‘I can’t believe Chidi gave us homework!’
‘What are you talking about?’ Michael looked at Eleanor wryly, one eyebrow raised. ‘He always gives you homework. In every single attempt I’ve made, there he is, assigning readings, setting essays - once he even made you do a powerpoint presentation. No, what I can’t believe is that he gave me homework.’
‘Wait,’ Eleanor said. ‘If he always gives homework, what made you think you’d be an exception?’
‘Well,’ Michael said, as though stating something obvious to a small child. ‘Unlike you, I am a creature beyond humanity. My very nature is so far beyond yours, it’s impossible that I could ever learn anything from these feeble human philosophers. And besides, this assignment is hard.’
Eleanor rolled her eyes.
‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘What could possibly be worse than the essay he made me write on the pre-Socratics?’
‘I have to choose one of my failed attempts,’ Michael said, ‘and write an essay about why it failed.’
‘Oh come on,’ Eleanor said. ‘That is way less bad than what I had to do. Just, like, pick one of the funny ones, write a thousand words, bing bang boom. It’ll take like, half an hour max.’
Three weeks later, Michael handed the essay in. All 6,000 words of it.
An Analysis of Attempt 218 and Why It Failed, Or Human Feelings are Stupid and Annoying and Surprisingly Unpredictable.
By all accounts, Attempt 218 should have worked. I took all the data from my previous attempts, rigorously sorted through it, and identified several key weaknesses that I then attempted to repair. In my knowledge and wisdom, which while not quite infinite, is far enough beyond yours that writing essays like this is really quite ridiculous, I recognised that one of the quickest ways to make an attempt fail was to have Eleanor and Tahani be too strongly opposed. If they believe they are supposed to be friends, they will drive each other up the wall, but refuse to openly show it. However, if they do not have a reason to think well of each other, their tensions will rapidly boil over and lead to Eleanor to work out that she is actually in the Bad Place.
Therefore, my plan was to force them into proximity, but in a way where they would not be able to acknowledge their obvious dislike of each other. The obvious tactic was to make them soulmates.
At this point in my discussion of Attempt 218, current-Eleanor stopped to ask me if, quote, “soulmates are really real, or just something you made up to annoy me?” Obviously, as I told her, soulmates are not real. But they are an effective torture device, which is why it’s so particularly irritating that attempts to make two of the humans pretend to be soulmates failed time and again.
Having said that, the first 72 hours of Tahani and Eleanor were everything I had dreamed of and more. As soon as I introduced them, Eleanor awkwardly hugged Tahani, and Tahani cooed rudely at Eleanor.
“I can’t believe you’re my soulmate,” she said, putting an extra dollop of RP into her accent. “You’re just so cute, and charming, and small, and this house! What an adorable design. Do you know, it reminds me so much of my friend Tom’s house. Why, after his movie was so successful - was it Inception, or Mad Max: Fury Road? Oh well, doesn’t matter - he decided to build a house so like this one for his dogs! Oh he loves them so much, don’t you know?”
“That’s,” Eleanor said, and hesitated, struggling to find words. Oh, it was delightfully painful to watch! “That’s great. Uh, if you’ll excuse me, for a second, I just… have… go… bedroom”
Eleanor trailed off, unable to think of a good excuse to escape the situation, but Tahani jumped in immediately.
“No, of course, I understand, I was just thinking of freshening up myself.” She smiled in her most dazzling manner, waved her hand, and left.
Eleanor watched her go, then climbed the partition up to her bedroom (I love how much that annoyed her. Every time!). She grabbed a pillow from the bed, buried her face in it, and screamed.
The next hour was spent talking to herself and stressing out. Really, it was all pretty typical behaviour, but I kept an eye on her anyway. Partly because I was worried it was too much too soon, and would lead to her figuring out that this was the bad place, and partially because it was really completely hilarious. It was, also, notably, one of only three attempts where her initial freak-out was not about being the wrong person.
“Fork fork fork,” Eleanor said, and then said it again more vehemently, making up for her inability to swear satisfyingly with volume.
“How could my soulmate be a woman?” Eleanor paced around the room as she spoke. “I mean, sure, sometimes you’re in the gym and you sneak a quick peek at a lady with a particularly rockin’ bod, but then you stare too long and she notices you and calls you a pervert and so later you sneak back in and pour shampoo through her locker door in revenge - but that doesn’t mean you like girls.”
Eleanor paced around the room some more.
