Claire was awash in red light, atonal space music underscoring her isolation, or maybe her anger, or possibly the fact that I had no idea what this part of the act was about.
Staring daggers at the audience, she declared “language is a virus, and I've got the cure!”
Ba dump bump, I thought.
“That’s nice, kid. If you say so. Where’s my beer?” the audience thought.
I broke into a flurry of arpeggios on a harpsichord preset, and Claire began rolling around on the stage, creating the vivid impression of a cat batting at a string. I stopped playing, and she froze in tableau. “I own two cats and three televisions,” she said. “One for each of us. The tabby is pissed we don’t get cable.”
That one got a laugh - much to Claire’s annoyance, because it wasn't intended as a joke, but as some sort of social commentary. Or something. As was our agreement if this happened, we skipped to the last section of the piece.
I improvised something vaguely martial, with overtones of circus calliope - like an outtake from an Anthony Newley musical - while Claire improvised a string of random words and invective and an interpretive dance. I couldn't possibly recreate the spiel, but I remember odd juxtapositions, like “Toys for the lugubrious! Eat cheese for hegemony! Honor your parents! Ten percent off all purchases over fifty dollars!” She closed with a grand jeté that resolved into second position and declared “I shot a llama for peace! How dare you do otherwise? How dare you dispute me? And they all lived happily ever after.”
The spotlight faded to scattered applause. A tepid reaction -- but secretly, Claire loved tepid reactions. She figured that if the audience didn't get it, it only reaffirmed their parochial ignorance.
Someday, in New York, or Boston, or San Francisco, they would get it.
Failing that, Paris.
I had my doubts. In fact, I had little but doubts. This sort of thing had gone out of style 20 years ago, maybe 25. And frankly, she wasn't much of a dancer; and with the exception of a few flashes of brilliance, what she was doing was pretty sophomoric. What she needed was 4 years in a serious arts program, like I’d attended.
Then, she could be just as successful as me.
Hey, don’t look at me like that -- there’s a lot of competition for those Guitar Depot sales associate positions.
After the show, I handed out fliers for an upcoming solo gig I had lined up at Art Soup the next week. One lovely young woman who radiated warmth and intelligence took the flier and said “I’ll be there, front row.”
I didn't dare get my hopes up.
I lugged my heavy equipment the six blocks back to the house. Claire, as always, had walked home immediately after our set to shower off and smugly enjoy being unavailable and unknowable to all who admired her art.
I arrived 20 minutes later, clothes sopping, every millimeter of my skin flooded with sweat. Claire, to her credit, always greets me with an iced tea on these occasions, and Joi carries the equipment from the foyer to the basement. Effortlessly. Just to assert her dominance, I think. Slightly built and about five foot nothing, Joi is, pound for pound, the strongest person I've ever met. How she manages this despite her sedentary computer geek lifestyle continues to elude me.
Too sore to make it upstairs for a shower, I squelched into the living room and lay down by the air conditioner vent. Claire sat on the nearby love seat and asked me about that night’s gig as if she hadn't been there.
“So, how’d it go tonight?”
“Super. Only about half the audience walked out, and we got a veritable smattering of applause.”
“Any reaction to the “Captain Ebola” sequence?” How does she say these things with a straight face?
“Yes: stunned silence, which I choose to interpret as awe.”
To my surprise, Claire actually seemed to register the sarcasm in this statement, and she didn't like it.
“Maybe it was awe. ‘Captain Ebola’ is one of my most accessible pieces, but it really packs a punch. Don’t underestimate ‘Captain Ebola,’ Dave. I want to tape it next week and put it on YouTube. Watch it go viral.”
I couldn't help it; I laughed my ass off at this. And then laughed a few other body parts off when I realized that she didn't get it. Ebola...viral...
I don’t want to give the impression that Claire is dumb or clueless. Well, she is clueless when it comes to her own art; but she’s got a genius-level IQ, and is pretty perceptive about a great many things.
She just has no sense of humor. It’s one of her charms.
“What the hell is your problem?” she spat. What I had taken for a more intense version of her usual inscrutable silence earlier had actually been a bad mood brewing. I forced myself to stop laughing.
I used hand gestures to help illustrate the train of thought: “Captain Ebola. Ebola Virus. Captain Ebola Video. Viral Video.”
She thought about it for a moment. “Oh,” she admitted. “Jeez, it’s not that funny.”
“No,” I said, beaming at her. “No it’s not. You: you are that funny.”
She frowned and said “You’re dehydrated. Drink some tea.”
I’m in love with Claire, so naturally she’s completely unavailable. I have a special talent for falling for lesbians, lunatics, the engaged, and my favorite: women who wish their boyfriends were more like me but have no interest in me personally.
Bitter? You bet. You are looking at quite possibly the only person ever to spend five years at Oberlin Conservatory and not get laid once.
Anyway, Claire. The woman is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a leotard. We've been best friends for five years, and I don’t even know her last name or how old she is. She does not speak of her past.
Claire was actually the first person I met when I came to Columbus. Then a barista at one of Short North’s many, many, many coffeehouses, she was on break and noticed the guitar case next to me in my booth. We struck up a conversation about music and theater and dance and her current performance art project and her need for an accompanist. Before she went back to work I had her phone number and a serious crush.
We met and rehearsed in her apartment every day for a week before I made my pass at her. Her reaction -- the look I know all too well -- told me everything. The realignment of a few of the larger facial muscles told me: “Oh shit, look, I really like you, but as a friend.” The slight bite of the lip and the eyes darting down and to the right said “it’s not you, it’s just that I don’t go for guys,” and “I hope you’re cool enough to accept that; I’d be very disappointed to find out you were a homophobic jerk.” Her voice told me “No. I’m sorry, I can’t.”
I was crushed, but I’d been through this enough times to handle it with aplomb. Thirty minutes of intense conversation and a couple mutual crying jags later we were BFFs. Or, more grammatically, I suppose, BFsF.
Thirty minutes after that, I was back at Joi’s house, banging my head against the living room wall.
I was doing so rather energetically, so it wasn't long before Joi appeared at the foot of the stairs.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Banging my head against the wall.”
“Thanks, I wasn't sure.” Joi doesn't have much patience for this sort of thing, but she took a deep breath and soldiered on. “Any particular reason?”
“Women like me.” (Bam, bam, bam)
“As a friend.” (Bam, bam, bam)
(Bam, bam, bam)
Joi had had enough. “Jesus, would you cut that out? You’re going to put a crack in the drywall.”
