It’s that same feeling I have every morning, that same floating sensation, as if my mattress could sink and swallow me up. I lay there in my cold apartment, the AC always thrumming in my ears, my breaths coming out in mists, traveling like the last ghosts of the night, chased away by the early morning sunlight. I don’t like to live in the shadows, but I can’t escape them at night. It’s hard to catch any sleep with the lights on so I just close my eyes in the dark and pretend that I’m somewhere brighter than I actually am. It’s not that I’m afraid of the dark—I’m just tired of the emptiness. That’s where all the worst things live, the darkness.
I give into the water for a few minutes, laying back in my bed like I’m in the middle of the ocean, counting the raised impressions on the popcorn ceiling to ground me so that I don’t forget that I’m still in my apartment, that I’m awake now, that nothing can actually pull me under the water. I keep wondering when I’ll sink, when my thoughts will become my reality, but I guess that’s a little overly dramatic. People don’t actually sink—they give up.
I’m not giving up. I’m still kicking.
But still, somehow, I’m drowning.
The weather was way too hot, like disgustingly hot, the kind of hot that leaves you wiping sweat off places that you shouldn’t even be sweating from. I probably wouldn’t even be out if it wasn’t for the fact that I really, really needed to go to the farmer’s market. There’s a cart that has the best avocados, and I’m not even ashamed to admit that I have a serious addiction. Sure, send me to a 12-step program. I probably still won’t give them up. I might even convert my sponsor with visions of avocado toast and guacamole.
Do I sound like a millennial? It shouldn’t surprise you because I am one. My generation is apparently fucking up the housing market and running fast food places out business or some shit like that. It’s our fault that McDonald’s, real estate, the stock market, and golf were dying. Sure thing, it was all us.
Because we buy avocados.
In my case, it was the literal truth though, so I really shouldn’t be one to talk. Plus, I don’t know any better. I can act innocent and coy. Nobody really raised me. I spent the better half of my childhood in the foster care system, but that’s a story for another day.
I wasn’t really expecting much but avocados and sweat stains in all those places that I mentioned (or didn’t mention because it’s too gross to talk about), but life has a way of taking you by surprise sometimes. No, the avocados weren’t the highlight of my day.
Over by the strawberry booth, flirting and joking with the old-as-balls strawberry lady, making her smile because that was just the way he was, those were just the kind of things he did. He had one of those dazzling Hollywood smiles, all straight white teeth and deep dimples that looked more like laugh lines because yeah, this guy was always smiling. He was a t-shirt and jeans guy; a windswept black hair guy; a starless dark blue eyes guy; a golden Californian tanned skin guy—in other words, exactly the kind of guy I would’ve walked past without a second thought because guys like that usually walked past me without a second thought too. I was weaving in and out of the crowd, looking for my avocado guy so I probably wouldn’t have even noticed him if it wasn’t for the fact that he didn’t walk past me. He did something really suicidal: he grabbed my bag and pulled me to a halting stop.
I wasn’t impressed the first time I saw him. He was a good-looking guy; probably some creep that thought I was an easy lay.
He had the grace to let go of the strap of my bag after the look I gave him, holding up his hands as if trying to show that he wasn’t some creep, but I wasn’t buying it. I know from experience that only the worst kind of creeps have to go out of their way to prove that they aren’t creeps.
“What?” I asked, annoyed.
“You dropped this,” he said, holding up a ring of keys. My car keys.
“Oh, shit,” I said, suddenly feeling like an ass. Cue the donkey haw.
He put my keys in my palm with one of those shit-eating grins, clearly amused by my embarrassment. Whatever.
“Thanks,” I said, dropping my keys in my bag. “Sorry, I’m kind of a bitch this early in the morning.”
He shielded his eyes and looked up at the sky.
“Exactly,” I said.
He, the creep, laughed. One of those deep, throaty laughs that sound genuine, but I wasn’t really feeling up to laughing with some hotshot creep at the farmer’s market. I had more important things do. Like finding avocados.
“Want a smoothie? It’ll wake you up.”
Yep, the whole easy lay conversation that usually begins with some nice gesture.
“My body doesn’t exactly react well to that kind of stuff so it’s gonna have to be a hard pass.”
“Your body reacts badly to smoothies?”
“Anything healthy in general. Except for avocados.”
“You don’t eat anything healthy except for avocados?”
No shit, wasn’t that what I’d just said? But he had returned my car keys, something he hadn’t had to do, so I decided to cut the guy some slack.
“Healthy things throw my whole immune system out of order. My body is used to working overtime to accommodate the cheeseburgers or whatever other shit I’m engorging myself with for the day. I don’t want my body getting lazy. I’ve got to keep it working.”