“Wait,” she said. “I’m not even meant to be here! This is all a sham. So Tahani isn’t my soulmate! I’ve just been confused for some other, bisexual, Eleanor Shellstrop.”
She relaxed for a moment, then tensed up again.
“Oh shirt! Even if I’m not Tahani’s soulmate, I’m going to have to pretend to be if I want to stay here.”
Her brow furrowed, and she thought intensely for a few minutes. Then an idea occurred to her.
“Oh! Jenine? Jamie? Helpful robot assistant? Big Brother but in the shape of a lady? Janet?”
“Hi Eleanor, how can I help you?”
“Do soulmates have to be a sexual thing? I mean, Tahani could just be, like, my best friend in the world ever, right?”
“Oh, soulmates do not have to be sexual, no. And no, Tahani is not your best friend ever.” Janet smiled winsomely. “You are definitely sexually attracted to her.”
Eleanor’s face, which had lifted briefly during Janet first sentence, crumpled again.
“Go away, Janet.”
Janet returned to her void, and Eleanor flopped on the bed, kicking her legs in the air.
I was already excited about the possibilities latent in this attempt, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. I did, however, arrange to be there for their second meeting - which was easy, because it was at the welcome party Tahani threw that night.
Tahani was resplendent in her yellow ballgown, a glass of champagne held between her fingers. Eleanor walked in wearing that simple black dress, took one look at Tahani, and walked out again. It took her ten minutes of fretting outside before she was ready to go back in.
This was excellent and effective torture for Eleanor, but don’t think it wasn’t also torturing Tahani. Her mental gymnastics were more elaborate and less visible, but she too was suffering.
Her initial reaction to finding out that her soulmate was Eleanor had been smugness - this, she thought, was the ultimate proof of her tolerance and benevolence. No one could doubt that she was a good person if she had a soulmate who was a woman. She was at this point unfortunately struck by a memory of her sister Kamilah, who, shortly before Tahani’s death, had introduced the world to her new partners - both Jasmin Ng, a world-class architect, and Finn Asante, a non-binary, half-Irish half-Ghanaian poet. Kamilah’s interview with Vogue about her relationship had been praised by media outlets all over the world for raising the profile of both polyamorous relationships and non-binary people, and several politicians had been inspired by her courage to introduce more progressive legislation.
“Upstaged even in death,” Tahani muttered.
As she worked on planning her welcome party, her spirits lifted once more. Eleanor might not be both a lesbian and a non-binary person, but she was a world-famous human rights lawyer. Surely someone so good could only love Tahani if she, Tahani, were an equally good person, or perhaps even better.
Still, a niggle remained. Tahani was pleased to be thought of as open-minded and accepting, but her taste in open-minded and accepting ran more towards, say, Naomi Campbell, than short, blonde and slightly shrewish looking.
She did not quite acknowledge this to herself - and would not until weeks later, when she wrote it down in her diary, which I was reading, of course. Tahani’s diary entries are always one of the highlights of an attempt.
Still, it must have been at the back of her mind when Eleanor walked into her welcome party and came over to talk to her.
Tahani’s eyes dropped down Eleanor’s body, taking in her dress, her shoes, and her jewellery in one practiced appraisal.
“Oh, I do like your dress,” Tahani cooed. “It almost makes you look tall.”
Eleanor clenched her teeth. Her earlier meeting with Tahani had been so full of panic about her sexuality that she had not quite realised how much she disliked her soulmate. Now, however, she was exposed to the full force of Tahani’s irritating condescension.
“Right back at’cha,” Eleanor said, forcing a smile. “That yellow really does wonders for your figure.”
Eleanor had meant to be catty, but blushed as she spoke, realising how much it sounded like a genuine compliment.
“You don’t think it over-emphasises my bust, do you?” Tahani asked, gesturing offhandedly to her breasts. “I do sometimes struggle with my hourglass figure, you know.”
Eleanor, whose gaze had followed Tahani’s gaze and remained there rather fixedly, jerked her head away and went even redder.
“No, it’s fine,” she said, in a rather strangled voice.
Tahani took Eleanor’s arm and tucked it through the crook of her elbow.
“Now,” she said. “You simply must let me introduce you to some people. I’ve been dying to show off my incredible soulmate. Do you know, I think I may have once donated some money to you during one of your hunger strikes? Not much, of course, a mere fifty thousand or so, but still, it was something. I hope you put it to good use.”
