I tilt my head and use my teeth to filter the last watery drops of my Manhattan through the ice. From across the room, the server meets my eyes. I lift the glass, place my index finger on the rim, and mouth another.
I don’t know how many I’ve had. I counted everyone else’s but lost track of my own. My chief technology officer is on number three and a faint slur further emphasizes the mellow drawl of his southern California accent. Across the glimmering San Francisco Bay, a heavy fog slices the Transamerica Pyramid into a trapezoid.
I sip my drink, rest my elbow on the table and worry about the etiquette. Is it only impolite before dinner? I only think of etiquette on rare occasions when I am with people more powerful than me. Perhaps because the chairman is such a well-groomed, well-mannered man. He even usually wears a suit. He could easily be cast as a stock photo model—handsome and well dressed. Whisked up an escalator with a briefcase and a faint determined smile.
The server returns with my Manhattan. Her screen juts out of the elasticized pockets of her jeans-but-not-jeans pants. Multiple pieces of tape cover the microphone piece. A faint sadness trickles through me at the thought that some people can’t even afford the cute metal covers that most people use. Which reminds me—I need a new one. Though, I don’t believe the conspiracy theory that the government is listening in on our conversations. Sadly, I don’t think anyone is even interested in my conversations. I’m not anyone. Even the chairman, this mild-mannered man who no one could possibly love or hate, isn’t anyone. He’s just another guy in Silicon Valley worth eight figures. And my net worth is only in the mid to high sevens.
I glance at the rest of our group, their eyes pulled toward the window. I spin around. Two New California government cars lurk in front of the restaurant. We continue our conversations but steal glances. I crane my neck when the car door opens. The chairman, filing his screen in his jacket pocket, does the same.
He raises his eyebrows and glances back at me. “Looks like Josh Winston,” he says. “And his wife.”
“Wow,” I say.
I catch a glimpse of Josh Winston’s familiar perfectly trimmed brown hair and broad shoulders as he steps back while his wife emerges from the car. A government protection officer swoops in and ushers him into a back entrance, blocking my view.
The chairman turns back toward me. “Guess this is the place to be. You’d think they would have more security for him.”
“Yeah I guess so,” I reply.
“Have you ever met him?”
“Josh Winston? No, I haven’t.”
He smiles and shakes his head. “Great guy.”
Outside, young government protection officers with semi-automatic tranquilizer guns patrol the area.
The chairman drinks the last of his beer and sets the glass down hard.
He pivots toward me. “Cora, the potential investor I mentioned—we’ll have a call with him next week. Look for the invite.”
“Sure,” I say. “I look forward to it.”
The chairman stands and pats the pockets of his black suit pants. I nod goodbye and meet his brown eyes, flanked with tan skin weathered from too much time at his beach house. His large frame, paired with his mild-mannered personality, is a complete waste on him.
Rather than join my co-executives at the adjacent table, I stay and work on my drink. A wave of excited hushed tones and turned heads point me to where Josh Winston has reappeared. A few meters away, he scans the restaurant before he sits. He’s taller than I would have guessed and somehow softer-looking, fleshy, like apparently I thought he’d be made of the cold glass of the screens I see him on. A government protection officer steps in to shield him from view. His arms crossed, his tranquilizer gun around his shoulders swings until it settles, pointing at a petite stylish woman obscenely sucking a sauce-covered chicken wing like she has no idea our Minister of Technology is seated at the next table.
I wonder what it’s like to have that kind of power. That opulent importance. Even as the CEO of a small organization, no one acts like that when I walk in. There’s no hush of excitement. No one sitting up taller in their seats, trying to look engaged.
Until recently, I always barreled forward towards my next accomplishment with a wholesome enthusiasm that now makes me cringe. Yet, whenever I achieved something, I was already over it, and onto the next thing. It worked for me, though, and made my day-to-day life abuzz with a kind of glow.
I leave and wait outside for my UberLone among a sea of vapers young enough to be my children. I wave away the sickeningly sweet cherry vanilla cloud lazily drifting toward me. I’d almost rather smell cigarettes. I avoid interaction, but in my peripheral vision I detect a purple-haired woman drifting toward me.
“Are you from New York?” she asks.
I make eye contact for a millisecond only. “No.”
“Where are you from, then?”
“Michigan. And then Chicago. But, yeah, I did live in New York for several years,” I say.
Proud of herself, she nods. “Right on.” She smiles and stares into my eyes.
I regard her blankly. Her eyes linger on mine while she wraps her lips around the vaporizer and sucks in hard, mangling her face while she holds the fumes in her lungs. She exhales with a slight cough. The smoky fog reaches my nose and I realize it is not an e-cigarette, but marijuana through a vaporizer.