“You’d probably make a terrible boss.”
“I’m a good boss, actually.”
“Alright boss, so how do you get your day started then?”
“I get out of bed.”
He laughed. Another genuine one, throwing me off a little.
“But what really wakes you up in the mornings? Anything in particular?”
“My alarm clock.”
“You know what I mean. Don’t make me have to explain what I’m really asking you.”
“Alright, you got me. Coffee.”
“Why didn’t you just say that?”
“I don’t feel comfortable talking about my addictions with strangers.”
“You’re making it really hard for me to ask you on a date.”
Bingo. There it is.
“Is that what you’re doing?”
“Didn’t seem so obvious to me.”
“You’re full of shit. Come on, I know a place.”
“I don’t remember agreeing to a date.”
“You got anything better to do?”
“I’m looking for my avocado guy. Another addiction.”
“Perfect. It’s on the way.”
I did kind of want a coffee, iced preferably, and he had returned my keys so I just shrugged.
“Try not to look too excited,” he teased, motioning for me to follow him.
I bought twelve avocados from the avocado guy (shut up, don’t judge me) and gifted one to the creep just for the hell of it. He seemed really pleased, acting like it was the best gift he’d ever received, cradling it carefully like it was a baby. This guy was weird, but in a frustratingly charming way. I tried not to make it too obvious that I was warming up to him, but I was pretty sure he’d caught on. He was smiling a lot more, like approval from this mean brown chick was boosting his confidence or something.
He seemed to know the farmer’s market backwards and forwards because he led me through it like it was a maze, catching my wrist in one of his big hands at some point to keep from losing me in the crowd. I didn’t shake him off, but I still couldn’t tell you why. He stopped us in front of a food truck I’d never seen before.
“Hungry?” he asked, pulling out his wallet.
“Meals are strictly reserved for second dates,” I said, humoring him.
“Alright, you’re not wrong,” he said grinning and walking up to the truck. “Two coffees.”
“Iced,” I corrected.
“Iced,” he agreed and flipped his wallet open.
“I can pay,” I said, catching him by the sleeve. “To repay you for returning my keys.”
“First of all, you already got me a great avocado. And secondly, these are first date rules 101. I’m buying.”
“Are we living in the stone ages? I can pay.”
“Our first argument already,” he said, laughing. “You move this fast in all your other relationships?”
I rolled my eyes and shoved him out of the way, sliding my credit card across the counter. He tried to act like he was really offended, but the corners of his mouth were twitching, suppressing a smile. The sun was shining down on him, making him look like an absolute dream beneath the cloudless blue sky. He really was attractive and something told me that he probably knew it.
Two coffee cups and a picnic table later we were introducing ourselves. The avocado sat next to his hand. He was lovingly stroking it. Weirdo.
I snorted into my coffee.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” he said, laughing and passing me a napkin.
“Not that Eugene’s bad,” he added. “I have a second cousin once removed named Eugene. Or is he a first cousin twice removed? Shit, I can’t really keep up at the family reunions. Nice guy, though.”
Family reunions. I’d forgotten that regular people had to pencil those into their schedules every once in a while. If you haven’t guessed already from my brief mention of being a foster kid, I have no family. Not even extended family.
“So what’s your name then?” I asked. “Can’t be any worse than Eugene.”
“It’s not,” he said. “My name’s Chauncey. Great name, right?”
“Oh my god,” I said, laughing even though I’d been trying really hard not to. “Really?”
“I don’t go on second dates with strangers, you know.”
He leaned in across the picnic table, his face inches from mine. His dark blue eyes flashed mischievously.
“Ever kissed a stranger before?”
“No,” I said, inching back.
“Let’s get that checked off your bucket list. Kiss me and I’ll tell you my name, I promise.”
“Your mouth says no but your eyes say yes.”
“You don’t know a damned thing about my eyes.”
“I know that they’re beautiful.”
I had to cover my nose with my hand to stifle a snort.
“You’re really cringey,” I said.
He reached out and curled a hand around the back of my neck, pulling me so close to his face that I could feel his breath warm on my lips. My mouth hung open in shock. I recovered quickly.
“Ever heard of personal space?”
“I don’t see you pulling away.”
“Jesus, just kiss me and get it over with already.”
And that was our first kiss. Under the blazing hot sun at the buzzing farmer’s market, teeth knocking for one awkward moment, smiling against each other’s mouths, and then we forgot where we were. His fingers slipped into my hair, his hand warm and soft, making me lose myself until my hands left the coffee on the table and ended up in his black hair, thicker than I was expecting, finding a grip and pulling him even closer, tasting that first date coffee on his lips. He kissed me like I was air in his lungs, like he needed my lips to breathe, inhaling, groaning, running his tongue along mine the second my mouth opened.