Eleanor took a deep breath.
“Oh yeah, I’m sure I donated it to starving orphans or something.”
“Exactly what I would have expected you to do,” Tahani said, pulling Eleanor along in her wake. While her eyes scanned the room for suitable people to introduce Eleanor to, Eleanor glared at the back of Tahani’s head.
The next hour was excruciating, if you were Eleanor, and delightful if you were me, watching from across the room while I snacked on some delicious canapés. With each introduction, Tahani’s list of Eleanor's many virtues grew longer and more ostentatious.
“This is my soul mate,” she trilled, pulling Eleanor closer to her. “She was a human rights lawyer. She helped people all over the world. She even met my friend Keanu once, when he was donating money to a campaign of hers.”
Eleanor kept a bright, fake smile on her face, but after an hour she had to escape. She left Tahani on a flimsy excuse, and ducked into a back room. There, her polite facade crumbled, and she muttered furiously under her breath, venting her frustrations.
“That stupid bench Tahani,” Eleanor said, glowering at the nearest object, which happened to be a small statue of a pug. “Oh la di dah, here I am so beautiful and perfect and graceful, and here’s my slightly less perfect but still amazing soulmate Eleanor. Do a little trick for the guests, Eleanor.”
Eleanor put on a poor imitation of Tahani’s accent, and waved her hand around mockingly. Then she picked up the small pug statue.
“What Ms. Barbie wants is a dog, not a soulmate. But let me tell you, Mr. Pug, I’m nobody’s show pony.”
I walked in at that point, hoping to cause maximum fear and stress for Eleanor, and also to stop the hideous mixed metaphor her sentence had evolved into. But certainly it was more than enough to provide the drama for the next morning.
Eleanor awoke to find giant cartoon barbies walking small, suspiciously blonde-furred pugs, while enormous ponies in ballgowns gambolled through the sky. It wasn’t the best second day - that was attempt 315, with the flaming pizzas - but it worked pretty well, and after everything was cleared up Eleanor scrambled off and found Chidi.
Whether or not Eleanor confessed everything to Chidi immediately varied wildly between attempts, but here she was very upfront about the problem.
“This is horrible,” Chidi said, when she had laid all her cards on the table. “Poor Tahani. She thinks you’re this amazing person. She’ll be crushed when she finds out.”
“But she won’t find out!” Eleanor said. “I’m asking you to help me to hide this.” Chidi’s frown didn’t change. “By actually making me a better person.”
“I don’t know,” Chidi said. “If helping you to stay here interferes with Tahani’s happiness, isn’t it the wrong thing to do? Arguably taking no action in a situation like this is more ethical than taking a wrong action.”
“Come on, man,” Eleanor said, desperate. “Tahani and I might not be soulmates, but I’m sure I can still make her happy.” She grimaced at the thought, but Chidi was too absorbed in his own anxieties to notice.
“I’ll help you,” Chidi said, eventually. “But you have to promise me that you’ll work to put Tahani’s happiness before your own.”
Eleanor bit her lip, then sighed and held out her hand.
Attempt 218 failed eight months, three weeks, and two days later.
Michael jumped, and turned to look at Eleanor.
“What? Did you find a mistake?”
“Uh, yeah, dude. You skip from Chidi agreeing to help me right to the end of the attempt. What about all the stuff in between?”
“Oh, that’s not important. It was really just like most of the other attempts.”
Eleanor put down the essay and frowned.
“That can’t be right,” she said. “Like, how did Tahani feel about my ethics lessons? Was she jealous that I was spending so much time with Chidi?”
“Oh, it ate away at her.” He twirled a hand, still smiling at the memory. “She was far too concerned with appearances to show you how much it affected her, but she spent quite a lot of time trying to capture your attention. She just couldn’t figure out why you seemed to like Chidi more than her.”
“Heh, nice.” Eleanor coughed, remembering herself. “What about houses? Did I get to live in her sweet mansion?”
“Hmm, no,” Michael said. “You tried it, but in spite of her vast number of rooms, you found that being in close proximity to her made the charade too difficult to maintain. So you told her you wanted to take things slow and moved back into your own house. That caused her a lot of pain too. She was desperate to connect with you.”
Eleanor’s expression was a complicated one, torn between guilt and gloating.
“What, uh,” she swallowed and blushed. “What about kissing? Did we ever, uh, get physical?”
Michael rolled his eyes at her.
