Revision: Chapters One-Three
by Andrea Phillips
Edited by Brian J. White
On May 5, Fireside is publishing Revision, Andrea Phillips’ debut science fiction novel. Revision received [a starred review in_ Publisher’s Weekly, _which said that Andrea’s “fresh voice will be very welcome in the SF world.”
In the case of a sudden dumping, there are certain expectations about how to proceed.
Stick your spoon in a gallon of cookie dough ice cream. Bring on the chick-flicks and sob sessions with your besties. Cut up all the printed pics of the two of you together so you can burn a stack of his smirking faces in the flame of a candle. One of the candles he bought you. The ones scented like eucalyptus-mint, that he thought was so hot, and it gave you a sinus headache but you never complained because you loved him so much, and now you’re sitting there with a headache and singed fingers and it isn’t actually making anything better so you wonder why… why…
—Hang on, where was I?
Right, getting dumped. We’d actually been having a great night up until that part. We were cuddled up at my place watching a documentary on Tibetan architecture and eating Chinese take-out, right? I leaned in to nuzzle Benji’s ear while the narrator droned on and on about murals and prayer wheels.
And then boom, like a switch had been flipped, he sat up straight as a wooden soldier and inched away from me. “This isn’t working,” he said.
I uncurled myself, frowning. “Oh, sorry, am I squishing you? Let me get—”
He wiped my offer away with a curt motion. “No, I mean us. We’re not working.”
I scrunched my nose up. “Not working? Like…”
“Like it’s over, Mira. We are over.”
“Wait, are you breaking up with me? Seriously?”
That’s when Benji’s face went all soft and compassionate, like there was any way he could be kind at this point short of taking it back. He leaned forward again and put his arm around me. “I’m getting so busy with the company lately… you know it’s been bad, and it’s going to get worse. I don’t have time for a life. No time for you. And it’s… not fair to you. You deserve better than this.”
“I deserve—what? What are you talking about?” Prayer flags fluttered on TV, red and green and blue. My brain struggled to catch up with my ears. “Wait, who are you to decide what’s fair for—”
“Listen, I know this is sudden, but—”
His stupid jerkface sympathy was too much to bear. “Get. Out.” I said, quietly. Then, with a little more volume, “Get the HELL out of here.”
He did. The door shut behind him a little louder than it needed to, leaving me with nothing to mark his passing but a table full of half-empty noodle cartons and soda bottles. I grabbed a bottle and hurled it at the closed door, imagining it smacking him right between the shoulder blades and shoving him onto his face in the hall. Instead, the cap came off mid-flight, the soda spattering in a wide arc across the room.
What a mess.
I was furious, but I didn’t really know what to do with all of that righteous indignation. I turned off the documentary and stared at the blank television for a while. That didn’t help much. But that’s what those tried-and-true breakup rituals are for, right?
I grabbed my phone and dialed up Eli, my absolute bestest friend since grade school, but it went straight to voicemail. I shouldn’t have been surprised; I could hardly reach him at all any more, much less enlist him for a little late-night shoulder sobbing. I texted him anyway, but without much hope.
Time to seek out the carbolicious comfort at the bottom of a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough swirl, then. I swung open my freezer. It held a sack of crushed ice, long melted into a single impenetrable lump; a sad scattering of kernels of corn; three nearly empty boxes of freezer-burned waffles; and, yes, a half-gallon of vanilla. When I pulled off the lid, though, there was nothing but half an inch of ice crystals at the bottom. Grrr.
I threw on a hoodie and trudged to the bodega, which as it turns out had closed eight minutes earlier. So I returned home empty-handed, muttering unflattering things about Benji and his timing, and grabbed a beer from the fridge instead. One of Benji’s weird microbrew faves — not even one I liked much — but no helping it.
Next attempt: cinematic catharsis. I curled up on my sofa with a fleece blanket and tried to find something I wanted to watch. About four minutes into a classic Julia Roberts vehicle, I was seething with so much hot rage that I could’ve given the volcano of your choice a run for its money.
Action, then. Maybe a little symbolic destruction would help me feel better. It didn’t take long to burn through all of my printed photos, all two of them, so I went to my phone and then laptop to get rid of the digitals, too, and absolutely purge every electron of the jerk from my life for good. When I was done, I just sat there, full of all this anger and no outlet for it.
That’s how I wound up online reading Verity at one in the morning. Verity was Benji’s company. If you asked him about it he’d start to lecture about crowdsourcing knowledge and breaking news and blah blah blah blabbity blah blah. Over time, I worked out that it was an online reference source crossed with a newspaper, something a little like Wikipedia, but bigger and deeper and scarier — breaking news as it happened, information on ordinary people, real Big Brother stuff.