Her house, her rules. Plus my forehead was starting to hurt rather vividly - I had actually raised a bruise. I staggered over to the La-Z-Boy, set it to maximum horizontality, eased back and let the room spin around me as fast as it liked.
Joi’s manner softened - with visible effort - as she attempted to console me. She crouched by the chair. “Look, you've only been here eight days. You’ll have plenty of chances to meet women. And at least a certain percentage of them will swoon over your talents.”
Poor, naive Joi.
“Yeah, I once subscribed to that theory myself. However, objective analysis and a decade of anecdotal evidence suggest otherwise. My current hypothesis is: that only works if you don’t look like the kind of guy who uses the word ‘hypothesis’ in casual conversation.”
“David,” said Joi, stern again, “don’t flatter yourself. You’re not a geek. You don’t come off as a geek. You come off as a man who has absolutely no self-confidence when he’s not hiding behind a keyboard or guitar. How did a guy who was raised by four doting parents” (we’ll get to that later) “develop such deep self-loathing?”
“Hey, if I wanted insights, I wouldn't have knocked myself insensible just now. I’m looking for pity, here.”
“Sorry, cuz. I heard that symphony you composed your junior year. I’d trade you every tryst I've ever had for a tenth of your talent.”
“Sure, set me up with more lesbians; just what I need.”
In my infinite magnanimity, I set Claire up on a date with Joi the next day. They became lovers within a week, and Claire moved in a week after that. It was a little painful to see Joi getting all the affection I had sought from Claire, but I could handle it. It was business as usual.
I hadn't played a solo gig in over a year. A full time job and my work with Claire hadn't left me much time to work on my own stuff. And I had the impression that Claire felt threatened when I played my own shows.
My setup is pretty simple. Most of the sound is generated by my laptop, running an application that plays back my home studio tracks, minus the parts I perform live. There’s also a keyboard and a guitar. Looked at one way, it’s just a step above karaoke. Looked at another way, shut up.
The venue, Art Soup, is exactly what it sounds like: a gourmet soup kitchen brimming with artwork by local painters, sculptors, multi-media artists and so on. Thursday through Saturday nights they feature live local music.
I was booked to play a 45-minute set Thursday night at 8 pm. A bit nervous about being rusty, and very nervous about whether one particular person would show up, I came in early. I was set up by 6 pm, leaving me nothing to do but fill up on soup and wait for the audience to start filtering in around 7:45. I went over the set in my head, fidgeted, and watched the door for the beautiful, warm, intelligent woman who’d taken my flier and promised to sit up front.
It was a long 105 minutes.
Around 7:30, some folks I knew started showing up. The first were Ron and Sylvia Pinsky, owners of Café Huh? -- a performance space dedicated to showcasing the esoteric, the unusual and the unclassifiable. They gave Claire and me 15 minutes every weekend and actually shared a portion of the evening’s (usually meager) proceeds with the performers. Saints, both of them.
Steve and Jack from Guitar Depot made an appearance, as promised. Joi arrived and, though not generally the demonstrative type, favored me with a big hug. (Claire, who never attended these things, was presumably back at home, brooding). Mark and his sexual conquest du jour slinked in about 7:55. I recognized a couple people to whom I’d handed fliers after the show at Café Huh?
No sign of Dreamgirl.
Well, I thought, hearing myself referring to her in that manner, that tears it - I’m stuck on this woman, and it’s likely I’ll never see her again.
The tables in the front row were all taken; so much for my romantic visions for the evening.
Come on Weinstein, snap out of it. There are 50 people here to listen to - or at least tolerate - your set while they sip soup. Don’t get distracted. Pretend she’s there.
8 pm finally arrived, and I took the stage. I forced myself to forget about Dream girl and concentrate on my performance.
My set is a mix of originals and covers, most of the latter arranged very differently from the original recordings.
I opened with a cover of a Dylan tune, “Too Much of Nothing,” best known for Peter Paul and Mary’s 1967 honky-tonk cover. I slow it down and turn it into a piano-driven gospel tune. I use a melody that is different from the original, but complexly related to it. The laptop tracks include three harmony parts I’m very proud of.
As has been my usual experience, at least on a good night, it drew the audience in with its intensity.
Honestly, I’m not a great singer. I picked up some technique at Oberlin, but my voice itself is mediocre. Still, with the assistance of great sounding studio tracks from the laptop, passable guitar skills and great keyboard chops, I manage to make up for it.
I won’t bore you with my set list. But I was pleased that my originals seemed to go over almost as well as the covers, and even more pleased that around halfway through the set, between songs, Dreamgirl showed up.
Perfect - I was at the point in the set where things really get going. I was going to impress her.
I launched into “Reverse,” an original that I consider one of my best. It’s a kind of science fiction epic that owes a lot to Rush and Tears for Fears. It has an extended instrumental break featuring a fairly robust guitar solo.
I have to admit, I hardly make it look easy. It pushes the envelope of my guitar skills, and it’s not that large an envelope...
I couldn't really see Dreamgirl from the stage, but her presence inspired me. I outdid myself on my cover of CSN’s “Long Time Gone,” buoyed by the current atmosphere of protest and revolution (Occupy Columbus was going on about a mile away). Riding that momentum, I spontaneously segued into Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth,” another great protest song. The whole crowd sang along on the chorus (“Stop, hey, what’s that sound / everybody look what’s going down”).
I floated through the end of the set - an original piano composition that really showed off my chops, and a cover of Yes’s “Turn of the Century,” (taken down a few steps to compensate for Jon Anderson’s insanely high vocal range, and arranged to shift the intricate guitar part to the keyboard). It’s an amazing song; I challenge you to hear it and not be moved, or at least deeply impressed. In my head, I dedicated it to Dreamgirl.
I got some of the most enthusiastic applause I've ever received. I was a bit embarrassed when the Pinskys attempted to start a standing ovation, but they meant well.
I ran back to the bathroom to towel off -- an energetic set will generally leave me as drenched as the slog back home with the equipment -- and returned to the dining area, doing my best not to look like I was trying to be overly nonchalant as I scanned the room for Dreamgirl.
After a minute passed with no sign of her, I started to panic. Maybe she wasn't interested me personally at all; she just listened to the last half of the set and left.
Another minute, and I was in my own personal hell. I did my best to be cordial to the friends and strangers who came up to me to praise my performance, but most of my RAM was occupied with self-recrimination.
