Yellow

Jen is late and early. She is early to the show, but tonight isn’t really about the show, and what tonight’s really about is the thing she’s late for.

“Sorry, again,” she says.

“Nothing to be sorry about, again,” Steve replies. He got to the improv theater a half-hour before the show. Jen got here just now, as the doors open. The line wraps from the door all the way down the wheelchair ramp and into the sidewalk. Some people who got here when Jen got here are going to be turned away. One more, now that she’s joined Steve in line.

She scratches her neck. Her hair is back in a ponytail. She read somewhere online that the ponytail is a primo first date hairstyle, but she feels a little more junior-varsity-midfielder than she was hoping to ever have to feel again. Her personal preference would have been the slightly different and probably wrongheaded peek-a-boo braids. Braiding wouldn’t have helped her schedule. She had maybe three to five minutes to get to know this stranger before the show began.

Yellow Magic Dating Service had made Jen a guarantee: she would have one bad date and one good date under their auspices. A confusing business model, but Jen wouldn’t argue with a free service that promised her an advance in life. So, here she was, with Steve, a well-built, well-groomed guy. Beyond that, Jen didn’t know much. Steve could either be a good date, or her last bad date.

They got past the doors and walked through the lobby just as the sun began to set. The wall to their right was decorated with glamor photos. It was like a game of Guess Who for the Who’s-Who; a yearbook from one of those special high schools where everyone goes on to make it big.

“They really hit you over the head with these headshots,” she said. “I know a few of those actors.”

Steve grins. “The faces onstage aren’t famous. “Not yet,” say the headshots, “but neither were the now-famous.””

“Time is strange like that. Is it better to meet someone before or after they’re, like, actualized?

“Both,” Steve said. “For context. Do you take headshots?”

Jen thrills. He knows what she does for a living. He is paying attention. “For friends,” she says. “Nothing like these.”

“What’s different with these?” And, as they passed the lobby: “Those, rather.”

They couldn’t stop. The entire point of them – Steve, rather – waiting in line was to get good seats. The theater was a black box with stadium seating. Steve proudly offers front-row seats.

Jen couldn’t point to the headshots in the lobby, so she used her own face as reference. She had Steve’s full attention. Good.

“So this,” Jen says, “is how you usually want headshots.” Jen smiles at Steve with her eyes and cheeks, but her mouth barely resembles a smirk. “And this,” she continues, “is how famous people do headshots.” Jen turns her head to show her profile and smolders.

Steve chuckles. His expression says he’s about to say something that he thinks is extremely clever. But then, like wind over grass, a nearly extradimensional shift comes over the audience.

Steve’s eye shifts toward the stage. Everyone’s eye shifts toward the stage. The noise in the room shifts, not in volume, but in purpose. The faces shift from people like Jen to the people like the people onstage.

For the first five seconds, Jen can’t breathe. It’s like all the oxygen has been sucked away, placed into the lungs of the woman now welcoming the crowd. The woman is, at most, a middling celebrity. But Jen knows her. Steve knows her. And for the next thirty minutes, nobody is going to know that Jen exists.

The show goes on. Jen has her critiques. One of the black-clad improvisors is breaking reality, using some kind of dream logic to which the other performers can’t relate. This does, however, present an opportunity. A tall, skinny performer uses laughter as a weapon, deriding the elements that are breaking the scene. His dream-fueled colleague finds the laughter filling, and she settles. Her lack brings them both satisfaction.

Jen squirms. Those onstage – geniuses and amateurs alike – at least have something to critique. Steve and the rest of them have locked eyes on the stage, on the pedestal for the ones who matter. Jen laughs a few times. She’s not consumed; just concerned.

Intermission comes. Between bathroom breaks, Jen confides in Steve her insightful critique of the performance. He nods and gets out half a sentence before the show kicks back into gear. They start parodying the musical “Cats,” which Jen’s never seen. Steve leaves Jen. His soul is onstage with the minor celebrity, the professionals, the ones who matter. Jen looks behind her, at the rapt eyes who don’t even know that they’re being looked at, and – worse – don’t care. Are they human, or are they consumers? Are they two-dimensional cardboard cutouts; a Guess Who game of the unimportant, where everyone’s a “who?”

It’s okay, she thinks, to be worried. She imagines that her concern at being literally overlooked by the stadium seating will someday drive her and her work onstage. Is she is satisfied, she’ll settle. If she stays consumed… yes, just a little ravenous…

The show ends at eleven. They walk out together. The night is still as stone on the back streets, and there are still two blocks to go until they reach Jen’s parking space. They talk about the show. She wants to talk about anything else.

“Back home,” she says, “side streets aren’t three lanes wide, like this side street.”

“Back home,”” he says. “This isn’t home, for you?”

“Back home,” she says, “there’s a church on both sidewalks. And nobody’s awake at eleven but the ones who’ve made some bad mistake. I’m a transplant.”

