshold.” Obviously, Dax thought she held the key to an open-hearth-future, but the joke was on him: inside Lucinda, there were just more closed doors. “You’re too certain,” she said. “It’s not natural. No one can be that earnest and survive.”
“I see.” Dax nodded. “All right then. I should go.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Dax’s progress down her porch steps was slow.
“I’m just being practical.” Wind tugged Lucinda’s hair loose from her hood.
“It’s fine, Lucinda. We’re not everyone’s cup of tea.”
“You think this is because you’re an Alpha?”
At the stair’s base, Dax’s pace slackened further. Despite the city’s efforts, the pavement glittered with ice.
Lucinda squeezed the bag. The scent from inside was familiar. “Nostalgia in your nose.” She’d pitched that catchphrase once all the forests were destroyed, and Coke reintroduced cocaine. This smell though was the same as the house Shelby grew up in. Baked goods and rain boots and detergent. When Shelby’s mom died, one of the weird thoughts Lucinda had was that maybe her house’s scent had died with her. Shelby’s dorm room, her early apartments—never smelled like anything but bleach and strawberry gum.
As Lucinda watched, Dax reached the lip of the sidewalk. Blue sweater, thin trousers. Slim man taking small steps along the street. For a leave-taking, it seemed anti-climactic; by the time Dax reached his car, Lucinda had time to be certain of twenty contradictory things.
He looked up at her.
“You need a jacket.” The wind thrashed at her clothing.
“The cold doesn’t bother me.” Dax watched her. “You’re cold, you should go inside.”
“In a minute.” Lucinda set the bag on the porch. The second stair from the top seemed less slippery.
“What are you doing?” Even at a distance she could see his skin was flushed.
Slowly, Lucinda picked her way down the porch steps.
“You described the moon very concretely,” she said.
Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as The Normal School, Prairie Schooner (shortlisted for Prairie Schooner’s Summer 2020 Creative Nonfiction Contest), DIAGRAM, Brevity, Third Coast, and Carve. In 2022, she was shortlisted for StoryQuarterly’s annual fiction contest. Sarah has written for sites including Salon, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Satirist, and PopMatters. Pushcart Prize nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach and Developmental Editor, and teaches creative writing at Story Studio and The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Sarah’s novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.