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A madeleine is a Madeline is a madeleine

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The doormat featured the woven image of daisies, and Eleanor stared at it for approximately five minutes before she could bring herself to ring the doorbell.

This is cool, she told herself, this is totally cool, this isn't weird at all, he'll be surprised but delighted to see me, it's cool it's cool it's cool.

She heard the doorbell go ding-dong from inside the apartment.

The door opened, and there stood Chidi, holding a book in his hand. He tried to smile, but he was clearly dismayed.

"Heeeey," he said, his voice unusually high and crackly. "What are you doing here?"

"Hey, Chidi!" Eleanor said sunnily. "Bet you didn't think that I would remember where your old apartment was, huh?"

"Well, I literally pointed it out to you myself, so that part doesn't surprise me," Chidi said. "It's just that I thought that you and...other Eleanor were going to spend the day together. Getting to know each other? One-on-one? Without me?"

"Yeah, yeah," Eleanor said. "We've totally been doing that. In fact, we spent the morning baking cookies. In fact, here are some of those cookies!"

She thrust forward a plastic container, which Chidi regarded as if it might contain live scorpions.

"Oh," he said. "I didn't know you baked, Eleanor."

"I do not," Eleanor said, the cheeriness of her tone only intensifying. "I mean, I make pretty good nachos, and that involves an oven, so it's kind of like baking, but not really, I guess." She took a deep breath. "But Real Eleanor wanted to bake cookies to bring to everyone in the neighborhood, so that's what we've been doing. We split up the deliveries. Well, we 'split up' the deliveries, but I thought Real Eleanor should get the privilege of making most of them, because she's the one who needs to meet everyone and all." Eleanor shrugged modestly. "It was a real self-sacrificing move on my part."

"Oh," Chidi said, and he finally shifted his book in order to accept the plastic container. "Why...why is there a clown on the lid?"

They regarded the clown printed on the lid of the container. He had red hair and a red ball-nose, and his gaze could only be described as burning.

"You know that weird corner drawer in my kitchen that we couldn't figure out how to open?" Eleanor asked. "Turns out, Real Eleanor knew how to open it. Turns out that it's full of Tupperware. Clown-themed Tupperware. Which we are now dispersing throughout the neighborhood. Because Real Eleanor wants to spread the cheer, and I want to weaken its evil power."

"Well," Chidi said, "that is...very kind. Thank you very much. And give my thanks to Real Eleanor, too. "

"Yep," Eleanor said. "Yep yep yep." She thrust her hands into her jean pockets and smiled at him expectantly.

"Well," Chidi said, a little desperately, "I don't want to keep you."

"No worries," Eleanor sang. "You're my last cookie delivery!"

Ten seconds passed, and Eleanor did not break eye contact.

"Okay," Chidi finally said, slumping a little. "Would you like to...come in for a minute, Eleanor?"

"Yes," Eleanor said, and then she coughed and said, "I mean, sure, I think I can spare a couple of minutes to see your old digs." She rubbed her hands together briskly. "You know, I've never been in this apartment before."

"Yes," Chidi said flatly. "I know." He stepped aside to let her in.

"Is it still your apartment?" Eleanor asked. "I thought you moved out when you started living in my guest room?"

"Yes," Chidi said as he shut the door. "But property-ownership is, uh, highly flexible here. I think we can occupy any structure that we want. And so, while we're hosting other Eleanor and the house is so full, I asked Janet if I could move back in, since no one else was living here."

"And Janet said you could?"

"Well," Chidi said, "Janet seemed confused by the question, but she seems confused by a lot of questions these days. But she didn't tell me that I couldn't move back in." He frowned down at the clown container in his hands. "Um. Would you like anything to...drink?"

"Sure," Eleanor drawled. "You got any alcohol? Ha ha, just kidding, I'd love some water!"

"I'll get you a glass," Chidi said.

He continued on into the apartment while Eleanor, remaining in the hallway, peered at the decorative ceramic tiles hanging on the walls. They appeared to depict various kinds of fruit.

"Hey," she shouted. "Are you a shoes-off or a shoe-on kind of guy?"

"Uh," she heard him shout back. "I don't really care?"

"Shoes on, then," Eleanor muttered to herself as she shuffled through the hallway and into the living room.

As she had suspected, Chidi's living room looked like it had been decorated by a professor. There were dark wooden bookcases lined with thick leather-bound books. One of the shelves held tiny succulents in tiny pots; another shelf featured an abstract ebony sculpture that curved and twisted upward. There were rugs underfoot with spiraling geometric figures in red and black. There was low-key lighting everywhere emanating from no discernible source. There were two overstuffed armchairs and one sofa upholstered in dark red fabric. There was a hulking desk in a corner. There were some paintings hanging on the wall: sketchily distorted humans and what appeared to be a scroll filled with Japanese writing and one painting of a gladiolus depicted with thick splotches of pink.

Eleanor shuddered and continued into the kitchen.

Chidi's kitchen featured dark-tiled floors and moss-green backsplashes and cabinets that climbed to the ceiling. It featured a row of neatly folded dishcloths hanging on the edge of the oven handle; one of the dishcloths was printed with the image of a rooster with a pop-eyed expression. The kitchen also featured Chidi, who was standing and staring at the plastic clown container that he had placed on the counter top. At Eleanor's entrance, he gave a start and flung open his cabinets. "Here," he said. "A glass! Where is a glass?"

"I'd take a mug, too," Eleanor said, trying to smile. "Or a jelly bottle?"

Chidi pulled a tumbler from the cabinet and gave her a blank look. "Why would I give you a jelly bottle?"

"Oh, you know," Eleanor said. "You'd buy some jelly and, oh look, it has Looney Tunes characters on the side? Or whatever? And after you had made a bunch of peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and run out of jelly, you'd wash it and then you'd have a brand new drinking glass!"

Chidi turned off the faucet and handed her the glass of water. "No," he said vaguely. "I guess...my family didn't do that when I was a child..."

"Yeah, sure," she said, regarding the glass in her hand. It had abstract patterns frostily etched into its side. It looked very grown-up and tasteful. "I guess you guys had...real glasses and stuff."

Chidi shrugged. "Well." And for a horrifying moment, Eleanor thought he was just going to leave it at that, and that he was feeling pity for her -- poor little Eleanor, with her deadbeat parents and her scummy little childhood with washed-out jelly bottles for glasses -- but then he spoke again. "My grandmother...I remember that there was a little cake she would make? She would use little yogurt containers to measure and make it. You know? The little yogurt containers that look like this?" And he made a gesture with his hands, as if he were molding a tiny bell out of the air.

"Like...Yoplait?" Eleanor said, squinting at his hands.