“An invasive species, maybe,” Steve says. “Do you feel like you belong here?”

“I hope to.”

She waits for him to say it. She waits to hear ‘why?’ or, even better, ‘because you didn’t belong there?’ She waits for him to ask about her dreams.

Jen looks up at Steve. Reality, as always, is the death of a good dream. He’s busy rubbernecking, looking for her car. So far as Jen can tell, he’s looking for the Silver Civic so that he can tuck her in to her seatbelt and wave her off. He’s looking to be rid of Jen.

Not just ignored. Jen’s been discounted.

Jen manages not to cry until the third intersection, and then the crying comes with enough force that she has to pull over and give crying her full attention. That night, she dreams of pain.

The morning after the date, Jen receives about the strangest envelope she’s ever seen. No stamp. No return address; no address, for that matter, but only the word JEN. She’s got a lot of photo editing to get through, but that only makes it more imperative that she waste a little time before getting to getting through it.

The envelope is the embodiment of the word ‘ivory.’ The color was bone. The texture was calcified. It was firm, smooth, light, like – but no, the seal, as always, was the death of a fashionable envelope. The paper tears three times before Jen can get the flap up.

Inside is a card, folded into a perfect square. On its face is a swollen cartoon pufferfish. Its caption reads “you’re swell” in a futura typeface. Jen raises an eyebrow. The design is downright hostile. The pufferfish is shown from the belly up, and its beak rests in a dumb frown, and the whole general vibe of the thing is to make the creature seem dumbly and clumsily rotund. The card is almost trying to tell the recipient that she’s fat.

Jen can’t go back to editing now. This card might consume her whole day, but it would be worth it.

She opens the card. Inside, she finds dense, minuscule handwriting. Her eyes dart to the bottom. Between the script and postscript, she finds the writer’s name: Annie. Does she know an Annie? Maybe an Ann?

She decides to just read the damn thing. That’s when the trouble starts.


Jen,

Annie here from the Yellow Dating Agency. Pardon the card. I had it on hand, and I figured you needed something a bit more personal than an email, considering the ordeal last night.


Jen scowls. How could Annie have gotten feedback from the date so fast? Was there some post that went faster than overnight? But it wasn’t the postman. There was no address. Jen can feel Annie’s presence, suddenly, as she realizes that the letter was hand-delivered by the writer.


Last night for you, I mean. Who knows? Maybe I wrote this letter five days ago. Maybe I wrote it this morning. There’s no timestamp on writing; all you can know is that I wrote it before you read it, probably. The ‘when’ matters little. What happened to you last night will happen again, and will have happened before, forever, unless something changes. That something that’s got to change is you.


Jen thinks that this is worse than calling somebody a pufferfish. “Me?” she says aloud. “Yeah, that’s what I need to hear. That I’m not worth love. Cool.”

She puts down the letter.

She looks at her computer, and at the work of the next few hours.

She picks up the letter.


You’re not. Did you know that? You’re not worth being loved.


Jen realizes that she’s not going to be able to stop. The sentence is terrible. However, that only makes reading further more imperative. Reading on is like tumbling down the side of a mountain: brutal; effortless.


You’ve been taught self-love. You love and care for yourself above all others, and you’ve been told that this is a positive and mentally healthy thing to do. The irony of this onanist delusion is that it cuts you off from love.

You’ve been taught self-esteem. You should have been taught to esteem everything else. You’ve received love before. Steve, coming early, waiting in line for you, sacrificing himself to the ire of those you queue-cut and omitted. Steve, listening, serving, finding your car, walking you back, helping in the best way he knows how. But you love yourself more than Steve. How, therefore, could his love mean anything to you? You’ve reduced him to a sub-Jen creature. What use would be his esteem? You may as well perform your glory before cardboard cutouts. You may as well be deified by an empty bench.


“So what?” she asks the letter. She’s no longer talking to herself. She’s having a full-throated argument with a card with a cartoon pufferfish on it. “So what? I hate myself?”


No. Do not hate yourself. Hate is a form of love. You do not hate what you do not care about. You hate that of importance; that which might have been loved.


“So what?” Jen asks again. “So. Damn. What…”


You have been taught that the best food is of your own flesh. You have been taught to beat yourself until you become delicious. You have been taught to be hungry; now, I teach you to eat.

For cannot eat yourself forever. You cannot eat him, either. What can be eaten without being consumed? Something else. Something magic.


- Annie


“What?” Jen grips her neck, pulls at her own ponytail. “That’s it?”

Then, she remembers the postscript. She scrambles to it like a vagabond to scraps.


P.S.

You’ll find no answers here. You’ll find only another chance to learn. You work remote, so call off sick and get ready for your next date. Don’t ask if this is the bad date or the magic one. I’m just a letter.

Puff puff.


