Iris had never understood why first dates were dreaded the way they were. Her friends talked about them like they were some kind of combat ritual, some horror show that had to be endured so that they might enter the realms of the mighty who had boyfriends and girlfriends. They traded stories about they guys who were too clingy, the ones who were too rough, the girls who were too shy or too loud, and each and every one of them just reinforced their ideas that the world was full of miserable, deranged sociopaths who wanted nothing more than to destroy a lovely evening out.
All she knew at this point was that she wouldn’t be able to tell stories about this date to her friends. “Yeah, he was really nice and we had a good time” would fall flat.
It was the truth, though. She’d met Lloyd at the post office, of all places, waiting in line behind an old woman who apparently wanted to send birthday cards to all of her grandchildren at once and with excruciating care. He and Iris had gotten to chatting about how this was such a first-world problem, and she told him about the time she had to wait a whole extra half hour at the DMV and he lamented about the cable company never coming when they promised, and they really hit it off. By the time they picked up their respective packages, he had her number, and called a couple of days later for a date.
They met at Javaville, because coffee shops were considered neutral ground, and talked about themselves over drinks. A few people waved at him when he came in, which was good. She got her coffee black, his was a soy milk latte, and she took a chance with some routine she’d heard from a comedian on TV a few years ago.
“You know that’s not soy milk, right?” she said.
He lifted an eyebrow. It looked good on him.
“Milk,” she went on, “has to come from a mammal, right? And last time I looked, soybeans didn’t lactate.”
He thought about this and nodded. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But then we’d have to call it ‘soy juice,’ and no one in their right mind would drink soy juice.” He winked and sipped at his latte. Iris suspected he had seen the same comedian, because that was pretty much the punchline to the joke. If he had, though, he didn’t call her on it.
They walked through the Hortus, the vast park in the center of the city. It was a lovely spring day and the water lilies were in bloom, making it almost tailor-made for a romantic first date. He walked close to her, but not too close, and talked about himself without seeming self-obsessed. In turn, Iris told stories about what she had done and where she had been, and didn’t try to crib from comedians anymore.
It wasn’t a date she could gripe about with her friends, but that was okay. She’d take this.
They ended the day at dinner, at a restaurant he promised was the best in the city. She stood in front of the chalkboard for a good minute and a half trying to work out the name of the place. Lloyd let her try it out a few times before he grinned and said, “It’s ‘Yggdrasillusions.’” He shrugged. “The owner has a thing for Norse mythology. Most of us just call it ‘Iggy’s’ to keep things simple.” He walked over and opened the door. “Ladies first?”
The restaurant was green. Really green. There were plants everywhere – hanging from the ceiling, growing in window boxes, and even vines crawling up the rough-hewn wooden walls. The restaurant smelled of heavy spices and loam, and light jazzy music piped in through speakers overhead. Young, pretty waitresses weaved through tables where couples and threesomes and foursomes were eating and chatting and laughing. Lloyd waved to a few people and patted some shoulders as they went to their table. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled when they saw him, all of which struck Iris as a good sign. Not how she was usually greeted when she walked into a place, but she’d take it.
The waitress was at their table as soon as they sat down. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Emili, and our specials tonight are a raw Mediterranean pesto torta, portabello burgers, and the chef’s special kale and spinach lasagna.” She beamed. “It’s really good, I had some for lunch today.”
“Thanks, Emili,” Lloyd said. “Give us a minute?”
Emili nodded and handed them menus before gliding off to help someone else. As Iris leafed through the menu, she felt her stomach grow cold. A sneaking suspicion was winding its way though her mind, and each dish she read off the menu seemed to confirm it. After a few minutes she looked up at Lloyd. “Is this a vegan restaurant?” she asked.
Lloyd smiled. “Best in the city,” he said. His smile wavered. “Is… that is okay, isn’t it?”
She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t remotely okay. She wanted to tell him that an otherwise lovely first date had suddenly turned into the inevitable horrible endurance trial her friends talked about, where she could see if she could get through the next hour and a half without being sick. Or going mad.
But she didn’t. “No,” she said. “No, it’s fine.” She smiled back at him, but she suspected Lloyd knew something was wrong.
They started off with a mountain vegetable tempura, accompanied by two different dipping sauces – one a spicy chili and the other a sweet plum sauce. Lloyd raved about them and told her about the time he tried to get the recipe off the chef, and how that had led him to a whole weird series of bets and bargains. To Iris, they tasted like chalk. Bland, flavorless bits that vanished from her memory as soon as she swallowed them.