Chidi made a face. "No, the yogurt that came in little glass containers. You'd buy it in fancy supermarkets. And my grandmother would collect the jars, because she said they were the perfect size for measuring out things, like those cakes she'd make." He absently leaned against the counter, and Eleanor found herself intently watching his mouth, which was curling at its bowed-down corners into a smile. "I remember, the first time I was in Paris, and I was standing in a terrible little train-station supermarket, and there was a full refrigerated case of little yogurt jars, and I felt the most ridiculous, most powerful wave of homesickness, just because I was reminded of my grandmother and her shelf of little glass jars. It was like my very own madeleine."

"Sure," Eleanor said, after a pause. "The zoo, man. And that appendicitis scar."

Chidi stared at her. "What?"

Eleanor stared back at him. "You know. Madeline. And childhood. And memories. You know? The children's book? In an old house in Paris covered in roses lived twelve little girls with straight noses? Or something like that?"

"Oh," Chidi said. "I meant...I meant the little cookie, you know? The writer Proust wrote about how eating a little madeleine brought back his childhood memories."

"Oh, yeah, duh," Eleanor said. "Of course. Proust. Those cookies! They're just like how thinking of Madeline and her scar brings back all of my childhood memories."

"Right," Chidi said, "of course."

It abruptly occurred to Eleanor that he was waiting for her to leave.

"Hey," she said, gesturing at the clown container, "you should try a cookie."

After a pause, Chidi asked, in a flat, robotic voice, "Well, Eleanor, what kind of cookies did you guys make?"

"Real Eleanor made a ton of snickerdoodles."

"Oh?" Chidi said. "I love snickerdoodles."

"Well, you didn't get any," Eleanor said. "Because I brought you the cookies that I made."

"Oh. What kind of cookies did you make, Eleanor?"

Eleanor shrugged. "I mean, they have sugar and butter and flour and eggs? They're those kind of cookies."

"Oh," Chidi said again.

"And they're maybe a little burned," Eleanor added.

"You're not really selling these cookies to me, Eleanor."

"They're gonna be delicious, Cheedster. Trust me."

"Well," Chidi said. "Thank you for the cookies, Eleanor. I wouldn't want to keep you."

"Hey, are you trying to get rid of me?" Eleanor said, still smiling.

"Yes," Chidi said, not smiling. "You're supposed to be spending today with Real Eleanor, not me."

Eleanor felt as if a red veil had dropped across her vision, and her inner monologue ran approximately thusly: Man alive, she had been so good all day, and also she had been spending the entire day with Real Eleanor at close quarters, and that much goodness at such proximity was exhausting. So she had gone to visit Chidi, her one moment of tranquility all day, her one little escape valve, the one guy who would rub her belly (metaphorically) and call her a good girl (literally), the one person who was on her team, the one person who would be glad to hang with her for an hour or maybe two or, let's be real, maybe three.

But of course he didn't want to hang with her. Of course he didn't.

What she wanted to say was: Fork making nice with Real Eleanor and fork having to try so hard to be good because I'm terrified of what would happen if I'm not good and fork you, Chidi, after I brought you cookies and everything.

What she actually said was: "You know, you don't have to be such an ash hole all the time." Then she slammed the glass down on his counter top.

She meant only to make a ringing and defiant sound as she stormed off, but she miscalculated the degree of force necessary, and so instead the glass politely shattered at its base into half a dozen pieces.

"Motherforker!" Eleanor shrieked, holding a ring of wet broken glass.

Chidi drew in his breath. "Eleanor--" he started.

"Oh, shirt, I think I'm bleeding," she said.

"Janet!" Chidi called. "Janet!"

There was no response.

"Why is there even bleeding in the Good Place?" Eleanor said, staring at the red spot blossoming on the bottom edge of her palm. "There shouldn't be bleeding, right?"

"Janet?" Chidi tried for the last time, and then he sighed and grabbed the rooster dishcloth hanging off the edge of his oven handle. "Here, let me see." He gently plucked the still-intact half of the glass from Eleanor's hand and threw it in his trashcan. "Is there any glass still in the wound?"

"I don't know, man," Eleanor sniffled.

"I don't think so," Chidi said, bending his head over her hand. "It looks like it broke in pretty big pieces. Here, we'll just use this to stop the bleeding," he said as he started to wind the rooster dishcloth around her palm.

"Why is there even pain here?" Eleanor asked.

"I don't know," Chidi said. "They turned off a lot of filters when the Bad Place crew was here. Maybe that was one of them. Are you really in that much pain, Eleanor?"

"No," Eleanor wailed. "I'm just really upset right now, and this is the final straw!"

Chidi sighed as he knotted the dishcloth loosely around her hand, but all he said was, "I think you should hold your hand over your head?"

"How do you know this stuff?" Eleanor asked. "Were you a Boy Scout?"

"I'm not sure what that is, but I think it's a U.S. youth organization? In which case, as you might be able to guess, I was not." Chidi took a step back and regarded her. "It's just standard first-aid knowledge. You should keep wounds elevated above your heart. Unfortunately, I don't have an adhesive bandage or anything for you." His mouth twisted. "I assume infection is impossible here, but..."

"Ugh," Eleanor said. "If I develop gangrene, I don't want them to amputate the limb. I just want to become a full zombie."

"I don't think that's how gangrene works."

Eleanor shrugged. "Hey, not according to a History Channel documentary I watched." She gingerly rested her hand against the top of her head and stared down at the twinkling pieces of broken glass on the floor. "Hey...I'm, um, sorry. But I'm pretty sure that glass was at least a little bit defective? I mean, it was just a little tap!"

Chidi said nothing. He was staring down at his floor, and Eleanor could not see his face.

Eleanor winced and, somewhat desperately, called, "Janet? Janet, we need your cleaning help. Hey, Janet?"

There was no response.

"What happened to Janet?"

"I don't know," Chidi said. "Maybe she's...busy?"

"Maybe somebody murdered her again," Eleanor said.

Chidi flinched. "That's not kind, Eleanor."

"Hey," Eleanor exclaimed, "it's just a guess! And good news, Sherlock! If she got murdered while you were talking to me, you've got an airtight alibi."

"Do I?" Chidi asked. "I feel as if our level of credibility in the neighborhood is not super high right now."

"Oh man, do you think someone has murdered Janet and is trying to frame us?" Eleanor asked. "Can they even do that? After we already murdered her? Isn't that, like, that movie with Ashley Judd and that grizzled dude with all the names?"

"I don't know the movie," Chidi said. "But I feel as if the legal phrase you'e searching for is 'double jeopardy'?"