Green

Tim often thinks about himself. When he does, he never really thinks of himself as an artist, and he tells Jen so. “I don’t like the term “artist.””

Jen is blonde and pale. She has a braid that holds her hair up against the back of her head. She looks at home amidst the museum’s 19th century paintings; almost identical, in fact, to the woman in the painting at which she’s staring. The woman in the painting differs from Jen in key ways: the woman has an obelisk posture and the fashion sense of a Bavarian doll, complete with bonnet and parasol. Jen wears sneakers and leans on her hip. She was more of a mannerist sculpture, if anything, and Tim thinks of telling her so before realizing just how cornball and un-first-dateworthy that statement would be. So, unprompted, Tim continues. “I think the word artist has a neutralizing effect that I’m not really a fan of.”

Jen raises a near-white eyebrow. ““Artist” doesn’t seem like a neutral word, to me.”

Tim is glad to get a word out of Jen. Tim can’t tell if she’s concentrating on the art or ignoring him. Both, most likely. The third possibility – that Jen just might be a bit psychically dull – was unkind, and Tim had always thought that one should be presumed guilty of thinking until proven innocent.

This was the work of Green Magic Dating Service. They’d set up everything: the schedule, the location, the tickets, the partner. Weirdly, Green Magic Dating Service was free. It came with one condition: for every good date you have, you will have to have a bad date. Tim’s calculus was that the only way to ensure that he had one good and one bad date was to have the bad date first, counting on the customer to then stick around for the good date. Tim’s brain couldn’t shut up about this sort of psudointellectual drivel. Maybe that’s what Jen was up to. Maybe she isn’t talking to Tim for the same reason Tim isn’t talking to Jen, which was that he was at this very same moment busy trying to think of why Jen isn’t talking to Tim.

Tim’s solution is to begin broadcasting his thoughts. “What I mean by neutralizing is that it elevates non-artists and lowers artists.”

“Hmm.”

Tim hopes that this is the bad date.

Tim says “Close your eyes and think of an artist.”

Jen somehow shrugs without moving her shoulders and closed her eyes.

“What do you see?”

“A painter with an easel and a pallet with little condiment-splotches of paint –” she smiles. “So yeah, clearly I’m thinking of Bob Ross.”

Not dull, definitely. “They should do that with french fries. Give you a pallet of different condiments to hold in one hand while you hold the fry with you other hand.”

“Painting with flavor.”

“But that’s my point. The painter and the Applebee’s line cook both practice an art. They are both art-ists. But are they the same? If one is an artist and the other isn’t, that implies a value judgement. But if “artist” means “somebody who does something,” the word is meaningless. Something is only special if something else is regular. Someone is only an artist if someone else isn’t.”

Jen smirks. “You’re a writer, you said?”

Tim makes a flatulent noise with his lips. “I don’t like that word, either.”

“How come?”

Tim shrugs.

Jen shrugs. There it is again – that somehow-shoulderless shrug.

They move to the next painting. This one makes Jen go “hmm!”

Tim takes it in. This painting shares several traits with the last one: greenery, a bonnet, and swooping, dreamlike brushstrokes. This one, however, is in landscape. Tim likes this one better than the last. He likes the broad horizons, the tall mountains, and the two minuscule hikers.

“So, imagine going up to…” Tim pauses, looking to the painting’s placard. He pinches the fingers of his right hand together and says “Gio-va-nni Seg-an-ti-ni” like a Sicilian ordering chicken parm. “Imagine going up to him and saying, “oh, you’re an artist?””

“Kind of… obvious.”

“And reductive. Like, artists of his time were probably like, “he’s not an artist, he’s a hack impressionist, a failed formalist.””

“And what do you think he is?”

“A hack impressionist.”

“Does anyone deserve the term “artist?””

“That’s the thing. An actual artist wouldn’t want to be called an artist, and wouldn’t need to be. The term “artist” is always compensatory. It implies frivolity – a sort of Bob-Ross-esque hobbyism.”

“I like Bob Ross. He’s American.”

“American?”

“Yeah. European art is like… this invasive species that took over all of our museums.”

“What’s American art look like?”

“American Zoetrope.”

“Hollywood?”

“See, the fact that Van Gogh is considered classier than Van Sant is exactly what led to a lack of appreciation for Van Gogh until after anybody could personally appreciate him.”

“Sorry,” Tim says. “That’s not what I meant. Nobody doesn’t like Bob Ross, and there’s nothing wrong with hobbyists. It’s just not the way that I personally want the things that I do to be seen.”

“And what would you prefer?” Jen looks away. “Actually, could we sit down? I get weirdly tired when I hike around museums.”

Tim follows Jen’s eye-line to a table-sized bench. He nods.

Tim sits. He grins. “This. This is how I want to be.” He spreads his hands and lays them on the bench. “Look at this thing. It’s like a big, beautiful mahogany door.”

Titanic.”