“I don’t keep track of all that gross, mushy body stuff. You humans are disgusting enough as it is.”
“Oh come on,” Eleanor said. “You must know the answer. What about our first kiss? That might be really important to how the attempt failed.”
“You think so?” Michael sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to start again,” he said, reaching for his manuscript. Eleanor clutched it tightly.
“Actually,” she said, “why don’t you just write it as an appendix? It would be a lot faster.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Michael said, a little doubtfully.
Appendix A: Eleanor and Tahani’s first kiss - a reconstruction based on Tahani’s diary entries
Eleanor met Tahani outside the neighbourhood village early that morning. Tahani was dressed in what she referred to as a ‘walking gown’, a relatively simple dress that wouldn’t be too hard to move in. Over her shoulder was a white and pink parasol, and on her arm was a basket.
“Wow,” Eleanor said, as she walked up in jeans and a t-shirt with a spaghetti stain down the front. “Don’t you look glamorous.”
“I do try,” Tahani said, smiling at Eleanor. “You look… very nice, too.”
“You said we were walking, so I figured, ‘hey, better wear something that’s already dirty’.”
“What a pragmatic way of looking at the world,” Tahani said stiffly. Inwardly, of course, she was hurt that Eleanor hadn’t made any effort to look prettier, but she hadn’t spent a full day with her soulmate in two weeks, and she was determined not to ruin it.
They set off together, up into the hills beyond the neighbourhood. Tahani had chosen an easy path for them, not wanting to have to wear hiking clothes, or, heaven forfend, boots. Within an hour they had reached the mountain lake Tahani had chosen as their picnic spot.
“Oh, I am ready for a swim,” Eleanor said, pulling off her t-shirt and jeans. Underneath, she was wearing a blue and white bikini. “The weather has been so hot lately.”
“Yes, apparently some of the residents were missing their own climates, so Michael decided to give us a little of the summer heat.” Tahani smiled wanly.
Eleanor started wading into the water, then turned and looked back.
“Aren’t you coming?”
Tahani shifted uncomfortably.
“Well,” she said, “I didn’t actually think to bring a swimsuit with me, you know.”
“Weren’t you the one who suggested swimming?” Eleanor shrugged, and turned back to the lake. “Oh well, your loss.”
She plunged into the water.
“Oh, this is amazing. I’ve been dreaming of this for days.”
Tahani watched her go, sitting on the bank and trying not to cry.
Tahani was lying on her back, staring up at the sky when Eleanor crawled dripping out of the water and hunkered down next to her, splattering her with water.
Tahani did not turn her head to look at Eleanor.
“Hey there, soulmate.” There was a little hiccup in her voice.
“Tahani, why didn’t you bring your swimsuit? This whole day was your idea. You were the one who suggested swimming.”
Tahani still did not look over.
“Come on,” Eleanor insisted. “Whatever is wrong, you can tell me. How am I supposed to have fun if my soulmate is unhappy?”
“I wanted to look pretty!” Tahani burst out. “I spent an extra hour and a half on my makeup this morning. And I spent an hour just ironing this dress. If I go swimming I’ll ruin all my hard work. I feel like I hardly ever see you these days. So I wanted to make sure I was perfect.”
Tahani started crying again. Honestly, there was some good torture potential in this whole scenario, though in this case, it didn’t work.
As soon as Eleanor saw Tahani’s tears, she stood up and shook herself vigorously, soaking Tahani’s dress with water. Tahani gaped at her, too shocked to even keep crying.
“Well, now you’re all wet,” Eleanor said. “You might as well swim.”
“But I still don’t have a swimsuit,” Tahani said.
“Go in in your underwear. I’ve done that plenty of times.” Eleanor grinned. “Or you could skinny dip, that’s fun too.”
Tahani looked deeply embarrassed.
“If I wear my underwear,” she said, “what will I do when I get out?”
“Oh come on,” Eleanor said, grabbing Tahani’s arm and beginning to drag her towards the lake. “It’s in the mid-nineties. You’ll be dry in like ten minutes.”
Giggling slightly, Tahani took off her dress and allowed herself to be pulled into the water.
They followed their swim with lunch, lying dripping on the hot rocks by the lake as they ate sandwiches and devilled eggs and lemonade. When lunch was done, Eleanor leaned back against the rocks and closed her eyes.
“Oh boy,” she said, exhaling loudly. “That meal was incredible. What is it about swimming that always makes you so hungry?”
