The afterlife is confusing.
Well, no. It's not. It's a pretty straightforward transaction, and Eleanor is a little surprised she didn't think of it herself. It's the kind of bullshirt she would have expected. But she never actually thought about it before she died, and now she's dead and something has gone wrong.
It's not that she doesn't like the Good Place. It's a little cute, a little pastel, and a little nice for her, but it'll do if the only other choice involves intestines full of earwigs.
But there's the damn soulmate thing. And it's not bad, per se. It's not like she dislikes her soulmate-- who could?-- but being partnered with a golden retriever is not what she thought she would get. Especially because it seems like the person who should be here, the child-saving, hunger-striking Eleanor Shellstrop, wasn't allergic this dog. And the Eleanor who has been paired for the rest of her existence with a golden retriever? Kinda is.
Which, by the way, is forked up. She wasn't allergic to dogs when she was alive, so far as she knew. And shouldn't allergies be the kind of thing that goes away when you die? Shouldn't you be able to have peanut butter cups in heaven? It's not like someone is gonna die of anaphylaxis or something.
She doesn't even know what to call her soulmate. "He's named for your favorite clown!" Michael had told her, that kind of weird, childlike glee in his voice that made Eleanor think that perhaps angels were a little forked up. But so far he hadn't reacted to "Bozo" and Eleanor was running thin on clown names.
"Ronald?" Eleanor watches the moppy puddle of hair that she's going to spend eternity with for any sign of recognition. "John Wayne Gacy? Krusty?"
He doesn't move. She sneezes. This is her life now. Her afterlife.
"Fine," she huffs, standing and getting his leash. "Come on, dog. Let's go get a calzone."
"Okay," Eleanor sighs, craning her neck to try and catch a glimpse of the huge orange cat that her dog just chased up the tree. "I thought dogs and cats living together was part of the afterlife? Did Ghostbusters lie to me?"
The dog doesn't respond, and Eleanor sighs. "Come on, idiot," she says. "Let's go before anyone knows this is our fault. Your fault."
She's succeeded in dragging Dog about three steps away from the now-hissing maple when someone emerges from the house they're in front of and steps into the yard they're standing in.
"Miranda!" the someone, who even from this distance is a straight hottie, yells. "Miranda!"
Eleanor glances up into the tree. "Be cool," she whispers, though she's pretty sure that cats hating her is a universal constant.
Dog barks and takes another lunge for the tree, pulling Eleanor forward. She loses her footing for just a moment and-- of course!-- manages to land face-first in a puddle of mud that she is like 40% sure wasn't there a second ago.
"Oh!" the voice of the hottie says, and prim little footsteps rush towards Eleanor as she wipes mud out of her eyes. "Are you alright?"
Eleanor looks up-- and up and up-- into the stranger's face. "I'm in a mud puddle," she says, which might be the dumbest thing she's ever said, but this woman is so goddamn beautiful it's hard to see straight.
"I can see that," the woman says, offering a hand, which Eleanor doesn't take because she doesn't want this woman's pity or her help. "I'm Tahani Al-Jamil."
"Eleanor Shellstrop," Eleanor says, standing with whatever dignity she has left and looking Tahani up and down again. "I think we're neighbors."
"Wonderful!" Tahani actually claps her cute little hands and dear god Eleanor hasn't felt this amount of hate for a beautiful thing since The Hills ended. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Have you seen a cat?"
Fuck. Of course. Of course on her first day in the afterlife where she doesn't belong Eleanor's dumb dog soulmate trees this tall drink of tequila's pet. She points dumbly to the tree. "It's up there."
Tahani actually looks annoyed for a moment. "In the tree? Oh, dear."
"Sorry," Eleanor says, feeling a glob of mud slip down the back of her shirt which-- it doesn't even rain here. Why is there this much mud? "We can call some firemen? Are there any firemen here?"
Tahani might roll her eyes, Eleanor isn't sure. She would be sure if she could see her eyes, but they're so far above her that everything seems blurry. "Janet?"
There's a chime, and Eleanor fights the urge to fall back into the mud puddle when a woman materializes next to Tahani. "Who the fork are you?"
"I'm Janet," the woman says. "I'm here to help you with whatever you need."