“Yeah, big.”

“No, I mean, the movie.”

“Never seen it.”

“Very Hollywood. It’s got a much-debated door in it.”

“Well, I want to be a bench. It’s purposeful. It does good work, so far as holding up butts is concerned.” Tim peers between his legs. “But it also happens to be more. Look at those bowed legs. Those clawed feet. The setbacks, like an upside-down cake. It’s better than it strictly needs to be, but not so highfalutin’ that you can’t sit on it.”

“Hmm.”

Tim suddenly realizes what he’s missing from Jen. He wants her to argue with him. Tim can babble on fine all by himself. He wants Jen to toss some verbal obstacles in his path so that he can scramble over them, proving himself over puzzles of the mind. He tries to coax some fight out of Jen. “Hmm?” he asks.

“I don’t know if I have an opinion on what your art should be.” Jen shrugs. It’s like her whole torso goes up and down or something.

Tim is almost certain that this date is the bad one.

Tim gets a call the next day from the dating service.

“Hi, this is Stephen from Green Magic Dating Service.”

“Oh. Oh.” Tim fumbles with his jeans. The agency called while Tim was standing over his toilet bowl. Everything is ready for the act. He is pulled from one end by his urgent bladder and from the other by his crippling loneliness.

“Is this a good time?

“Uh…” Tim grabs the toilet seat and lets it down onto the bowl. It makes not a sound. “Uh, no. This is fine.” He turns and sits on the toilet. It is, in fact, not fine, but it is finer than any alternative Tim can think of at the moment. “What’s up?”

“Just wanted to call about your date with Jen.”

“Oh?”

“Like, how was it?”

“Oh. Oh.” Tim grits his teeth. He directs his urine stream to glance off of the very edge of the toilet bowl. He prays that Stephen from Green Magic Dating Service cannot hear the faint spilling noise. “Uh…”

“Let’s start on a scale of one to ten, ten being most satisfied with the date, one being least satisfied with the date.”

“Uh…” Tim does the math in his head. Plus one for Jen actually showing up, minus one for engaging conversation. Tim is done peeing, and regains his vocabulary. “Uh… like, five?”

“That low?”

“That high, you mean.”

“What went wrong?”

“I wasn’t a raving fanatic about the setting, to be honest with you.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Based on our profile, an art museum should have provided you the four fundamentals of a first date.”

“Which are?”

“Intimacy, Entertainment, Companionship, and Communication.”

“Well, like, I learned a lot about her. She’s a photographer. And, like, it felt intimate enough for the first bit. I liked the art.”

“Then what went wrong?”

“I don’t know. I felt alone.”

“What hampered your companionship with Jen?”

“Uh…” Tim felt a bowel movement coming on. It was not urgent, but he wondered if he might as well try to get away with it. “Uh, well, she wasn’t very responsive.”

“I disagree.”

“Huh?”

“She was quite responsive. Didn’t you catch that bit about Bob Ross and the European invasion of the Americas?”

“What?”

“Would it change your opinion about the date at all if I told you that we’d already interviewed Jen and that she’d filled us in on the whole dealio and that she rated her experience as a respectable eight out of ten on her satisfaction survey?”

“Oh, crap.” Tim no longer felt the need to empty his bowels. “Wait, did she know that you were going to tell me this?”

“Not at all. She had no idea that I was going to relate her appreciation of your humor and thoughtfulness.”

“Are you going to –”

“No, I am not going to tell her that she’s a “five.””

“Not her, per se. The date was a five.”

“A bad date, on the whole.”

“Well now, wait a minute…”

“And actually, I would have expected quite different results from the both of you. Opposite, in fact. You’re a five, no doubt.”

Tim’s face warmed. “I thought we were rating the date.”

“Because, actually, you went the whole time in the museum with a semiprofessional photographer thinking that you had the best insights concerning art. Because, actually, just because she wasn’t fighting for her deserved spotlight, you thought you’d take it.”

“Were you watching us?” Tim asked, thereby basically admitting the truth of Stephen’s assessment.

“Because, actually, when I ask how it was, I’m actually asking how you were. If a neighbor comes to your house asking for a cup of sugar, you can pretty safely assume that this neighbor doesn’t already have sugar. And when you go looking for something in someone, you’d be pretty safely on the spot in guessing that you actually lack that thing in yourself.”

“That’s not fair. I can’t give companionship to myself.”

“And you apparently can’t give it to Jen, either. So you’re stuck, aren’t you? Unless there’s some third thing ready and willing to hold up both of your sorry asses. Unless there’s magic.”

Tim closed his eyes and cursed. “That’s harsh, Steve.” There was something familiar about that name.

“Stephen. Tim, if you want companionship, you’ve got to be capable of giving it.”

“Why?”

“Wipe your ass. You’re going to have magic.”

“But I only went number one – wait, how do you –”

But the phone line was dead.