You should have known better than to obsess on this woman. These things never work out in your favor - women only fall for the attractive guys with talent. You are a dork; govern yourself accordingly. Now go break down your equipment and drag it ho...
Someone embraced me vigorously from behind. Jolted from my dark reverie, I jumped. There was a squeak, followed by beautifully feminine laughter, and I turned to meet my captor.
“See, I told you I’d be here. That was amazing.” Another big hug. “Sorry I was so late.”
Dreamgirl was exactly as I remembered her, all warmth and curves, eyes blazing with intelligence and empathy. As she took my hand and led me to a booth in the back of the restaurant, occasionally looking back at me, smiling, I took in more details.
Honey-colored hair, medium length, frizzy along the edges; wide, oval face, those eyes, mouth clearly in the habit of smiling. Luscious, plump body wrapped in a riotously floral-patterned dress.
Don’t get your hopes up. She’s just a music fan. She’ll be going home to her boy- or girl- friend after a quick chat. Remember: you’re a dork.
We slid into opposite sides of the booth. For a moment we stared at each other, smiling. OK, maybe she likes dorks.
“Maya Behrens,” said Dreamgirl, extending her hand.
“What?” I asked, still a little dazed from everything going so well.
“My name. I already know yours.”
“Oh, right,” I shook her hand and laughed to cover my embarrassment. “Sorry, I’m a little loopy from the soup fumes.”
Maya chuckled. “I know, right? Last week alone here three people passed out from cilantro inhalation.”
She’s quick. “And the health department does nothing. Well, don’t look at me to report them; they want me back next Thursday.”
We’re bantering. This is great.
“So,” I asked, “what brought you to Cafe Huh? last week?”
“Well, I had a coupon for a free mindfuck when you order the deluxe dinner combo, and I figured what the hell.”
I’m going to marry this woman.
I played it cool. “So, how was the mindfuck that evening?”
“Not bad. I liked the guy who recited poetry while juggling bowling balls. The girl who did standup comedy in a bikini and a ski mask was a little scary. But what really got me was the performance artist. She was really out there.”
I couldn't argue with that. “Yeah, she’s a trip all right. To be honest, I don’t understand what she’s up to half the time. I’m just along for the ride.”
“Well, I thought your music was terrific, very evocative.”
“Meh. It’s mostly the spacey synth noises that do that. Otherwise, I just try to entertain myself and do finger exercises.” This wasn't false modesty. As I said it, I was rather dismayed to realize that it was the truth.
“Actually, I feel bad about that,” I confessed. “I've kind of become disillusioned with the act, and I haven’t been working very hard on it. If I had any balls, I’d tell her, but I don’t want to hurt her. She’s my best friend.”
“Well, I admire your loyalty. But I wouldn't be so hard on her - there are some brilliant moments, it just doesn't hang together very well.”
“Oh, she’s a genius, just not an artistic one.”
There was a lull in the conversation, but we filled it staring at each other happily. I found my cynicism fading. My God, I think she really likes me. Terror thrilled up my spine. Don’t blow it, Dave. Don’t you dare fucking blow it, or I will give you brain cancer.
“But enough about Claire, how about you? What do you do when you’re not taking in the local art scene?”
“I’m a therapist. I do some couples counseling and some psychotherapy with adults, but mostly I concentrate on kids with developmental disorders.”
I laughed. “Oh, great, you’re probably analyzing me even as we speak.”
“Nah, I try to leave my professional persona in the office. Besides, you seem pretty well adjusted, to me.”
I did? “Heh. Maybe you need a refresher course.”
Maya raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? Well, I like a challenge. Tell me about your childhood.”
“Oh, man, you could write a Master’s thesis on my childhood. But I’m not getting into that on a first date (this is a date, right?). I need to impress you some more first.”
I’d surprised myself, asking whether we were on an actual date. I cringed inside, anticipating the usual response.
Maya looked thoughtful. “Yeah, sure, why not. This can be a date. Care to make it official and take me out to a movie or something?”
Gulp. “Uh, sure! Got one in mind?”
“Actually, no, come to think of it. The pickings are pretty slim at the moment. Let’s see...OK, why don’t we just find someplace a little less soup-infested and sit and talk some more.”
We’re on a date! She wants to spend more time with me! I’m so happy I think I’m going to throw up. Will she get the South Park reference? Best not to find out.
I downed an entire glass of water to drown the butterflies and said “Do you like sushi? We can head over to Haiku.”
“Ooh, I love Haiku. Let’s go.” she gathered up her purse and stood.
“Oh, wait, I've got to break down my equipment. I think they’ll let me store it here, so I don’t have to lug it back home tonight, but...” Dammit, I didn't want to deal with anything not related to Maya at the moment. “Why don’t you come with me? I’m afraid if I walk away from you, you’ll evaporate.”
“Wow - that insecure, huh?”
My heart sank. I was going to scare her away. Women are drawn to confidence, and I have all the self-assurance and dynamism of Droopy the Dog.
Decisive action was called for. I headed resolutely for the stage, gesturing for her to follow.
“Insecure?” I said over my shoulder. “Not exactly.” Liar. “More like gun-shy. My love life has been a series of train-wrecks and near misses.” I stopped, turned and put my hands on Maya’s shoulders. “Please tell me you’re heterosexual, sane and not currently involved with someone else. I've got no problem at all with lesbians, the mentally ill or the spoken for, except when I have crushes on them, which is how it usually works out for me.”
Those eyes looked straight into mine and understood everything.
She smiled. “I’m straight, I’m...reasonably sane, and I’m not seeing anyone at the moment. Except you.” She drew herself closer to me and kissed me on the forehead. “Now go take care of your equipment and I’ll get us a table at Haiku. I promise I’ll be there when you arrive.”
My heart, rather than leaping up, as it should have, and radiating rainbows of joy and fluffy kittens, had the temerity to sink yet again. You’re going to blow it. Don’t doubt it for a minute. She’s attractive, accomplished, confident...you’re a schlub who works at a music store. Sooner or later, she’ll figure out that you suck. She may not even be at the sushi place when you get there.
Are you calling her a liar? Why don’t you step outside and say that?
Man, I thought, I have serious problems. A therapist is exactly what I need.
I packed up my equipment, stashed it in the utility room, and walked the two blocks to Haiku.
Where she was sitting waiting for me, conducting the background music with a chopstick.