“Oh shit,” I gasped, pulling back. I’d only intended for it to be a short little kiss to make him lose interest. I’d always been a terrible kisser.
Until now. My mouth had moved so naturally with his that I could probably pass for an expert.
“Wes,” he said, leaning back and running a hand through his hair to fix it.
“My name. It’s Wes. Don’t ask what it’s short for because it actually is kind of terrible.”
I was still trying to catch my breath. I had a hand on my chest and his eyes traveled there, pausing maybe a second too long on my low-cut shirt. Being eyed by a guy like that usually disgusted me, but for some reason, I was feeling flattered. God, what the fuck was wrong with me?
“That was actually my first time kissing a stranger too,” he said. “Tell me your name.”
He started humming “My Heart Will Go On”.
“You’re not funny.”
“Far across the distance, and spaces betwee-een us. You have come to show you go on.”
“I can’t believe you know the lyrics to that song. I’m embarrassed for you.”
“Lighten up, Dion. It’s one of your greatest hits,” he said, grinning. “I’m a huge fan. Will you autograph my shirt?”
“Okay, how about your number? You don’t even have to autograph it. Just put it in my phone,” he said, unlocking his phone and passing it to me before I could get the chance to refuse.
“I don’t remember agreeing to a second date,” I muttered, putting my number in his phone. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe because he seemed like he’d be a fun person to send drunken 2 AM texts to. At least that was what I was telling myself. That kiss was still fresh in my mind.
“I don’t remember asking for one.”
I glanced up.
“Relax, I’m kidding. How’s Wednesday night for you?”
“What, this week?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Isn’t that moving a little fast?”
I really hadn’t intended for it come this far. I’d just been playing around.
“We’ve already had our first argument. Fast is our speed, Celie.”
“Ugh, don’t call me that.”
“Cute nickname for a cute girl. I don’t see the problem.”
Cute. This guy was out of this goddamn mind. I hadn’t been called cute since I was a kid. I’m not being modest when I say this, but I’m not cute—I’m not anything. I’m just brown: brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin, brown everything. I swear if you peeled back my skull you’d probably find brown there too. Not that brown’s bad, but being brown, this brown, being brown and nothing but brown, makes me unbearably plain. And even though I have a Hispanic last name, I have none of the good attributes that come with being one. I don’t have a huge ass or the confidence that comes with it. Plus, I can’t even speak Spanish. It makes most Mexican ladies at the farmer’s market drop their mouths in horror. Why didn’t your parents teach you, Mija? First of all, my parents are dead, and second of all, I don’t even know you lady so fuck off.
“You’re really overbearing,” I said to Wes. “And pushy.”
“I might’ve heard that once or twice in my life,” he said innocently.
“Once or twice. Sure.”
“Maybe a few more times than that.”
You might’ve guessed that we were a couple of teenagers from the way we were acting, but neither of us were. He looked about my age, mid-twenties to early-thirties at most. His smile caused crinkles to form in the corners of his eyes, crows feet that really suited him in a way that suggested that he was going to age gracefully like a movie star. Some people have all the luck. It was beginning to feel weirder and weirder hanging out with a guy like him.
“I have to go,” I said, getting up.
He got up too, picking up on the panicked chihuahua look in my eyes right away.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he said gently. “It doesn’t have to be on Wednesday.”
“It’s not that,” I said, giving him a half-hearted smile. “I’m just—well, my life’s a little fucked up right now.”
“Mine too,” he said. “We can be fucked up together.”
“You really are pushy.”
“So I’ve been told.”
This guy was the very definition of persistence. I thought about the grueling workdays I had to look forward to this week at my soul-sucking job and considered that it might be nice to hang out with someone who could make me laugh. I didn’t take a lot of chances in life, and I didn’t really have a lot of friends either. Moving from school to school at a young age and never going to college made it really hard for me to make friends. My only friends are from work, which is pretty pathetic if you really think about it. Hanging out with this guy was starting to sound like a good idea. I was probably going to regret it later, but what the hell.
“Wednesday night. Eight o’clock. Saddleback Ranch at the Block. Don’t be late.”
“Saddleback Ranch?” He laughed. “You better ride the mechanical bull if you’re making me go there.”
My face reddened.
“It’s dead on weeknights. I thought we could go somewhere dark and quiet to relax. Jeez.”
“My apartment is pretty dark and quiet.”
“You’re pushing your luck.”
“Worth a try.”
“I’m gonna go now,” I said, turning to leave.
For the second time that day he grabbed my bag.