Blue



Ann had never been on a date so bad that she could bond with the guy over how bad it was. Someone had decided that the best way to meet a guy was with one’s mouth perpetually full and one’s eyes perpetually downcast. Someone evil was behind the concept of a dinner date.

“That’s the beauty,” she says. “Neither of us organized the date, so neither of us has to feel responsible.” For everything else, Ann feels responsible. She’s prematurely opened the napkin containing her silverware. The napkin now lies on her lap, while the utensils sit in perfect order around a plate that won’t arrive for another half an hour. Restaurants… now there was another concept dreamed up by the principalities of darkness.

“Correct.” Tim, her date, touches the side of his nose. “So far as I know.”

“You think I’m posing as a dating service?” Ann asks. She begins working on the condiment station, pushing it and the drink menu to the wall side of the booth. The table space is now optimized. “You think I incorporated a business with the soul purpose of getting you out to Applebee’s?”

Blue Magic Dating Service, whoever they were, had picked the North American casual dining chain Applebee’s for Ann’s first blind date. Blue Magic Dating Service guaranteed two dates. Strangely, they guaranteed that one date would be good and that one date would be bad. If there is any way to guarantee a bad date, Ann guesses, it is Applebee’s. Though Ann is reasonably comfortable with the restaurant’s physical hygiene, there is something spiritually diseased about the place. The act of feeding and sanitizing going on in this room has been going on for so many days and nights that all the sharp edges of character have been sanded off or lubricated in some extradimensional way that Ann can’t really explain.

“No, I don’t think you’re responsible,” Tim says. “But maybe – just maybe – you are and don’t know it. This might be hell. You might be in a simulated reality for amnesiac cybercriminals, tested beyond the limits of human endurance.”

“They say you should try to pinch yourself, but I never know why that would wake somebody from a vision. If I can dream of a well-built clown chasing me up an indoor mountain, I can dream of me pinching myself.” Ann pinches her wrist anyway. Her hands should do something. They are currently underutilized. Tim might be pinching himself, but Ann can’t tell due to his hands being hidden under the table.

“Could you dream of pain?” Tim asks.

“If Applebee’s is a dream? Yes.”

“What about Apple-Bees. Or Bee Apples. Even painfuler, probably.”

“Hmm?”

“It makes me laugh to tell jokes nobody laughs at.”

A black-clad waitress appears, sudden as a flash. Ann and Tim exchange worried looks as they listen to and politely decline “this week’s specials,” which would only be meaningful to whatever forsaken souls had grown tired of the forty-three presumably “regular” menu items. Once they order, they wonder for several minutes if their waitress has overheard their discontent, and if she is one of those wait staff with paternal love for her Applebee’s family, or if she is among those involved in the wait staff lawsuit that has been raging against Applebee’s since before the first iPhone sale. The reason Ann knows of this lawsuit is that Tim has just explained it to her.

“It’s like the Titanic,” Tim says. “Corporations always lock up the third class in court and just patiently wait for them to drown.”

Ann likes to fancy herself a businesswoman, and it is hard not to approach Tim as an appraiser. He is on the thinner side of athletic, with a black beard that was probably meant to strengthen the jawline but which ends up making him look like a Jellicle Cat, which is, in Ann’s opinion, not a bad look so far as looks went. Guys only talked about class conflict when they were secretly poor, but that doesn’t matter to Ann. She’s going to be rich, after all.

On the other hand, Tim hasn’t once fiddled with his still-wrapped silverware napkin. Bad news, that. Ann has barely seen his hands since they sat down; a paucity that Ann finds weird and sneaky, but one she can do nothing about, short of tossing silverware at his eyes.

The salads arrived first. Ann places hers between her silverware, and does not eat until Tim does.

Again, there is nothing wrong with Ann’s salad, so far as any health inspector would be concerned. But the idea of it! The idea that the same hands which tossed these mixed greens had, seconds before or after, been massaging MSG into pink slime viscera; been reducing potatoes to the viscosity of butter; been unseen, sneaky hands. Ann knew that the salad wouldn’t kill her. What she didn’t know was if it would help her to live.

“You get dressing on the side?”

Ann looks over at Tim’s salad. It is already smothered with something that looks like mustard. Deflection is the best tactic when it comes to food. “I think it’s frankly insane to let somebody decide how much dressing I want.”

Tim takes a bite and points at Ann with his fork. “You like to be in control.”

“Of the deeply personal decision of how much Sicilian Vinaigrette to eat, yes.”

Ann holds up her fork.

When Tim’s eyes are on the fork, Ann moves it like a paintbrush, dipping the prongs into the pallet of her dressing.

With magiciannly flourish, she stabs a clump of leaves and eats them. The perfect greens/dressing ratio slips off the fork with every bite.