So what else was I going to do? I looked up Benji’s page on Verity. There was a section on what a geek-society high-profile playboy he was, updated to say that he was newly single.
Huh, I thought. That was sure fast.
But let’s back up and start at the beginning. His real name was Benjamin, natch. I started calling him Benji when we first met because of his big soft puppy-dog eyes. When I said it out loud he always gave me a funny half-smile like he couldn’t decide if I was making fun of him or being cute, so he couldn’t decide if he should be mad or mushy over it. He was a… actually, to start with, I had no idea what he was. His daily work seemed to involve flying to a lot of conferences and getting hundreds of comments on his blog, plus he spent a lot of time meeting people over coffee.
That’s how I came into the picture. I’m a barista at Joes’ Buzz, the best tiki-themed coffee shop in all of Brooklyn. Before Benji and I ever hooked up, he liked to come to my shop and pretend to work on his laptop when he was really just dicking around with the latest browser game. Once in a while he’d bring people in to schmooze over lattes and snickerdoodles.
And then one day the Goth-pale woman he was with — someone at his company, I thought — spilled her double-nonfat-sugar-free-pistachio-half-caf-no-foam-no-whip all over his white button-down. “Jesus!” he said, and stood there dripping helplessly. Would you believe she just stood looking at him with her mouth open? Didn’t even hand him a napkin!
“At least it didn’t fry your electronics,” I said. “Come on into the back, I’ll help you out.” I happened to have a spare shirt in my bag, so I pulled him into the break room and let him change. Not that I’m such a big altruist or anything. I’d been planning to hit the gym later, and to be honest, giving him my baggy old tee was the perfect excuse to skip it. I couldn’t let an opportunity like that go to waste.
He thanked me, and I think really looked at me for the first time. When you work in the service sector, a certain kind of person tends to look right through you, like you’re some kind of tree or something. Apparently he liked what he saw, because the next thing I knew he said, “Hey, when’s your shift over? I’ll bring your shirt back and buy you a drink.”
“Coffee?” I tried not to roll my eyes. It probably didn’t work.
“Nah,” he said. “How do you feel about sangria?”
What can I say? He was cute, and it’s not like I had anything cooking on the back burner. I smiled and flipped my hair over my shoulder as I went back to my station. “Come back at nine.” The rest, as they say, is history.
It didn’t last six months.
So fast-forward, and there I am, freshly dumped, staring at this stupid web page telling me Benji was single again. And I just wasn’t ready for the world to know yet. I wasn’t even ready to know it yet myself. I held a swallow of beer in my mouth, letting the bubbles sting my tongue. I thought about me and Benji, and I won’t kid, I started feeling pretty sorry for myself. I deserved better.
Hell, he’d said it himself, not two hours gone by. Like I wasn’t competent to judge that on my own. Jerk.
The tiny blue edit button glowed in the corner of the screen, tempting me to hijack his bio. Ben had left himself logged into Verity on my computer at some point, I guess one of the times he’d forgotten his bag and had a work emergency to deal with. I could tell because he’d customized his “Submit” button to say “Make It So.” Dork. But I was darkly amused when I realized it would look like he’d made the change himself, if anybody ever happened to check. I jabbed the button and made a teeny-tiny little alteration: “He is deeply in love with his new fiancée, Mira Newton.”
Before I hit the button, I stared at the preview for a while. I didn’t know why I’d written it. It wasn’t true, of course. It had never been true, and it didn’t look so likely going forward, either. But for a bit, seeing it written there in black on white made it seem possible, in a way it never had been before.
Me and Benji, we never had the marrying kind of relationship. We didn’t even have a tell-your-parents kind of relationship. But the words glowing there started to fill my head up with tulle and white roses and violins playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D and all the other sappy wedding crap I’d always told myself I was far too cynical to care about.
I hit “Make It So.”
My laptop made a satisfying click when I snapped it shut. The afterimage of the words lingered on my retinas, then they were gone, just like Benji. I took one last swig from that beer, which had grown both warm and flat, and went to bed, hoping things would look better in the morning.
When I woke up, though, it definitely wasn’t morning yet. I heard a rustling from my living room. My heart stomped around in my chest like it thought it might find someplace better to go. Burglar, I thought, or maybe rats. There in the dark, for just a minute, I second-guessed my decision not to live at the place my parents kept on Fifth. Principles be damned.
I fumbled for my phone with fingers made fat by adrenaline and dialed 911, worrying the whole time about the light from the screen leaking through the door. I kept my finger hovering over the send icon and put one ginger foot in front of the other to peek out and see what I could see.
The living room was aglow with candlelight. Not so much a burglar’s M.O.