That evening with Maya constituted my first real date, ever.
Oh, I’d been out with plenty of women. But I don’t count those occasions when my companions turned out to be gay, committed to someone else and/or mainly there to cry on my shoulder about how their boy/girlfriends were treating them. As for the rest: as the song goes, nothing from nothing leaves nothing.
I’d even had a reasonable amount of sex (after a late start), but mostly in the form of one-night stands or otherwise extremely casual situations, with women to whom, don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the tenderness. But no one I really liked or cared much about.
The point is, for all intents and purposes, at age 30, I’d just had my first date.
And it had gone beautifully. We spent over an hour talking and devouring sushi at Haiku. I mostly listened, afraid of using up all of my best stories, anecdotes and jokes in one sitting. She told me about her work, impressing the hell out of me with her intellect and compassion. The phrase “she’s the one” lurked on the edge of my consciousness.
That’s it -- you’re not a loser, you've just been saving yourself for her.
At one point I asked her to speculate about Claire’s condition, based on what she’d seen at Cafe Huh?, but this seemed to make her uncomfortable. She demurred and quickly changed the subject.
Within moments, my apparent faux pas was forgotten and we were back to bantering, arguing about which 80s hair bands merely sucked and which ones were crimes against humanity and other topics of cosmic importance, and exchanging meaningful glances over candlelight.
I walked Maya back to her apartment. At her door, we hugged tenderly and thoroughly - a far more intimate and intense experience than any kiss I’d ever had. I told her I’d call her after work the next day; she said she couldn't wait.
I walked home feeling, for the first time in my life, like a real live boy. This is what normal, adult people do. They meet and have dates and exchange phone numbers go on more dates and get to know each other. They are part of society, not observers. They dress up in shirts with actual buttons and meet for dinner at restaurants with actual waiters. They have urbane, intellectual conversations over sushi. They walk home through the hippest part of town under the misty glow of the streetlights. They part for the night, or one invites the other in for coffee...
And so on. I’ll spare you the rest of my inner monologue, except to admit that by the time I got home, it had devolved into a rather elaborate sexual fantasy (mine tend to include witty dialogue and the occasional plot conflict; sometimes they even wind up with me not getting laid, if it’s not artistically valid).
It was late, so I let myself in as quietly as possible.
There was no one downstairs, and no sounds of TV coming from upstairs. Claire and Joi were asleep. Perfect. Because I needed to do something, and I needed to do it unobserved.
I am a terrible dancer. No, that doesn't cover it. I am the opposite of a dancer. I once failed an audition to play a Munchkin in an elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz because I couldn't master the little walk-skip-jump step in the “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” dance.
Fuck it; it was a lousy production anyway. I danced into the living room, tossed my jacket over the arm of the love seat with a flourish. I twirled, kicked my shoes off in the direction of the recliner. I did that stupid Saturday Night Fever finger in the air thing. I Riverdanced. I thought about doing the worm, but dammit, I've got some dignity. I slid across the foyer on my socks, humming the opening to “Old Time Rock and Roll.” I...
Claire flicked on the light. My heart jumped out of my throat and I guess I tripped over it, because I landed ass-first on the tile. Unfortunately, I still had enough momentum going that I continued on my downward trajectory until my right shoulder, followed by my head, met the marble floor.
Claire, for the first time in my memory... laughed. Hard. It was an enchanting sound, which I’d have taken more time to appreciate if I hadn't been blacking out at the time.
“Oh my God, David, you are the worst dancer!” She could barely breathe. “That was the stupidest...I mean, I’m sorry I startled you, but I... David? Are you OK?”
Good question. My head hurt slightly less than the worst migraine I’d ever experienced; but I was more worried about my shoulder. It felt like I’d torn something, or dislocated it.
“I’m not sure.” I winced. Every muscle movement added to the pain. “How many fingers are you holding up?”
Back to no sense of humor. Just as well.
“Claire, I’d like you to do exactly what you’re not supposed to do in this kind of situation. I want to you drag me into the living room so I can lie down on the carpet. It’s cold down here.” I was now fairly sure I wasn't injured. I probably could have gotten up and crawled to the couch. But I’d be damned if Claire wasn't going to pay for catching me dancing.
She grabbed me by both calves and pulled me from where I lay to the middle of the living room. I assumed she would have said something if there had been a trail of blood running from my head, so that was one thing off my mind.
Not sure what to do next, she lay down next to me on the floor, propped up on one elbow, and regarded me with a mixture of pity and amusement.
“So, uh, what the fuck was that?”
“That was me spraining my shoulder and getting a concussion.” No way am I giving her the satisfaction...
“No, I mean before that.”
“That was you sneaking up on me and causing me to sprain my shoulder and sustain a concussion. I hope you have a good lawyer, because...”
“No, before that.” There was a beat, and she started to laugh again. I liked the sound so much, I gave in.
“That was me celebrating. You know, normally, this much embarrassment would be enough to paralyze me all by itself; but in this case, it’s entirely physical. You see, Claire, I just had a date that went really, really well. So break out the champagne and the Tylenol. I’m gonna party until I can stand up”
Claire considered this, and laughed again. “All that was over a date? Good god, what are you going to do when you get laid?”
“Afternoon of a Faun.” I tried to sit up, too soon.
“Careful. We should take you to the clinic. You really could have a concussion.”
“I don’t think so. My vision isn't blurry, and I’m not speeching my slur.”
“Don’t joke. We’re talking about your brain here.”
“No, honestly, I’m OK.”
Claire looked me over very carefully. Satisfied that my pupils were not dilated and that my condition was stable, she rolled onto her back and put her hands behind her head.
“So. You had a date. Good for you.” She turned this new concept around in her mind. “What’s the poor deluded girl’s name?”
“Maya,” I said, savoring the sound of it. “Maya Behrens.”
There was a long pause, long enough that I felt compelled to introduce a new conversational topic. As I opened my mouth to do so, Claire asked “Maya Behrens, LPC?”
“Uh, yes, actually.” This does not bode well.
Another long silence. Damned if I was going to break it.
“So,” Claire said, finally, “what I hear you saying is, you’re dating my therapist.”
“Hello?” said the voice in the receiver, through a yawn. She presumably checked her caller ID. “Dave? It’s 2AM. What’s going on?”
“Maya, when were you going to mention that you were Claire’s therapist?”
