It’s 12:22 PM and Apple and Christine are waiting for banh mi sandwiches in a small Vietnamese cafe on Franklin Street in Oakland’s Chinatown, just blocks from the city’s urban epicenter at 12th and Broadway. Apple is explaining, for perhaps the fifth or sixth time since Christine began working under her in late June, the economic benefits of assuming the role of 20th century American adult and undertaking a lengthy, amply sized capital M Mortgage, but despite both women’s proficient familiarity with economics (both micro and macro) as well as statistics, mathematics, data science and the relative stability of local and global financial institutions, Christine smiles broadly and shakes her head, content and comfortable in the familiar, unflagging opinion that owing anyone something in the arena of 500 thousand dollars can never be the correct choice for her life. Her mind barely even makes a cursory attempt at imagining a scenario in which she’ll ever see numbers attributed to her person anywhere near the range of 500 grand, outside of being generally middle aged and married and having kids and seeing that number affixed to the top of some vague savings account or 401k or something.
“Spicy?” asks the tiny elderly Vietnamese woman currently occupied with making the banh mis, holding up a slice of a jalapeno pepper toward the women.
“Yes for mine, thanks.”
“No spicy for me.” The sandwich artist nods, smiling, and tucks the jalapeno away into Christine’s sandwich.
“But what if I just want to up and move one day, just like I hate where I’m living, or the city gets terrible, or I get a new job or like my husband or something gets a new job, and so we have to move. Then we’ve got this giant amount of money over our heads and then what?”
“Then you just sell the house, and pay off the remaining mortgage balance with the profits.”
“But then we gotta sell the house, and that just seems so stressful. Like what if it’s not a seller’s market? What if it takes months or years to sell it and we wanna get out right now?”
“It will sell, don’t worry. You just have to be patient. Right now market is very good. If I wanted to sell my house, I would have a buyer in maybe… three weeks.”
“Right now, but what if there’s like, a financial crisis, you know? Like in ‘08. Then the house values go down and you have a giant mortgage and you’re fucked.”
“Then you’ll have to refinance, if the economy goes bad and no one can pay, the banks will let you refinance.”
“See, there you go, re-doing anything just sounds awful. What do I gotta do, like go to a bank, and talk to some dude, and we’re talking about like, hundreds of k and twenty years and like, interest rates and stuff? God that just sounds awful. I don’t ever wanna do that.”
“Well, then I guess maybe you don’t want a mortgage.” The sandwiches are presented, wrapped in paper, tied with a rubber band, taken from the counter as thank yous are exchanged and the women walk out the door of the cafe (Christine has no idea what this cafe is actually called, by the way. It’s just ‘The Banh Mi Place’), where on the sidewalk they are flanked on the left by a heroin addict squatting like a Slav and rocking back and forth on his heels over a styrofoam cup (which Christine can’t bring herself to glance into out of fear it will be empty, or worse, contain something like a few pennies and a nickel), and on the right by an ancient Chinese immigrant sitting in a dirty plastic garden chair before a blanket, folded into a square and hosting heads of cabbage, roots of ginger, long, gnarled carrots, cucumbers and giant stalks of bok choi.
Apple Zhao, employee of this city for over a decade now, has filtered out such sad and unsettling images as the homeless addict and sees only the rogue vegetable merchant, whom she thinks looks a bit like her own mother, albeit significantly more weathered, the differences similar to those between a long, gnarled carrot, grown in the wild, placed next to a carrot that’s been tended to gingerly from within the confines of an upper class residential backyard vegetable and spice garden. Apple tries to picture her mother’s activities at this very moment; surely she’d find her sitting on the blue denim couch in the sun room, either reading a Chinese newspaper or working on the scarf she’s crocheting for Daniel’s birthday, which she keeps hidden in a shoebox under her bed and can only work on while he’s at school, or maybe she’s in the kitchen, preparing a snack (her mother never seems to eat enough at once to constitute labelling any of her mid-day intake ‘lunch’). She might even be sitting outside, Apple thinks as Christine remarks to her on the sunshine’s glowing warmth despite it being now the final week of October, and how wow she can’t believe that it’s the end of October already, it felt like 2017 just started and bam now it’s five sixths over, and doesn’t 2018 just sound like a weird year? 2018 always seemed like such an abstract and distant year, though 2020 is inexplicably tangible, probably because she’s heard so much about the 2020 election already. Apple never even thinks to mention her own automatic, internal response to this ‘speed-at-which-time-passes’ incredulity – an abstract and language-less manifestation of the sentence ‘it get’s faster every year’ – having long ago trained herself not to alert young people to this remarkably accurate cliche since it’s always at best an uninteresting piece of conversational debris and at worst a major bummer that elicits an ‘I’m-so-old’ response from the absolutely-no-way-in-hell ‘old’ conversational partner that in turn makes Apple feel old and boring and jaded and hypocritical.