Eleanor blinks. A golden retriever, too much mud, and a hot Siri? She was right the first time. The afterlife is confusing.
"Janet." Tahani doesn't miss a beat. "Can you get Miranda down from the tree?"
The noise-- which is like a beep mixed with a ding and the tone of it sets Eleanor's teeth on edge-- comes again, and suddenly the ill-tempered animal is in the helper-lady's hands. Dog growls low in his throat but Eleanor pulls on his leash sharply. "I said be cool, man."
"Oh, Miranda!" Tahani says, taking the cat from Sexy Alexa as he hisses at Dog. Eleanor smiles to herself as a few stray cat hairs get onto Tahani's perfect forking dress. "Eleanor, this is Miranda. He's named for friend for whom I served as a muse and life coach. He was always a dear boy, and didn't let the smash success of Hamilton change him at all!"
Eleanor blinks at the beautiful woman. "What?"
Tahani's lips quirk into a smile that Eleanor can't help but think of as condescending, and the way she's petting her cat kind of moves the whole thing into evil villain territory. "Did you know Lin-Manuel wanted to write about William Henry Harrison first? I sent him the Ron Chernow book, of course, but forbade him from telling anyone. 'Say you bought it in an airport,' I said. He was so upset, said he couldn't imagine me not getting credit. Dear man. Like I would have room for any Tonys he won, Stephen Sondheim just gives them away as party gifts and I already have 6 on my mantle."
Cool, Eleanor thinks. This lady is crazy. Hot, but absolutely nutballs.
"Uh," she says, instead of anything coherent. "I should go get a shower--"
Tahani smiles her condescendingly hot smile and her eyes sweep over Eleanor's sodden form like a very judgy laser. "Oh, of course. Would you be free this evening? I'm having a little party and you simply must attend!"
Eleanor has never been great at saying no to attractive people. It had taken her many places in life-- mostly behind dumpsters and to Planned Parenthood when it hurt to pee-- but in the afterlife, she finds herself furious as she nods at Tahani and just says, "Great! See you there!"
The party is exactly the kind of fete that a pretentious giraffe would throw.
Tahani is gorgeous and tall and Eleanor still feels like she probably has mud on her face somewhere. It hurts to stand next to the hostess in her perfect dress, but when Eleanor arrives, Tahani takes her by the elbow and leads her into the room, introducing her to people as they go.
"I like your dress," Eleanor says, instead of paying attention to the names she has no chance of remembering or caring about.
"Thank you," Tahani smiles, and Eleanor feels a twist in her stomach at having caused that look. "I was so pleased to find that my wardrobe here included a few suitable frocks, and Janet was able to get me what else I needed."
Eleanor doesn't roll her eyes, but she does reach out and pick an orange cat hair off of Tahani's skirt.
"Having fun with your soulmate?" she asks, holding up the offending particle and smiling to herself at the others that are still stuck to the dress. Serves her right.
Tahani looks mortified for a moment, and it makes Eleanor feel weird. Like, it's a good thing for this tall, perfect bitch to come down a few pegs, but it doesn't feel good. It feels like she did something wrong.
Eleanor feels herself blush and turns away, heading directly for the bar and away from the puppy she just kicked.
Excused from Tahani's company, Eleanor takes a moment to look around at the other people. A monk of some kind with a parrot on his shoulder stands out, and Eleanor spends a full minute wondering if the parrot can swear, or if she'll have to teach it to say "shirt" herself.
There's a nerdy looking guy whose name is told to her but she ignores, who has what can only be described as a hoof-sized bruise on the side of his head. "Soulmate," he says, when he catches her staring. "Did you know horses have body language? ’Cause they do. And they have opinions about ignoring it." Eleanor gives a half nod and turns back to the party. Horses are dumb. Anything that dies when you break its leg is pretty useless.
The only good part of the whole affair, Eleanor thinks, is free booze and cocktail shrimp the size of a goddamn Buick. She even pockets a few to bring home to Dog, who had to send his regrets.
When she gets home and her damn soulmate is asleep and shedding on her bed, Eleanor eats the damn things herself.
Everything is Awful.
Which seems strange, a little, because isn't this heaven? Even if it's a heaven that she's not supposed to be in, it should be benign and boring, not full of rampaging giraffes and a giant ladybug and flying shrimp.