The hinges on my bedroom door squealed their way open. The candles lit up a mosaic of rose petals trailing off toward the living room and ending in a puddle on my coffee table. There was a little velvet box with a diamond-and-sapphire ring, poised in the middle of this mess of floral confetti. As I stared at this tableau in muzzy incomprehension, Benji stepped out of the kitchen. He held a mismatched pair of coffee mugs and a bottle of champagne. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Marry me?”
My guts were still a roiling disaster of anxiety and rejection and anger. My mind tried to formulate the biggest telling-off I had ever performed in all my life. But while my brain was blankly trying to find a few words to fit together, my mouth sprang right into action. “Yes,” it said.
So that’s how me and Benji the Internet Star got engaged.
Joes’ Buzz was one of those eclectic mom-and-pop coffee shops you keep hearing don’t exist anymore (or in this case, a pop-and-pop shop). They’d hung up a shingle with that craftily placed apostrophe sometime in the early ’90s and decked the place out like a tropical paradise. The walls were covered with jungle-inspired sweeps of green, blending in with clusters of potted palms and umbrella plants. Tiki masks scowled and beamed at the customers at artful intervals. The regulars were mostly brogrammers and not-so-starving artists, though there’d been a recent spike in urban moms wielding over-engineered strollers.
I shambled in the morning after my unexpected engagement very much not on time for my shift. (It would have been even later, but my mother called and woke me up about an hour after I’d turned off my alarm instead of snoozing it.) My hair was in an unwashed pony tail — the kind where your hair is so filthy you can still kind of see the strands it separated into when you pulled it back with your fingers — and I wore a Ramones T-shirt that couldn’t even remember a time it hadn’t been wrinkled. At least with the Ramones that’s pretty much expected.
All of this could have been overlooked, and probably would have been, but my eyes were still puffy and red from all of the emoting I’d done the night before. Or a couple of hours before, to get technical. No amount of hastily applied ice had been able to fix it.
Joey was the one who caught me; Joseph liked to sleep in. The wind chimes hanging from the door jangled in Hawaiian-themed harmony, and everybody turned to get a look. Joey didn’t frown at me, exactly, so much as he didn’t smile. His eyebrows did that thing where they crawl up to where his hairline used to be in order to make room for all of the questions he was planning on asking.
Fortunately the morning rush was on, so I could hustle behind Joey to drop my bag in the back room and get an apron on. Then I jumped headlong into the dance of steam and caffeine.
Joey may be a gossip, but he’s never in his life let anything get between him and a paying customer, aging hippie or no. So he didn’t begin the inquiry into my timeliness and poor personal grooming right away. He settled for shooting me the odd meaningful glance instead. I kept my focus on the orders — well, as much as circumstances permitted — and if I prolonged one or two conversations a little more than you could have strictly called professional, well, what of it? It’s not like it was the first time. And being friendly does keep ‘em coming back.
But the morning rush doesn’t last forever, and eventually it was me and Joey alone behind the counter. Never before in my life had I so diligently polished the espresso machine or restocked the beans, and if I say the baked goods in the display case achieved an arrangement of near-mathematical perfection, I promise I’m not just bragging.
Joey didn’t buy it, though. “Late night?”
I put down the rag and slumped against the counter. “Kind of,” I said. “Sorry I was so late. I just have a lot going on.”
He chucked me under the chin. “You feeling OK, Mira-deara?”
“Oh, you know… it’s nothing.”
“No, I swear, it’s just…”
“Is that boy of yours treating you right? Do I need to go buy a shotgun to wave at him?”
Dammit. I hadn’t quite worked out for myself what had happened, and didn’t know how to tell anybody else. But sometimes the best way to distill whatever’s going on in your head is to talk it over. So I opened my mouth and let the words fall out, listening intently to see if any of it would explain my life to me.
“I’m getting married,” I said. And then I smiled brightly, like a girl who knew exactly what she was doing would probably smile.
Joey’s eyes flicked down to my belly. “Oh, honey—” he started.
“No, it’s nothing like that,” I said quickly. My fingers tried tying themselves into knots while I waited for something else to pop out of my mouth, but nothing came.
“Well, what is it like?” he asked.
“Benji kind of broke up with me.” That… was not something I would’ve wanted to pop out, on second thought. Should’ve kept your mouth shut, Mira.
“I thought you said you were engaged.” He crossed his arms and pursed his lips like a cranky old lady.
“Look, I don’t even know what the hell it was about.” And then the blab got the best of me. “I’m sure we’re going to have some sort of stupid awkward talk about it later. He broke up with me, and then he came back a few hours later with this whole romantic candles setup, like something from a movie, and he asked me to marry him and I said yes.”
