If you were to ask me which of my college dormmates I thought was least likely to land a lavish job in Silicon Valley, I would without a doubt, without a pause, without a second’s consideration, pick Althea Watson. 100%. The girl could barely finish an essay, barely get to class, barely get out of bed, shit, barely even groom herself.
This is what it was like living with her. I know she took Zoloft and something else that maybe causes weight gain—or not, who knows—and she could never lose weight even though she hardly ever ate. Or I hardly ever saw her eat. I never even saw her buy food, except for these, like, coconuts she’d get pre-shelled in the shape of a yurt, and she’d hammer in a screwdriver to make a hole for the straw. She’d do that when I was trying to study, pound in the screwdriver right across from me, giving me this I’m-virtuously-starving-myself-so-thou-must-take-part-in-my-unhappiness look, while I sat wondering how much longer we had with the glass tabletop.
In her usual mood she’d shut herself up in her room with documentaries about disease and death, although what she really enjoyed was light cheesy romances. Best of all, musicals. On special occasions we’d go to her streaming service for something with a name like Sweetheart, Come Hither or Groove on Down, and as soon as we’d be scrolling through the titles, she’d home in on something like The Act of Killing.
I’d be like shit and I’d see her face go all sullen and she’d go, “I’m watching that.”
I’d be like, “Thea, it’s your birthday. Give yourself a break,” and she’d be like, “Gabby, I owe it to the victims of these horrors not to avert my gaze.”
I’d say, “Thea, you’re not helping them and you’re hurting yourself,” and she’d sigh, “Gabby, if you died a horrible death, would your last thought be, ‘I hope no one ever hears about this because it might make them sad’?” What could I say to that? So we’d watch The Act of Killing, then I’d hold her for an hour while she cried.
The next day, I thought up the perfect comeback: “Thea, I don’t want people to be sad when I die. I want them to be happy that I lived.”
But the ship had sailed. The algorithm figured it knew what she wanted. The Killing Fields the next day, Schindler’s List the next, The Sorrow and the Pity after that. Shoah on Monday and Hotel Rwanda on Tuesday. After we read online how close the Doomsday Clock was to midnight, we had to watch Threads and Black Rain and The Road. The road to Groove on Down was looking less and less promising.
Then she started collecting books about serial killers. At first, they were about men who preyed on women, then my sarcastic prick of a boyfriend, Callum, told her she was “privileging the category of woman under the rubric of victim.” So then she started collecting books about gay murderers who preyed on men.
Sometimes, when she hit a low, she’d storm out for retail therapy and I’d come home to find a whole new wardrobe piled on the table. Days would pass. I’d call through her door like, “Thea, are you gonna put away these clothes?” She’d be like, “I can’t deal with it!” and just be in there blasting the volume on The Nazis: A Warning from History. She’d go into a funk after every spending spree. She’d mention her carbon footprint and how half the world lives on five dollars a day. If we were outside, she’d throw money at every homeless person she could swing a cat at, and if she didn’t have any on her right then she’d say her whole day was jinxed.
And she’d fly off the handle at the weirdest moments.
There was this one time she came out of her room, didn’t say hi or anything. (Not that I deserved a hi. What did I know about the Armenian genocide?) She just poured herself a glass of milk. I tried to make a joke like, “Isn’t it weird, drinking milk? Do you think it started off as a fetish?”
She hurled the glass against the wall tiles.
“Yes, I drink milk!” she shouted. “Yes, I know it comes from a cow! Yes, I know what they do in factory farms and I know I’m part of the problem! I drink milk because I’m a bad person! You happy now?” Then she stomped into her room and slammed the door and cranked up the volume on 12 Years a Slave.
So, yeah, Althea Watson. You could be grasping the summit of Everest and still hit one of her raw nerves. She was a nightmare. When I graduated and didn’t have to think about her anymore, it was honestly a relief.
For all that, it was me that spiraled into a wreck of booze, codeine, and temp agency jobs I couldn’t hold down a week, and Thea? She ended up driving to Silicon Valley in a shiny pink Lexus.
That’s the car that pulled up in front of me as I was on my way into Moby’s Coffee. I hear my name, look up, and out comes Althea in this figure-hugging cheongsam. She must’ve come down three sizes. Her eyes had changed. Then it hit me: She never used to make eye contact. And out the other side climbs this hunk with a bushy quiff, a V taper and sunglasses hung in the V of this white shirt open to the middle of his chest.