Tim gives a light golf-clap, and Ann bows. Ann guesses that the performance is probably the last good moment she’s going to get. There is a chicken parmesan coming that Ann is probably not going to finish, and she’ll have to explain that preference as well.

Deflection, of course, was not what Ann wanted in a relationship. She didn’t want to have to be embarrassed about her desire for control. She desired, on levels she could and couldn’t explain, a man with the same scruples and idiosyncrasies that she had. Rather than a good-natured man of a different nature, Ann wants someone similar to Ann in all the ways that matter. In short, she wants a recovering anorexic who has just recently cracked 19 BMI with dreams of launching Red Rovr, a propriety software for inter-company transfers with the potential of curbing the worst excesses of the gig economy. A big ask, sure, but she wants somebody who understands what she’s going through and won’t judge her in his hidden thoughts.

And this guy let some hidden somebody dress his salad.

Ann is usually pleased by the speed at which Blue Magic Dating Service responds to emails, but this one threatens to interrupt her morning run. She’s tied her shoes and stretched her legs, even.

Maybe she can read now and think about the message while she trains. She sighs and scrolls through the email.


Ann,

While I appreciate the polite tone of your complaint, you were explicitly informed of our one-good-date-one-bad-date policy. We were not aware of your obsessive dislike of the chain restaurant Applebee’s, and we apologize for any damage this may have caused you. However, had we been aware of this dislike, we would still have sent you on a date to Applebee’s. We are, in fact, delighted that you had such a terrible time.

Best,

Jennifer


Ann’s jaw hangs open. For half of her run, she isn’t able to breathe properly. She misses entire passages of her LibriVox Pride and Prejudice Audiobook while concentrating on the proper response to the most provocative email she’s ever received. Ann tries to dream up some justification for Jennifer’s hostility. When she gets home, she goes straight to her computer without untying her shoes or stretching her legs, even, and writes Jennifer an email.


Jen,

Though it was not my intention to offend or attack Blue Magic Dating Service, my email was apparently read as having been written with hostile intent. I apologize.

That said, I charitably believe your email was sent with a defensive tone in mind. I find it difficult to believe that an official associate of BDS would take delight in my difficulty. BDS looks to be a reputable service with good reviews, and I chose to understand that this apparent schadenfreude is a mistaken reading on my part.

I trust that I do not need to restate that I have a difficult history with food and that this date (the locale, not the man, who I found nice but not romantically compatible) was, therefore, difficult.

I look forward to my next experience with Blue Magic Dating Service, though I do hope said service will avoid needless provocation.

Best,

Ann


The answer comes back impossibly fast. Ann suspects and automated response until she reads the email.


Ann,

You claim to be cured of anorexia nervosa when you are clearly still in its icy grip. One does not stop being an alcoholic after a few years without a drink.

Your expectation for this date, in fact, stems from a clinical need for your romantic partner to somehow control your controlling nature without seeming to control it. You want someone who can cure you without making you feel bad when you do not entirely want to be cured or feel good, even. I’m sorry to say that neither Tim nor any man can fulfill your every need. If that is your expectation, we regret to inform you that you are straight up, in terms of luck, shit out of it.

Sincerely,

Jennifer, not Jen :)


This time, Ann’s mouth hangs open and her hands grip the sides of her sweat-beaded skull. She has apparently missed something that caused Jen’s – Jennifer’s – mood to flatline. She answers with the fastest, most frantic typing she can imagine.


Jennifer (sorry!),

I am very confused, and I am so sorry if I have caused you offense.

Ann


No sooner does the message go out than it echos back, full-throated.


Ann,

No need to be confused. See, your error lies not in your refusal to invite help, but in your refusal to to invite hurt. You have, in fact, sought help many times. Admirably many. You have defeated one of your many inner foes: the principality that robbed your limbs and organs of their strength. You threw down the vampiric horror that sapped your capacity to feel horror itself. You regained your ability to feel emotion. You were able to sit in an Applebee’s without shivering from the cold, and you ate chicken parmesan without removing the breading. You’re pretty swell.

But something still grips you. You demand not to much from your partner, but too many. You demand that he protect you without overshadowing you. You demand that he understand you without judging you. You demand that he find you flawless and that he change you for the better.

So I shall put a shock into you. I shall serve you a poking and a prodding that will rest you from your slumber, delivering you from delusion. It is this: one man will never be all and everything, for he is, like you, a bent and broken – and only one – thing.

What can free you from this grip? What thing is not broken? What is and only ever will be good? Not you. Not him. Something outside. Something magic.

Humbly yours,

Jennifer,

Postscript,

Girl to girl: shave, gel-based concealer, clear mascara. You’re going outside. You’re getting magic.


Red

Steve likes the outdoors, so far, and he likes Ann, so far.

They hike side by side until, halfway up the hill, the path narrows and the brush closes in.

“So,” he asks Ann, “would you rather lead or follow?”

Ann scrunches up her mouth on one side of her face. “Depends.”