“Yes, it’s very nice that it won’t be so cold for my kids to go out on Halloween night. But it’s supposed to get colder next weekend.”
“Aww, trick-or-treating. I remember going trick-or-treating. Are they old enough to go by themselves or are you tagging along?”
“I think either me or my husband will go with them. Peyton is probably old enough to go with his friends, he thinks we are annoying if we follow him, but Daniel is still too young, and the town is very big and spread out, so they will need someone to drive them to the different neighborhoods. I’m hoping that I will have an excuse so that my husband will go and I won’t have to do it.”
“Well if you’re really desperate you could always come to my Halloween party. It’s gonna be hella lit, I’d be so down to party with you AZ.”
Apple laughs, covering her mouth with a tiny hand, stubby-fingered despite her petite figure’s overall litheness. “No, I’m too old to go to a party, I think I’ll just stay home and get some extra sleep.”
“You aren’t too old. First of all, you could tell everyone you’re twenty-two and no one would think twice. And secondly, we’re all adults now. It’s not like a college party or something. There will be people in their late twenties, early thirties. Married couples, I don’t know if there will be anyone else with kids, but maybe there will be, it’s open invite. You should just stop by early before it gets too crazy. Then you’ll have an excuse for your husband – oh, you can totally say it’s a ‘work-function’! Just be like ‘Yeah, I have to go to my boss’s place for this ‘work-function’, he’s expecting me to stop by and stay for at least one non-alcoholic drink, sorry I really can’t get out of it I already told him I’d make it.’ And you’re good.”
Apple smiles and laughs politely and says she’ll think about it as the women enter the lobby of their building, making their way past the front desk to the elevators and on up to the fifteenth floor. Christine somehow always has time to party, it seems to Apple. She certainly doesn’t work as hard, or as long, as Apple, but she is reliable and efficient, turning in anything Apple asks for on time and without cutting too many corners. Apple could always unload more work on to her, as she knows other managers are keen to do, their subordinates hurrying about the office edgy like a shell-shocked combatant and mentally unkempt, with none of Christine’s infectious joi-de-vivre, but then she’d just spend time waiting for Christine to turn ever more important datasets around, stressing herself out imagining Christine failing to recognize said datasets’ importance and taking her leisurely, Facebook-addled time, perhaps departing for a party or concert and leaving the half-finished work for the next day when Apple needed it tonight, needed to see it and query it and filter it and make sure it didn’t break all so that she could garner six hours of relatively peaceful rest before the following afternoon’s Key Decisions Meeting, but didn’t exactly specify that to Christine since Christine knows what time the KDM is and will surely have the dataset to her at least a couple hours in advance but 12-hours too late for Apple to sleep easily knowing that she won’t be brought down a mental notch on the endless totem pole of upper-middle-management by any of the handful of assorted vice-presidents due to a dataset that failed spectacularly under pressure by grossly misrepresenting the reality buried in the numbers that only she and Christine can decode. And so Christine’s work-life balance will continue to skew toward ‘life’ while her own work-life balance will retain the impressive but not necessarily unhealthy proportion of ‘work’ it has maintained since she entered high school twenty-six years earlier.
The elevator doors open and the women step out into the office-quiet reception area of their floor, where Christine says she’s heading to the bathroom and Apple says she’s going to eat at her desk and that she’ll see her at their 1’o clock.