This is bad. This is very bad, and Eleanor is like 60% sure it's partially her fault. It's mostly Tahani's fault for throwing the damn party, and Michael's fault for bringing her here, but Eleanor is willing to accept at most 30% of the blame for saying the things that manifested. That's on her, and she'll do better next time.
But for now, she has to get a set of striped pajamas and try to fit in.
After the madness passes and everyone is done being oil paintings or whatever the fork just happened, Tahani takes it upon herself to stop by Eleanor's house with a bouquet of daffodils in a decorative vase.
Dog loses his mind, because of course he does. The damn thing probably hates mailmen. Eleanor, shockingly, can't relate.
"Hello, neighbor!" Tahani calls over the barking, giving Eleanor a hug that ensures that her face is pressed directly between Tahani’s breasts.
Which is both amazing and awful. Eleanor can't decide which, but the hug lasts just a moment too long before Tahani lets go, and Eleanor is pretty okay with that.
"Hi," she says, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
They stand awkwardly for a moment, Dog yapping his face off and Tahani clearly waiting for an invitation in and Eleanor enjoying making the haughty woman wait and suffer.
Finally, Tahani holds forth the bouquet. "These are for you. A little welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift, you know."
Eleanor does not trust these flowers. These flowers are probably full of spiders, or listening devices, or they're some kind of afterlife version of that one flower that smells like rotting bodies when it blooms. That's what she would do, anyway. But she takes them, gingerly, and steps back to let Tahani pass, pushing Dog back with her foot.
"Do you want to come in?" she asks, on the off chance that her new neighbor's good looks are some kind of Twilight-esque side effect of vampirism.
"Please," Tahani says, entering the living room and pretending, badly, to not be horrified when dog rushes forwards and buries his nose in her crotch.
Tahani makes exquisite smalltalk. She could charm a Pandora bracelet off of a soccer mom in five minutes, and Eleanor finds being on the receiving end of that kind of intensity both thrilling and terrifying.
"So I said, 'Duchess, it's only right if we say you collaborated on the dress.' And she eventually relented, but honestly. You'd think a royal bride would know how to work the press better than that." Eleanor is beginning to wonder if being peeled or whatever might be preferable to this conversation, which has been going on for roughly a million and five years. She's considering letting Dog out of her bedroom to leave more muddy footprints on her guest's dress when Tahani turns her attention to focus on Eleanor again.
"About what you said last night."
Her blood runs cold. Eleanor has no idea what she said last night, to anyone. Least of all this giantess who makes her feel like she's got blocks of ice in her stomach.
"What did I say?" Eleanor asks, putting on her best innocent face. Which is very good, if she does say so herself.
The only word to describe to describe the look on Tahani's face is satisfied. She looks like she's just eaten the last chalupa at 3am and she knows what Drunk Nirvana is. Eleanor feels her insides twist as Tahani leans in and breathes.
"You told me you don't belong here."
Eleanor opens her mouth, but no sound comes out. Her brain races to find an answer that will cover up the fact that she's a fraud, that her drunk self-- who is such a bitch, goddamn-- decided to spill that to this Amazon who now has afterlife blackmail over her. There's nothing. There are no easy lies that she can reach for, wrap herself around.
So she does what she always does when faced with a pretty person who won't stop moving their lips. She leans in quickly and kisses Tahani.
Whatever Tahani was expecting, it wasn't that. She stiffens instantly, her hands flying up to Eleanor's shoulders as if to push her away. Eleanor backs off, lets herself fall into the color of Tahani's eyes for a moment. They're the color of the way the leather store in the mall smells, she thinks, which is the kind of nonsense that Eleanor doesn't usually indulge in, but in this moment it feels good, so she lets herself.
"Eleanor," Tahani breathes, her voice husky and dark with surprise. "You kissed me."
"Would you believe that I tripped?" Eleanor asks, pulling her defenses back up like she never let them fall.
Tahani blinks slowly, touching her lips with the tips of her fingers like she's stunned, like she's been tased at K-Mart on Black Friday and can't stop tasting pennies. "Is that what you want me to believe?"