“Want a hit?” she asks.
Is she flirting or being a friendly New Californian? How would anyone ever know? I look her over once more. Young, short, splotchy eyeliner. Smells of dirty hair. Definitely not my type.
My UberLone arrives and I climb in. The car crawls along until we reach the autonomous-only lane.
Why do so many people ask me if I’m from New York? The first few times, I was proud I hadn’t erased the grit of New York. Now, ten years after California seceded and I moved here, I wonder if I will ever belong among these relaxed, casual-chic Californians. Sometimes, to assimilate, I consider purchasing non-black clothing, but once I try them on I look like my mother. Far too wholesome and middle-aged—and decidedly un-Californian.
My UberLone rolls by blocks of modern glass and steel apartment buildings which house recent college grads for free while they work entry-level professional-class jobs. They wear stylish clothes and strut around the Shipyards neighborhood, speckled with tech gadgetry. Rolling by, I marvel at their arrogance.
The jobber colonies are markedly different. While jobbers also receive free housing and pay zero income and sales tax, they’re destined to a life of service jobs and it shows in their look, their walk, and their resigned attitude. Of course, you can’t generalize. Not out loud, anyway.
I settle into the plush seat. I don’t take UberAir unless my blood alcohol level is high enough to overcome my claustrophobia. I like the friction of the road.
Back in the United States of America, everyone always said you could do whatever you wanted, and you could, it was true—but it was hard. Anyway, this isn’t the United States of America, this is New California—the U.S. v2.0. No poverty, no guns, but all the freedom and ostentatiousness.
I chuckle, reach into my purse, and fish out a small bottle of port. My racing thoughts call for another drink. I uncap it, throw my head back, and let the medicinal sweetness burn through my body. I just want to lay back, listen to French Electro Swing, and watch the lights on the metal pylons flick by above the dark seductive boil of the water below.
Just a few hours ago, the sober reality of Monday swirled through me. The mild discomfort of my own skin occasionally detonating into a deep thud of existential dread. With just a few drinks, I was put back together. The part of me that is usually asleep—the shark, appeased by alcohol, finally relaxed rather than circling.
Then Tuesday comes and it’s gone. The dread, the shark, everything. Like it was a dream, and I’m always numb, like after a good cry. Then, Wednesday and Thursday—sometimes I don’t even drink, and the drive comes back and I float through the days on the high of using my mind and doing it well. Then Friday, drinks, because, really, they complement time with my wife and kids so well. Then Saturday, Sunday, the same.
Then the cycle starts again.
Right now, though, everything feels just right. The orange glow of sunset matches the lights of San Francisco below. A low fog lingers between the harsh wind and the sun-warmed air.
I need somewhere for my mind to go when other thoughts spoil. A quick jolt to ride out the mundanity. Are other people really content with normal things, like a decent enough spouse, some kids, and a job? I want the best job, the most money, the prettiest wife, smart interesting kids. Like, three girlfriends, for people on the street to recognize me—but only sometimes. Limousines, hotel rooms with stairs, vacation houses in foreign locales. But if I had all that, I’d be bored already and discontent once again.
A wave of exhaustion overcomes me. My thoughts settle and I walk through tomorrow’s schedule. Work, then a talk for kids at the jobber colony. The novelty of money and success wear off, so I try to be a good person and do positive things. I need a purpose. I dread going because the last time I went, one of the parents was rude to me. She said something about brainwashing the children to be power-hungry and greedy, while regarding me with complete, withering disgust. After I left, the initial hurt and shock mutated into anger. My greed and appetite for power earn the money I pay in taxes, which in turn pays for her housing and supplemental income. And she had the nerve to insult me!
With a fresh burst of electric car might, the car leaps up the last steep hill, cementing me to the seat back. I marvel at the narrow Victorian houses, sigh, and rest my head. Once at my own narrow but imposing Victorian house, I emerge from the car, trot up the steps, and scan my screen to let myself in.
Perhaps not entirely by accident, the following day, I arrive at the jobber school late. When my UberLone concludes my ride there, I am tired and unmotivated. I drag myself out of the car. The school is stylish and modern, but cheaply built, as if purchased from Ikea.
I arrive in the classroom which is abuzz with the sounds of children talking among themselves. Many crane their necks—presumably told to stay at their desks—attempting to communicate across the room. Fewer parents are present than the last time.
I smile and mumble apologies to the teacher while she guides me to the front of the room. The children continue to chatter while I plug in my screen. I scan my audience for the rude woman from last time. She’s not there. Instead, there is a skinny, well-dressed guy who I presume to be a stay-at-home dad, an overweight woman with an endearing smile, and an attractive woman who makes me skip a breath.