“Oh I know exactly what you mean,” Tahani said. “When I was in school we used to always have swimming classes on a Friday, and as soon as they finished we would rush to the canteen to have quinoa salad with pomegranates and feta cheese. We fell on that salad like ravenous wolves.”
“Pff, of course your school had fancy food.”
There was a long moment of silence, and then Eleanor opened her eyes again and looked at Tahani.
“Hey, why did you go to all this effort?”
Tahani struggled to find the words.
“I suppose I just wanted to remind you that I’m here.” She booped Eleanor’s nose. “I know you have all your projects, and I don’t want you to think I resent them, but I am your soulmate. Sometimes, when I think about Kamilah-”
Tahani froze, and then swallowed very carefully.
“Say that again.”
“What, who?” Eleanor looked genuinely baffled. “Is this one of those things I should know about?”
She didn’t have time to say anything else, because in one swift movement Tahani had swung herself up and over Eleanor, straddling her so that she could press her mouth parts against Eleanor’s mouth parts.
She pulled back triumphantly. Eleanor was staring at her, blinking, her mouth open.
“Uh, why did you do that?” Eleanor said. She slowly reached up and put her hands on
Tahani’s shoulders. “I mean, I didn’t not like it - or, I wasn’t expecting it, but…”
Eleanor trailed off, still staring fixedly at Tahani.
Tahani grinned at her.
“Eleanor Shellstrop, you bizarre angel, you are my soulmate!”
And then they spent most of the afternoon pushing their horrible mouth parts together the way you disgusting humans like to do.
Eleanor put down the paper.
“Ok,” she said. “Huh. Ok.”
She picked it up again and read it a second time.
“Yeah, ok. Ok. Ok.”
She read it a third time.
“Right. Fine. Ok. Fine.”
Paper in hand, she got up and went over to the sink. She set the paper in the sink, grabbed a matchbox, lit a match and flicked it onto the appendix. Carefully, she watched the paper burn to charred ashes. Then she ran the tap, so that the remaining black flecks of paper were washed down the drain.
“I was wrong,” she said to Michael, quite cheerfully. “That was completely unnecessary, and we should never speak of it again. Let’s keep proofreading!”
Attempt 218 failed eight months, three weeks, and two days later.
Going over the data, I can see that some of this was the result of mismanagement. Eight months in, the humans had settled into a holding pattern. They were miserable, yes, but they had gotten used to being miserable. I felt I needed to shake things up.
The inspiration behind my most momentous decision was the wonderful human invention of Christmas. Christmas is great because humans think they're supposed to be happy at Christmas, and so when they feel sad, they blame themselves. I sometimes can't believe humans came up with such a refined torture mechanism on their own. And then there's all the little nuances, like presents and decorations, and of course, snow.
Eleanor woke up to a white world, and was instantly grumpy. She had experienced snow only once, and the experience had broken her arm. It was safe to say she was not a fan. When she had asked Janet for appropriate clothes - “Janet, give me the warmest clothes you have! OK, less warm than that. OK, suitable for the weather today.” - and bundled herself into them, she went outside.
Of course, the first person she saw was Tahani, who had dressed herself in an extremely expensive winter coat, boots, hat and scarf. Standing next to her in a ski jacket, Eleanor felt like a little puffball. It did not help her mood.
“Eleanor,” Tahani said, rushing over to clasp their gloved hands together. “Isn't this marvellous? It reminds me of the skiing holidays I used to take with Paul and Adam and the Edge.”
“Yeah, it's great,” Eleanor said unenthusiastically.
“Michael and Janet have set up an ice-skating rink on the edge of town. Should we do that first? Or,” Tahani gave Eleanor a conspiratorial glance, “should we build a snowman?”
Eleanor, whose plans had more been along the lines of going into town and getting an extremely hot coffee - maybe with a tipple of whiskey in it - swallowed and tried to look excited.
“Snowman,” she said. “Definitely a snowman.”
Tahani clapped her hands together.
“Wonderful. I already have carrots and coal, so we can get started right away.”
Eleanor raised an eyebrow.
“You’re really enthusiastic about this, huh?”
Tahani stiffened slightly, though her back was turned, and Eleanor couldn’t see her expression.
“Well, I suppose I might be a little excited,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically hesitant.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s like, whatever you’re into. It’s just unusual for you.”
Tahani sighed, and turned back to face Eleanor, holding a snowball.