Oh no, Steve thinks. “On?”

Ann speaks with reserved hand gestures. “Depends on who I’m leading or following. I think it’s better to lead followers and follow leaders.”

“How can you tell between them?” The sun is low in the sky. Steve pictures the two of them immobilized by indecision until the sky turns from red to purple to black, still wondering who should step in front of the other.

“A bad leader wouldn’t have asked if I wanted to lead or follow. A bad leader wouldn’t question that question, like I’m doing now. So, since we’re both competent leaders when it comes to walking a clearly marked path, what remains is whether or not one of us is better at being a follower.”

“What does that duty entail?” Inside, he’s screaming, just pick.

“Probably the biggest qualification for a good follower is not criticizing or overanalyzing everything.”

Steve bows and gestures to the path. Ann takes the lead. Good humor, so far. Everything’s full-on megacordial, so far.

Red Magic Dating Service had put the two together. Red Magic Dating Service had arranged everything: the time, setting, and itinerary. They’d done everything short of picking the actual path they took up the mountainside, and all for free.

There is, of course, a catch. The service promises one bad date for every good date. Steve doesn’t really care about the bad date. He’s been able to manage plenty of those without Red’s help. It was the certainty of something good that had roped him. A guarantee. Steve doesn’t even know what a good date would look like. Every time he tries to picture an ideal courtship, the image sours in his mind. He pictures an attractive woman, then pictures her cheating on him. He pictures a funny woman, then pictures himself as the less-funny partner. But he likes Ann, so far, and he likes the outdoors.

“I love the outdoors,” he said. He says what he feels, most of the time. He hides frustration, but everything else just sort of springs out.

“When it’s nice, I think everybody does.”

“Yes,” Steve says. “But not the way I do.”

“How’s that?” Ann keeps up a pace that makes Steve’s breath short. He is well-built by any measure, but cardiovascular exercise makes him feel like flatlining. He should run more. But if he does, he’ll loose muscle. He can picture it. He pictures Steve, a stick figure. A boney boy. A stickness sickness. He’s got a great imagination for things not turning out great.

“I mean,” says Steve, “that people love the outdoors when it feels like the indoors.” He raises his hand, as if this will give him a better feel for the air. “When it’s seventy, when it’s still, when it’s clear, clean. Lots of people like the outdoors, but not many loathe the indoors, like I do.”

“What’s your position on awnings?”

“Yawning. Indifferent. But, truly, if the outdoors is not visible to me in some form, I will dedicate myself to making it visible.”

“Wherefore?”

“Hmm?”

Ann looks over her shoulder. She’s got great, dark eyes. “What’s the reason behind this love so strong that you despise all others?”

“It’s…” Steve finds his words in the mountainside. “The dirt beneath my shoes. Every step is different from the last. The shadows of the leaves have never and will never fall the same way, ever. If I am dissatisfied in any way, I am satisfied that things can change. I look forward to daylight. If I need darkness, it’ll come.”

“Pretty soon, in fact.” Ann looks down at her wrist pedometer. “There are two overlooks. We’ll make the lower one in time to see the sunset. Not sure about the higher overlook.”

“Lead on.”

“Have you encountered light switches?”

“But those lights are my choice,” Steve replied. “If you choose darkness, you wonder what you’re missing in all that black. If you choose light, you wonder what you actually might have been better off missing. Outside, it’s chance. It’s either apples or bees.”

“But to refuse to control something is itself a choice.”

“But a choice of the unknown.” Steve is smiling now. The sun will set over the ocean. He will have a good date. Whether this date or the next, he is guaranteed something that he’s incapable of producing for himself, even in his imagination. “Without mystery, everything good would have to be of your own doing. And it could have always been better, and the fault would be yours. If we knew the future, why would we bother to live into it? If it already happened in our minds, where’s the pleasure of it happening in reality?”

They come to a fork in the path. A signpost marks their possibilities.

“Fifteen minutes ‘till last light,” Ann says. “We could just make the higher point, if we run.”

Oh no, Steve thinks. “And the lower?”

“A three-minute walk downhill.”

Steve tries to picture the possibilities in his mind. In one future, he and Ann arrive sweating and panting but painfully alive at the peak of this mountain by the sea. In another future, they are casual and reap casual rewards: a time that’s nice, but not spectacular.

He was guaranteed one good date, and one bad date. He might as well go for broke.

“No time to decide!” he says, then sprints up the path to the high outlook.

Ann laughs as she follows. Steve is winded already.

He takes loping strides, as if climbing stairs three steps at once. It’s like squats, he tells himself. But though he takes an early lead, he can hear Ann closing. He feels breath on his left hand as it rises near his face. Three steps later, and he feels it again. This is why he hates distance running. It’s just light reps. Hours of light reps. He hadn’t stretched, even.