Eleanor stands in a rush, her legs moving her faster than she thinks they ever did in life. "I need to walk my soulmate," she says, and she runs-- no, saunters, like someone who is definitely not ashamed of kissing her neighbor-- into the bedroom to retrieve Dog.
When she comes back out, Tahani is gone, and the flowers on the counter are blooming brilliantly.
The house is still empty when Eleanor returns, oddly quiet and still. She has to do something, she thinks. Has to figure out how to make this better.
"Um," she thinks for a minute. "Okay, Google?"
Nothing happens. "Judy? No-- Jocelyn? Janice? Jane?"
There is no grating beep, and Eleanor curses herself for not caring about anyone else's name. It's never been a problem for her before, and it seems deeply unfair that the ability to get help is now hinging on some idiot who doesn't even wear a nametag.
"Janet?" she says, which feels vaguely likely.
And there's the beep, the noise that seems to be just exactly calibrated to make the hair on Eleanor's neck stand straight up.
"Hi," the woman who wasn't there a second ago says. "What can I help you with?"
Eleanor tries not to show how startled she is, how unnerved. "Tell me, is there-- if someone wanted to like, get better. At being-- nice? I guess? Is there anyone here who could teach me?"
Janet nods, her perpetual smile both unnerving and calming at the same time, which is the second-weirdest thing to happen today.
"Yes, one of our residents is a moral philosopher. Would you like to meet them?"
Eleanor cringes. She can't think of any job title more boring than moral philosopher. She'd rather have to count the hairs Dog leaves on the sofa.
"Yeah," she says. "Take me to her."
'Her' turns out to be the guy from the party with the horse soulmate. His name is something that starts with a C; Cheerio or Cena or Chingy or something. More people in the afterlife should wear name tags.
"Here's the thing," she tells him. "I-- I was always big on improving myself. Super into it. Loved getting better. But I work best with a teacher, someone to, you know, explain the big words."
Cheeto isn't buying it. She can see he doesn't believe her, and she's pretty sure that her standard convincing tactic of "show them my boobs" isn't going to fly with someone who thinks she's some kind of human-saving lawyer who once gave her liver to a baby or something.
"I'm busy a lot--" he starts, and Eleanor sighs deeply. Fine, make it work.
"I won't be a bother, I promise!" she says, plastering sincerity all over her face. "I'm sure there's something you need help with? Like-- like do you know how to make a jello shot? I can teach you?"
He just stares.
"Okay--" Eleanor sighs. "What do you want?"
Charlie smiles at her, a kind of wry smile that she finds extremely cute despite herself. Damn afterlife, full of hotties.
"What do you know about cleaning horse stalls?"
It takes a promise to clean his soulmate's stall, but Eleanor gets Crisper to agree to help her. Which she regrets almost immediately when he hands her a book.
Apparently being a better person comes with homework, and that's just unfortunate.
In a week, Chidi -- his name is Chidi, which he made very clear that she was to remember and care about if she wanted his help because it was not acceptable to call your teacher Charmander -- has lead Eleanor though the Greeks and she has to wonder if maybe she's heard some of this before because it seems easy to pick up. Maybe it was on the Simpsons or something, that seems like the kind of crap they'd pull.
"So, to understand the Greek concept of love, we have to understand that there were three kinds of love," Chidi says, standing up at his chalkboard. And if Eleanor knew there would be chalkboards in heaven, she never would have worried about getting in. "Agape, which is to love a thing without regard for its value; eros, which is to love a thing romantically in response to its merits; and philia, which is a brotherly love of a thing in response to its merits."
Eleanor nods, chewing on the cap of her pen. "So, like, Plato thought it was okay to love people even if they kinda sucked?"
The look on Chidi's face is somewhere between incredulous and annoyed. "Yes," he says. "You can't help loving who you love. Sometimes merits and qualities aren't the most compelling part of a person."
Okay, maybe that makes sense. Maybe. Possibly. In theory, a good person could want to be around a not so good one.
It seems patently unfair that heaven should include a hot neighbor that Eleanor is avoiding. If there was going to be a hot neighbor, she should have at least gotten to bang them before the awkward part. But though Tahani is perfectly nice when they're in social situations (which, Jeezy Creezy there are a lot of social events in the afterlife, and that is just cruel), for almost three weeks after their weird silence-kiss, Eleanor can't seem to catch Tahani alone.