Dammit, I heard her whisper. “Soon, I swear. I just...” she was groggy, and on the spot. I felt like a cad. “I wanted to get to know you without that little fact coloring the conversation.”
I wasn't sure how to respond. Was she even allowed to have a relationship with me while treating Claire; wasn't it an ethical violation of some kind? Not that I’m going to turn her in. I should just be flattered that she wants to see me despite the possible conflict of interest.
I’m not sure how long I’d been silent, rolling these thoughts over in my head when she said “Look, I feel really bad about this; why don’t you come over now for an in-person apology?”
I almost dropped the receiver. The woman did not play fair, that was for sure.
“Lady, if this was a Warner Brothers cartoon, there’d be an outline of me in dust holding up the phone and I’d already be there.”
“Oh, well, see you soon, then” she said, amused, and hung up.
I turned to leave and just about walked into Claire, an immovable object, arms crossed, eyes narrow, a carnivore regarding its prey.
“You’re going over to her place, aren't you?” she growled.
“Well...yes. I gather you have a problem with that.” She’s 102 pounds, tops, I found myself thinking, I can take her.
“Yes, I have a problem with that. She’s my therapist. She can’t date you.”
“No, she can’t date you . I’m not her patient.”
Claire was becoming dangerously exasperated. “It’s completely inappropriate! I tell her secrets. I talk to her about you , for God’s sake. What the hell is she thinking?”
“You may not go out with her! I absolutely forbid it!”
“Look, I know it’s an awkward situation. But if...” This wasn't fair, to either of us. I was exhausted and injured and crushing out and I lost it. “Please, Claire, don’t do this. I've never been with a woman I liked and had it work out. Not ever.” I was in tears. “Do you have any idea what it means to me that a woman I like likes me back -- and is available? That never happens!”
To my own complete surprise -- I’m not one for grand dramatic gestures -- I fell to my knees and hugged her, my head against her belly. I got my tears under control, at least, before whispering “Please let me be with her, Claire.”
Claire said nothing for a moment, but stroked my hair as she considered whether to let Romeo have his Juliet, surely resentful at being cast in the role of both Capulet and Montague paters familias.
She shifted to her knees to look me in the eyes. We held each other tenderly, like the lovers I’d hoped we’d be when we first met. God, she was beautiful. All the more so when she said “All right, fuck it, go be with her.”
I held her even tighter in gratitude, but she pushed back. “But if there is the slightest security breach; if she tells you the tiniest, most insignificant thing about me that you don’t already know, I will find out, and you will both end up in a meat pie, do you understand?”
I’d done two productions of “Sweeney Todd.” I understood.
Short North is a pretty safe neighborhood. Even at 2:15 am, I wasn't the only person strolling down High Street, admiring the effect of the lighted arches in the damp night air. I took the scenic route, which also happened to be the most direct route - south down High Street, right onto Buttles, past the Park, quick right onto Dennison, third building on the left, up two flights of stairs.
Maya had left her apartment door slightly ajar. I could hear the music on her stereo, and I heartily approved. She’s not just familiar with October Project, she’s got their 2003 independently released EP. I am going to marry this woman.
I tapped on the door. “Come in,” I heard from the back of the apartment, “I’ll be just a minute.”
I entered, feeling as if in a dream. It was an altogether normal apartment, with altogether normal furnishings and decorations. Maybe it was the low lights, the dozen or so lit candles scattered around the living room and the dreamy music that did it. Or maybe it was just that I was in my girlfriend’s apartment at 2:30 AM and I didn't know what was going to happen next.
In other words, I felt about 19 years old.
Snap out of it. You’re 30, for God’s sake. Relax. If you wind up in bed with her, it’s not some epochal event. Don’t let the fact that you haven’t gotten laid in 18 months make you all twitchy. You’re two adults who really like each other. And if all you do is talk, that’s great, too. You have a lot to talk about.
Of course, the candles do set a very romantic mood. God she’s hot. What’s taking her so long? You should sit down, make yourself comfortable. Your pulse should not be racing. God, you’re a dork; what does she see in you?
Shut up. And another thing - why do you talk to yourself in the second person?
What’s she up to in there?
You know what, just give it up. Be 19 for the moment. Embrace your inner adolescent and enjoy the ride.
Just don’t blow it. Because seriously, I will give you brain cancer, or maybe get right to the point and lay a nice fat embolism on you. Splat! Thump! Dead!
I had succeeded in maneuvering to the couch before Maya emerged wearing a modest blue dress. Another man might have been disappointed at its complete lack of erotic overtones; but if I have a kink, it’s my love of such things. A simple, unadorned, un-revealing nightgown, for example, turns me 100 percent on in the right situation - it says “I’m so confident of my desirability that I don’t need to show off. Fuck Victoria. She can keep her Secret to herself.”
I rose to meet her outstretched arms and luxuriated in another of her trademark hugs. God she’s good at this; she must have taken a seminar or something.
Over my shoulder, she said “I really am sorry, David.” I couldn't imagine what for.
“You are so forgiven it’s not even funny,” I assured her.
We sat, I on the couch, she in a frighteningly comfortable-looking armchair. She sank into it in obvious ecstasy. Oh, man, I’m in trouble. I don’t think there’s anything I can do for her to beat that chair.
Maybe it was a challenge of some kind.
Maybe you should just be in the moment.
“Quite a night,” I said.
“Yes. Quite.” she said, smiling, eyes closed. “You must be exhausted. Honestly, you look halfway dead.”
“Thanks, that’s exactly the look I was going for. GQ magazine calls it ‘Zombie Chic.’”
“Haha. No they don’t,” said Maya, sleepily.
Couldn't get one past her. “Actually, if I’m looking particularly ragged it’s because after part one of our date I was so giddy I was compelled to dance around the house. As I am quite possibly the worst dancer in the history of feet, this activity culminated in a solid thunk to the skull, a badly bruised shoulder, and a very amused roommate. We’re lucky, really. If I’d been at a disco or something, there could have been dozens of fatalities.”
Maya tried to laugh and exude sympathy at the same time, and couldn't quite pull it off. Clearly she needed some assistance.
“Fine,” I said. “Laugh. Just remember: if you ever insist on taking me out dancing, the blood is on your hands.” This freed her up to laugh exclusively. I loved the sound. I’d endure a concussion every night to hear it.
From there, the conversation flowed freely, mostly in one direction again.