"Yes," Eleanor said. "Definitely ranks among the top five films of Ashley Judd's filmography."

"At any rate, Janet, who I hope is still alive, does not appear to be coming," Chidi said. "But luckily I have a broom in the utility closet."

"You have a broom?" Eleanor asked as she trailed him through the living room. "You have a utility closet?"

"Yes," Chidi said briefly. "The apartment came with them."

Eleanor glanced at the living room. "Well, yeah, but that's because you must have wanted them. Because everybody's home is just the way they wanted it. So you must have wanted cleaning supplies? In the afterlife? Where you just need to snap your fingers, and your dishes are washed?"

Chidi pulled the broom from the closet, shut the door, and gave her a level look. "For the last time, I've been washing your dishes."

"Yeah? Well, they got washed this morning, and you weren't around, so your hypothesis is flawed, professor."

"Then that probably means that Real Eleanor washed them," Chidi said as he headed back into the kitchen.

"Oh," Eleanor said, shoulders slumping. "Rats."

Chidi crouched down and began delicately sweeping the broken glass into a dustpan. "So. How is that whole thing working out? You and Real Eleanor, alone together, in the house?"

"Good," Eleanor said, leaning against the door frame. "Great, even! I mean, it has only been twenty-four hours, but so far, everything is awesome. Last night we braided each other's hair and had a pillow fight and watched, like, a million episodes of Scandal."

"Ah," Chidi said.

"Well, maybe we didn't do exactly that," she amended. "Instead, she told me stories about helping child soldiers, and I told her stories about my awesome nacho-making tricks, and then I told her that she should sleep in the main bedroom, but then she said, Oh no, I couldn't do that, Eleanor, and then I tried to force her to do it by going to sleep on the couch first, but then I found out that she had outwitted me and slept on the floor."

"Hmm," Chidi said, shaking the dustpan clear in the trashcan.

"I think tonight I'm gonna have to get creative," Eleanor sighed. "Maybe sleep on the roof?"

"I don't think that's a good idea."

"And then this morning, she wanted to meet all her new neighbors, so I suggested that we make Janet make cookies for us to bring them, but then Real-Eleanor said, Oh no, we should make them ourselves, because it is the thought that counts. So then we baked cookies."

Chidi glanced at her. "Did you have fun?"

"Eh."

"She is a very nice person, Eleanor."

"I know, man! But since when was 'nice' a requirement for fun? You know, I've had a lot of fun with not-very-nice people, and a lot of boring times with nice people. You do the math."

"You should get back to her, Eleanor. Now that you've delivered your cookies. And broken my dishware."

Eleanor sighed. "Fiiiiine."

Holding her head high (and her rooster-dishcloth-wrapped hand higher), Eleanor marched to the front door.

Just as her uninjured hand reached the knob, a loud voice began echoing through the air.

"Attention, Residents! This is Michael! There's been a slight disturbance in the neighborhood -- but it is definitely not another sinkhole -- and so we're asking all residents to stay indoors and remain where they are for the next two hours. Also, due to the stress on the system, Janet will not be available for an indeterminate amount of time. But definitely do not worry! Because it's definitely not another sinkhole!"

The voice faded.

Eleanor withdrew her hand and turned to look at Chidi.

"So, buddy. Got any board games?"

 

 

[AN HOUR LATER]

"Not even Pictionary, man?"

"No," Chidi said. He was seated in one of the leather-backed armchairs and resolutely reading his book.

"Not even Battleship?" Eleanor was lying on the floor, occasionally drumming the heels of her feet against the ground. Her hand had stopped bleeding, but she had not removed the rooster dishcloth yet. It trailed her hand like a sad flag as she restlessly ran her fingers along the edge of the rug.

"I don't know what that is, but no," Chidi said, turning a page. "I believe there might be a chess set in one of these trunks."

"What do you do for fun in this place, anyway?"

Chidi raised one eyebrow at her. "You see all those books? I read them. I enjoy reading. As you know, because you constantly mock me for it." He gestured toward his bookshelves. "And I was planning to spend today doing nothing but reading."

"Ughhhhhh," Eleanor said. "No wonder you died a virgin."

"I did not," Chidi said in a long-suffering tone. "I had several girlfriends, Eleanor, and several sexual partners."

"Yeah?" She squinted at him. "Gimme a number."

Chidi stared at her. "I'm not going to give you a number. I'm not going to quantify my intimate relationships with other human beings."

"Must be a pretty low number, then," Eleanor said to the rooster dishcloth around her hand. "I'm guessing 'two.'"

"It was more than two," Chidi said instantly. "Not that it matters."

"Okay, maybe it was 'three,'" Eleanor, scrunching up her nose at the dishcloth, which she waggled in response. "Maybe it was 'two and a half'?"

"What? What would two and a half even mean, in this context? Wait, I don't--"

"Clothes on, lights on, and you can't do anything too freaky because your camp counselor is asleep in the bottom bunk," Eleanor said instantly. "That's a half, right there."

Michael's voice suddenly boomed through the apartment. "Residents!"

Eleanor swung herself up. "Hot dog! Our imprisonment is finally over!"

"Residents," said Michael's voice. "You should definitely not worry, and the second sinkhole is definitely not filling with lava. Everything is fine! But we're going to have everyone shelter in place for the next twelve to twenty-four hours! Do not go outside! If you step outside, there is a low but non-zero chance that you may be instantly vaporized!"

Chidi dropped the book into his lap. "Motherforker," he sighed.

"Hey, Chidi. Do you have any alcohol?"

Chidi grimaced. "Yeah. Do you want red or white wine?"

"Hey," Eleanor said. "Why not both, my friend?"

 

 

[AN HOUR LATER]

"Eleanor!"

A distant noise. "What?" called the voice of Eleanor, sounding vaguely guilty.

"What are you up to? It's been quiet for too long. And now I'm worried."

Eleanor appeared in the hallway. "What do you mean? I just went to the, you know, the bathroom."

"Uh huh," Chidi said.

"I might have also checked out your bedroom."

"Eleanor!"

"What?" Eleanor exclaimed. "It's okay for you to know my entire house, backwards to front, but I'm not even allowed to do a little snooping?" She came into the room and flung herself dramatically on the sofa. "Like you've never snooped through my house? Like you've never gone through my medicine cabinet?

"Eleanor, you don't have a medicine cabinet."

"Ah ha," Eleanor said, pointing at him with her rooster-dishcloth hand. "That was a trick question, Columbo! I know there's not a medicine cabinet, but if you know there's not a medicine cabinet, then you must have checked for one."

Chidi frowned. "Isn't...isn't Columbo the detective...?"