Here’s another thing about Althea: Whenever anyone used to bring around any guy they were dating, or anyone said anything about a boyfriend—or, God forbid, alluded to procreation—Thea would gasp and cover her ears. Joking around, pretending, but under it all I didn’t think she was really joking. She was the most virginal person in the universe. And now, well…
“Let me buy you a coffee,” Althea says, turning to her hunk and handing him the keys. “Give us an hour,” she tells him.
I was dressed like one of the homeless people she used to fling cash at. I could barely swallow my Mango and Antimatter Frappuccino.
“Did you get liposuction?” I blurted.
She laughed: “I don’t need surgery. I get up, have my yerba matte, boom, good to go. Salad and carrot juice for lunch. Grilled salmon for dinner. Sprinkled with salt and pepper, chopped garlic and rosemary on top. And I have a trainer. Do you have a trainer, Gabby?”
I looked down from my untouched Frappuccino and communed with the putty under my T-shirt. I said, “Is the guy in your car your trainer?”
“Maxfield is special,” she laughed. “He’s a beautiful soul. I’ve been seeing him about two weeks.”
“Wow. You’re dating a guy named Maxfield?”
“Yes, he’s special. Fridays only.”
“Maxfield on Friday. Bradford on Saturdays. And then I rotate between Hank, Ford, and Bruce.”
If I seem slow, it’s because I felt like I’d opened a Jane Austen novel and found an F bomb. I stayed silent. I didn’t want her to peg me for a square, or an anxious nanny, or—worse still—envious.
I asked about her work.
That’s when she told me about her IT job. She said she couldn’t reveal much about what she actually did, since a lot of her work was in the Federal Building, but she complained about long commutes and never having time for herself. She mentioned being really happy with her investment portfolio and possibly upgrading to a Maserati the following year.
“God, Thea, what happened to you?”
“I chose to practice the fine art of loving life,” she says. “In a world with as much suffering as ours, happiness must be a scandal, mustn’t it? I decided to be a scandalous person.”
A part of me wanted to blurt out, Oh God! Oh yes! I want to be a scandalous person too!
Outside Moby’s she took a pack of Virginia Slims from her purse and pulled off the plastic wrapper.
“I thought you never smoked,” I said.
“Recycle your thoughts. For people who don’t have them. There’s a thought deficit in this country.”
She gave me a cigarette and lit it with a Zippo. An old homeless dude shuffled up asking for spare change for food. Althea suavely swiped her hand through her purse and handed him a bill between two fingers. “Take it off me,” she said. “I’d only spend it on drugs and alcohol.”
That was the first moment I really felt like the old conscientious Althea was still there, that we hadn’t drifted so far apart. I dug into my pocket and gave the guy a couple of bucks, then tried to get our conversation back on track. But by that time Maxfield was back. Thea crushed out her cigarette and told me she’d see me around.
I just didn’t get it. I tried to find somebody who might’ve seen her transformation in process. I emailed people we’d been friends with, tracked them down on Facebook and Instagram. I scrolled through their feeds of Cool Shit, and even though I told myself most of them probably rigged up sandboxes down the street from their apartments for the beach pictures, I could never shake the feeling that the whole world was having the time of its life and hadn’t invited me.
Take Aunt Julia.
I hadn’t seen her in a year and I’d hardly bothered looking at her Instagram feed. Now waiting for responses, I see all these photos of her in the lotus position on the end of a dock, or of her bare feet in the sand, or her leaning over the edge of a boat in a sundress with the breeze rippling her hair. I hadn’t seen her look so good since Uncle Doug passed away. Married thirteen years. He wasn’t even fifty when they found the tumor in his pancreas—and by the time they find that it’s pretty much a done deal—which was especially sad because he was a lifelong health nut. Drink, smoke? Perish the thought! Organic food? Religiously. I commented on her pictures with tears in my eyes. She texted back the same night and invited me over for lunch.
She still lived at the same address, but now the driveway was flanked with rows of Japanese maples and it looked like she’d had a whole wing of the place bashed off to expand the lawn. Around the edge of the house, I saw a (maybe) swimming pool made of sunken boulders, and beyond that a mini-forest for the loveliest kind of seclusion.
As soon as I had one foot on the porch, her voice crackled through the buzzer box: “Come on in, Gabrielle! Door’s open!”