The anxiety eats at her. It’s bad enough to have a secret, worse to have someone else know it. Tahani is going to use this against her, and she knows it. She's going to tell Michael or Janet or her dumb cat that Eleanor doesn't belong in the stupid Good Place with all these stupid do-gooders and heroes and she's going to get sent to the bad place and made to participate in ropes courses or do trust falls or something equally horrible for the rest of eternity.
Finally, Eleanor has had enough. She's waited nineteen days, which is like a year, and Tahani hasn't made her move. Either this woman is the worst backstabbing socialite ever to die, or there's a bigger game here than Eleanor knows, and either way she doesn't like it.
She gathers all the gumption she has, which is a lot for such a petite frame, and marches her happy ass over to Tahani's house. She doesn't bother to knock or ring the bell, either. That kind of delay would make her freak out, and she knows it. Instead, she turns the knob and walks into the mansion because no one locks their door in heaven.
Eleanor storms into the living room, suddenly realizing that Tahani might not be home at all. She's about to call out, to actually think this through for like one second, when a broken sob rouses her from her self-righteous thoughts.
Directly in front of her, artistically draped across one of those old-fashiony therapist’s couches, is Tahani Al-Jamil, and she's crying.
Which, no one should look that stunning while crying. People should be ugly and blotchy and have their faces screwed into masks of pain. Tahani looks like she fell off of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, an angel in tears. The only thing that ruins the effect is the soft smattering of cat hair that dusts every available surface.
"Tahani?" Eleanor says, softly.
"Oh!" Tahani starts suddenly, as though she hadn't noticed Eleanor before. "Eleanor! I'm so sorry. Please, where are my manners. Would you like tea?"
Okay, Eleanor is back to hating her. This will not stand. She opens her mouth to tell Tahani that she's not better than her, that she's not so special because she's tall and rich and pretty and nice, but suddenly Tahani's face crumples back into the pool of tears and she falls, dramatically and cinematically, onto her sofa.
"Eleanor!" she wails, tossing her head back. "I-- It isn't fair!"
Eleanor is frozen. She thinks she should pat the other woman on the back or something, as if that would offer some comfort. "What isn't fair?"
"Miranda!" Tahani wails, the tears returning. "My soulmate! He hates me!"
"Hey," Eleanor says, perching delicately next to Tahani on the weird long couch. "It's-- I'm sure he doesn't hate you. He's a cat. He probably hates everyone."
Tahani just makes a pained noise and curls into a tighter ball.
"Hey," says Eleanor, touching Tahani on the back gently. "Tell me what happened?"
The breath Tahani takes sounds painful, like the kind of breath you might take through a filter of hot coals as she looks up at Eleanor, who has to restrain herself from wiping a tear from the corner of Tahani's perfect eye.
"It's just-- he asks for affection and then he rejects it and I--" Tahani hiccups. "I don't understand why he won't love me."
Eleanor doesn't flinch outwardly, but she feels the words like a sting. Maybe she was a cat in her last life. No, the one before that. She knows what she was in the last life. But still, she knows herself well enough to know that she'd do the same to Tahani. That she had.
"That's kinda how cats are," she says, instead of anything introspective and true. "It's not that he doesn't love you. It's that-- it's that he loves you in his own way."
The only noise in the room is that of Tahani's ragged breathing, which seems to be slowing and steadying and when Eleanor pulls herself together enough to meet the other woman's leather-store eyes she is shocked at the way Tahani is looking at her. "What?" she asks, the air between them seeming to spark.
This time, Tahani starts the kiss. But Eleanor is the one who gets her fingers into Tahani's hair, pulling her close and luxuriating in the soft curves of the perfect body against her own.
"Eleanor," Tahani whispers, when they finally break apart, flushed and breathless and stunned in their own ways. "I wanted to tell you--"
Eleanor doesn't want to hear it. Whatever it is, whatever Tahani is going to do with these kisses and Eleanor's secrets and a big empty mansion and an orange cat, Eleanor doesn't want to tempt fate. She can't.
So she does what comes naturally; she reaches out to trace the bow of Tahani's lips and then leans back in to kiss her again.