The main course was a spicy chana masala, one of several Indian dishes that were on the menu. Emili told them about how the restaurant owner had gotten that recipe from a man he met while backpacking in India and how they were the only restaurant in the city to serve it. Lloyd clearly loved it, barely stopping to talk as he ate. Emili brought over some lychee-soy milk drinks and said they were on the house.
Iris picked at her food until she realized she was picking at it. She didn’t want to be That Date, the one he told stories about to his friends – Yeah, I brought her to my favorite place and she just nibbled at the food – so she scooped up spoonfuls and tried her best to look like she was enjoying herself. It went down like the flavorless pap they gave to babies and old people. There was no substance to it, no energy, and she wasn’t even sure it reached her stomach. The only thing even remotely good was the wine, but she suspected it was made from organic grapes by the thinness and emptiness of its flavor.
After a dessert of non-dairy ice cream and some coffee, Lloyd sat back, looking full and happy. “This really is a great place,” he said. “I’d come here every night if I could.”
Iris forced herself to smile and hoped her stomach wouldn’t growl. “Thanks for sharing it with me,” she said. There was a moment of awkward silence. “I do need to know, though – do you come here because the food is good, or because you’re vegan?”
He shrugged. “Any reason it can’t be both?” he asked. “The food’s great, and no animals died to get it to us. Win-win.” He sipped at his coffee. “Thanks for having an open mind about this, by the way,” he said. “I think you’ll find that vegan food is better than anything else you’ve eaten, and you’ll have a clean conscience in the end to boot.”
Iris nodded, and knew that there would be no second date.
He paid for dinner, although she tried to go in for half. He walked with her to the subway station and took her hand as they waited for his train. He’d had a really good time, and he’d definitely call her again. Soon. He promised. Iris tried not to let the mask slip and just said, “That would be nice.”
He waved to her as the subway pulled out. She waved back, once.
When the train was out of sight, she went back up aboveground and headed to the nearest SmackyBurger just a few blocks away.
The kid at the counter welcomed her to SmackyBurger, but she cut him off.
“Gimme a super-double burger with bacon.” She took a twenty out of her wallet. “Throw a couple of extra patties on there and this is yours.” The young man didn’t even hesitate to take the money.
Three minutes and forty-five seconds later, Iris was sitting in a booth and took a great, jaw-cracking bite of her burger.
The cows that had been slaughtered to make this burger had lived short and uneventful lives. Memories of packed bodies and chemical-laden feed flooded over her tongue and almost made her moan. The darkness of the slaughterhouse, the smell of blood and that last moment of realization before oblivion all washed over her, and within moments, she was licking her fingers. She went back up and ordered a chicken filet sandwich. This one was better than the first. The birds had been raised in a battery farm, kept in cages only slightly bigger than they were. They knew only suffering until the last moment of their lives, and that suffering, that knowledge of horror was what filled Iris’ stomach. The energy of fear and hopelessness and pain rushed through her. The world became vivid, alive.
No block of tofu had ever watched a farmer come at it with an axe. No carrot had ever smelled the blood of its brothers on the killing floor and been unable to run. No bean sprout had ever struggled for life, caged in with hundreds of competitors who wanted it dead.
Iris needed that suffering, that pain. She didn’t know why, but she knew what she liked. And she was pretty sure Lloyd wouldn’t understand.
She finished the chicken sandwich, wiped her hands on a napkin, and left the restaurant. She wasn’t sure how she would spin this into a first date horror story, but she was sure it would be better than the truth.
Chester woke up when the robot started cleaning, and he cursed at it in a low, slurry voice. If it was on, then it was four o’clock, and if it was four o’clock, then he had already slept through the better part of the day. He slid his feet out from under the cat, stretched, and tried to remember what it was he was neglecting to do that afternoon.
Something. He blinked against the light in the bathroom. Whatever it was, it sat in his head like a cold lump as he prodded it. Something.
He looked over his own shoulder in the mirror and saw his suit hanging from the hook on the door, and that cold, unpleasant something stirred in his mind, re-asserting itself in his memory.
Chester sighed and took a moment to gaze into his own reflection before he started stripping off his clothes to take a shower.
The car ride to the lawyer’s office was a long one, moreso for the rush-hour traffic. It gave him time to think, which he neither needed nor wanted. He’d done all the thinking he needed to do already, made the decisions that had to be made. Today was a formality and nothing more. He turned on the radio to give him a distraction as he sat at a red light. It was a modern pop station, some band of kids singing about being together forever, as if they had any idea what that meant. He punched a button and the radio went looking for something else. Classic rock. No. Adult contemporary. No. Classical. No. Public radio. No. He ran through the cycle twice more before just turning the radio off again and concentrating on driving.
