While trying to recover the passion for life they had as an undergrad duo, Simon and Eva are sent on a mission of piecing together a four-decades-old mystery and reuniting lost friends.
♫ ♫ “The drought was the very worst ...” ♫ ♫
My eyes sprang open. I would know that track anywhere. Even at ... oh hell, what time was it?
Squinting, I could see a glowing green “7:03 a.m.” on the microwave across the room. Oh god. Having worked nights at a newspaper for the past two years, I hadn’t seen this time of the morning since an early Tuesday/Thursday course my sophomore year in college.
♫ ♫ “Rain came pouring down ...” ♫ ♫
The thirteenth track from Taylor’s latest album — and arguably the best power ballad of her career — crept through the three open bay windows of Eva’s third-floor apartment and floated over to my temporary home, the couch.
Who in gay hell blasts music at 7 in the morning? And why didn’t Eva close the windows in her comfy little nook before we passed out last night?
Tugging on the thick blanket that Eva had thrown at me five nights ago when I unexpectedly flew here, I sat up, wrapped it around my body and plotted the best way to shut the windows while avoiding the frozen hardwood floor.
I couldn’t currently feel my toes, but I knew Eva was snug as a bug in her room. Deciding that it was better to cross the tundra than to die right here on this Laura Ashley hand-me-down at age 25, I pulled a move that even Mary Lou Retton would be jealous of. Standing on the middle cushion and dropping the blanket — which was all I had on besides a pair of tie-dye briefs — I managed to flip and lunge toward the nook. The fewer steps I had to take, the better. (I may be hairy, but I’m no polar bear.)
“How does that girl not die?” I complained through chattering teeth, now forced to tip-toe. If not from the cold, I’m sure the Zodiac Killer or a rabid animal could scale the seafoam-colored apartment building and crawl through a window. The bone-chilling temperature and fog that engulfed the city overnight was seriously the perfect combination for a homicide. And by god, I will not have some sexy forensic investigator poking my body (which by that point would have gone full rigor mortis) and scraping under my fingernails for the flesh of my killer. Something I learned from my mother: Be ready at all times for the man of your dreams to waltz by — even in the middle of the night, just in case your apartment goes up in flames and a Jewish fireman busts down the door to carry you out in his strong (but gentle and loyal) arms.
(Yes, that’s my idea of the perfect man. But I’d settle for a muscled, Jewish doctor. Options, people.)
The frigid steps across the hardwood floor dumped a bucket of ice on my hot thoughts. Finally reaching the nook, it was time to locate the Starbucks Lover and glare at him (or her) before shutting the window.
♫ ♫ “And by morning, gone was every trace of you ...” ♫ ♫
As I suspected, it was wafting all the way over from the building across the street. Two apartments to the right and one floor down to be exact. The apartment’s only window was wide open. What the hell is wrong with the people living in this city?
Now it was time to put my five years of journalism school to use.
□ Was the apartment dweller a man or a woman?
□ Was this person single or tied down? (Never say “taken,” because it’s always possible to jimmy those ropes loose, or at least that’s what Eva always said. Reminder to self: Grab The Art of Seduction from her bookshelf and memorize as if my life depended on it.)
Spying without contacts, I thought I could see the back of someone’s head sitting at what I guessed was their kitchen table, probably a harried corporate ladder climber inhaling a bowl of oatmeal before heading off to sit all day in a cubicle.
The person shifted and a box was revealed: Cocoa Puffs.
The made-up history I had assigned to the back of a head was beginning to unravel. Maybe he wasn’t some Silicon Valley slave after all. By now, my head was hanging out the center window of the nook, and I hated myself for not cramming my people-watching-at-the-park binoculars in the small carry-on I brought to San Francisco. (Second note to self: Purchase another pair. Pronto.) From my vantage point, though, I could tell that it was a guy somewhere in his mid-20s. And if he’s blasting Tay Swift as a wake-up jam, he’s probably on my side of the Kinsey Scale. Things were suddenly looking up. Unemployment and being poor wouldn’t be so bad if I had some steady man-candy to ogle.
If only I could get a closer lo— —
“If this is some sort of suicide attempt, I don’t think your hips could squeeze through the frame,” said Eva, causing me to squeal and fall back into the apartment. “Honey, stop creeping on my neighbors.”
Eva giggled and came over to rub my head.
“Are you going to leave the apartment today?” she asked, less concerned about a concussion and more about why I had shown up at her door a few days ago.