Overhead lights lit up the corridor, one by one, and she came sauntering toward me in this silk batik thing, black leggings, bare feet. Toe rings. Wedding and engagement ring on the same finger. A whiff of patchouli oil when she hugged me. Inside, where there used to be blue carpeting that kind of drowned everything, there was wall-to-wall ecru and earth tones that beckoned you in and made you sleepy all at once. Kitchen immaculate. Stainless steel countertops. Terracotta floor. Black espresso machine, black rice cooker, a little black robot vacuuming the floor, meandering like me when I’m drunk except that it swerved before hitting anything.
“What are you in the mood for?” she asked.
I had no idea. Tofu was the first healthy thing that entered my mind.
She called out to her operating system and her tablet lit up on the counter. “What would you recommend in the way of a tofu stir fry?”
“I would recommend using your spinach, since it will lose its freshness and flavor if not used today, and your intake of magnesium and folate has been low this week. Shall I guide you through the recipe?”
“Awesome!” I said.
“My whole house is on the IOS, dear. Isn’t it marvelous?”
Dear God, it was. The device explained how to drain and chop the tofu and blanche the spinach like it could see and hear us, and the system kept the heat adjusted under the wok and told us exactly when the texture was optimal.
“If only we could input your nutritional profile,” my aunt said, “We’d have a feast perfectly tailored for us both.”
She cranked yuzu pepper over her serving and examined me with concern. “You’ve got sanpaku eyes,” she said. “It suggests a stymied life force. When your body and mind are misaligned, you can’t live to your fullest.”
“Did you go to some kind of yoga retreat?”
“I’ve seen my share. But none of them made nearly as much difference as my renovation.”
I looked around. “You hired the right decorator.”
“Gene renovation, dear. Gene renovation.”
Then she told me about Dr. Moira O’Hagan and her clinic in Pasadena and this up-and-coming procedure that rode the coattails of the Human Genome Endeavor. She talked about the susceptibility to diseases written into our DNA, that DNA was a code, like language. And, it’s like, if you change one word you can change the whole paragraph. If this procedure had been around a decade ago, Uncle Doug would’ve been eating stir fry with us right now. Essentially, it was like editing out the typos in our genes. After a comprehensive nutritional overhaul, it was basically guaranteed that by eating right and minimizing stress you could reduce your cancer risk to the suburban shark attack range.
I had a whole heap to think about as I waited for people to get back to me on Facebook and Instagram. I heard from one mutual friend who’d run into Thea recently and was super glad about her metamorphosis. Other than that, I got so few responses I started wondering how everyone was connected. I heard teenagers were saying Instagram was for oldsters. I started thinking: Yeah, shit, it happened even to me. The world is passing me by. I’m suffering a cliché crisis. Even my aunt is more happening than I am. Then I stormed out to go shopping.
I came home heavy with bags of nice things I’d been wanting and didn’t think I deserved. I was thinking: Know what? Those Ugg boots are the first steps to the new me.
It was past ten when I landed face-down on my pillow. Just as I was drifting off, the phone started to shudder and scream.
“Hey, Gabby. Gabby? Thea here.” She said she was free the next evening and would I like to go to a restaurant with her? “New Italian. Looks exciting!”
Once we were seated, she gave me a giftwrapped bottle of sake, saying she’d been “doing business” in Japan for the past week, and that’s why she’d been out of the loop.
That was the first in a string of sudden meet ups that became a regular thing over the next couple of months. I quickly learned that she had no sense of other people’s schedules, like she’d phone at two a.m. to ask me to lunch the next day. Of course, I’d say yes. I liked being with her. Her fearlessness made me fearless. Since her work was confidential, we mostly played games and talked about our college days. We’d both been miserable then, but, I guess, anything can be a lark in past tense.
So it was no surprise when the phone jolted me up at five am. I cursed and looked at the screen: Thea. Natch. I consider ignoring her but, no, one doesn’t just turn down Althea.
I hear this harsh, grating whisper: “Gabby, Gabby. I’m under a bush. I’m in trouble. Hassan is having an episode—he’s chasing me with a hammer—he’s totally unstable.”
“Listen: What I want you to do is drive toward my house and pull up just parallel to the disused gas stand. I’ll be there. Alright?”
I jumped up, threw a hoodie over my pajamas, and skidded the car out of the drive.
I pulled up to where she’d told me and, no shit, Thea crawls out from under a bush in a bathrobe, hair full of dry grass. She shuffles to my car hugging herself, climbs in through the back door.
“Jesus, Thea. What the hell?”
“Let’s get to your place.”
I flipped a bitch (U-turned for you non-Californians) and round the first bend comes Hassan storming up the pavement. Talking to himself. Fists balled. Arguing with himself. Thrusting out his jaw like an underbite.