Now here’s Christine in the shower of her apartment, six hours post banh mi, having her ritualistic Shower Beer (today finds her taking good-sized pulls from a light Pacifico lager, brought to her apartment in twelve-pack form by Kosta when she had him and Nate over for a movie night last weekend and one of the final three to survive from that particular litter) and contemplating where she might get dinner before heading over to Woodstock’s for trivia night, it being similarly ritualistic to procure dinner from one of several establishments in proximity to Woodstock’s, lest, in the face of two pints of some hoppy IPA, her stubborn defiance of eating any and all food prepared in Woodstock’s sorry excuse for a kitchen lose the battle to ale-induced hunger and she subsequently relent to staring down the back half of a burger or fried chicken sandwich that makes her throat feel like it’s been brushed with liquified bacon fat. Determining dinner elicits a quick flashback to lunch, where she probes the sea of lunches she’s eaten since she started this job to find today’s lunch (banh mi, a classic), still fresh and vivid in her mind’s eye but soon to become a transitive, indistinguishable member of a greater, endless ocean of lunches she’s eaten since she became sentient.
Finishing off her beer and deciding to remain only a minute or two longer in the shower, she finds herself thinking of the women who run the banh mi shop, Vietnamese immigrants, in their 60s or 70s, maybe even their 80s, wondering when they came to The States; the most likely period being either during or just after the Vietnam war, in the 70s, which might mean they’ve spent as much or more time in America than their native Vietnam, but spent that whole time in the company of other poor Asian immigrants, recreating and recontextualizing cultural touchstones like food, games, clothing and housing from inside a lopsided, imposing city resembling nothing like Saigon but carrying with it a similar bustling energy and hustle that must encapsulate foreign cities they’ll never see, only heard of, Paris, London, Tokyo. How long have they run the shop? Or similar shops? Through the Reagan years, the Clinton administration? Stepping out of the shower’s incapacitating comfort and quickly into a fluffy brown Vera Wang towel, she tries to imagine the women watching 9/11 on television, back in the Early 2000s, when TVs were still like boxes, maybe they went over to each other’s homes to watch together and speculate in hushed tones of Vietnamese, or maybe they kept the shop open, listening on some dusty 80s-era cassette deck/radio, serving as a rallying point for their regular customers, wandering into the shop in a state of being emotionally emptied out, resorting to cliches and isms, less relieved to see a familiar face and eat a familiar sandwich than like caught passively in its familiar net, drawing comparisons to the true human capacity for Evil they’d witnessed firsthand as young people in Vietnam, an Evil that they hadn’t seen since.
Christine is standing naked in her bedroom, mentally perusing a colorful and overstuffed closet, imagining herself in the mirror in combinations of dresses with short leather jackets, the greenish turquoise pants, the leopard-print blouse, the Scotland soccer jersey, with the Toms? The Chelsea boots? Or the black jeans with the Converse, and the red striped top with the jean jacket, like a New York City punk rocker from decades she never witnessed and has only read about, no moves to make with the hair besides parted slightly to the side and worn straight down, that’s why she grew it out, after all, and plus there would be no one to impress tonight, no new face to dazzle, but then again you Never Know when it comes to parties or bars, which is a large part of their appeal, she’s learn to understand in the sevenish years she’s been drinking. The night’s never predisposed to but always holding the possibility of taking Unexpected Turns, but tonight, at Woodstock’s, holed up in a corner table with two of her guy friends and Unexpected Turn-averse Sienna, tonight will, with 95% confidence, she estimates, go exactly the way she’d draw it up; she’ll drink two IPAs, they’ll come in like 6th or 7th or 10th place at trivia, in a field of about 20, not good enough for a prize but good enough to feel like they’re still ‘in it’ into round five or six, and then they’ll depart, Sienna probably offering her a ride home, and she accepting, sitting in the front of Sienna’s car as it idles before her apartment building only a few blocks from Woodstock’s on Hillegass finishing off some conversation the ride was far too short to contain.
Deciding on the aforementioned black jeans, red striped top and jean jacket, watching the coming night unfold before her eyes like the pre-screening of some unexciting but charming indie comedy, she wonders if she’s finally OK with such predictability, the addicting taste of college’s spontaneity somewhat more faded from memory by now, if the growing pains of reconfiguring her personality and expectations in anticipation of a sated adult life have perhaps finally kicked, haunting her only late at night, back from some bar or party, alone, crossfaded, with nostalgic visions of nights she had regarded once as only the tip of the iceberg and which she now realizes solemnly were the iceberg.