“Talk about a change of heart,” Joey said. He turned his back on me to rearrange the already-immaculate racks of sugar and sugar substitutes, but his rigid spine put the lie to his casual gesture. “Why on earth would you agree to marry somebody who just dumped you?”
My shoulders twisted. “I don’t know,” I said honestly. If there was a quaver in my voice, well look, if a night like that isn’t a good enough reason for a girl to be a little emotional, what is?
There was another long silence as he turned this over for a while and tried to decide what to make of it. Levity won the day, apparently. “Did you at least get a ring? Never say yes without a ring.”
I’d put Benji’s great-grandma’s diamonds-and-sapphires on a chain around my neck that morning, not my finger, telling myself I didn’t want to scratch the thing up at work, or coat it in milk foam and syrup. I pulled it from inside my shirt and showed him. It spun around and around, sparkling like a walnut-sized disco ball.
“Mmm, boy comes from money, at least,” he said, nodding with pseudo-paternal satisfaction. He pulled one of the snickerdoodles from the case and handed it to me. The scent of cinnamon-sugar made my stomach acid roil in an alarming fashion. “Congratulations, darling,” he said gently. “If you need to talk about anything,” his eyes jumped back down to my stomach for just the barest second, “you know Uncle Joe-Joe is always here for you.”
I nibbled at the cookie in a show of gratitude, even though I couldn’t bear the thought of food. Then I threw my arms around his squishy midsection and gave him a squeeze. “You’re a good man, Joey,” I said. “Thanks.”
He let it drop with just one more searching look, like he wanted to grill me a little more but held back because he felt sorry for me.
Did I mention how much I hate people feeling sorry for me?
The snickerdoodle did help me feel a little better, though. So did the tab of ibuprofen I popped with it. Joey’s attention mostly stayed on the Times crossword after that. He always knew when to leave well enough alone.
Leaving well enough alone wasn’t in the cards for me, though. I made it through the rest of the morning routine, pulling shots and slinging syrup, all the while trying to puzzle out what the hell had happened the night before. Was it all real? Had I suffered some bizarre dream?
The whole thing was too preposterous, too coincidental. Did Benji really break up with me and then propose all in a couple of hours? It wasn’t because I changed his page on Verity. Couldn’t be. But it was hard not to give in to completely irrational, magical thinking, that it was true because I made it true somehow.
The gem-studded nugget of a ring hung heavy on that chain around my neck, and my eyes were still so puffy and red that even my indistinct reflection in the stainless mini-fridge under the counter had clearly had a rotten night.
“Joey?” I asked abruptly.
“Hm?” He looked up from his crossword, startled.
“Do you make wishes?”
“What, like… wishing on a star?” He scratched at his beard as he thought. “I guess I used to, but not so much anymore.”
“Did you ever make a wish and it came true?”
He tugged on my pony tail and grinned. “I’ll say. Look around you, kiddo.”
Joseph sauntered in early in the afternoon. Where Joey could have been the second coming of Jerry Garcia, Joseph looked like a Korean Ben Franklin, though I don’t think anybody would have been brave enough to say it right to his face. He had an adorable round belly, a balding pate with a little ponytail holding his graying hair back, and a tiny pair of half-moon reading glasses perched at the bottom of his nose.
“Our Mira’s getting married,” Joey called to him, right across the whole room.
“Is she pregnant?” Joseph called back. I must have turned about five different shades of crimson. I could tell from the heat of all that blood rushing to my face at once.
The couple of regulars in the place looked at each other and then studiously focused on their phones and lattes. You could practically see their ears grow three sizes, though. Sigh.
“She says no,” Joey said. “But I don’t know if we believe her.”
“I’m not pregnant,” I said.
Joseph strolled up and carefully inspected my reddened eyes, my sallow complexion, my filthy hair. “You look terrible,” he said. “I bet it’s going to be a girl.”
“I. Am. Not. Pregnant.” My molars might as well have been mortared together.
Joseph shrugged. “Whatever you say, sweetie.”
His lips twitched a little as he tried to pick just one follow-up question when he clearly had a whole collection of them. I steeled myself for a fresh inquisition. But instead he said, “I just saw your boy on the corner with some other girl.”
“What?” I rushed to the window and ducked under the bamboo blinds to look. Joseph was right, of course. I even recognized the woman Benji was with. Dark hair, blue streaks, dressed all in black. She was the one who had spilled her drink on Benji the day he asked me out. I’d seen her a few times after that, either meeting Benji in the shop or at parties we’d gone to, but we’d never been properly introduced. I did know that she was involved in Verity. Today she looked pissed as hell, and was to all appearances giving him the reaming of a lifetime.
Benji held up his hands, placating, but she steamed on. She pointed one finger at the shop, right toward me, and I jumped away from the window. I went back to my post, hoping she hadn’t noticed me watching.