Nichole’s voice dropped into his head, asking why he couldn’t just pick something and stick with it, and he shook his head. There she was, right on cue.
“Not like you were any better at it, were you?” he asked the empty car.
At least I tried.
“Sure you did. For how long, a month? A year, maybe?”
You never wanted to stay in this marriage anyway. You were too busy trying to write your little book. Too interested in dead people to see the person who was just dying right in front of you!
Chester tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “Very nicely exaggerated, Nikki. At least I was doing something with my life, more than managing some little clothing store and spending nights getting drunk with my girlfriends.”
What do you want from me, Chester? An apology? Fine. I’m sorry I didn’t wait on you hand and foot and praise your genius. Okay? I’m sorry I didn’t devote my days to making sure you had the peace and quiet to look up French kings or whatever the hell it was.
“The French Revolution,” he said through clenched teeth.
Oh, yeah. Brilliant. Like no one has ever written a book about that before. Good pick, Chet.
He flet a new round of invective boiling up inside, and he cut it short with a hiss of breath. I’m arguing with my own brain again, he thought. It was an old habit, a bad one he tried to break, but couldn’t manage to get away from. His therapist told him that it was really more about him than about the person he was imagining, and he should learn lessons from it, but what actually happened was that it made him more tense and wound up than he’d been before. He’d planned to go into this meeting with a kind of detached resignation, but now he was ready for a fight. A fight that was already over.
Morgan Ellstrom’s office was in an unremarkable building off of a strip mall. Chester pulled in next to a very familiar sky-blue car and took a few moments to himself in the parking space. He took deep breaths and repeatedly squelched Nichole’s voice in his head. He waited until the dashboard clock read 5:25, gave his head a shake to clear it, and then got out of the car.
The inside was tastefully if minimally decorated, and the receptionist smiled at him and told him to go on into the conference room. He noticed a look of sympathy in her eyes, and wondered if it was really there or if he was just projecting again. He went to the conference room and stood in the doorway.
Nichole and the lawyer were already there. Morgan stood up. “Hi, Chester,” he said. “Right on time. Have a seat.”
Chester sat across from Nichole, and gave her a brief, tight smile. She looked good. He took a brief sniff, but she wasn’t wearing perfume today. She always wore it for special days, and he knew that, for the rest of his life, any time he smelled that perfume he would remember her. She looked at him briefly and then looked away. When Morgan started handing out the paperwork, she took a deep breath and sat up a little straighter.
The process was pretty simple. They had no children, no real assets that they owned together. Their five years of marriage had been emotionally intense, but not very productive in terms of building a life together. It was the first thing he’d noticed when she moved out – there was nothing left of hers for him to stumble over. She managed to disentangle herself from him without a lot of real effort. He woke up the day after and saw only holes, the places where she had been, and recognized that they could be very easily smoothed over.
Chester applied his signature to a document, then passed it to Nichole, who signed it and passed it back to Morgan. They did this several times, no one speaking or looking at each other, except for the inner dialogue that Chester had to keep down.
You never even cared, did you?
I hope your life is empty, meaningless, shambles.
You’ll never really know what you had.
He passed the last form to Nichole, a little more forcefully than he had the others. She glanced up at him, then signed it and handed it to Morgan. He put them all into a manila file folder and stood up with his hands folded in front of him. “That’s it,” he said. He looked from Chester to Nichole and back again. “Thank you for coming in. Do you need anything? A glass of water or something?” Chester didn’t say anything. Nichole shook her head, picked up her purse and went to shake Morgan’s hand. “Thank you,” she said. Morgan shook it in a very professional manner and let her go. He turned to Chester.
“Thanks,” Chester said, and took the offered hand.
“Good luck,” Morgan said, and he patted Chester on the shoulder. A friendly gesture, but Chester flinched.
Outside, the sun was still hiding above scattered clouds but Nichole had her sunglasses on. She had opened her car door, but was waiting for Chester to come out. He stopped at the entrance to the office and counted to ten in his head. Nichole’s face turned to follow him as he fished for his keys and went to his car.
“Chet,” she said.
He unlocked the door and glanced up at her. He waited for a moment while she chewed her lip, trying to build up to whatever it was she was going to say.
“Chet,” she said again.
Chester opened the door and got in. She started to say something, but he closed the door in mid-sentence. He tried not to look at her as he pulled out of the parking lot, but she was clear in his rear-view mirror – standing by her car in that suit, watching him leave. He didn’t try to listen to the radio this time as he drove home. He tried to think about what to have for dinner. Maybe pizza. Maybe he’d swing by a fast-food joint.
You’re an asshole, you know that?”
Chester nodded, and blinked away tears. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know.”