Tahani laughs into the kiss and pushes Eleanor back. "Eleanor, please. I wanted to tell you-- well, weeks ago. I don't-- there are times when I feel like I don't possibly belong here, either. Like-- like who cares how many millions I raised for charity when there are people like you-- like beautiful, humble, brilliant you and-- and I'm glad to know I'm not alone."
Eleanor sighs, resting her forehead against Tahani's, and weighs what she's going to do next very carefully.
She can see path one very clearly; she kisses Tahani again and they fumble with each other's clothing until they're naked and Eleanor has a veritable feast of a woman before her, ready to kiss and lick and suck and bite every perfect inch of her until that composure breaks and Tahani lies prone and panting and spent under her. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the night and every night until eternity ends.
And then there's path two; the path where she admits what she really meant and Tahani turns her in and Michael sends her away to the Bad Place to have all the hair on her body replaced with centipedes.
The feeling is heavy and it hurts and Tahani is looking at her like she's waiting for something to get said, like she needs to hear Eleanor agree that they're two of a kind so they can get to the sex and it has literally just now occurred to Eleanor that Janet could make any kind of strap-on she desired, made out of pure wishes or the concept of infinity or whatever and good god but she wants that, and she wants it with Tahani.
"Would you like," Eleanor smiles, brushing a hair off of Tahani's forehead, "to show me your bedroom?"
Tahani takes a measured breath before nodding and smiling. "I very much would," she says, standing and taking Eleanor's hand.
There are three things to know about Tahani Al-Jamil:
One, she likes to be told what to do in bed. Eleanor has no problem giving directions, especially when the person she's giving directions to is so eager to please that she's practically panting for approval and love. "You're so good," Eleanor whispers and Tahani arches under her. Eleanor is instantly addicted to the rush of breath Tahani lets out as she comes, a sweet little cry that Eleanor thinks she could stand to hear a few hundred more times before the day is over.
Two, she approaches sex with the the same single-minded efficiency as she does party planning, going above and beyond to make someone else feel special and needed and good.
Three, she makes Eleanor think there could be a future between them, one with picnics and walks and sharing clothing and all the other bullshirt couple stuff that Eleanor spent her mortal life avoiding as hard as possible. She never wanted that stuff, not with anyone she's ever dated. But Tahani makes it seem possible, makes it seem like something that it makes sense to want.
And she can't have it.
It isn't until Tahani falls asleep, her hair fanning out like a mermaid, that Eleanor starts to freak out.
She's used to leaving after sex; it makes it easier. And if she waits for the other person to fall asleep, it makes it way easier to take the cab fare out of their wallet before she does.
But if she leaves now, Tahani will still know here to find her. She'll know for all of eternity.
Is this the kind of thing where Tahani could maybe care about Eleanor despise her complete lack of virtues? What would Plato say? Eleanor doesn't know, but she's pretty sure that it would be something to the effect of, "You can't have a happy eternity with Tahani based on this kind of lie and also I regret not living at the same time as 4loko."
She can't keep Tahani. She's going to have to go back to her creepy clown house with the weird platform bedroom and the lumpy bed and the scruffy soulmate and endure an eternity of itchy eyes and ugly clothes and a reminder of how good this is so close that she can taste it. This is the worst. The afterlife is the worst.
It's the worst.
"Holy shirt," Eleanor breathes, looking up at the ceiling. This is bad. She hesitates for a moment, kissing Tahani sweetly on the forehead one last time before she prods her gently, to wake her up.
"Eleanor?" Tahani asks, blinking groggily and reaching out, like she's unsure of what just happened but totally down for round two.
"Tahani--" Eleanor swallows around the lump in her throat. She has to say this, and it is going to ruin every little perfect thing that has happened between them. "This isn't the Good Place. The Good Place would never give you a cat as a soulmate. It'd give you-- I don't know. Something that matches you. And they wouldn't give Chidi a horse because he worries about the ethical implications of soft boiled eggs so how can he possibly stand to know he's meant to be with something that has to literally be broken? They'd-- they'd give you something good."
Tahani's face crumples, fear creasing her brow as she seems to follow what Eleanor is saying. "So this is--?"
"Yeah," Eleanor says, hating herself for the timing. She couldn't even get to round two with the hottie next door before she figured it out. Smooth.
"We're in the forking Bad Place."