Her legs crossed, she leans heavily on the armrest of her chair and converses with the smiley woman. She half listens, twirls her messy but sexy blonde hair, and nods. She wears a stylish blue and white striped dress and red lipstick. Her full, pouty lips form a secretive smirk in the shadow of her high cheekbones. She turns to me. Her eyes are brown and not the blue or green I expected. I smile, mouth closed, and let my eyes linger on hers before I turn away. Every time I glance back, her smile grows.
I picture her hands on me and my hands around her waist, her face close to mine, and what sorts of words her pretty lips might form. An intoxicating wave of emotions blooms within me, like the onset of hallucinogens. A line in my life. A before and an after. Without any explanation I think: this, is one of those lines.
Fortified by her seductive gaze, I am confident and excited to speak. The teacher introduces me and explains I’m part of New California’s Share the Knowledge program. A program in which rich assholes tell jobber children how they came to be rich assholes.
I tell them about my career. How I earned my MBA in Chicago, then moved to New York, then finally San Francisco, where I ran various tech start-ups and walked away with a payout.
With the right motivation and energy, I can be quite charming—which exhausts me, so normally I don’t bother. But now, I can do anything under the spell of this woman’s gaze.
Once I’m done, a few of the children run up to tell me my talk was funny and interesting, and to ask me questions.
A boy with dark brown hair and navy blue eyes approaches. “You’re my favorite share the knowledge talker, most of them are so boring!” he says.
I smile. “Thank you.”
I peer over the children’s heads for the woman with pouty lips. She saunters toward me. She approaches the boy with the large glasses, places her hand on his head, and whispers something into his ear, causing him to nod and run away.
“Nice to meet you, Cora. I enjoyed the talk,” she says.
She isn’t as tall as I thought, about four centimeters shorter than me. She’s very curvy, but with a slim waist that my arm feels magnetically drawn towards. Her strong yet feminine hand holds her screen which I’m surprised is not government-issued. She types something into her screen, somehow unhandicapped by her talon-like, manicured fingernails. Her perfume smells of black cherries and USD. Transfixed by the warm texture in the deep brown of her eyes, I stare at her, smiling stupidly.
“Nice to meet you…”
“Ashley. Nice to meet you, Ashley.”
Her eyes meet mine through her thick, dark eyelashes. I attempt to gaze back in the same seductive way but she throws her head back and laughs. I turn away, embarrassed. I jump in surprised delight when she grabs my forearm and guides me to the side of the room. Her hip touches mine. We stop. Her eyes dart around the room then refocus on me. She clutches my bicep, sending waves of excitement through my body.
My ear tingles from her warm breath as she whispers conspiratorially: “Listen, there’s this party tomorrow night in Oakland—Shipyards neighborhood. Come. I’ll send you the details.” She gestures with her screen. “My screen is open, send me your info.”
Before I can respond, she gives my arm a final squeeze and disappears. I scramble to retrieve my screen from my back pocket. Ashley. I find her account and share my info. She accepts and I have her saved. Ashley Doral.
Once I return to work, my excitement and lust morphs into suspicion and second guessing. Up until this moment, I’ve been absolutely certain that she was flirting with me, but could there be some other motivation for her inviting me to this party? Like, maybe she wants to talk to me about a pyramid scheme, Jesus, or some fucked up new cult? I decide to message her. I struggle with what to say. I write and delete rambling, awkward messages. Next I go for flirtatious, then brusque and professional, but delete those too. Finally, my thumbs compose a final draft and I press send.
Nice to meet you Ashley! Tell me more about this party.
I fidget in my chair. Panic rises and I second guess what I sent. Screen in hand, I pace around my office. I check if she’s writing back. She’s not. I tear myself away, sit down, and refocus my attention on my work screens, but find it impossible.
My screen buzzes. Anticipation surges through me. It reads “Ashley Doral.” I like how her name looks on my screen. I open the message:
Hello Cora darling, it was nice to meet you too… Party is at Middle Harbor and Seventh. Would you like to pick me up?
I smile involuntarily, my eyes dart toward the door to my office to make sure no one sees. I picture her heavily lined sultry brown eyes boring into mine. I imagine kissing her red lips, placing my hands on each side of her waist and pulling her to me. I respond.
Sounds great, I’m looking forward to it! I will pick you up in an UberAir. Let me know where/when.
The message app indicates she is typing. I shakily hold my screen directly in front of my face in anticipation.
7:45 Vallarta colonies #33. Don’t be late baby. We’ll have fun.