"Not important." Eleanor flapped the rooster dishcloth dismissively. "What's important is that you have a twin-sized bed in that depressing monk bedroom. What's up with that? What kind of message is that to send into the universe?"

"Once again, Eleanor, everything in this house is what it was like when I moved in," Chidi said. "Utility closet. Broom. Twin bed."

"Ugh," Eleanor said. "But don't you see? That means that you wanted all that stuff. That means it's what makes you happy."

"Yes, it does," Chidi said. "It is what makes me happy. Order, and cleanliness, and routine, and a system."

Eleanor squinted at him. "How much order does a twin bed represent?"

"Well," Chidi said, "it, uh, it takes half as long to make a twin bed as it does to make a bigger bed? So it's definitely more efficient?"

"Psshhhhhhh," Eleanor said to the rooster dishcloth. "It's a good thing that you've got my self-improvement as a hobby. Otherwise, you'd just be spending eternity making your bed and reading dusty books from dead guys."

"You know, Eleanor, theoretically it could be argued that, since I've been devoting every waking hour to your self-improvement, I've been unable to pursue my own interests and strive toward my own self-fulfillment."

"Forking hello, Chidi, I gave you those get-out-of-jail-free cards, didn't I? Say the word, Cheederino! I'll row you right out to that lake right now!"

"Oh, god, no, once was enough." Chidi gave a full-body shudder.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Eleanor said, subsiding into the sofa. "Anyway, I dunno, man. I think that I just make you appreciate your boring things more. I'm, like, the pearl in your shell."

"I think you mean that you're the grit that produces the pearl--"

"Whatever! But hey, what do I know? What can I say about this place, which, by the way, looks it was designed by a living leather elbow-patch wearing its own jacket with leather elbow-patches--"

"That doesn't even make any sense!"

"--when it's not like I even got the chance to see the house that my subconscious wanted, right? I just got somebody else's insane clown nook."

Chidi gave a long sigh. "Well, what would your house look like, if you could have chosen it?"

"Me?" Eleanor slid further down into the sofa and regarded Chidi's living room meditatively.

"There," she said, pointing at his bookcases, "I'd have a big-screen television. Like, big. Big enough so that I could see the pores on Kim Kardashian's face. And here I would have an absolutely sick glass coffee-table, only it wouldn't just be glass, it would be an aquarium, and there would be tropical fishes swimming through it. And the color scheme would be white and yellow, but here's the thing: all the yellow stuff would be pure gold, and all the white stuff would be covered in mink fur."

"Subtle," Chidi said.

"And then I'd make the kitchen into the jacuzzi room, because why do I need a kitchen? I just need a mini-fridge big enough to hold my bottles of Perrier, because I would be going out to da club to eat for every meal."

Chidi snorted. "How would you make your famous nachos, though?"

Eleanor paused. "Oooh. Good point. Do you think I could have a combination jacuzzi slash oven?"

All of sudden, Michael's voice boomed through the apartment. "Residents! There is still no cause for alarm, and there are certainly not lava creatures now swimming in the sinkhole, but we're going to have to ask everyone to remain where they are! But good news! For the next two minutes, Janet will be able to assist you with your requests!"

Chidi and Eleanor both sat bolt upright.

"Janet!"

"Janet!"

Janet appeared. She smiled at them vaguely. "How may I assist you in the next minute and fifty-five seconds?"

"Janet, can I have a first-aid kit," Chidi said. "With adhesive bandages and antibacterial cream?"

"Certainly," Janet sang. Out of thin air, she produced a small blue box with a red cross on its lid.

"Janet," Eleanor said, clutching at her skirt, "can I have the game Battleship?"

"Um," Janet said. "Certainly. Just one question. What is a battle? And what is a ship?"

"It's a board game," Eleanor said.

"Great," Janet said. "Great. One more question: what is a board game?"

"You're wasting time," Chidi said as he rifled through the first-aid kit.

Eleanor stuck her tongue out at him. "Janet, what about Monopoly? Clue? The Game of Life?"

"Um," Janet said.

"Hungry Hungry Hippos? Candyland?!?"

"I don't think this is going to successfully produce a game for you," Chidi said as he crouched next to the sofa and took Eleanor's bandaged hand in his own. "And Janet, could you do another thing? Could you please let the other Eleanor Shellstrop know that Eleanor here is safe and sound? In case she's worried?"

"Of course," Janet chirped.

Eleanor did not break eye-contact with Janet as Chidi unwrapped her hand. "Taboo? Fork, Scrabble? Because I am desperate enough to play Scrabble, Janet. And I hate Scrabble."

"I don't know any of those words," Janet said. "But good news! Real Eleanor reports that she is very glad to hear that Eleanor is okay, and she was worried about Eleanor, and she is touched that Eleanor was worried that Real Eleanor was worried about Eleanor, and that she is safe and secure at Gunnar's home."

"Thank you, Janet," Chidi said as he peeled open a Band-Aid and pressed it against the red line on the bottom of Eleanor's hand.

"Is there maybe something else I can get you?" Janet asked.

"Fine," Eleanor said. "I want vodka, rum, gin, tequila. Cognac. Brandy." She peered up at Janet. "All this nerd has is fancy French wine, but I want hard liquor, Janet. Do you know what that is?"

"Oh, yes," Janet said with visible relief. "That's what everyone in the neighborhood is asking for." 

 

 

 

[THIRTY MINUTES LATER]

"Hey, Chidi, come on, get your head in the game."

"Uh," Chidi said. "Does that mean...two words? First word? One syllable?"

Eleanor nodded her head emphatically.

They had pushed one of the armchairs to the side, and now Eleanor was standing in the cleared space. Chidi, doing his best to look thoughtful and not perplexed, sat before her on the sofa.

Eleanor held a Cuba Libre in her hand, and Chidi balanced a glass of red wine on his knee, because right now they were pacing themselves.

Eleanor tapped her ear.

"Um...sounds like?"

Eleanor dropped to her knees and looked avidly at Chidi over the arm of the sofa.

"Are you...are you kneeling?"

Eleanor showed him her thumb and pointer finger, and then squeezed them together.

"Shorter? Um...kneel?"

Eleanor nodded, and then tapped her ear again.

"Sounds like? Um..." Chidi frowned at her. "I don't think this is going to work the way you think it will. Since this is all happening in French for me?"

"You're a super-nerd academic, and you've already told me about that post-doc you did in Australia," Eleanor hissed. "Don't pretend you can't do some English word-play if you have to."

"Oh, gosh, English is the worst for rhyming words. Fine." Chidi made a face. "Um. Teal? Keel? Eel? Real?"

Eleanor nodded and then sprang to her feet.