“Get down,’ I said.
Althea didn’t get down. She just subtly inched her shoulders away from the window and looked out with a wry smile. We passed close enough to see his reddened eyes. To cap it all off, he was barefoot.
“He didn’t see us!” I exhaled.
“Shit! Fuck! Are you okay?”
“Pfft. Always okay. He doesn’t know where you live. We’ll be totally safe.”
“God, girl, what happened?”
“Oh Hassan. He’s a bit,” she circled her finger at the side of her head.
“He looks tough but give him any flak and you’ll see his brain granulate.”
“Jeez, girl, what did you do to him?”
“He got possessive. He knew the kind of relationship he was getting into with me. I was upfront. I’m always upfront. All of a sudden, he couldn’t hack it. What. A. Douche.”
We stopped at a light. I asked if she ever thought of settling down with just one partner.
“Yeah, no shit! But…”
“Gabby, we’re pushing thirty. All the good men are taken. All that’s left now is the fuckboys.”
“Anyway, I’m basically married to my work. I wouldn’t have the energy for a serious relationship. Send me the fuckboys.”
When we got to my apartment, I said I couldn’t imagine being married to a job. The last job I had was filling in surveys that got thrown into a cabinet to decompose with the last grunt’s surveys. “I still am really curious about what you do,” I said.
“Well, Gabby, I could give you a blow-by-blow account of my daily activities…”
“But then, of course, I’d have to kill you.”
“Damn straight. People like you are only alive because people like me do what we do.”
“Woah.” I tried to make it a joke but her smile had slipped, her whole tone had shifted, and I suddenly felt weak and worthless.
She continued, stone faced: “Even people like Hassan are only alive because of people like me.”
“Shit. I mean, wow,” I mumbled.
Once, when we were living together, we watched Red Sparrow where Jennifer Lawrence plays this Soviet agent who uses her body to trap Russia’s enemies. I wondered if Thea remembered it. I wondered if she was doing something like that and, if she was, was that glamorous and empowering or just plain awful.
“Thank you for your service,” I said, with just enough irony to let her know I knew I was saying something probably corny but not completely corny.
She said nothing, just stood in the middle of my living room in her muddy, duff-covered dressing gown and pajamas.
“You want to borrow some of my stuff?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Stuff?”
“Clothes.” Why did I find it hard to call what I dressed in clothes? “You can use my shower if you want.” I flipped on the bathroom light and she started to strip down right in front of me. I turned away.
“Shit. Sorry.” She hiked the striped pajama top back over her shoulder. “People without neurosis can be so inappropriate.”
“No, it’s all good.” Then I asked if she ever felt any awkwardness.
She looked thoughtful for a second, then smiled. “Never.”
“Huh.” Grist for my Jennifer Lawrence theory. “Could you, like, walk down the street naked?”
“If I forget about the weather and the police.”
“Harrrrr. Doesn’t sex get boring if there’s, like, no tension?”
At last, I hit a nerve. The slightest shadow crossed her face. “Yeah. You wouldn’t believe the amount of boring sex I’ve had. To be honest I’m thinking of giving it up entirely. You know Hassan? Dullest of the dull.”
And with that, she was in the shower. She came out rolled in my mauve towel.
I led her through the wasteland of pizza boxes, ashtrays, and discarded laundry that was my apartment, flung open my bureau drawers and my closet and told her to help herself to anything. She took stock of my half-folded T-shirts and hoodies crammed in like used tissues and smiled a little. A minute later she waltzed out of my bedroom in an oversized black polo shirt, faded to grey, and tartan shorts with stringy torn pockets. She’d made herself the queen of sartorial slumming—using my clothes.
I wanted to laugh, but in my head I heard Samuel L. Jackson snarling, They’re your clothes, motherfucker. So I said: “Jeez, girl. Does everything look amazing on you?”
“If you don’t mind,” she said, “I don’t have my phone and I need to call the police about getting a restraining order on my idiot.”
“Oh, yes—yes, of course. Here.”
I bulldozed the pizza boxes off the sofa and sat to watch her. She must’ve been trying hard to keep a lid on all the trauma. It all came flooding back into her voice. It made me realize what an absolutely terrifying morning we’d both had.
Two officers were there within the hour. While I hid in the kitchen and did my best to make a dent in the mountain of glasses and plates, Althea repeated the whole story and a lady cop nodded warmly and wrote in a little booklet. When they’d gone, Thea sprawled out on the sofa and closed her eyes.