“Trouble in paradise already?” Joey asked.
“No, he’s just talking to a girl from work,” I said. I wondered if their argument had anything to do with me, or if it was just about Verity. Worse — could it be both? Was it anything to do with what had happened last night?
“So,” Joseph said. He tied his apron behind his back, formulating his line of attack. “This Benjamin. How long have you been seeing him, again?”
I winced. The answer was not quite five months, which didn’t seem like an appropriately long time for wedding talk, now that Joseph brought it up. But the Hawaiian wind chimes on the door sparkled again and my hero — or whatever you want to call him — came in before I could possibly be required to answer.
Unlike me, Benji had enjoyed a solid several hours of sleep and a shower. But that didn’t mean he looked entirely respectable. His hair was tousled, but only by artful design, and his jeans were no doubt freshly laundered, but skillfully crafted to look like somebody had dragged them behind a tractor for a few weeks. He wore a white Oxford half-tucked in, charmingly undone a button or two. I was gratified to see that he had dark circles under his eyes, at least. I tried to fluff my stringy ponytail and wished I’d gone through the bother of putting on a little lip gloss.
Joey tugged on Joseph’s arm and the two of them scuttled into the break room. I couldn’t decide which was the better bet: Would they loiter out of sight but still close enough to eavesdrop, or would they have a hushed catch-up chat about me and my oh-good-lord-who-knew-she-had-it-in-her personal life? Anyone’s guess, really.
Benji gave me that trademark lopsided smile of his, dimpled just on the one side. He put his elbows on the counter and leaned in toward me. “Hey, M,” he said. “About last night…”
My eyes started to prickle as I guessed what was coming: All a horrible mistake, forget about it, I need my space, it’s not you it’s me. I bit my tongue and pressed my nails into my palms; it wouldn’t do to lose my composure, not here in front of the Joes and the customers. Not here in front of Benji.
But that smile lingered on his face, and the next thing he said was, “I guess we have a lot of planning to do, don’t we?” He took one of my hands between his and stroked the back of mine with his thumbs.
All of the breath left me at once. “Plans,” I said. Maybe this wasn’t about to be Dumping Mira 2: This Time, It’s For Keeps.
Benji looked into my eyes intensely as all of this tween-girl anxiety bubbled in my stomach. “Did I tell you that you look great?” And then, after a pause just a hair too short, a question rushed out of him: “Did you ever think when we first met that we’d wind up like this?”
“You know,” he said, and his mouth squirmed, unable to quite make the shape of the word he needed. “Engaged.”
“Not ever,” I said.
“It’s almost like something you’d… read, isn’t it?” His eyes burned like he was waiting for me to say something in particular; like he thought he knew what I was about to say.
My hands shook a little. Was he asking me about his bio on Verity, about that change? Was he accusing me of something?
“I’m not sure I’d call it a storybook romance, exactly,” I said carefully. “But we’re definitely great together.” I touched my free fingertips to the diamonds-and-sapphires hanging from my neck. “We should be celebrating. Right?”
His face warmed and made my insides flutter. “Yeah, we should! Come on over once you’re off shift. We’ll hit Villa Rosalita, get a bottle and some fettuccine,” he said. “And we can start thinking about what we want the rest of our lives to look like.”
“Sounds great,” I said, too fast. I never was good at playing it cool.
“Great,” he repeated, patting my hand one last time. And then he stood up straight and glanced at the specials board. “Oh hey, get me an Americano? Good girl.”
By the end of my shift, I was kind of disgusted with myself, and not just because of how badly I needed a shower. Once Benji left, I could deflect the curious eyes with nothing but moxie and caffeine, but I couldn’t escape from my own head. I started to second-guess myself. How could I just keep smiling and nodding and going along with whatever Benji said? Why hadn’t I asked him about why he’d broken up with me, or about that argument outside with Miss Blue Streaks, or even about Verity? I wasn’t That Girl, was I? The one who needed a man in her life to make everything work out OK?
On the other hand, how do you say “Honey, I was just wondering if your website changes reality,” without coming off like a total loon?
To show myself I didn’t need Benji — that I was a strong, independent woman who could take care of herself on her own terms and called all her own shots — I rebelled and didn’t go straight to his place right after my shift. No, I went home first and finally got cleaned up and put on miles of eyeliner and in general transformed myself into a pretty, pretty princess for him. That would teach him a lesson, right? And then I went on over as fast as my kitten heels could get me back to the subway.
All the way there, I stared at the strangers on the subway and wondered how they navigated the rapids of their lives. There was a boy bopping along to acid green earbuds with the Dominican flag blazoned on his jacket. Did he care whether his moves were the hottest? That woman with the clear vinyl kerchief on her head and the deep creases beside her mouth, the one reading the Cyrillic newspaper, was she married? The couple making out at the end of the car, were they in love? Was it going anywhere? Did they know, and did they care? If they could see the fork in the road at their feet, would they change their destination, or were they happy with where they were headed?