My mental health was in question and she was pushing me out into the cold, cruel city to find a job and to talk to someone besides her or the two orange cats that lived on the second floor.
“Well, it’s not too late to apply for a master’s program, so I thought about looking into that. Something easy, of course, and something the world of journalism has prepared me for.”
Eva bugged her eyes.
“That costs money. Money of which you have none,” Eva started and then paused to think of another option, rubbing her chin like a wise old man who meditates in a hot-yoga room for a week straight. “Why don’t you meet up with that girl, Karen, you met while waiting for your job interview yesterday?”
There never was a job interview. Not even a Karen. All fabricated.
Eva had cornered me when I wandered into her apartment yesterday, so I just blurted out something about making a new friend. I was desperate not to sound desperate.
“Uh ... she’s Mormon.”
It was the best excuse I could think of at the time. Eva raised both eyebrows and then slowly cocked her head to the side before deciding she didn’t want to bother with a follow-up question.
“Well ... I have an idea on how to keep you busy while I’m at work,” said Eva, treating me like a toddler who she had to drop off at daycare while at her big girl job. She even made a few efforts to child-proof the apartment, moving a few of her valuables to higher ground. “It might be a little out of your comfort zone, but it involves Tumblr! And you love Tumblr!”
She was using her teacher voice like I was in kindergarten. She rarely used this trick on me, but I think she was grasping. She knew if I didn’t step outside of the apartment — even for just a few hours to wander around — things were only going to get worse. I quit my job six days ago. Who does that? Who just quits a paying job without already having another opportunity lined up? Someone who’s going through a quarter-life crisis. That’s who. And I think Eva was scared because she was also on the brink of one. We were lost. We got into college, excelled, graduated and then found jobs. We followed the blueprint that had been laid before us by shows like “Boy Meets World” and “Dawson’s Creek.” But what happens after you get your first job? The next milestones are marriage, kids and then retirement.
Eva and I didn’t like the limited options.
“I know you’re not listening to me. You’re in your head again,” said Eva, touching up her makeup in the round, decorative mirror next to the front door and then heading back to where I had flopped down on the cushioned nook. “Talk to me.”
Fine. I’ll talk: “You have fabulous hardwood floors. I can slide over to the fridge wearing nothing but black socks.”
“You better be wearing more than black socks. I pray to the gods that I never see your penis.” A pause. “I’m sure it’s nice, though.”
She was right, I needed out of this apartment. “Okay, so what’s your idea that involves the beautiful escapism of Tumblr?” I asked, clutching Eva’s biggest pillow that had a thousand little flower petals embroidered onto it.
Seven hours later
The streets were dirty and the people were pushy. Why had I agreed to leave the comfort of Eva’s professionally decorated, climate-controlled apartment? Probably because she practically tossed me out.
“Where you going, sweetie?” asked a burly man wearing an electric-blue dress that barely came above his knee-high black leather boots. His getup screamed Ariana Grande chic until I noticed the white daisies in his hair. Ariana would never don a flower wreath.
He was standing in front of a bar that had "Dongs" painted on a large glass window that separated those on the inside from passers-by on the sidewalk. Pausing just long enough to peer in, I saw that all the patrons were in amateur drag.
Just another day in the gay neighborhood.
Clutching my old lady pearls — code for zipping my jacket and pointing to my headphones, letting this pitiful excuse for a drag queen know that I couldn’t hear him — I picked up the pace. The man, who had walked farther out onto the sidewalk and was now standing under one of the many rainbow flags that lined the street, didn’t really scare me. But after being in the city for a week, I made it a basic rule not to talk to strangers, especially ones with more body hair than I.
Not that I ever really talked to anyone who I didn’t already know. A side effect of being socially awkward, I guess. After a week of talking to barely anyone — and avoiding phone calls from my mother who still didn’t know I quit my job and flew across the country on a whim — it was time to re-enter the world. Kind of, if you count posting a casting call on Tumblr for Sterek fans to meet me at a coffee shop as re-entering the world.
My destination was right around the corner from our apartment building and 20 feet away from the stocky man in bad drag. Just a few more steps.
The plan was for me to interact with a handful of shippers for about 30 minutes and then Eva would get off work. If things were going well, we would rendezvous after the Sterek meet-up. If it were awkward and silent and scary, she would land a helicopter on the roof, drop down a rope and life-flight me out of there.