Aware, I’m sure, that I’d pointedly let her do all of the talking at Haiku, she used all of her subtle therapist’s tricks to draw me out. She even got me to lie down on the couch while she sat and, for all I knew, took notes and smoked a pipe.
I ran through all of the anecdotes I thought I’d had -- only to find out that I had more in the reserve tank. I tried to give her the broad outline of my life in bullet points, only to find myself composing essays, and confessing things I’d never told anyone before (for extra credit).
She must be really good at her job. I’m scared.
You should be.
Shut up or I’ll tell her about you, and she’ll cure me, and it’ll be bye-bye self-flagellating inner voice, forever.
I didn’t think so. So, that’s settled. I wonder what I’m saying right now.
“...so for years, like between 9 and 12, I tried to be gay - to be like my parents; couldn’t pull it off. I’m living proof it’s not a choice.”
“It must have been weird, growing up with four parents, whatever their orientations“
“Sometimes it was more like six. Mom and dad, and their partners, and for long stretches there would be others, involved with them in some intricate manner. Most of my childhood there was Alan and Carol, a married couple, both bi-. Alan had something going with dad’s partner, Steve, and Carol and mom were lovers. That may have made things a little lopsided, but it worked for everyone involved. I think Dad and Mama June just had lower sex drives than the others, or something.”
Maya took a moment to digest this. “That all must have given you a very unusual perspective on dating and relationships and marriage.”
“Yeah. I probably got the most open, progressive, guilt-free, relaxed sexual education in the history of human relationships.”
“And yet, for all that, you've had such a stunted sex and love life. I’m sorry if that sounds cruel, but you've said as much. I’d have thought that you’d have been happily exploring your sexuality with your little cohort -- under safe, controlled conditions -- as soon as you hit puberty. With those parents, on a hippie commune, mostly sheltered from the outside world and this culture’s terror of teen sex...God, it should have been paradise.
I’d been asking myself the same question for over a decade. “Well, part of the problem was purely practical -- by chance, all of the kids my age on the commune were boys. But the truth is, I've always been shy and introverted and awkward and, I've started to realize, incapable of reading normal social cues.”
“Interesting. Let me guess: you have a tendency to hyper-focus, at least when you’re not hyper-distracted. You have difficulty with transitions; you hate having to do anything right now that you weren't already planning to do. You can be overly literal. You have trouble sensing the passage of time: a five minute activity can turn into a two-hour digression without your knowing it. You tend to be physically awkward, to feel like you’re not at home in your own body. You bump into things...”
How the hell does she know all this?
She’s a psychologist, dumbass. She’s seen this before.
“Well, you’re batting a thousand. Give it to me straight, doc. What’s wrong with me?”
She beamed at me. “You’re autistic.” Seriously? “You’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome -- like half of my patients.”
"You’re that sure, just from talking with me for one evening?” This was a little scary. She wasn't just a therapist, she specialized in my condition. Could I survive being in a relationship with someone who understood me that well? I’d be defenseless.
Pussy. Weakling. Dork.
“I was sure before we left Art Soup. Your physicality, your demeanor, your speech patterns... You’re a textbook case, a classic high-functioning autistic. The only thing atypical about you is that you’re not a computer programmer.”
“I know some HTML.” I admitted. OK, I’m autistic. What do I do with this information? And what does it mean for our relationship. Has her interest in me gone from romantic to clinical? That would be par for the course.
“Autism, huh? That explains a lot.”
She chuckled. “Not as much as you might think. You've got something else going on, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”
Great. “You've been analyzing me all night, haven’t you?”
“Well, yes, but not as I would a patient; as a potential lover.”
The L-word caught me off guard.
“Guh?” I replied. Smooth.
“For example,” she continued, “I won’t sleep with a guy if I get the slightest whiff of misogyny -- and I can detect it even when it’s buried deep in a man’s subconscious. I've had to cut loose a bunch of fundamentally nice guys because of that. Call it a psychologist’s version of safe sex.”
Guh? I thought again. I kept it to myself.
“So,” I asked, “uh, how am I doing so far?”
“Oh, you’re doing just fine. You’d have to really screw up badly at this point to not get lucky soon.”
Analysis session over. I sat up, or at least tried to. But I moved too quickly, slipped, and for the second time that night, wound up on my back on the floor.
The carpet was comfortable, and it had been a long day. I made no attempt to get back up. I stared happily up at the ceiling, the bulb of a swag lamp making my eyes water a little.
After a moment, my view of the bulb was eclipsed. Maya smiled down at me, her face framed by a corona of lamplight filtered through the frizzy ends of her hair.
“You okay down there?” she laughed sweetly.
“Hunky Dory,” I said. “Just take it down a notch - there’s a history of heart attacks in my family.”
She lay down beside me and held my hand. “Don’t worry - I never give it up on the first-and-a-halfth date.”
We lay there holding hands for an indeterminate time. I’m not sure exactly when I fell asleep or whether Maya did as well; but when I woke, she was gone, and there was a sheet of notebook paper on my chest. It read, in Maya’s charmingly child-like handwriting:
“I’ll be in the office until 4 pm. I called you in sick to work. Your supervisor -- Steve? -- was pleased to find out that you were, quote, “finally getting some,” and told me to high five you on his behalf. I didn’t tell him that, technically, you hadn’t actually gotten any yet.
“Rest, eat anything but the chocolate cake in the fridge, watch TV. If you go home (you really should shower and change), just leave a note on the back of this one.
"But plan on being back here tonight. I’ve got plans for you.
I read the note four or five times. I kissed her signature.
I checked the time. 11 AM, plenty of time.
I had some cereal - Cocoa Puffs. It was that or plain shredded wheat.
The contents of the refrigerator followed the same pattern. Big hunk of chocolate cake next to a six-pack of Slim-fast nutrition drinks; Nutella spread next to a carton of fat-free cottage cheese; A gallon of chocolate milk beside 2 liters of Diet Coke.
Poor thing, she had a raging sweet tooth and was uncomfortable with her weight. Which was ridiculous; she was about my height (5’ 5”), and probably 160 pounds. Luscious.
Well, if she could help me overcome my Autism, I could help her love her body - leading by example.
I spent a few blissed-out minutes following that train of thought, then snapped out of it.
Focus, Weinstein, focus.
It’s 11:30. Still plenty of time to walk home, give myself the Deluxe Wash with Rain-GardTM and undercoating, find some decent clothes, and waste three hours online while Critical Inner Voice TM (from here on referred to as “CIV”) wears my confidence down to a nub...