On the way out of the station, I brushed by an exhausted-looking Indian woman wearing a too-heavy Air Force surplus coat and a deep purple broomstick skirt. A little pin glittered from her lapel, at odds with the rest of her ensemble. It was worked from diodes and upcycled circuit boards, probably from somebody’s learn-to-solder class at a hackerspace. The woman stood motionless at the top of the stairs, studying the skyline. Her hair was in a single braid that fell to her waist, but a nebula of frizz had escaped. The skin on her hands was ashy, and her eyes were bloodshot.
Homeless, I thought, and avoided any uncomfortable eye contact. There was someone who would change her life if she could. As I passed her, her chin came down, and she looked at me with hard eyes. They widened for a moment, as though she recognized me, and then quickly narrowed into a seething blend of pity and contempt. I wondered who she thought I was, but walked on, eyes straight ahead, avoiding the chance for awkward interaction.
You can’t save the world, right? You can only save yourself. And that only if you’re lucky.
I rapped lightly on Benji’s door, then let myself in when there was no answer. His apartment was a sunny place, all honeyed parquet floors, vaulted ceilings, and windows nine feet tall, but he’d packed it to the rafters with whirring electronic things. Shame that such a gracious space had been infested with all of those nests of cables. A new thought struck: Maybe when we were married, I could clear some of it away.
Benji wasn’t in evidence in the main room, but after a minute I heard his voice carrying from the office. On the phone, probably still working. Since I was stuck waiting anyhow, I tossed my purse onto his leather sofa and grabbed a garbage bag from the kitchen to start my renovation with the worst of the not-quite-empty soda cups and grease-stained take-out bags.
“Listen, I have to go, she’s going to get here any minute,” Benji said.
I froze, not wanting to listen in to his conversation, but unable to do anything else.
His voice was tight, defensive. “Yes, I get it, I’ll figure out a way to ask her… I know it’s important, you don’t have to tell me. I know. You keep your eyes on your business and I’ll handle mine.” He wasn’t talking about me. No way could he be talking about me.
He banged around in his office, from the sound of it closing drawers and stacking papers up, ready to pack it in for the day. “This might come as a shock, Marjorie, but you’re not the only one with chips on the table. I’m handling it, OK? I know what I’m doing.”
I bit my lip, then shoved the garbage bag under the sofa as quietly as I could. I grabbed my handbag and backed over to the door. I opened it. I slammed it shut again, the sound echoing through his apartment. “Benji, you here?” I called. My voice was steady, even casual.
“One second, phone,” he called back. I heard him make his apologies and hang up. Benji emerged from his office and greeted me with a cool kiss on the forehead, but his mind seemed a million miles away. So was mine.
We weren’t going to Villa Rosalita after all. “I spaced and totally forgot there’s a work thing tonight,” he said, hands spread out in fauxpology. “Given the investment stuff we’re working on, I really have to be there. But you can come along. You’ll have fun, right?”
Benji had brought me to one of his endless work-related parties for the first time just a couple of weeks after we started dating. Its highlight was my conversation with a broad-cheekboned woman with dozens of tiny braids that set the tone for all my future interactions with his peers. It went something like this:
Her: So what do you do?
Me: Oh, I’m a barista.
Her: Hahahaha! We’ve all had those jobs before. So what are you trying to get into? Let me guess — you’re a designer? Or are you the startup entrepreneur type?
Me: Uhhhhhhmmmmm. No? I’m OK with being a barista.
Her: Oh, um. That’s great. Good for you.
Then she looked wildly around the room searching for somebody to talk to who wasn’t horribly beneath her. Once was more than enough, thank you very much. The only other kind of conversation available was more or less like Benji talking about his work: a brothy soup of buzzwords all jumbled together that, upon deconstruction, amounted to a variant of “technology is awesome,” or “I know about cooler stuff than you do,” or sometimes “that guy thinks he’s cool but really he is not.”
It was as tedious, in its own way, as my parents’ endless cocktail parties and fundraising dinners. The people were younger, but the conversation was always the same.
Eventually I developed a coping strategy to lubricate my way through the parties with Benji’s crowd. It involved taking a couple of hits of the hardest booze on offer the second I walked in the door, and then hunching over my phone pretending to be all wrapped up in sending texts or something. If anybody tried to bother me, I’d smile and shake my head and point to my phone, apologize profusely, and say something about how the system was down and I had to take care of it.
I was so proud of myself the first time I pulled that one off. It was the perfect impenetrable armor.