Roasted, my coffee-shop destination, was part of Eva’s weekday morning routine. She’d stop by before heading off to the fabulous world of book publishing and raved about how off-the-beaten path it was. It sounded like the perfect meet-up place for a group of people who kept their social lives within the confines of a Tumblr tag.
Reaching its orange awning that Eva had described, I stopped to make sure it was the right place. Nowhere on the building did it display its name or the fact that it was a coffee shop. Eva really wasn’t lying when she said that no tourist would be found here. I just hoped the Tumblr gang would a) find it and b) be brave enough to go in.
Startled out of my daze, I looked up from the manuscript I’d been poring over, not in the mood to deal with the person standing there.
Like clockwork, Lisa was at my desk with both hands on her fat hips, trying to show off her new “leather” mini-skirt that was way too short for the office. “Thought you might need some more,” she said with a sneer, peering down at the giant stack of unread (and probably unpublishable) manuscripts.
“Thanks for that,” I said, trying to hold back. I had recently started at my dream publishing house and didn’t want to mess it up by pissing off the boss’ current girlfriend. “Reign it in, Eva,” had become my silent mantra.
“Anytime,” Lisa said, teetering away in a pair of heels she had no idea how to walk in. I held up my phone and snapped a picture of the fashion disaster that was my least favorite co-worker. I quickly added the image to an iMessage and sent it to Simon, my best friend and recently acquired roommate. It was a game we played to get through the day, I sent pictures of Lisa and Simon did his best Regina George impression. They always ended with the same message: #meangirls. It always brought a smile to my face and helped break up the monotony of the job. Plus, trying to sneak the pictures was fun in that don’t-get-caught way.
I stretched my back, listening to every vertebrae pop (Mental note: I really need to start sitting up straight) and rubbed my temples. It was only 11:35 a.m. I had been there since 8 and the pile of manuscripts on the corner of my teeny desk was growing much faster than I could read.
I had always wanted to be a publisher, but the entry-level job — the bottom-of-the-totem-pole position I managed to land — meant that I got to sit all day and read awful attempts at novels. The manuscripts that no one else wanted to bother with, the unknown authors hoping to make it big, yep, they all ended up on my desk.
I picked up the booklet I had been working through when Lisa had distracted me. It was a romance novel complete with very graphic descriptions of the protagonist’s junk, but the storyline was flimsy. “Her breast swelled under his touch. She barely noticed the frosty grass under her back as she gazed up from the forest floor captivated by the feelings he was invoking,” I read under my breath, shaking my head at the unoriginal cliché. Sex in a forest in the middle of winter? Not only would that be uncomfortably chilly, but also I couldn’t even comprehend the dirt and grass stains that would come from a rendezvous like that.
Ever since 50 Shades of Grey became a worldwide phenomenon, it seemed like every housewife in America was putting her sexual frustrations to paper and sending them to Parchment Publishing. Some of them weren’t terrible and I sent back a form letter about e-publishing, others were sent to my editor because there might be something there or at least a fun project for the marketing team, but for most, their shelf life was shorter than a gallon of milk — destined for the shredder.
I chuckled, perfect timing.
I hoped this game would brighten Simon’s mood. Since he got here a few days ago — after quitting his job, hopping on a plane and surprising me at my apartment — he’d barely left. I thought I saw him sneak out a few times to ogle at the shirtless joggers who ran by after putting in hours in the corporate world, but I couldn’t be sure. I felt bad; I had been tough on him this morning and forced him to post a “seeking friendship” ad on Tumblr. Something I never would do myself, but he needed to interact with someone! (Even if they were crazed fan fiction readers.)
I dove back into my work, determined to finish the god awful story in front of me, mark it on my spreadsheet as “not accepted” and put it in the pile on the floor of all the other manuscripts that needed to be stored and then disposed of. I had one hour until lunch.
I loved to read and no matter how horrid the book was, I always enjoyed the stories that people attempted to weave together. The characters fought, made up, and ended up happily ever after, like always. So predictable, so overdone, but at least I got to spend my days reading. I took a sip of my now-cold dirty chai latte and tossed the manuscript to join the other four rejects I read this week. It felt bad crushing people’s literary dreams day after day, but that was my job and if I were to continue living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, I couldn’t afford to send a mediocre story on to the higher ups. First jobs after college sucked, the pressure was insane to prove your worth and everyone looked down on you. It was enough to cause a few meltdowns over the past few months.