Right. Best to hang around here a little longer, keep soaking up the good vibes.
But what to do?
I dithered, straightening a few unruly piles of magazines in the living room. That felt right.
It rose to my attention that what had looked, the past evening, through a haze of hormones and candlelight, like stacks of ancient magical tomes and sheaves of parchment were in fact dozens of random magazines, books, medical journals, notebooks and loose note paper strewn about the apartment in no discernible order.
She probably doesn't have the energy to put all of this stuff away properly after a hard day’s work. I’ll put everything back in order, so she’ll come home to a clean apartment for once. This will be a good deed and prove my usefulness. She’ll have to keep me around, then.
I gathered up all of the magazines and journals. I sorted them by title and then put each pile into chronological order. I found a nice cozy drawer in her entertainment center, and placed the ‘zines inside.
I collected all of the books on the dining room table. I arranged them by size, large to small. I found a bookshelf with a few random non-book items on it. I put the items in a nearby drawer, freeing up the shelf for the books.
There were a couple dozen spiral notebooks. I put them all in one pile, grouped by color, and put the pile to the side of her bedroom door. The loose papers, many of which had been awkwardly stuffed into the spiral binders, I gathered together into a single pile, which I squared off as neatly as possible and placed into a paper shopping bag from the kitchen. I used a large permanent marker to label the bag “Notes and other loose papers.” I left it next to the binders.
Now, the place was perfect.
No, wait -- I forgot to alphabetize her CDs.
Twenty minutes later, all was well with the world, or at least Maya’s eight hundred or so square feet of it.
Well, her bedroom probably needed some straightening as well, but I hadn't been invited in there -- yet. I had been sorely tempted to clean up in there anyway, but I felt good knowing I had respected her space.
I strolled home, confident that I’d left Maya a gift that would make a far better impression than, say, flowers or candy. And for once, CIV had kept its stupid mouth shut and just let me work. In fact, I couldn’t locate the bastard, no matter how hard I tried.
See, hanging out with a therapist is already doing you a world of good.
Joi and Claire were both at work, so I had the place to myself. Just as well - Claire was surely still fuming over my relationship with Maya; it was best not to have too much contact with her until she calmed down a bit.
I showered to within an inch of my life and picked out my clothes for the evening: dark gray slacks and a black collarless shirt that somehow made me look almost cool. I checked my mail and spent too much time on Facebook.
I still had about an hour and a half to kill before Maya was likely to be home. I went downstairs with the intention of working on some music -- maybe even writing a song for Maya -- then realized that I’d left my equipment at Art Soup.
I gave up and switched on the TV. Nothing remotely interesting on, but it hardly mattered. It was just background noise as I stretched out on the couch and let my mind drift.
Tonight was going to be awesome. “You’d have to screw up pretty badly not to get lucky soon,” she’d said. But it wasn't simply the prospect of getting laid after forever that was so exciting. It was Maya herself. Fucking was fine -- been there done that; but I’d never been with a woman who excited me so much as a person, anyone I loved.
You've known her less than 24 hours and you’re in love? Aren't you getting ahead of yourself?
This wasn't CIV talking. This was closer to what I think of as my actual conscience. Still, I kind of wished it would shut up.
Maya’s great, no question. But don’t confuse infatuation with love. Relax, have fun, and let things develop naturally. If you get too intense too fast, you could scare her away.
I’ll take it under advisement, I told myself.
Still a bit short of sleep, I drifted off to the sound of some chef on a reality show being a complete dick.
I awoke to the sound of the phone ringing. I glanced at the time on the cable box. 4:25 -- it was probably Maya. I reached for the receiver on the end table.
It was Maya. “David, what the hell have you done?”
This was not the reaction I had expected. A wave of anxiety hit me. In my dreams, I had been cleaning Maya’s apartment by tossing every stray item into a fireplace she didn’t have in real life. Maybe I was still dreaming?
“Well,” I said, “I thought it would be nice to clean up the place for you, you know, clear all of the detritus. Make everything nice and orderly.”
“That ‘detritus’ was my work! Where are all of my magazines and journals? And what were you thinking, putting all of my loose notes in a bag? It’ll take me days, weeks, to get everything back together the way I had it, if it’s even possible.”
I was speechless. My neurons were firing randomly. What had I been thinking? My intentions had been good, but my actions had been ludicrous. Why hadn't it occurred to me that her notes might have been related to the books and magazines I’d found them in?
“How fucking dare you? Where are my books? Why are my notebooks in a pile by the door...” I heard her rifling through the stack. “...arranged by…color?”
Well, it had made sense to me at the time.
“Oh, God, what was I thinking, leaving the poster child for Asperger’s alone in my apartment? I should have known when we were at Haiku and you arranged everything on the table into groups by the materials they were made of. And you ate every single piece of sushi the same way, in three bites, side, side, middle. You’re obsessive-compulsive. And a neat freak.”
Holy shit. I’m a psycho.
I told you you’d blow it, asshole, said CIV, back in business and totally pumped. So, how do you want it - aneurysm or cancer?
Cancer. I want it to be slow and painful.
“I am so sorry. I thought I was helping.”
Maya sighed wearily. “I know. Look, I don’t think we should see each other tonight.”
I changed my mind. Make it an aneurism. I don’t want to finish this conversation .
“No, please...let me come over and help you put everything back the way it was.”
She was thinking it over.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t think I can be civil with you right now.”
“That’s okay; abuse me. I deserve it.”
“No, no you don’t. You can’t help it. Maybe you’ll be able to with my help, but right now you’re practically feral. You should have been in therapy and on meds years ago.”
Wait, she still wants to help me. That’s a good sign, right? She doesn’t want me completely out of her life.
"Please, give me a chance to make it up to you.”
“Look, Dave, I really like you. But I need a little while to calm down. Let’s do something next weekend. See a movie or something.”
“You could come see me again at Art Soup on Thursday,” I begged as casually as I could manage.
“No, I’m sorry. Too soon.”
Dammit. “Friday, then?”
“Okay, Friday. Dinner and a movie.”
“Dinner and a movie.”
“And come hungry - crow’s on the menu.” I could hear the smile in her voice. I really was forgiven.
“I’ll skip lunch,” I agreed.
The next week passed like a kidney stone. I didn't have many hours at work, and rehearsing for Thursday’s gig, knowing Maya wouldn't be there, was a drag. Claire was giving me the silent treatment, and Joi, in the middle of a coding frenzy, was sleeping in her cubicle. I had too much time to brood.