Tonight’s itinerary was a local tech-art meetup at a Brazilian-Korean fusion place with high slabs of a dark-polished wood as cocktail tables and a rosy filter on the lights. The air was hazy from meat-scented airborne carcinogens, and the red-aproned waiters walked among the crowd offering hunks of steak pierced on bamboo skewers. The technorati were shoulder to shoulder.
Miss Blue Streaks grabbed Benji’s wrist as soon as we hit the door. “We need to talk,” she said. Her eyes skipped over to me and then past, to the crowd. “It’s about Prometheus.”
He gave my hand an apologetic squeeze. “Verity business,” he said. “Might take a while. Settle yourself in and try to have a good time. I’ll make it up to you, promise.”
I squeezed his hand back. “Will do.” Benji and the girl weaved away in the crowd, and I lost sight of them almost immediately. No big surprise, really. It always happened sooner or later at these things. He’d come back and find me eventually.
On to coping, then. The specialty cocktail was a soju caipirinha; I grabbed one from a passing tray and squeezed into a corner next to a massive bronze jar of bamboo to claim a little breathing room. I watched the crowd for a while, monkeys trying to impress each other for status, and wished I were anywhere else.
And then, as I stood there cursing my uncomfy dress-up heels and wishing the pierced-tin ceiling didn’t make the noise so much more buzzy and awful, some guy with a close-trimmed beard and these glasses with massively thick frames cornered me. His breath was hot and yeasty from the beer and he stood a normal distance away from me, but leaned forward at the waist so his face was way too close to mine to be strictly comfortable. He had good hygiene and all, just no sense of personal space. That’s what I get for hiding in a corner.
I waved my phone at him, as per usual. “The system is down,” I said. “Sorry, can’t talk!”
“You said that last time,” he said.
“Flaky system?” I looked around for Benji, hoping against hope that he was near enough to notice I’d been pinned down and come to my rescue. A little jealousy kicking in would be handy. But Benji still wasn’t in evidence.
Yeast-Breath eyed me suspiciously, then leaned even further into my personal space to look at my phone screen. The soft contours of his face folded up into his frown. “You’re playing Candy Crush.”
I panicked. “Have to run!” I squeaked, and I pushed my way past him, out through the crowd, then further, right out the door of the restaurant.
The cool night air hit me like a bucket of water in the face, but it was a welcome change. I breathed deep. My shoulders relaxed and the pounding in my head receded.
I could see Benji through the black-shuttered window, head bent in conversation with that woman. She tilted her head; her gleaming hair swung forward. I tried to read the body language. Him hunched over, his arms crossed, while she had her chin high and her hands on her hips. A new thought struck me: Ex-girlfriend. Good luck with that, honey, he’s mine now.
I stopped at a corner a couple of blocks away, not sure exactly where I was or where to go to pass a little time. Benji had driven us here, and he was still inside talking about who even knew what. So was my handbag, for that matter. But the air was fresh and cool, the street was quiet, and out here nobody was passing judgment on my worth as a human being. Or at least not to my face. I stood there, arms crossed and sweater pulled tight across my ribs, and looked up at the sky. I wished I could see the stars, but the city lights drowned them.
“Rough night?” asked a soft voice. The asker stood about fifteen feet away from me, but she blended in with the shadows until she stepped into my puddle of lamplight. She was wearing an outsized army jacket and a broomstick skirt. A corona of frizz rose from her hair, each strand glowing. The smudges below her eyes looked like she’d had maybe four hours of sleep in the last couple of weeks. Combined.
Familiar, but I couldn’t place her until I saw the pin on her lapel: She was the woman from the subway earlier. Probably about to ask me if I could spare some change.
“I… I’m sorry,” I said, fumbling in my jeans pockets. “My bag is inside.” I nodded at the restaurant.
She grimaced. “I don’t need your money, thanks.”
I thought about fate and chance and there-but-for-the-grace-of-god and I searched in my pockets a little harder. There was a credit card in my back pocket. “Hey, I was just about to get something to eat, and I’d love some company,” I lied. “Come on, I’ll buy you dinner.”
Her face moved through a quick series of inscrutable reactions, surprise and horror and something that might have been irritation. I couldn’t be sure because it didn’t last long. She studied me for another moment, the way a surgeon might study a tumor. “Sure, why not,” she said.
I led her into a cheap Mexican place and ordered a mess of nachos with extra guacamole and a burrito the size of a football. I wasn’t that hungry, but I figured as long as I was trying to do some good, I might as well try to go all the way and send her away with extra food.
“Big appetite, huh?” the woman said.
I nodded amiably. “I didn’t eat today.”