"Okay, next word, three syllables..." Chidi made a face. "Eleanor, is the answer to your charade 'Real Eleanor?'"

"Ah, man! You didn't even let me act out the 'Eleanor' part!"

"What were you going to do?"

"I was just going to point at myself and wink suggestively," Eleanor said. "No, wait, that's something Fake Eleanor would do. Maybe I was going to point at myself and...not wink suggestively?"

"And I would be able to notice the absence of a wink?"

"Yes, because not-winking would be noticiably out-of-character for me," Eleanor said. "Also, I would also not be making double thumbs-up at you. That would be your second clue."

"I find it interesting that you conceive of Real Eleanor as a series of non-actions," Chidi said.

Eleanor sank back behind the sofa arm. "Oh? You find that interesting?"

"I can't help but think that, if you had actually managed to spend some quality time with Real Eleanor today, you'd have noticed some positive, real, concrete things about her. And she'd no longer be a blank and empty slate to you, but an actual person, with actual characteristics."

"Well, we're not all getting ready to write her a sonnet, Chidi. How do you think I should act out Real Eleanor?"

"I think you should stop thinking of her as a reflection of yourself," Chidi said. He took a deep breath. "I think we all should stop thinking that. We should stop using this 'real' and 'fake' distinction."

"It is pretty convenient."

"Yeah, but it's not good for either of you."

Eleanor rested her head against the sofa arm. "I guess one of us needs a nickname. But it's going to be hard to do that. I spent my entire life resisting a nickname, despite the best efforts of one boss who wanted to call me 'Nellie.' I like being Eleanor. I don't know who I would be if I wasn't Eleanor."

"If William Shakespeare were here--"

"Oh, I hate this anecdote already."

"--he would tell you that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," Chidi said with a smile.

Eleanor pursed her lips. "Isn't that from that movie where Leo and Claire Danes are teenage lovers who murder each other?"

"I don't...I think that sounds like a very unconventional staging of Romeo and Juliet, Eleanor."

"I'm pretty sure that's how it goes," Eleanor said, "but I did fall asleep during a lot of that movie. But wait, would we think a rose smelled awesome if we called it something else? What if we called it a 'dirty-sock-flower?'"

"Well, that is a question that philosophers have argued about for thousands of years. What is in a name? Is, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a rose a rose? Is a rose a rose a rose? Is Eleanor an Eleanor? Or can she be something else?"

Eleanor stared wide-eyed at Chidi. "What do you think?"

Chidi, staring down at his wine glass, said nothing for a while. Then he said, "I think we should start drinking more." 

 

 

 

[TWO HOURS LATER]

"Well, these cookies are...something, Eleanor." 

They were standing in the kitchen. They had opened up the plastic container and carefully placed the lid with the clown so that he was not facing them or watching them.

They had gone through about half a bottle of gin.

"Yeah, they're pretty terrible," Eleanor said.

"Noooo," Chidi said, unconvincingly. "They're just...unconventional. Avant-garde! I mean, the way in which the bottom part of the cookie is blackened, but the top part is still kind of uncooked....well, it's a bold cookie experiment. Innovative."

Eleanor snorted. "Whatever, man. If we get a little bit drunker, then they're going to be amazing. Because you know what they say: the best spice is...gin."

"Pretty sure that's not how that saying goes," Chidi said.

"Besides," Eleanor said. "These are going to be, like, those cookies you were talking about. And whenever you eat a terrible cookie in the future, you're going to think about this moment, man! Just like that prudish guy and his mandolin cookies!"

"Proust," Chidi said. "Madeleine."

Eleanor gasped and clutched his shoulder. "Like that book with the girl and the lion?"

"No," Chidi said. "We've already discussed this. And...what's a lion doing in this children's book?"

"Being amazing," Eleanor said. "Every time I see a lion, I think about Madeline's lion. Although, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm thinking it might have actually been a tiger."

"So what you're saying," Chidi said with a suspicious degree of gravity in his voice, "is that this Madeline is your madeleine."

"Ughh," Eleanor moaned, "I'm not drunk enough yet for puns." She leaned unsteadily against the refrigerator. "In revenge, I'm going to turn that utility closet into my second jacuzzi room."

"How exactly did we get from 'coming up with your dream house' to 'vengefully making my old apartment into your dream house'?"

Eleanor peered at him. "Hey, man, I thought you had effectively moved out of here. Why do you care what happens to it?" She crossed her arms across her chest. "Or are you planning to move back here?"

"No," Chidi said. "Like I said, it's just a temporary thing, but since it was still empty, and since I wanted to give you and Real Eleanor some...space to get to know one another..."

"Uh huh," Eleanor said. "Right."

Chidi stared at her. "Eleanor. Look. I'm not going anywhere."

Eleanor shrugged. "You can if you want, man. There's no law that says you have to sleep in our guest bedroom."

"No, I mean more than that," Chidi said. "I'm not going anywhere. And, frankly, sometimes it's a little tiring that you don't seem to believe that, and that you need constant assurance from me that I'm still your friend. But I get it. I get that you've been through a lot, and I get that maybe you've been left a lot, and I get that you don't really expect people to stick around. But I'm sticking around. I've made a commitment to you, and I'm going to see it through."

Eleanor sighed and rubbed her back disconsolately against the surface of the fridge. "I don't want you to be my friend because you feel obligated."

"Why not?" Chidi said. "Obligations are at the basic heart of human relationships. I'm obligated to you. You're obligated to me. Hurray for obligations!"

Eleanor smiled, despite her best efforts to look stern. "Do you just like saying the word 'obligations,' Chidi?"

"Actually when you say it that many times, the word starts to lose all meaning and just becomes a series of weird vowel sounds."

"Chidi," Eleanor said, "I think we might finally be drunk enough to appreciate these cookies."

Chidi took an experimental bite. "Eleanor, I think you might be right." 

   

 

 

[TWO HOURS LATER]

"Have you ever actually played chess before, Eleanor?" 

"Hey," Eleanor said, straightening indignantly. "Maybe I'm just trying to lure you into a false sense of security, man. Maybe I'm like a chess hustler, and once we've got some money on the line, my king is going to totally take out your infantry."

They were seated cross-legged on the floor of the living room. A chessboard lay between them. They had started on the tequila.

"Well, first of all, using your king to take out my pawns would be an inadvisable chess strategy," Chidi said. "Secondly, we live in an afterlife with a post-scarcity economy, so there is no money to bet."

"Do I detect a note of fear in your voice?"

"No," Chidi said as he took her second bishop with his rook.

"Then you won't mind if we make things interesting," Eleanor said. She had tied the folded rooster dishcloth around her forehead so that it looked like a particularly demented crown.