“The truth is,” she said, “I’ve never actually made a snowman. My parents used to take us on holiday to snowy places, but they would never have condoned us doing something so childish.”
Eleanor stared at Tahani for a long moment.
“Well,” she said slowly, “we should probably get started then. It might take us a few goes to get it right.”
They built their snowman, which took several hours, and then retired to Tahani’s mansion, where a roaring fire had been lit in one of the grates. They made hot chocolate, and Eleanor got to pour whiskey in hers, and by the end of the evening she was feeling positively reconciled to snow.
In other words, the attempt had not been successful so far. When I dropped by to visit and check up on them, and found them cuddled up under a blanket together, giggling and telling stories, I knew drastic action was required.
“Hello you two,” I said, clapping my hands briskly together. “Just dropping by to let you know that we’ve decided to hold Christmas next week, as part of our snowy celebrations.”
“Oh, what a wonderful idea,” Tahani said. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Well,” I said, “we were planning to do a Secret Santa this year, as you humans like to call it. Such a clever idea. Of course, soulmates will be getting each other presents, but it feels a little unnecessary for everyone to get everyone else a present, so we thought we’d lighten the load, as it were. And I was hoping,” here, I let myself pause for a moment, just to let Tahani’s anticipation and delight reach their peak, “that you would help me, Eleanor.”
Tahani’s face crumpled. It was delightful.
“Me?” Eleanor squeaked, looking mildly terrified. “Why do you want my help?”
“Oh, you know exactly why,” I said, waving a hand at her. “That Secret Santa you organised for the children in the orphanage in Belarus was incredible. I thought we could recreate it here.”
“Oh, of course,” Eleanor said. “I’d uh, I’d be happy to help.”
She glanced at Tahani, who looked dreadfully resigned.
“Can Tahani help too? You know what they say - many hands make light work!”
“Oh no,” Tahani said, in a very quiet voice. “I would just get in your way. And besides, I’ll be so busy with the decorations here.”
It was clear that she wanted Eleanor to fight for her, to insist that she really wanted Tahani’s help, but Eleanor had never been good at non-verbal cues.
“If that’s what you really want,” Eleanor said, shrugging.
“Besides,” Tahani said, “this will give me more time to think of the perfect gift for you.”
Eleanor’s face went absolutely white.
Eleanor’s voice drew Chidi’s name out into a whine, and he winced.
“I don’t know what to do.”
Chidi leaned over and patted Eleanor’s hand distractedly.
“What exactly is the problem?”
“Well, there’s the whole Secret Santa thing,” Eleanor said, sighing, “but I think I can fudge that one. The real problem is Tahani. I have no forking idea what to get her as a present.”
Chidi frowned slightly.
“Well,” he said, “presents are supposed to be about showing the other person you’re thinking of them. So what do you think Tahani would like?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Eleanor snapped. “I’m not an all-knowing, omnipresent god who can magic anything I want with a snap of my - oh, Janet!”
“How can I help you, Eleanor?”
“Can you get me the perfect present for Tahani?”
“Sorry, Eleanor, but I am unclear on the nature of presents. One moment, please.”
“You really shouldn’t-”
“I have read every human book on gift-giving. Based on my understanding of the conventions that apply, the perfect gift for Tahani would be a personalised Burberry coat, tailored to her specifications.”
A lavishly-wrapped present appeared in Janet’s hands. Eleanor reached eagerly for it, but Janet moved it away.
“Oh, I'm sorry Eleanor, I wasn't clear. This is the perfect gift that I could give her. Perfect gifts require considered thought of the recipient’s likes and dislikes. If you gave her this, it wouldn’t be the same.”
“Thank you, Janet,” Chidi said fervently. “You see, Eleanor, you can't cheat with this. You'll actually have to put the effort in.”
“I hate effort,” Eleanor said. “Besides, wouldn't getting Tahani things she actually likes show that I'm thinking of her?”
“You've known Tahani for eight months,” Chidi said. “If you take some time to think about it, I'm sure you'll figure out why that's not true.”
Of course that was my cue. Over the next few days, I kept Eleanor as busy as possible with lots of mind-numbing secretarial work. It required just enough of her concentration that she couldn't sit down and think about what to get Tahani. By the time I let her go, on Christmas Eve, she was on the verge of panic.
“What if I got her an event planner?” Eleanor said to herself, walking home through the snow. “No, that's stupid. This is heaven. She probably has fifty event planners. Why would she need another one?”