Ann passes him. Her body is a fluid line, her legs are pistons, her footfalls are wings beating air. Steve pictures the future. She’s great. But maybe she’s too great. Maybe he’ll be overshadowed. He can tell that Ann is slowing down for him. The sky is red.

“You mentioned a job search,” Ann says.

Steve can’t spare his breath. The sky is purple.

“Maybe you shouldn’t. Search, I mean. Maybe you should do your own thing. Be spontaneous. Be caught up.”

“I’m trying to catch up,” Steve pants. He’s too fatigued to decide if he’d meant that as a joke.

And when they reach the top, Ann laughs. The sky is blue-black, and Steve’s vision is too starry to know if he’s really seeing constellations. “We missed it,” she says. “But it’s like you said. Another one is guaranteed.”

Steve – lightheaded, humiliated, disappointed – hopes so. Another date is guaranteed. A good one.


Steve wakes. There’s a knock at his door.

“Leave the package,” Steve moans. “Thanks.” He’d been sleeping in his underwear. It’s six in the morning, and he’s in neither the state of mind or body to meet whoever’s outside his studio apartment.

“No package,” says the voice on the other side. “This is Timmothy. From Red Magic Dating Service.”

Steve groans. He rolls free of his bedsheets and looks around. He doesn’t want Red Magic Dating Service to see the state of things in here. He calls out. “I don’t remember… making an appointment.”

“You didn’t.”

“Did you?”

“How does five minutes from now suit you?”

“Tim, I’m actually…”

“Timmothy,” the voice corrects. Steve’s studio has an open window between his bathroom and the walkway outside. Steve can hear Timmothy out there, whistling, clear and careless.

“Timmothy,” Steve says. “Now’s not a great time, but I can meet you outside. In five.”

“Not necessary,” Timmothy says. “You know, I can hear you pretty well through this open window. In the space of time it would take to sort through your masses of laundry for some sweatpants, I could just say what I came here to say and you wouldn’t have to get naked again.”

Steve feels quite lucky that his mattress lies on the floor, because he just fell out of bed. His wide eyes look from the door to the piles of laundry. “Masses?” he asks.

“Don’t worry about it. I know you pretty well, Stevie. You enjoy stripping the breading off of chicken. You enjoy learning and working and winning. You’re lucky that you enjoy self-improvement, Steve-boy, because most creatures ruled by impulse end up with something worse than a disordered room.”

Steve raises a bunch of bedsheets between his underwear and the door. “Are you spying on me?”

“Who needs to spy?” says Timmothy. “Once I know who you are, I know your context. If I didn’t know who you were, I could look at the floor-bound mattress and the lateness of your rising and assume an incorrect assumption: that you are lazy; unworthy; sloppy.”

Steve thinks he’d better put on his sweatpants, just in case. He makes for his pile of clean laundry, which lies on the foothills of – and, unfortunately, intersects with – his dirty laundry pile. “That comes off a little rude, Timmothy.”

“You say so because you don’t know me. Without context, you’ve got less than nothing. Without context, you have the foundation for an assumption that should never have been built. Without context, you think you know what you don’t know without knowing you don’t know it.”

Steve hops down his sweatpants – they’re on backward, but might as well be inside-out so far as he cares – and makes his way to his door’s peephole. “I’m not lazy,” he says.

“That’s what I said,” Timmothy says. “In fact, you’re the hardest working man you know. You work hard on one thing, then work hard on another thing. Anything that catches your eye gets the full force of your activity. In fact, you work too hard, and on too many things.”

Steve peers through the fish-eye peephole. Past the walkway and railing outside, he sees the rising sun. The sun is blinding. Steve pulls away with a curse. The guy from Red Magic Dating Service must be lurking just out of sight.

“See,” continues Timmothy, “without context, you’d think that Ann was upstaging you. Without the context of her own crippling lack of self-confidence, you and I would probably see her and think that she was looking down on you or embarrassed by you or some other emasculatory fantasy. Because you and I are men in men bodies, see, and we see her in the context of me.”

“You’re making an assumption,” Steve says.

“Based on context. Context makes sense of the senseless. If I knew that you were insecure about your own place in the world, I would understand how your ideal partner would be both intangible and necessary. You need a firm foundation for yourself, but without knowledge of yourself, you have no knowledge of your ideal foundation. Perhaps you never will. But when lifeboats are passing you by, do not drown trying to pick the greatest of them.”

“But how do I choose? How do I know the right path?”

“You don’t. You’d need magic.”

Steve isn’t sure what that means. “I was promised two dates,” he says. “Do I still get the good one?”

Steve is curious enough now that he’ll risk looking through the bathroom window; risk showing himself to this judgmental stranger. He opens the door with care, hoping not to alert Timmothy.

But, judging from the distance of his voice and the padding of shoes on concrete, Timmothy is already walking away. “Context, context,” he says. “Without a second date, how will you know if this first wasn’t magic?”