Does The Duchess of Zhao ever feel pangs of nostalgia, she wonders, stepping out into the brisk but not cold Berkeley air, her Converse meeting the sidewalk with a satisfying slap. Christine imagines that high school and college were far less Fun Times for Apple than for herself, and that professional life’s relatively even-keeled profile might have been a welcome relief from the roller coaster that is undergrad’s sinusoidal exam cycle. Perhaps The Duchess is nostalgic for a time even further back, what Christine thinks of as her own ‘Coma Years’, a version of her that bears little resemblance to the one put forth before the general public today, a version with whom she has no dialogue, whose thoughts and ambitions she can’t remember, if there had even been thoughts and ambitions to begin with.
“Can I interest you in a free regional jokebook, ma’am?” The sound of Christine being forcefully ripped from her Apple Zhao speculation is like the unmistakable detaching of velcro. Startled, she turns to her left to see an immense man, with a cartoonish horizontally protruding gut, offering her a paper booklet, the cover a depressing lavender, the text (“125 Jokes!”) a tasteless Microsoft Office-default red in a font that looks straight out of Windows 95, with a rectangular photo of the man offering her the joke book holding a copy of said book. He looks to be in his mid 50s, giant, dusty black slacks, light purple 3-button polo (the same color as his booklet, Christine realizes about 5 minutes later) swallowed by his waistline like it’s stuck in a vacuum.
“No thank you,” she relies in that saccharine college-white-girl voice that sounds like her nose should be ramped like a ski jump (it’s not). The man only nods and turns to the other pedestrian at the corner of Channing and Telegraph, an undergrad-looking Asian dude in a backpack who answers his question with the exact same three words. There is a thick and heavy awkwardness as the party of three waits for the light to change, Christine pretty sure she can feel the Asian kid feeling the guy’s rejection as she simultaneously also feels his rejection. What is he, like a traveling joke book salesman? How has he paid rent for this many years? Christine shudders, imagining herself peddling goods on the sidewalks of Berkeley in the years that lie in the wake of some complete and traumatic, irreversible middle-aged breakdown. It seems possible, plausible even. The breakdown (she vows never to let herself, in any way shape or form, peddle). The light changes and the two youths both stride as furiously as is societally acceptable away from the enormous trudging jokester and an unspoken agreement is made specifying that once they’ve both put 20 feet between themselves and the salesman, she’ll bring her pace down a notch or two while he’ll ramp his up, so that they won’t have to walk within each other’s personal vicinities any longer than is absolutely necessary.
Waiting in the four-person line outside Woodstock’s (Note: there’s never, never a line at Woodstock’s except for in cases like these, when four people simultaneously arrive six minutes before the start of trivia), Christine’s attention is drawn to a like early 2000s Corolla, where the sole passenger is both wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at full blast while the car idles with its hazards on in front of the bar. Christine is trying to decide if he’s wearing the shirt because he knew he’d be blasting the song in public or vice-versa. Incredulously, this supposed Nirvana-head is blasting the most commercially accessible (i.e. Basic) Nirvana track, although perhaps he’s prioritized walkers-by recognizing the artist above meaningless hipster-cred. But then again, as a Nirvana-head, surely he’d know that the late Kurt C would be absolutely revolted by someone going so far as to value familiarity with the act in question while publically and tactlessly expressing his penchant for the band’s music, right? This apparent paradox consumes Christine until the bouncer asks her, for the third time, for her ID.
Entering the bar and ascending the staircase, the wall of which is cluttered with signs and logos advertising various California microbrews, Christine suddenly has to pee like a motherfucker and practically throws her clutch at the corner table that Kosta is almost always here early enough to snag and says nothing before darting off to one of two unisex single stalls, both of which are available. It is here, seated at the throne with pants just below knees, that she realizes she never got anything to eat, having been too preoccupied with arriving somewhat timely. Here, in this temporal and physical space of utter sobriety, she vows to herself not to order a single piece of food from Woodstock’s, and if Nate or someone orders fries, to only eat like two as a polite gesture to their generosity.