“Earth to Eva,” Kacey, my only work friend tapped on my desk, “ready to go grab lunch?” Kacey and I were the only two “young people,” as our boss referred to us, in the office. We were the token 20-somethings lucky enough to get hired. We were brought into the fold to bring “a younger person’s insight to the workplace,” but since signing our contracts and handing over our lives to Parchment, our insights had never been asked for again.
I spun around in my chair, tossed my empty cup in the trash and grabbed my purse. “Sure! Going to the café today? Or are you still only drinking juice?” Kacey was one of those girls who tried every fad diet around even though she had no weight to lose.
“No, that juice thing just made me gassy. It didn’t do anything,” said Kacey, applying a bright-pink lipstick using her iPhone’s camera. “I’m over dieting for now. I just signed up for like a billion cycling classes. Plus, a man I met at the bar last night is a yoga instructor and he said if I go get drinks with him next week he’ll give me a one-on-one hot yoga session.”
We started toward the elevator.
“So in a way you’re like a fitness escort. You go out with a guy and he pays you with sweaty exercise,” I laughed.
Kacey stabbed the down arrow and it opened immediately.
“Oh hush. He’s fucking gorgeous and he has those side abs, you know, the ones that drive me wild. If I play my cards right, hot yoga will turn into something just as sweaty before our hour session is even half over.” Kacey dropped her phone in her bag, oblivious to how uncomfortable she’d made the two older women standing in the corner.
At lunch I sipped my water and picked at a green salad. Kacey told stories of her crazy weekend, chastising me for skipping out on the club. She was in the middle of trying to remember how to make the hot new cocktail she was in love with when she stopped mid-sentence. “Eva ... He’s back! He’s looking.”
“He’s back already? I thought he was going to be gone for weeks. That’s what he said. Shit, Kacey, I didn’t even try this morning. What do I look like?”
“You’re fine. You look great. Actually, I love that eye shadow.” Kacey peered across the cafeteria, located on the third floor of the high rise we worked in. In the corner stood a very tall man with chestnut hair. His name was Carter and we had been circling each other for months. “Yay!” Kacey clapped excitedly, “he’s coming over!”
I slapped my friend’s hands out of the air; she was as bad at subtly as Simon. “Calm down. He’s going to think we’re insane. Just act normal.” We both watched as he walked over and I tried to remember to breathe. He had amazing blue eyes. I forgot how much fun it was to have a crush; although childish, I couldn’t find a better way to describe it.
“Hey, Eva.” Carter smiled as he approached.
“Hi, I thought you were supposed to be in London?” I asked, interested in why he always seemed to show up when I was the least prepared.
“The deal went through earlier than expected. I didn’t need to be there any longer, so I hopped on the next plane and headed back. I hate to be so sudden, but I am running late for a meeting. Before I left we talked about getting drinks. You free on Saturday?”
“She’s free!” Kacey jumped in before I could come up with an excuse. “Here’s her number,” she added, handing him a napkin she had hurriedly scribbled my number on. “Pick her up at 7. She lives on Bay Street. Look for a quasi-blue, three-story building with huge windows.”
“Ummm thanks, Kace. I guess I’m free and you have my number now, so I guess I will see you Saturday,” I smiled up at Carter. He smiled back, thanked Kacey for her help and headed toward the elevator bay.
When he was safely out of sight, I looked at Kacey, who was beaming, proud of her not-so-subtle matchmaking abilities.
“I hate you,” I said, shaking my head and laughing. “What am I going to do? That’s in two days! I have to shave my legs! I have nothing to wear. Did I mention that I hate you?”
Seven hours later
The afternoon went by in a flash. I could barely focus on what seemed to be a decent novel. Carter had finally made a move and I was in shock. There was nothing that made my palms sweat more than dating. And at times like these there is only one place and one thing that can calm me down. A soy dirty chai latte at Roasted.
Roasted is my favorite spot in the city. Once a brick oven pizza joint, it was now the best coffee place around. The biggest perk was that it was pretty hidden except for an orange awning, which meant the tourists that I so despised hadn’t yet found it.
I sneaked in and took a deep breath of the coffee-scented air and enjoyed the instant calming effect it had on my jumbled nerves. The exposed brick walls and the overstuffed, used couches only added to its charm. I caught Simon’s eye and nodded to where I would be sitting. He was in a group of people all wearing red sweatshirts and looked to be enjoying himself.
I walked to the counter, ordered my regular and situated myself in a booth near the fireplace (previously the brick oven). I closed my eyes and took a sip of my drink. I’d relax and unwind until Simon was finished, which better be soon. I desperately needed to fill him in.