I found an unexpired box of cocoa in the back of my cabinet and set a steaming cup on the table. “You need to chill.”
She glanced at the cup. “Thank you. You’re a real friend. It’s days like this that really help you separate your true friends from mere acquaintances.”
I thanked her and sat beside her, not sure if a hug was appropriate. I hesitated, decided to give her space. Clutched my cup. Looked at my toes.
“How’s your financial situation?” she asked.
“I have money.”
“But you also work. Sometimes.”
“Just so I have something to do. Otherwise, I’d go bonkers.”
“So you don’t need the money.”
“I sort of need the money.”
“Would you run out otherwise?”
“If I’m not careful.”
“You know,” she said, “Where I work, financial distress is considered a security risk. It makes us susceptible to bribery. They make sure we never have to worry about money. You know how they do it?”
“By drowning you in cash?”
Her eyes looked like she’d been contending in places I’d never dare to tread. “That would be the easy way. The problem with that would be, first, it’s expensive. Second, if we quit or if we’re fired, that income suddenly stops and—bang. Security risk.”
“So…what’s the secret?”
Althea blew on her cocoa, took a tiny sip and, very quietly said, “They take a part of our salary and split it up into a kind of bead necklace of ISA accounts which stay inaccessible most of the time, but then one blooms open every two or three years. Right up to the day you die. The interest rates are insane. Thirty percent. Forty percent. Sometimes it gets to fifty or sixty percent if you’re lucky enough to hit retirement age.”
“So the point is, even if you get your ass fired—even if you literally do time for misconduct—these ISAs keep on blooming open, and you never need to sell your secrets to the Iranians.”
“Oh, it is. It is.”
“Do you have to kill me now?”
“Ha! It’s not that kind of secret. But, I mean, keep it between you and me. Don’t go tweeting all your friends. And even between us, keep it face to face. Don’t mention it in emails.”
“Not even them.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
She set down her cup, pushed it across the table, and looked into my eyes. “If we get close your liabilities become my liabilities. Unless I can bring you into our system. That trust fund you get from your parents, I can work that so you’ll never have to think about money again.”
The next time I had lunch with aunt Julia, I asked what she did about her money. All I could get was she invested in pet causes—megafoods, thinking cars, carbon incarcerating—more to save the world than to make bank. She was content with what she had. She played it safe. Maybe she re-invested the life insurance payments. Who knows.
Getting out of my apartment the next day was a relief. I fixed my hair and put on enough makeup to feel human, put on my best blouse, a long skirt and boots. It struck me that few things are ever as painful and difficult as you fear, and off I went for my full evaluation with Dr. Moira O’Hagan.
The clinic was a cozy nook of brown wooden paneling. I sat under a black-and-white framed poster of a cobbled street; the cursive at the bottom said it was Cork. Alone, in the waiting room, I sat experiencing the new-age music until I was beeped into the next room where the nurse took my blood with an exquisite green syringe decorated with transparent shamrocks.
Then I waited.
Then I was called into a big white office where Dr. Moira gave me a file on my DNA breakdown, plus a two-page nutritional profile. Dr. Moira looked like she could’ve been a big time actress once and was pushing a successful second career. She had my aunt’s profile right there beside mine and she wagged her sharpie at bits of our shared genetic makeup, which told her at a glance exactly how we were related. It did seem a little unholy for a doctor to reveal so much of one patient’s data to another, but it turned out they had a rebate scheme for introductions. She said I needed similar quantities to my aunt of this long list of nutrients, and my blood work said I was low in Vitamin D, iron, iodine, and most of the B vitamins. And that—voila!—was why I perpetually felt like shit. Then she went over each of the genetic markers for disease, before telling me how much the renovation would cost.
Which did make Thea’s ISA scheme look good.
Then Dr. Moira hit me with a package deal that the computer portrayed as a kind of chocolate-vanilla-swirl of the psychological and physical. It was still in the experimental phase, she said, but all the patients who’d tried it had been thrilled with the results. Once geneticists rooted out the prime-movers of cognitive function, she said, it was a small step to spotlighting the hideouts of rogue personality traits—lethargy, depression, OCD, eating disorders—and then precision bombing them. Years of therapy and medication could scarcely hold a candle to the results. I could be neurosis-free at a spring sale price. Interested?
Okay, so the price was insane. Impossible. Undoable.