Precisely the same moment finds Apple Zhao, born Ling Minyang, forty-years-old, 4’10”, 92 lbs, mother of two, wife of one, daughter of two, sister of zero, homeowner, responsible mortgage payer, dual-citizen, director of operations analytics, hard worker, easy laugher, bullshit tolerator (for the most part), omnivore, apathetic agnostic, surprisingly devout Oakland Raiders fan, tri-weekly yoga practitioner, fluent speaker of English, Cantonese and like one-and-a-half regional Mandarin dialects, Game of Thrones watcher, NPR listener and believer in the hard and fast maxim that rules should be followed, otherwise everything’s just generally a hassle, sitting on the throne of her own recently remodeled upstairs full bath, yoga pants at lower thigh, elbows on knees, an emptiness in her eyes, which rest on some point far beyond the bathroom’s opposite wall, thinking in English (Apple has found that she thinks in Cantonese about things in her life that are generally dealt with in Cantonese, like her mother, her childhood, travel plans back to Guangzhou, anything pertaining to people she WeChats with, and in English about work, her kids’ school, the neighborhood, her mortgage, the Oakland Raiders, etc.) about tomorrow morning’s series of meetings – a 9 o’clock, a 10 o’clock, a 10:30, and a working lunch at 12:20 – just giving each a cursory once over to make sure everything that will be discussed has already been prepared and sits comfortably in its home folder on her hard drive (backed up by her master DropBox folder, of course).
The doorbell rings and brings her throttling back into the present, where, alone but somehow still embarrassed, she finishes up as quickly as she can and bounces down the staircase to the front door, getting there just as her mother has poked her head through the kitchen doorway. The family’s little schnauzer, Pepper, is yapping its head off. It’ll stop as soon as the door is opened.
“Hi Apple, I’ve got two little boys to drop off, if you still want ‘em, that is.” This is Grace Stewart, mother of two boys almost identical in age to her own, homemaker by trade, and simultaneously the most convenient and most obnoxious mother of any of the boys in her sons’ respective grades. Apple sees it as no small point of pride that she’s never snapped at Grace for any of her ignorance-fueled racist indiscretions, sly undercuts of any and all other moms, rather violent and visceral descriptions of what she’d like to do to their boys if they lived under her roof, and a disposition lacking any subtlety that she’s smarter and more talented than all the other moms, homemakers and professionals alike, but had made the ultimate sacrifice by giving up on her promising career as a screenwriter to settle down and ‘Do the Whole Mom Thing!’TM. And Apple is a professional bullshit-tolerator; she sees her patience and ability to let indiscretions flow past her like a gentle stream as essential assets to her work stats, given the number of hot-heads sucking up air in the finance realm, and given that the minute a woman starts to get flustered or upset in said realm, she’s immediately greeted by four or five slick smiles and the exchanging of eye rolls from balding, overweight VPs and sales dudes that insist that she’s hungry and should probably get something to eat.
“Oh hello Grace, yes, I guess I still want them. Thank you for bring them over!” A polite laugh. Her boys are swinging their Thor lunch boxes at each other in the front yard, while Grace’s boys are still strapped in the car, glued to an iPad. The only real reason Apple is so careful to stay on Grace’s good side is because Grace’s aforementioned sons and lack of employment make her backyard and basement, only one major road and a few minor ones from Apple’s own, the perfect afternoon hangout spot for her Daniel and Peyton in the hours between school letting out and Apple arriving home from work. And despite all of Grace Stewart’s obvious faults as an adult and human being, she must be doing something right, because her own boys (Jackson and Johnson) are rather likable, Apple finds, in a sugar-high off-the-walls never-ceasing-energy-but-extruding-a-pure-, unadulterated-and-uplifting-happiness-so-absent-in-modern- adult-life kind of way, which seems to have spread somewhat into her own shyer, possibly introverted boys through some kind of boyhood osmosis. And this care has succeeded in making her Grace’s confidant and closest ‘friend’ in the class (AKA the only mom she hasn’t had a rather charged confrontation with), a position Apple feels must be valuable, though the value has yet to really come to fruition.
“Oh, don’t even worry about it. I was on the way to Jackson and Johnson’s drum lessons, anyway.” That’s right, Jackson and Johnson have started drum lessons. Apple remembers being absolutely paralyzed with fear at first thought of those children wailing on snares and cymbals all night long. Such fear has yet to subside.
“How were they today?”
“Oh the usual. MInecraft, Minecraft, Minecraft. That’s all they wanna do. I made them go outdoors and toss a ball around, just to get them away from the screen for a few minutes.” Grace pivots on her heel and ‘thinks’. It’s obvious to Apple (bullshit tolerator and detector) that she’s pretending. “Oh you know what, Peyton did ask for a second pudding cup though, and I saw him try to snag a third one on his way out of the kitchen. You should watch out with what you let him eat. I know Asian food usually has a lot of sodium and MSG and you don’t want him to be on the chubby side going into middle school – you know how cruel children can be at that age. If you want I could send you some healthy recipes my good friend from film school out in Sausalito curated- the eggplant parmesan will knock your socks off!”