"What would we bet?" Chidi asked.

Eleanor frowned in the distance. "Our...souls?"

"No," Chidi said immediately. "What is a soul? And what would I do with your soul? And have you ever heard a story of someone trading their soul that had a happy ending?"

"There's a first time for everything," Eleanor said. "And I just want you to know, Chidi, that I would treat your soul very respectfully. I'd take it out for walks. I'd make sure that it got lots of sunlight. And if I was ever gonna be banging someone, I'd turn your soul around to face the corner, so it wouldn't see anything X-rated."

"What kindness," Chidi said. "What do you exactly imagine when you imagine someone's soul, Eleanor?"

"Like, a certificate? With that little clip-art border? Like you get when you finish elementary school." With great deliberation, Eleanor moved her queen one space forward. "Only, instead of it saying CHIDI, PERFECT ATTENDANCE AND NUMBER ONE NERD, it would say CHIDI'S SOUL."

"I'm not betting you my soul, Eleanor."

"Fine," Eleanor said. "Then bet your apartment."

Chidi captured Eleanor's last knight. "You don't really want this apartment, Eleanor. You've been making fun of this apartment for hours. You said it was decorated by the personification of a leather elbow-patch."

"Oh, yeah." Eleanor smiled nostalgically. "Classic."

"Anyway, I don't want your soul, Eleanor."

"Are you saying my soul is worthless to you?" Eleanor glowered at him. "How dare you, sir. There are people who would have killed to have my soul."

"No doubt," Chidi said. "But I prefer to have you with your soul intact."

"Oh man," Eleanor said brightly, "that is, like, the nicest thing you've ever said to me, Chidi. Just for that, I'm gonna let you win this game!"

"What a concession," Chidi muttered as he captured her king.

 

 

[TWO HOURS LATER]

"So, I have, like, a confession, Chidi." 

They were sprawled across opposite armchairs. Several empty bottles were scattered across the rug.

"What is it?" Chidi asked sleepily.

"I didn't just come over here this afternoon to deliver cookies. I had ulterior motives."

"Oh?" Chidi asked vaguely. "What were they?"

"I wanted to scope out this apartment."

Chidi blinked. "Why?"

"In case I needed...needed to find a new place to live."

With some difficulty, Chidi pushed himself upright. "What?"

Eleanor was staring at the ceiling. "Well. That house, it's not really mine, right? It belongs to Real Eleanor, right? And, sure, Real Eleanor is really nice and everything, so she's not going to kick me out, but. I mean. Do I really want to stay there? With all those clowns?"

"But," Chidi said, "I'm there."

"No, no," Eleanor said, misunderstanding him, "I don't think Real Eleanor would want you to leave. You're her soulmate, after all. You nerds can just read books and rake your rock garden together or whatever. But me? I'm not supposed to be there, but if not there, then where?" She gestured vaguely in the air. "But this place is basically empty, right? I mean, you moved out, right?"

"But," Chidi tried again, "I'm there."

Eleanor rolled her eyes. "Yeah, duh, I know. But we're not filming an episode of Three's Company in that place, you know? It would make sense for me to move out."

"Why are you assuming that...that Real Eleanor is going to stay?"

"Oh, come on, that is her dream home, creepy clowns and everything."

"Why would I stay?"

"Puh-leez. You're her soulmate. You're going to stay."

"Am I?"

Eleanor looked over at him curiously. "Are you?"

A long moment ticked by, and then Chidi restlessly said, "But wouldn't it make more sense for me to move out? Since...this was my old apartment?"

"No," Eleanor said, frowning. "You and Real Eleanor should, like, bro down together. Also, come on, man, I can't let you move back into this apartment. It is mega depressing."

"Once again, Eleanor, this apartment reflects my inner being. By its very nature, it satisfies my every desire."

"Then your desires are depressing!" Eleanor writhed irritably on her armchair. "I have to save you from yourself! This place is straight-up terrible, Chidi. This place doesn't reflect you. Maybe it reflects the person you think you should be, but it doesn't reflect you."

"It does, though," Chidi said.

"You forget, Chidi, that I know you. You can't pretend with me." She stretched lazily. "Also, further full confession, I've gotten pretty attached to the idea of installing a coffee table slash aquarium in here, so that's another reason I should have the apartment."

Chidi smiled. "I would be sad to lose the bookcases to a big-screen television."

"Eh," Eleanor said. "We could keep one or two bookshelves. Put them next to the television, because maybe I don't need the biggest television." She made a square with her hands and peered through it. "Maybe I would be happy with a semi-large television."

"And I would be sorry to lose all the artwork," Chidi said.

Eleanor frowned at him. "Would you? Does it hold any sentimental value for you?"

"Sentimental? These are priceless works from international artists, Eleanor."

"Yeah, yeah." She shifted restlessly. "But, like, does it have any meaning for you? Where are your old LEGO toys? Where's your collection of fancy bookmarks? Where's your foot-high model of the Death Star?" Chidi took a deep breath, and Eleanor pointed at him accusingly. "And don't pretend you didn't have any of those things when you were alive. I know you, nerd."

"I never played with LEGOs," Chidi said. "But I may have had a fancy bookmark collection."

"Yeah, exactly," Eleanor said. "Where's the stuff that reminds you of your family? Where's your grandma's fancy yogurt-jar collection?"

Chidi made a face. "I'm not sure I would want her old bottles cluttering up my home."

"That's a lie," Eleanor announced. " You would love to be surrounded by that kind of stuff." She waggled her fingers at him. "You would love to have a million madeleines all around you."

"Well, Eleanor, the thing about memory is that you can carry it with you. No souvenir needed."

"Yeah, but they're nice. You have to admit that they can be nice, Chidi."

"Less nice when you have to dust them."

Eleanor rolled her eyes. "Chidi, up here, you only need to dust if you want to dust, and also I think you do want to dust. You seemed pretty turned on by that utility closet. And after all, you love washing my dirty dishes."

"I do not love it, as I have repeatedly told you," Chidi said. "It is a daily inconvenience."

"Pshhhhh," Eleanor said, and she blew him a kiss.

"Residents!" screamed Michael, and Eleanor gave such a violent start that she rolled onto the floor. "Residents! There is nothing to worry about! Continue to remain indoors! Definitely ignore any flaming creatures that you see flying outside. Everything is definitely still okay, though! Janet will be available to you for the next ninety seconds! Ignore any loud bellowing noises that you hear!"

Chidi frowned vaguely. "Do we need anything?" he asked Eleanor.

Eleanor pushed herself into a sitting position on the floor. "Food, man. All you've got in that kitchen is, like, Raisin Bran and some terrible dried-up cheese."