Eleanor tossed around other ideas - a mirror, clothes, a pet tiger, a miniature sun in a bottle - but nothing that she felt worked. When she got home, she flopped on the couch, buried her head in her hands, and groaned.
After a while, a knock came on the door.
Tahani’s head poked in.
“Merry Christmas, Eleanor! Are you ready to come to my house?”
Eleanor jumped up, looking guilty.
“Just, uh, let me grab some clothes for tomorrow,” she said, and climbed the ledge into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
“Janet,” Eleanor hissed.
“Hi Eleanor, how can I help you?”
“Give me an event planner, with a gold cover, wrapped up all fancy. With a bow.”
Janet handed her the present, and Eleanor grabbed it, shoving it into a bag.
She felt uncertain about her decision until they arrived at Tahani’s house. Under the huge Christmas tree, bedecked with soft yellow lights and blown glass ornaments, was an enormous box. Eleanor’s heart plummeted into her stomach, and her face took on a faintly queasy look.
I have a picture of it framed somewhere. For when I feel down.
Reluctantly, Eleanor withdrew her gift from her bag and set it under the tree. It was almost hard to see, next to Tahani’s present.
“Oh, it’s so small!” Tahani said, with resounding cheerfulness. “You know what they say about good things.”
Eleanor frowned after her, trying to work out how sincere she was being.
The evening itself was a bit of a bust, torture-wise, though simmering feelings of confusion, resentment and anticipation did lend a certain piquancy to dinner and mulled wine. Tahani insisted on playing traditional Christmas carols all evening, which Eleanor loathed, so that was nice.
Christmas morning was the main event, however, and at first, it all seemed to be going splendidly. Eleanor was the first to open her gift. She had to stand on her tiptoes to tear the wrapping paper from the huge box, which only reminded her of the height difference between her and Tahani. As the wrapping paper fell away, it revealed a huge dolls house, filled with hand-carved, Victorian furniture, and peopled with vast family of delicate dolls.
“This,” Eleanor paused, struggling to find the right tone of voice. “This is for me?”
“Well,” Tahani said, beaming. “I was thinking about your life - how you always gave away your toys to the less fortunate, and spent your childhood Christmases volunteering with the homeless. And I thought, now that you’re in heaven, you could finally have some toys of your very own. This is based on a toy that I once saw in Harrods with my parents. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have it - my parents insisted it was unsuitable, because it didn’t foster education or imagination - but I used to dream of playing with it. And now I can give it to you.”
Eleanor’s face had the expression of a hare in the headlights of a car, but she managed a passable smile, and when she spoke there was only a slight waver in her voice.
“Gosh,” she said. “This is just the most impressive present I’ve ever been given.”
There was a little pause while Tahani looked expectantly at her.
“Why don’t you open your present?”
“Oh, of course.”
Tahani picked up Eleanor’s gift and unwrapped it carefully.
“Oh,” she said, “an event planner. Eleanor, how incredibly thoughtful.”
Tahani stepped up and kissed Eleanor on the cheek.
“You like it?” Eleanor said hopefully.
“Oh yes,” Tahani said. “I mean, just look at it. It’s so... so gold.”
“Ha!” Eleanor said. “I win! Take that, Chidi.”
“What do you mean?”
Eleanor, realising her mistake too late, tried to backtrack.
“Oh, did that sound like Chidi? What I meant to say was-”
“I distinctly heard you say Chidi,” Tahani said, stepping away with a frown. “Were you talking to him about us?”
“No! Well, yes, but not like that. I just wanted his advice.”
To Eleanor’s horror, Tahani’s eyes filled with tears, and she flopped onto the sofa in a poof of skirts.
“Am I really your soulmate? If I was, wouldn’t you know what to get me? Wouldn’t you rather spend time with me? What is he to you?” Tahani raised her head and directed a glare at Eleanor. “Was there a mistake? Is he your real soulmate? That’s it, isn’t it? You’re supposed to be with him, but you’ve been trying to spare my feelings all this time.”
Tahani was well on the way to working herself into a tantrum when Eleanor knelt down and took her hands.
That, looking back, was when everything went wrong. I still don’t understand why Eleanor did what she did next - it was outside every predictive model I had written for her.
Very gently, she brought Tahani’s hands to her mouth and kissed them.
“Tahani, I’m sorry.”
Tahani sobbed harder.