A perfected laugh-and-smile from Apple. “Oh, well, that would be very nice of you, thank you.”
Grace turns to the boys in the front yard, leaning on the porch railing, one leg crossed over the other in a salmon-colored pencil skirt. “So, have they picked out their Halloween costumes yet?”
“Yes! They’re both going to be Thor!”
“Both of them?”
“They both want to be him, and it seems like they don’t care, so I said okay, that makes my life much easier.”
“Well, as long as it’s easier for you. Johnson insists on being some wacky character from a video game, he’s asking me to make the costume for him myself, oh I don’t know where I’ll find the time, but if it’s what he wants, the effort will be worth it.”
“That’s very nice of you to do that, it seems like a lot of work.”
“Oh I’m sure you’d do it for your kids too.”
“I don’t think so; I don’t even know how to sew!”
“They didn’t teach you that growing up?” She shrugs. She looks like she should be smoking a cigarette, one of those long ones, with a little holder for it and everything. “Oh! Have you heard that Margaret Kim is having a little party for all the children in the 5th grade class on Halloween night?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Oh she didn’t tell you? That Margaret Kim, you can never truly rely on her for anything, oh it was the worst when she was a Room Mom back when the boys were in 2nd grade. Anyway, I think she only told me because she wanted me to make my famous homemade Pumpkin Pie I always send the boys to school with on Halloween. So of course I had to say ‘Yes’, even though I don’t know where I’m going to find the time, seeing as how Harry’s away that whole week, and I have to make Johnson’s costume. Anyway your boys must know about it.”
“Yes, I’ll ask them. It would be nice for them to eat all that candy in someone else’s house, then come back here when they’re ready for bed!”
Grace laughs the sort of middle-aged version of the cute-white-girl-in-preppy-college-with-ski- slope-nose laugh. “That’s what I’m saying! But Margaret is insisting we all come over, too; while the kids are playing in her basement – it just got redone and is like a kind of Mecca for boys their age, video games and foosball and everything, I’ll send you the pictures – while they’re playing in the basement, she wants all the moms to have a little sangria happy hour out on her deck – that also just got redone; gorgeous, must have cost them a fortune though, I think I gotta get Harry to see about doing ours.”
“Oh, well, I’ll see if I can make it – I have a workplace-function that night.”
“Oh Apple you should come, it won’t be ‘til 7 o’clock or so, they don’t make you stay that late over there, do they?”
“It’s kind of a happy hour for my boss, but I will try to make it.”
“Oh wait now I’ve just remembered, you don’t even drink, do you?”
“No I don’t drink, I’ll just have some food at the happy hour.”
“Is that like a religious thing? I know some Asians can’t drink because of their religion.”
“Oh, no, no religious thing, I just can’t drink, it always makes me sick.”
“Well that’s just too bad. Oh but Apple you absolutely have to be there, because between you and me,” and here she leans in, lowering her voice, as if the two Zhao children, now throwing all contents of their backpacks, along with the backpacks themselves, at the yard’s horse chestnut tree, which they are referring to as “Loki”, will overhear her and spill the long-since-spilled beans that Grace thinks not kindly of the other moms in the class. “Between you and me, I can’t stand some of the other moms! The third grade moms aren’t as bad, but Becky Bryant and Alison Meyers and that terrible Corina Villanueva- oh it’s like her boy was raised in a barn! I swear I’ll never have that kid over my house again! Margaret, I mean I don’t think she’s got too much going on up here,” tapping her temple, “but at least she puts in an effort, for the children, you know? But Corina,” shaking her head, her eyes saying ‘I’m so fucking done with this’, “That woman – well let’s just say thank god you’re around Apple, I mean really, we really need to look out for one another. Let’s just hope that when they get into middle school we get a few more like us in the mix, huh?” She laughs and adjusts her purse back over herself.