She ordered a couple of fish tacos and a veritable pail of soda, and I handed my credit card to the man at the counter. He sneered at me and pointed to a sign that read: “Cash Only.”
“Oh. OH!” I twisted my credit card in my hands, thinking about my purse, probably still dumped on the floor behind that bronze jar of bamboo at the party.
The woman rolled her eyes and fished a crumpled-up twenty from an inside pocket. “I guess I’m buying tonight,” she said.
“God, I’m so sorry,” I said as we walked back to the table. Guilt consumed me. “Look, I swear I’ll pay you back. I have cash in my purse back at the party.”
She shrugged. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
I nibbled on a chip laminated with melted cheese and tapped a fingernail on the plywood table. Silence felt awkward, but making conversation seemed awkward, too. The woman kept opening her mouth, poised on the brink of speech, and then backing away, like she’d lost her nerve.
She fiddled with punching the straw into her cup, then she caught my eye and began to talk. The words came slowly at first; it seemed like it had been a long time since she’d had the chance to really talk to anybody.
Her name was Chandra. In the course of a few minutes’ conversation, I noticed a particular pomposity to the cadences of her speech as if she’d spent much, much too much time at a university. She seemed only a little older than me, though. Grad student? Unusually grubby junior professor? I worried with no small embarrassment if I had completely misread her situation.
We made pointless small talk for a while. The summer is supposed to get awful hot this year; what a shame about the latest political scandal brewing; isn’t it wonderful how that fireman saved that little boy on the subway the other day.
Then she was quiet, toying with her fork like she could pick out the right words with it. “The people back at that restaurant you left,” she said abruptly. “You know they’re the tech scene around here.”
The sudden change of subject startled me. And… had she been following me or something? “Yeah,” I said, “I guess so. I’m not really one of them, though. I’m just… I’m engaged to Benjamin Adler.”
“So I hear,” she said. I jumped in my seat, wondering what she could possibly know about it. Before I could ask, she went on. “Are you interested in technology at all?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
“You should be,” she said. “You should be afraid of it.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Ever the busybody, I decided to poke at her and see what happened. “Why is that?”
“We’re in a dangerous place,” she said, with a furtive scan around. I wondered if she saw nonexistent fellow diners trying to eavesdrop on us, and not just the bald chef behind the counter serenading his grill in discord with the radio. “Before long, truth will be determined more by technology than by real reality. It’s already happening.”
I sat back, convinced I’d found the edge of her tin foil hat.
“It’s like this,” Chandra said. “Your bank has a computer. Let’s say there’s a glitch… a data-entry error, whatever… and suddenly it says you don’t have any more money. That makes it real. It becomes true.” She kept her eyes fixed to my face, as though looking for a particular reaction.
This was a little too much for me, a little too close to home, so I winced. “Saying something doesn’t make it so.”
She relaxed and sat back, shaking her head. “You’re wrong. It’s always been possible to change reality by saying the right thing at exactly the right moment.” She waved her tiny plastic fork in the air for emphasis. “Take the Spanish American War. It was a complete fabrication. It didn’t happen until a few newspaper moguls decided business was slow. They started covering a war, and both sides wound up fighting because they fell for it. They thought it was real.”
“You mean writing about it as if it were already true made it true,” I said. I drummed my fingers on my thighs, suddenly nervous.
“Exactly.” She sat forward again, leaning onto her elbows to stare at me with burning eyes. “Words have power. But you know all about that, right? I mean… your fiancé runs Verity, right? So I’m sure he’s told you everything.”
“What kind of everything?” I asked slowly.
“Hasn’t Ben told you what Verity really does? Verity isn’t in the business of reporting reality, they’re in the business of making it.” She clapped her fingertips to her mouth with faux horror, and her voice became syrup-thick from bitterness. “Silly me. Not for me to spill his secrets. Forget I said anything.”
I stared at her, my eyes wide, trying to think of something to say. My upper arms were covered with goose bumps. I thought again, for about the millionth time that day, about changing Benji’s Verity page. It was impossible, right? A coincidence. Saying something doesn’t make it true. Everybody knows that.
I had to get out of there before I totally lost grip on reality. Real reality. I tried to think of a way to excuse myself and get back to the party. But… there was the matter of the money I owed her. I couldn’t bear to stiff her on a dinner I’d asked her out to in the first place.
“Um, will you walk me back to the party?” I asked. “And then I can pay you back.”
She turned her little plastic fork over and over in her hands. “I’d rather not,” she said. “But I promise I’ll give you a chance some other time.” She set the fork down and began shredding her napkin instead. “Just do me a favor. Don’t tell Ben you saw me, OK? Forget my name, forget we ever met. It’s… complicated.”
“Right,” I said. “Whatever you say.” Like I would have had any idea what to tell Benji about her anyhow.