I got through my set Thursday night on auto-pilot, though it seemed to go over well. I didn't get a return engagement, but the management said they’d be calling me back to book me at a later date.
Friday was the worst. I would have been insecure enough about my date with Maya under normal circumstances, but I had a lot to make up for. Our relationship was on the line. I tried to sleep in, but was too nervous. I paced around the living room for a while, catastrophizing.
You’ll never dig yourself out of this hole. You screwed up big time. This is probably a pity date. If you’re lucky, she’ll invite you to be her patient.
6 pm finally arrived, and the miniature grandfather clock on the wall was on its third bong when the doorbell rang.
Wow. Punctual is one thing, but that’s just scary.
I opened the door, saw Maya’s smiling face, and my spirits lifted. We hugged, as deeply as before, and it positively soared.
“Maya, I am so sorry about last week. I swear I meant well; I’m just a freak. Can you handle dating a freak?”
“Don’t worry, I specialize in freaks.”
We ate vegetarian at Thai on High. The conversation was lighthearted and reassuring. We saw a small, independent film of which I have no recollection; I was too blissed out on Maya to notice. We held hands through most of the feature. I give it 5 stars.
We walked directly back to my place after the movie. I’d been hoping for more of a night of romance, but I sensed that Maya had decided to take things slowly. I didn't blame her.
Still, I got a kiss goodnight to go with the hug. “When can I see you again?” I asked, when I’d caught my breath and the blood started making its way back to my brain.
“How about next Saturday? There’s going to be live music downtown.”
“OK, but I always get jealous of the performers at things like that. I’d kill to have an audience that big.”
“You’ll get there.” She kissed me on the forehead. “I’ll call you this week and we’ll figure out a time.” She started to lean in for another kiss, but thought the better of it, and hugged me again. As she walked away, she called “Tell Claire I said hi…no, wait, scratch that. Probably a bad idea.”
I’d been seeing Maya for about a month before Claire relaxed enough to talk to me about it. We were preparing to rehearse in the basement, me noodling on my keyboard, Claire stretching and doing yoga, when she asked “so how’s it going with Maya?”
“So far so good. We’re having a great time together. She’s terrific. And, you know, I think she’s therapizing me on the fly. I’ve been a lot saner lately.”
“That’s probably just because you’re not suffering from testosterone poisoning. Getting laid regularly can really clear your head.”
I laughed. “That’s just the thing. We haven’t slept together yet. She’s taking things slowly. It’s a little stressful, but I’m so jazzed just to have an actual girlfriend for the first time, I don’t care.”
Claire shook her head. “I can’t believe she’s holding out on you like that.”
“Come on, we’ve only had six dates. Just because you moved in with Joi after knowing her two weeks doesn’t mean everyone’s in such a hurry.”
She gave me the look: you’re full of shit , it said.
“OK, I am in a hurry. I’m like any other guy. We do make out, and I’m usually pretty worked up by the time I get home. But there’s a remedy for that.”
Claire regarded me with distaste. She wasn't a prude, exactly, but she didn't care to discuss such things, either – at least not with a man.
We hadn't rehearsed in a while, and I promised myself I’d really pay attention this time. But something was distracting me. Finally, unable to let go of it, I stopped playing in the middle of a routine.
“What’s going on, Dave?” asked Claire, obviously annoyed. That wasn't going to help matters.
Damn the torpedoes. “Look, I know not to ask Maya about you, but for God’s sake, it’s been five years and you’re still won’t talk about your past with me. What the hell is your deal?”
“None the fuck of your business.”
“Bullshit. I mean, you’re my best friend, we live under the same roof, you’re fucking my cousin – very well, from the sound of it…”
“It is the fuck of my business”
Claire headed for the stairs. “OK, rehearsal over.”
I stood and followed her.
“Why is this such a big deal? You know all of my secrets. I don’t even know how old you are or where you grew up. I don’t know your last fucking name.”
We hit the first floor landing. Claire immediately turned to take the next flight of stairs; retreating to her room, presumably. I followed.
“Drop it, Dave. Seriously, drop it.”
“No. I've given you plenty of time. If you don’t trust me at this point, what kind of friends are we?”
She reached her door, opened it, and stopped, turning to face me. She took a deep breath.
“Look, I understand your curiosity, and I get that it’s because you care about me. But I came here to start over. I don’t discuss old stuff.”
Another wave of frustration hit me. Then I gave it some thought.
That was an admission, you idiot. She’s running from her past. It’s not much, but it’s more than she’s ever told you before. That probably wasn't easy for her. And it’s enough for now.
Claire was gazing at me with wide eyes and a sad smile, pleading with me to get it.
I smiled back, and hugged her, trying to use some of the techniques I’d learned from Maya.
Over her shoulder, I whispered “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it…” she said, disengaging from the embrace. Her expression hardened.
“…or you’re a dead man.”
She slammed the door in my face. The breeze was cool and refreshing.
I retreated to my own room and lay down. Through the wall, I heard what sounded like sobbing.
What the hell was she running from?
I kept my conversations with Claire very casual for the next few days. I didn't want her to feel pressured to reveal any more about her past than she already had.
I wondered if she'd told Joi any more than she had me. It didn't seem to bother Joi that her girlfriend was such a mystery. Maybe she just didn't care; she was a little weird when it came to human relationships. Or maybe she knew more than I did.
I should ask her.
Wait, where the hell is she, I thought. I hadn't seen her in days.
Claire would be back from her job at the food co-op in about half an hour. She'd know what was up with Joi.
In the meantime, I checked Joi's blog and her Facebook page. No entries in the last five days. Not that I'd expected much useful information. Joi didn't post much about her actual life online. Her blog entries were mostly concerned with science fiction movies and TV shows, and how they didn't live up to her exacting geeky expectations. Her Facebook posts were generally links to articles about the same TV shows and movies. She was, in her own way, as inscrutable as Claire.
Joi worked as a user interface designer at a start-up called AppStorm that developed applications for the iPhone. She often disappeared for a few days at a time when the work got intense, working 18 hours a day and sleeping in her cubicle. But she'd been absent almost a week this time, and I'd never seen one of those incidents last so long. I worried that something bad had happened to her, or something was going on between her and Claire that she was escaping from; but no, Claire would have been visibly upset if they'd been feuding or she didn't know where Joi was.