But then I started imagining the me who’d get up every morning at the crack of ass for fasted cardio, refueling with kale and spirulina smoothies, having clear skin, never craving a cigarette… I’d be so rejuvenated I couldn’t possibly make a bad decision. I’d be sturdy like a statue and opportunities would rain down on me like pigeon shit.
I texted Thea but she was away on another trip. Instead, I got a Facebook message from an old boyfriend, Callum. His name wasn’t really Callum but that was the name of my first ex, so from then on, I privately named all my exes Callum. This was Callum no. 3. He’d been a Goth. He’d used white make-up to poorly hide his pimples. Touching his face had been like caressing bubble-wrap. Pop-pop-pop. When he approached me outside the restaurant, the white makeup was gone and his skin was smooth, and his improved posture had added a few inches to his height. He was fresh from work and met me in a blue suit and white lacy jabot, his once long hair sculpted into a neat shrubbery on top.
I called Callum 3 by his actual name.
“So you survived young adulthood,” he said. The drawl that used to be in his voice was gone.
“Survived?” I laughed. “Are you setting the bar low just for me?”
“Let’s go celebrate,” he said.
He’d reserved seats on the enclosed wooden deck at this place called Normanby’s, where the lights were low and the curtains and lampshades were tweedy. He sprinted me through his lavish career path post-college, post-break up with me (super-arcane corporate tax law, don’t ask), with me sweating through the whole talk, starting to feel like I had a fever. This guy used to spend days on his bed blasting Joy Division. I’d always feared he was pulling me into his abyss. No prospects. Bummer to know. I laughed, feeling like it was all this elaborate joke, then I gazed sadly at my big white plate with its dollop of hundred-dollar scallops so small that I felt the rumble of a future craving to sneak off to Taco Hell.
When he went to the bathroom, I was struck with fear that he’d bolt and leave me the bill. I was feeling more financially pinched than ever in my life. I’d lopped off more than half my parent’s money for Althea’s scheme, and I was holding back another big chunk for Dr Moira. The swanky place was making me jittery. I wanted to be Althea. Nothing could make her jittery.
“You know, I used to really worry about you,” I said when he returned. “You only seemed to care about artists who went mad or killed themselves.”
“Yeah, it used to worry me too, but then the guy from Linkin Park hanged himself and I still hate Linkin Park, so…”
I wasn’t sure if I should smile.
He changed the subject: “So where do you see yourself in ten years?”
Was this concern? Admonishment? “I have plans. You’ll see. I’m going in for a certain treatment. I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it, but you’re going to see a big change… for the better.”
He flashed a touché kind of smile, picked up the bill (phew!), and brought me home saying how glad he was to have me back in his circle.
Then it was over; the heat and the tunnel vision receded on a beautiful California night.
I texted Thea. Hey, what’s up?
When I didn’t get a response, I resented myself for pursuing her. Gabby, you bitch, you know she barely has time for herself, what gives you the right?…but she said my liabilities were her liabilities. We had a bond, right?
I was too nervous to sleep. I called Aunt Julia, but I knew I was wearing down her patience with my incessant questioning.
Two days later, Thea replied: Hellooooo Gabby, What’s up?
My God, I’ve been so lost without you, I thought you’d forgotten me, how could you? I wanted to write. Instead, I texted: Just wondering when we’re hanging out again.
The phone shuddered and buzzed.
It sounded like she was driving, windows down, hair flowing behind her.
“I’ll pick you up at eight.”
“Tonight?” What the actual fuck? “Where are we going?”
“I made us a reservation for Crepusculo. My treat. Sorry I’ve been neglecting you.”
Then into my driveway pulls this cotton-white Maserati Quattroporte Trofeo. The door opens automatically. I sink into this seat of chocolate crème, then I’m sealed in with that new-spaceship smell and Althea in the driver’s seat in a silk gown that matched the car.
Over dinner, she apologized again for ghosting me and said she was going to include me in all her best fun from now on. “You’re like a sister to me, girl!”
I reached across my linguini beluga and squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, and her face emerged from behind its cloud. “Good times from now on.” She smiled.
I was still beaming when I marched into the clinic the next day.
The steel cap coming down over my head made me woozy. Dr. Moira was sitting at the keyboard in her lab coat doing all sorts of things with this long stream of Cs and Gs and As and Ts scrolling by in technicolor and this rotating graphic of the double helix, using her mouse to move squares over dotted segments. Something lit up, she clicked–Pow!–I thought I felt something. The cap turns, there’s the sound of a motor, and I get these waves of panic. But then I calm down and she scrolls through twice again, perhaps to double check.