"That's Parmesan, Eleanor."

Eleanor clapped her hands. "Janet!"

Janet appeared. "How can I help you?"

"Janet, can we have a bag of tortilla chips? And a tub of Velveeta? And some tomatoes and black olives?"

"Oh boy," Chidi said. "Nachos."

"Great nachos," Eleanor said. She gave him a sidelong glance, and then turned back to Janet. "And could you get us some yogurt, Janet? The fancy kind? That comes in a little glass jar?"

 

 

[FORTY MINUTES LATER]

Chidi dubiously regarded the baking sheet undulating with chips and tomatoes and olives and Velveeta. "And..these are nachos? Is this even considered cheese?"

"Shhh," Eleanor said, "don't try and look behind the curtain." She broke off a chunk and stuffed it into her mouth. "Oh, fork, id sill hod. I dink I burred my mouf."

"I'll wait for it to cool," Chidi said sagely.

"Id bedder hod," Eleanor said and swallowed. "Fork, the pain filter must still be off. But hey, a little pain is worth the best nachos ever, man."

The oven timer chimed, and Eleanor clapped her hands together.

"I think you should keep your expectations low," Chidi said as he opened the oven. "I did my grandmother's recipe from memory, and I don't know..."

"Shhh," Eleanor said. "It smells pretty forking good."

Chidi pulled out the loaf pan and set it on the stove top.

"Can we eat it?"

"Eleanor, I know that this may be an unknown concept to you, but it's tradition to allow things from the oven to cool before you consume them."

"Fine. But what are we going to do while we wait?"

 

 

[TEN MINUTES LATER]

"Okay, who would you rather: Plato or...or that guy with the syphilis?" 

"Nietzsche?"

"Yeah, him."

"Well, I don't think I'd choose either--"

"Not an option, Chidi. You must choose! The rules of 'would you rather' are simple and merciless!"

"Okay, okay! I choose, uh, Plato. Due to the lack of syphilis. But actually, there's some evidence to suggest that he may not have had syphilis--"

"Hey, hey, no take-backs, Chidi. You made your bed, and now you've got to bang Plato in it." 

"I like to think that Plato would have been a considerate lover," Chidi said. 

They were both seated cross-legged on the living-room rug. Between them lay two shot glasses and a bottle of whipped-cream-flavored vodka.

"Okay," Eleanor said. "Now we both take a shot, and you go."

"Why do we have to drink this stuff?" Chidi asked. "It is truly disgusting."

"Chidi! The rules. And also, we already killed all the non-flavored vodka. Now, who would I rather?"

"Um. Who would you rather...uh....Gunnar or Antonio?"

Eleanor raised her eyebrow. "Why them?"

"Well, I don't know, I couldn't think of anyone." Chidi shrugged helplessly. "Well, actually, that's not true. My first thought was Michael and Jason, but I couldn't bring myself--"

"Oh, that one is easy," Eleanor said scornfully. "But Gunnar or Antonio? That is a hard choice. They're both kind of annoying? In the same way?"

"Wait," Chidi said. "Why is 'Michael or Jason' the easy choice? Which one...which would you choose...?"

"Chidi, Chidi, Chidi. The rules of 'would you rather' are simple and merciless, and you can't go back on your choice. It's Gunnar or Antonio, and I choose...Gunnar."

"Why Gunnar?"

"I dunno," Eleanor said. "He's got a good name, though. Okay, shot time."

They dutifully downed another round of terrible vodka shots.

"All right," Chidi said. "Your turn again."

"You're just eager to get my round over with so that you can ask me 'Michael or Jason,' you filthy creature."

"The rules of 'would you rather' are simple and merciless, Eleanor."

"Yeah, yeah." Eleanor leaned back against the bottom of the sofa and gave Chidi a long look. "Okay. Who would you rather? Real Eleanor? Or me?"

Panic flashed across Chidi's face. "What?"

"It's a simple question, Chidi."

"I don't think--"

"The rules, Chidi."

"You can't--"

"Simple and merciless, Chidi."

"I don't know," Chidi burst out. "I don't know."

Eleanor sat there, staring down at the rug. "Okay," she said at last.

"Eleanor--"

"No, it's okay," Eleanor said as she pushed herself to her feet. "You're right, this game is dumb. Come on, I think that cake is probably ready to be eaten."

He followed her into the kitchen. "Eleanor."

She was poking at the cake with a fork. "Do you want to put it on a plate, or should we just eat it out of the pan like animals, because--"

"Eleanor. Look at me."

She scooped out a forkful of dense cake before she looked at him.

"You realize that...that you and Real Eleanor represent a genuine ethical conundrum for me, right? Regarding whom I pick? Regarding whom I...I love?"

Eleanor snorted. "Who said anything about love, Chidi? 'Would you rather' is a question of lust, or maybe disgust. It's not about love. Nobody said anything about love."

"No, Eleanor, come on. You know what you're really asking me. It's not about lust. It's about love, it's about happiness, it's about the future we envision for ourselves."

Eleanor thrust the forkful of cake into her mouth and began chewing savagely.

"I...I care a lot about you, Eleanor. We're friends, right? In fact, I think you might be the best friend I've ever had."

Eleanor kept chewing balefully.

"But, on the other hand, there's my actual predestined soulmate. Chosen by the universe to be my perfect match. And not only that, but I'm her perfect match. And so not only does she guarantee me happiness, but I also guarantee her happiness. So I also have an obligation to her."

Eleanor swallowed. "When you put it like that, it doesn't seem like much of a choice."

"But it's still a choice," Chidi said. "It's still a choice. And it's a hard choice, one way or the other."

Eleanor frowned. "Is that why you wanted Real Eleanor and me to hang out today? Were you hoping that one of us would eliminate the other? Because there can be only one Eleanor Shellstrop? Like in Highlander?"

"No!" Chidi cried. "I just thought that you and she might...come to an agreement. About things. You know?"

Eleanor stared at him. "Thus sparing you the decision, Chidi?"

"I...yes."

Eleanor ate another forkful of cake. "This is pretty good, by the way. You should have some."

"Eleanor."

"Yeah, well, okay. I get it. You're in a bind. Because you want to be a nice guy. Because you want to make everyone happy. Well, guess what, buster? That's not gonna happen. You're gonna have to make a choice, and you're gonna have to hurt somebody. Maybe it's gonna be me!" Eleanor licked the tines of the fork. "Maybe it's gonna be Real Eleanor. But still, a choice is gonna get made. And, you know, it's not all about what's going to make me or Real Eleanor happy." She leveled her fork at him as if it was a pointing finger. "Your happiness matters. And there is a certain utility in selfishness. Just ask Nietzsche."