“I have another present for you, one I should have given you a long time ago.” Eleanor took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. “The truth.”
“Tell me! Nothing can be worse than this.”
“You were right,” Eleanor said slowly, trying to stop her voice from shaking. “I am not your soulmate. But I’m not Chidi’s soulmate either. The truth is, I’m not supposed to be here at all. I’m not actually a good person.”
Tahani stopped crying.
“What on earth do you mean? I know about all your noble and heroic actions.”
Eleanor sighed, and slowly explained the truth. Tahani listened thoughtfully.
“So Chidi was helping you to become a better person?”
“Yes, exactly! As if I could ever be soulmates with that dork,” Eleanor said, feeling a rush of relief.
“Well, that is good to know.” Tahani relaxed slightly, then stiffened again.
“Hang on a moment. If you’re not my soulmate, then is my real soulmate out there somewhere?”
“I don’t actually know,” Eleanor said. “Maybe.”
“That would explain a lot,” Tahani said. “I wonder if the good Eleanor Shellstrop is my real soulmate. I always did admire her.”
“I guess that’s one good thing about coming clean,” Eleanor said. “I don’t have to pretend any more.”
“So you were only ever pretending to like me?” Tahani said, her eyes filling right back up with tears. Tahani is like a human tap when she gets emotional.
“Well, at first, yes. But only at first! After a while, I started liking you for you. And I do. Like you, I mean.”
Tahani snorted, a wet sound blurred by her running nose, and then smiled.
“Oh Eleanor, how impossible you are. First you tell me that my perfect soulmate is someone else, and then you convince me that this couldn’t possibly be heaven without you.”
Eleanor blushed red to the roots of her hair.
There was some of that gross human kissing, but all the while the gears were turning in Eleanor’s head.
“Tahani, what you said earlier, about heaven? What if you’re right?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, as much as I like you, I keep hurting you. I don’t know how not to hurt you. And you hurt me too, sometimes. If this was really heaven, would that be true? What if this isn’t the good place? What if this is the bad place?”
So, of course, I reset them.
Looking back, I still don’t know exactly what went wrong. I thought I understood Eleanor through and through, but some fragment of her personality clearly eludes me, because right when she should have hurt Tahani most, she failed. And even after writing this essay, I don’t understand why.
Chidi put down the sheaf of paper and looked at Michael.
“I’m not actually sure this counts as an essay,” he said. “There’s a lot of narration and not much actual analysis. I’d give it a C+ at best.”
“The narration makes it more exciting,” Michael insisted. “That’s the problem with all those old dead guys - they write these dry, boring books, instead of spicing them up with drama. Maybe an explosion or two.”
Chidi rolled his eyes, but decided that it wasn’t worth the argument.
“Actually,” he said, “where is Eleanor? I know Tahani is off being tortured right now, but Eleanor doesn’t usually miss class unless she has to.”
“She said she had something else to do.”
Chidi found Eleanor sitting on a bench in the park. On her lap was an event planner.
“Not gold-covered this time?” Chidi said, sitting down.
“Past me was kinda tacky in a crisis, huh?” Eleanor turned the book - covered in embroidered Chinese silk - over in her hands.
“Are you going to give it to her?”
“I want to,” Eleanor said. “But I don’t know how. Here Tahani, have this book that past me gave past you in another life when we were girlfriends. How do you explain that? I’m not even sure I want to explain that.”
“You don’t have to,” Chidi pointed out. “You could just give it to her. As a nice gesture.”
“I want to talk to her,” Eleanor said. “I want to figure out what past me saw in her. I want to finally work out what Kamilah is. But I’m scared.”
“I dunno. What I might find out about myself, I think.”
“Aristotle said that knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom,” Chidi said.
“What if you don’t like what you find?”
“It’s still better to know, I suppose.”
“I think I’m comfortable with ignorance,” Eleanor said drily.
“For what it’s worth,” Chidi said, “I thought past you was interesting. I might even go so far as to describe her as a good person. When the chips were down, Eleanor, you did the right thing. Even though you knew it might hurt you. In fact, have an A.”
“I always feel better when I get an A.”
“Oh Chidi. That’s so you.”
She stood up, smiling.
“Are you going to go talk to her?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I’m going to try.”
“Make it your homework for this week,” Chidi said. “And Eleanor?”
Eleanor swallowed and nodded.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m off.”
She waved the event planner at him, and walked away to find Tahani, to find a way to start over.