I met Thea that afternoon. She showed up in this black-and-white plaid La Medusa blazer and matching skirt and—get this—matching handbag. I actually laughed. Why would you have matching everything except to troll the whole thing because you could? I certainly felt bolder, but I was always bolder with Thea. I put off telling her.
Afterwards, I walked around my neighborhood, hoping the colors would jump out more, something like that, but nothing seemed any different.
A week passed. Then the change arrived. Oh boy, the change arrived.
I got a call—some guy named Jeremy had taken a near toxic dose of barbiturates and thrown himself in front of Althea’s car. Now she was being interviewed by the police. Jeremy was in the ICU in a coma. They didn’t expect him to recover. The police wanted to hold her car for a week as evidence, so I drove out to pick her up.
She was impressively stoic coming out of the police station. Not that I expected any less from her. We went to visit Jeremy in the hospital. He was a mess, I’ll leave it at that.
But the following evening brought a miracle. Jeremy emerged from his coma, and he came back with a wild tale. Althea and I had heard nothing of it until, one afternoon while we were flicking through her streaming services, a swat team burst through her door.
According to Jeremy, he’d tried to get back some money he’d given her, and when she refused, he became suspicious. He’d persisted; her deflections got more aggressive, and then one night he was suddenly woozy. He’d figured out that she’d probably spiked his food. He was still semi-conscious when she drove him to a secluded bridge, pulled him onto the tarmac, and then drove over him.
I watched the whole trial. At first it came out that, as far as anyone knew, Althea was unemployed. The source of her opulence was a mystery. I hoped against hope that all this was part of her official veil of secrecy, a cover story, but I wasn’t as surprised as I should’ve been to learn that she’d funded her lifestyle by wheedling money from people she’d befriended. She had almost no savings. She seemed to have endless faith in her ability to find new people to con.
Once the pile of evidence was high enough to make her denials untenable, she coolly reversed her plea to guilty. She said she could’ve killed Jeremy with drugs alone, but she ran over him “to test the suspension [on the Maserati] and to see what he looked like run over.” She said that her personality had radically altered following an experimental gene therapy—in her words, “My soul was ripped out.”
The court didn’t deliberate long before concluding that “such technology does not exist.” They confirmed that after leaving university she’d sought some miracle treatment with a Dr. O’Hagan, long since struck from the medical register for malpractice, whom they labelled a modern-day haruspex, a soothsayer who charged exorbitant fees for vitamin pills, motivational bromides, and slick graphics.
The psychologists interviewed Althea and pronounced her a psychopath. I wondered, though: Was she a garden-variety psychopath, or was she something new to the world? Was the difference between psychopath and “normal” simply a matter of flipping a switch on or off? Like an “empathy switch,” or something.
What was left of Thea’s property was impounded. The authorities began the process of apportioning money back to the people she’d defrauded. It was slow. Most of the money had been spent. I couldn’t wait, so I took a job cleaning office buildings. I got up at the crack of ass so I could be done before the suits arrived. They rarely acknowledged me. I didn’t mind being invisible. I would’ve liked to pave over the gulf between me and my coworkers, but I lacked any anecdotes to compare. A semi-prostitute sister, the brother doing time for drug possession. This part blew my mind. I’d barely gone a day without a bag of cannabis in my coat pocket or in my doll cupboard, while the women who cleaned the offices had brothers who did mandatory minimums for selling it.
I decided I had to visit Althea in the institution. She was deemed non-violent unless “provoked,” so we didn’t need a reinforced window or a support staffer in the room.
“How’re you handling things here?” I asked.
“What do you do with yourself?”
“I play chess and poker. I always thought chess was a nerd’s game but I’m totally addicted now. I’ve been thrashing my fellow psychos. Some of them react badly to losing and make a bit of trouble for the staffers.”
“I’m cleaning offices now because you took my money.”
“I’m very sorry about that, Gabby.”
“But you’re not, really, are you?”
“That’s not true. The car I used to run over Jeremy was paid for entirely by your trust fund. So, what I did to you ultimately resulted in me being here. Isn’t that a kind of morality tale? I think there’s an innately satisfying structure in that story. Don’t you think? I read The New York Times today. Did you?”
“It was in the lobby,” I said. “I looked at it.”
“Did you see the story about the hundred people crushed to death at a soccer match in Malaysia?”
“What about it?”
“What did you think of that?”
“It was sad.”
“How long did you think about it?”
“I dunno. I only read the headline.”