“Let’s end this date properly,” he said, pressing his lips to mine. It was exactly like before; almost immediately I was melting into him, giving in and tasting him because god he really did taste good. My fingers closed around his shirt, brushing against his taut abs. His hands found my waist, pulling me flush against his body, trapping my hands between us. I found myself rising up on my toes to get closer because he was taller than I’d realized. He leaned down for me, easing the burden, taking my face in his hands, kissing me until I felt completely breathless.
Fuck. This was not good.
I pulled back, looking mortified.
“That bad, huh?” he said. “And all this time I thought I was a pretty decent kisser.”
“You’re ridiculous,” I said, trying to still my heart.
“Do I scare you?”
“Is it my smile? Too creepy?”
“Way too creepy.
“I’ll try to smile less on Wednesday.”
“No,” I said, not believing what I was saying. “I like creepy.”
“I can be creepy.”
“You are creepy,” I said, pushing him away. I took a step back, putting some distance between us. I wasn’t the kind of person that lost control. I always had my shit together.
“Glad we’ve established that. I’ll be whatever you want. Just say the word.”
I sucked back a ragged sigh. I really needed to get the hell out of there.
“I’ll see you Wednesday, Wes.”
“Bye, Dion. Sign my shirt next time.”
The soul-sucking job that I mentioned was hell in employment form. I would have quit years ago, but it turned out that I was really good at my job—too good. The advancement opportunities had been especially tempting since the company only hired from within. I’d started as a customer service agent at the call center of one of the largest insurance companies in the country, right at headquarters with the call center on the third floor and the CEO putting his feet up on the sixth. I’d wanted to climb up those steps, to sink my toes into that water until I wasn’t drowning anymore, until I was swimming with the current rather than against it.
I worked hard. I got where I wanted to be—or as far as I could without a college degree at least. By twenty-five, I’d been a supervisor for a few years and then I was shaking hands with the board, accepting the job as site manager for the entire call center. No one knew the product line manuals as well as I did; I could practically repeat word-for-word every auto, home, umbrella, and watercraft policy amendment. I was a walking, talking textbook.
They call me the Dragon Lady at work, and not even behind my back. If you haven’t picked up on it already, I’m pretty no-nonsense to the point where I’m even considered cold. I run my department with an iron fist, pushing two hundred and seventy-five agents to meet and exceed every quality service audit, customer review, and services referral quota. I sent all my supervisors to management courses, and personally interviewed every new batch of agents in the new hire process. I doubled referral incentives and numbers tripled. People really worked harder when you gave them the opportunity to earn more money.
Within three years I’d boosted efficiency and sales to such record highs that my site practically carried all of the western states. I earned vacation trips that I never took, bonuses that I never spent, and awards that I never displayed. Managers from across the country came to shadow and observe every anally perfect thing I did. A fucking nightmare. I was the only one allowed to breathe down people’s necks. Dragon Lady, remember?
You’d think my job would be all about numbers, team meetings, quotas, and authorizing policy changes outside of supervisor authority, but really call center managers spend a lot of time dealing with stupid customers who don’t believe complaining to an agent or their supervisor is enough. Then I was giving discounts, lowering premiums, forgiving drivers record points, and pretty much everything but sucking dick to retain all the good clients; like the ones that had a brand new Audi r8 coupe, a vintage Aston Martin and a sixteen year old daughter driving a G-Class Mercedes Benz all on the same policy. That’s a good six thousand a year in insurance premium. Great for my bonus, terrible for my sanity.
If you live in Orange County, California long enough, I guarantee you’ll know the posh places just by the cars on the streets alone. I was successful enough to be able to afford to live in one of those places now, but sometimes I wondered if being yelled at by rich people was really worth it. It especially sucked the soul out of me to take shit from people who weren’t even richer than me.
But I won’t quit. It’s been three years since I’d accepted the position now, and the only thing that keeps me going is the fact that I got out of the system and I’d made it. I knew I was the exception, not the rule. People with backgrounds like mine weren’t supposed to make it. Foster kids like me get cast out at eighteen to fend for ourselves, thrown into the world that had never wanted us in the first place. Everything had been against me from the start. The satisfaction was what really kept me here, almost like I was rubbing it into society’s nose even though nobody cared.
Someday I want to be a member of the board, but maybe that’s too ambitious. I’d need to have at least a bachelor’s degree to climb even one step up those floors at headquarters. I’d considered going to college at least a hundred times because I’d spent so much of my life crawling out of this hole that life had put me in, clawing and scratching with my bare hands, taking every foothold that I could find, but there was no way that I could fit in school with my schedule. Most days I was lucky if I could manage to get off without at least twelve to fifteen hours logged.
But I had a lot to prove to myself. So here I am, crawling out of one hole and digging myself into another.