"Have you been reading ahead in the textbook?" Chidi asked.

"A little bit," Eleanor said. "That man has a super-frightening mustache, by the way. And I just want to say, sure, maybe Real Eleanor is perfect. And maybe, if you choose her, your life together is going to be perfect. But I just wanted to say, Chidi, that perfection is not everything. It's a lot of boring order and cleanliness and routine, but is it going to make you happy? Is it going to make your pulse race and your blood fizz and your mmfff ummm fmm," she said through a mouthful of cake.

Chidi stared at her. "Have you...have you already eaten half of my grandmother's cake?"

"Yep! It's super good. Which is why I said that you should have some."

She handed Chidi her fork. He gave her a sidelong glance as he stepped close to her at the oven, and she gave him a small smile, and his fork clanged fruitlessly against the edge of the pan before he looked down long enough to shovel out a fragment of moist cake.

He chewed. He swallowed.

"Wow," he said.

"So is it just like your grandmother used to make?"

"Well," Chidi said, swallowing a second forkful, "Um. Maybe not as good, but definitely familiar. It's...that taste, you know? Wow."

"Does it feel like you're a kid again, standing in your grandmother's kitchen under her shelf full of little glass yogurt jars?"

Chidi smiled. "Yeah. A little bit."

Suddenly, Michael's voice boomed through the apartment. "Residents! Good news! You can go outside again! Not that there was any particular reason you could not go outside before, and I definitely did not just vanquish a dragon. Enjoy your evening! Have some frozen yogurt!"

In the silence that followed, the only sound was Chidi's fork scraping the bottom of the pan.

"Well," Eleanor said, "now that curfew has been lifted, I should probably get back home."

"You don't have to go," Chidi said quietly.

"I think I do," Eleanor said. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "Look. I know it sucks. The choice you have to make -- we'll still be friends, man. I'll be bummed, but I'll still be there for you. Breaking all your dishes and bringing you inedible cookies."

And she passed out of the kitchen and, a few seconds later, Chidi heard his front door open and close.

Chidi remained in his kitchen, routing out the last fragments of cake from the pan. He put the pan in the sink and ran water over it.

He opened up his cabinets, and he saw that, on the shelf for glasses, Eleanor had placed the washed yogurt jar that Janet had produced for them.

"Oh," Chidi said. Then: "Fine. Fiiiiine."   

 

 

[FIVE MINUTES LATER]

"Eleanor!" 

Eleanor, who had been briskly walking past the third frozen-yogurt store, turned. "Chidi? Hey, does the top of that froyo place look kind of...singed?"

Chidi, who had been running, came to a stop in front of her and leaned his hands against his knees while he panted heavily. "Um, maybe, I don't know. But, hey, listen."

"I'm listening."

"Okay, sure, Real Eleanor is my perfect match."

"Oh boy," said Eleanor.

"And, according to some philosophical systems, perfection is the goal for which we must eternally strive. And imagine the life that she and I could have! Imagine the conversations that might happen! The shared interests we could discover! A joint goal, a mutual mission! Two lives potentially dedicated to the greater enrichment of both!"

"Okay," Eleanor said. "I think that maybe you didn't need to run to tell me this--"

"But it's all hypothetical," Chidi panted. "It's just a potential happiness, a possible perfection. And should I weigh potential greatness higher than actual goodness? Because you, Eleanor, you're good. You're not perfect, but you're still good."

Eleanor was still. "I don't want you to choose me because I'm good enough."

"I'm not saying that," Chidi said. "I'm saying...I'm saying that you make my life good. You do bring purpose to my life, but more than that, you...make me laugh? And you surprise me, and sometimes it feels like I'll never be able to guess what's going to hurt your feelings and what's going to make you laugh, but I keep trying to make you laugh, and I feel like I'm improving on that score.  I spend a lot of time thinking about that, you know. A not-inconsiderable part of my brainpower is constantly devoted to thinking of funny things to tell you. It's as if there is a little compartment in my mind labeled WHAT DOES ELEANOR FIND HILARIOUS."

"Knock-knock jokes, man. I could have told you that ages ago." 

"Okay, noted. But the point is that you make me uncertain and anxious and annoyed and delighted, and yes, you make my pulse race and my blood fizz, and you're simply a net good in my life. And isn't that better than waiting for a possible-but-uncertain perfection? And really, doesn't Real Eleanor get a vote in all of this as well? Why would I assume that she would choose me, even if I chose her?"

"Frankly, I kind of think she's into Janet," Eleanor said.

"Also, I spent my whole life waiting for perfection, and what did that get me? And then I met you. You're not a perfect being; you're anxious and sarcastic, and you hold people at arm's length, and every time I make you uncomfortable or uncertain, you just make a joke or change the subject, instead of actually responding to me--"

"Okay, okay, I get the picture."

"--and it can be a little annoying that you're always demanding further proof that I like you, that I love you, that I'm on your side. And when you're afraid that I've changed my mind, you try to preemptively push me away, and that's just...awful, Eleanor. It's the worst experience. I hate when you do that."

Eleanor tilted her head. "I can, uh, try a little harder not to do that. I guess I can be a little...needy." 

"Yes," Chidi said, "but it's not just you. I know I can be a little distant, and I tend to retreat into my shell during times of stress, and I know...I know that can't be fun for you. So maybe I can try and meet you in the middle. Maybe I can make an effort to offer you more affection and validation and companionship. I should be a better friend to you. You deserve a better friend than I've been." 

Eleanor gave him a trembling smile. "No. You've been perfect." 

"No, you're right, perfection is boring, and I don't want to be perfect.  Frankly, Eleanor, I'd rather have a good life with you as the grit in my shell than a perfect life without you."

"Oh, Chidi," Eleanor said. "Shut up and kiss me."  

 

 

[FIFTEEN SECONDS LATER]

"Uh." 

"Yeah, I know, that wasn't the greatest," Eleanor said. "Pro-tip: less licking."

"Really? My last girlfriend--"

"No," Eleanor said as she laid one finger against his lips. "That is not the metric we use, kiddo." Her finger slipped down, and she stroked the edge of his jaw. "But good news, man. It wasn't the greatest, but it was okay. It was good enough." She leaned forward and pressed her lips against the side of his neck. "And think of the fun we'll have getting better."

"Striving constantly for perfection," Chidi murmured as he pressed his hands against her warm shoulders.

Eleanor breathed against his throat. "Planning exactly where we're going to put that sick aquarium coffee-table."

"Trying to teach you how to be a better human."

"Trying to teach you how to be a better human."

In the distance, unseen by either of them, a lone winged lava monster undulated gloriously over the horizon.