“Be honest. You didn’t really care, did you? If you want to imagine what it’s like to be me, imagine the way you thought about those Malaysian soccer fans is the way you felt about everyone.”
“That sounds desolate.”
“It is! I wasn’t lying when I said my soul had been scraped out. I feel like an empty shell.”
“But you feel something.”
“I have the emotional range of a newborn. I get angry and bored and frustrated and I want things. What the renovation took out was all the feelings that develop after the baby becomes aware of other people.”
We sat silent a moment. Then I said, “If there was a button I could press that’d stop the Malaysian soccer fans getting crushed, I’d press it. Even if I didn’t feel anything, I’d still press it. Why weren’t you like that? You went out of your way to hurt people.”
“Gabby, do you remember when your boyfriend, Callum, tried to make us watch his awful movie, Batman vs. Superman?”
“Remember how you rolled your head back and said ‘I don’t care who wins. I want them both to die,’ and then we walked out?”
“Well, that’s how I feel all the time. It’s like I’m trapped in a movie where I don’t care what happens and I don’t care about any of the characters. That’s the whole of my life now. When something bores you, you’re not indifferent to it. You dislike it.”
“And you start wishing for chaos and death.”
“So you hate me.”
“Gabby, I can’t hate anyone. People are just objects to me. At first, you were an annoying object, but, when I started to wheedle money from you, I started seeing you as a fun object. So I genuinely liked you at that time.”
I suddenly wanted to provoke an authentic reaction from her. “You know,” I said, “I always suspected you. Your acting isn’t as great as you think.”
“Bullshit! Why’d you give me your money?”
“I’m getting it back!”
“Be careful. If I attack you, they might… lock me away.”
“Did you ever consider reversing the therapy?”
“Oh, that’s mean! Your taunts are getting better. I’ve done a lot of despicable things so I know if I had my feelings back, I’d be crippled with remorse. No, there’s no way back now.”
I was sensing a threat. I figured it was time to go. I stood up. “Well. Enjoy your endless Snyder movie.”
“I will, I will,” she said as I turned away. “I’m close to being the chess champion of the ward. I’m going to get into online tournaments. We get supervised internet access here. Watch out for my name.” I reached the door. “With just a comma between me and Kasparov!”
After that, I couldn’t really hate Althea anymore. But I didn’t really feel sorry for her either. I saw her as a thing to quarantine. A thing. I guess psychopathy is contagious.
Early on in the trial I called up Dr. Moira and asked to reverse my own renovation. The receptionist said the cost would be the same as first time. I exploded, then hung up and collapsed on my sofa. What could I do? I couldn’t prove they’d actually done anything to me, so I couldn’t make any claims, and I didn’t have the money to pay for an un-renovation.
I called my aunt to demand a full disclosure about her procedure, but she didn’t pick up. No reply to my emails either. I drove to her house but found the lights off and the car gone. I sat on her porch and put my head in my hands. It was like I’d already been through the radioactive zone, or swum the width of the polluted river, and now all I could do was wait for the effects to start.
I don’t know how it happened, but I’d fallen asleep on the porch. Shadows had fallen and the streetlights had come on. I was woken by the little chime on my phone. The screen said Callum 3. He said he wanted to check out a new nightclub called The Isis, Egyptian theme, and would I like to join him?
I had no strong desire not to go. I had no strong desire for anything at that moment. I accepted.
The music in The Isis was too loud for talking and that suited me fine. I got busy knocking back drinks. Callum 3 asked me to dance. I told him maybe after I’d finished my cocktail. He went off to dance by himself, stood on the dance floor and flailed his arms around like someone being electrocuted. It would’ve been funny except his expression was so somber. He couldn’t dance but was committed, his energy almost seemed a threat to those around him. I felt the alcohol begin to kick in; I liked the way it was clouding my thoughts. I ordered another drink. Callum 3 flailed around like a perpetual motion machine; it seemed like no one would dare to stop him.
Things were starting to buzz in my head. That was great. I didn’t want to think clearly. I downed a shot of tequila and started to feel mindless and happy. I got up to dance.
About the Authors:
Tremain Xenos and Richard Alured are English-bloc expats based in western Japan. Before turning to fiction, they performed music together in Tottori City under the name Masami’s Pharmacy. This is their first collaborative story. Some of their individually written works can be found in The Bookends Review, carte blanche, The Dillydoun Review, Propagule Magazine, and Underwood Press. As both men are dedicated luddites, they have no social media presence.
*Featured image by Martina Bulková from Pixaba