This entire time Apple has been staring at her, trying to look empathetic but careful not to nod or say ‘yeah’ or ‘mhm’. She rather likes Corina Villanueva- she’s one of few moms that still carries some sort of that same joi-de-vivre she likes so much in Christine, and, ironically, in the Stewart boys. It’s still amazing to her how oblivious Grace is to the other moms’ dislike of her, given how seemingly ‘intelligent’ she is, but chalks it up to denial; the whole ‘It’s not me, it’s everyone else’ mentality that pervades the ‘Life is unfair’ type people she’s seen flitter in and out of her various places of employment.
“Well, I think I’ve got to get these guys some dinner, so I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yes yes, sorry didn’t mean to keep you, and as soon as I get home I’ll email you the recipes, oh it’s gonna change your life, I swear.” She starts to make her way back to her white Jeep Land Rover (Apple drives a dark red 2013 Acura MDX) and waves at the brothers Zhao, saying goodbye, who pay her no mind. She looks back over her shoulder at Apple with a ‘Boys – what can you do?’ kind of shrug as Apple calls her children in for supper, their responses trained and immediate.
Tonight’s trivia team (which Nate, as is typical, insists on calling ‘Dog’ – something about non-sequitur minimalism that no one usually cares enough to override him on) is composed of the four core starters, meaning Christine, Kosta, Nate and Sienna, with no additional +1s or +2s, something of a rarity these days, as all four teammates have over the last two years acquired their own stable of 10-30% reliables that usually bring the total numbers up around 6 or 7, and not uncommonly to the max capacity of 8 (on only one occasion did the team have to split like a single-celled organism into two woefully inadequate teams of 5). This doesn’t bother Christine much, as she slightly prefers the familiarity of the core group to one in which a +1 must be babysat and actively included by their host, but Kosta is disappointed in the turn out- in his mind, every Wednesday should be an effort to assemble the Ideal 8- the four core, plus one person good with sports, a history-buff and a tv/movie buff and maybe like someone who knows nerdy shit like fantasy and video games- and finally claim the coveted first place that has so successfully eluded them.
Nate comes back with the answer sheet, a couple pencils, and four pints; the team has given him free reign to pick out beers for them, seeing as how they’ve all had everything on the menu a million times by now.
“What’d ya get?” Sienna asks as he places the beers down at the table’s center.
“For Mr. Kosta Speliotopolous, we have an Old Rasputin.” The pitch black beer smells like being tipsy quicker than you thought you’d be. Kosta nods and brings it to his lips, leaving some beige foam on his soot-colored mustache. Woodstock’s is filling up with Berkeley undergrads, and Dog could, for the most part, fit right into that broad categorization, the team members easily passing for undergraduates (though probably not freshman), if required when say, using the free library printer or attending free on-campus concerts.
All except for Kosta, that is. Kosta, now a second year grad student of the Civil Engineering department, looks very much like a grad student. The widow’s peak, the thick beard, the complexion that suggests he may be from like Iran or Turkey, or maybe like Brazil, one of those places grad students always seem to come from, the no-nonsense thrift shop flannels, the bottle-opener on keychain, the distaste for the quintessentially frolicing, self-important, oblivious sophomore pre-med, the cloud of cynicism that follows wherever he goes like a loyal beast. Kosta has actually never looked like an undergrad; he has been mistaken for a grad student since November of his freshman year, when his beer belly settled in and he stopped shaving any more frequently than bi-monthly (the every two months kind, not the every other month kind). Most of Christine’s friends unacquainted with Kosta personally have long referred to him as ‘that grad student guy you hang out with,’ a title Kosta for the most part embraces. Christine thinks that his grad-studentness had a sort of Inception like effect on his undergraduate mind such that when senior year came around he could perceive of no suitable alternative than to just complete his destiny and become one. His research involves computational models of fluid dynamics for use in wind turbines. No one really knows anything about it besides that – he despises discussing it outside the lab.
“For Sienna, a Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin,” and Sienna takes the beer with a big smile and a ‘Thank you Monsieur.’ Sienna looks like the girl who in middle school you would have described as like emo and secretly wished you were bold enough and defiant enough to dress like, but also secretly you’d know such outward displays of shock-aesthetic undercut some deep-seeded insecurities and worldly confusion/dissatisfaction. Her hair is bright red, bangs at eyebrows, wavy and above the shoulders on the back and sides. Between both ears, eyebrow, nose, tongue and clitoris she has fourteen piercings (only Christine and a few other hometown friends know about the fourteenth), her eyelashes coated with mascara so they are lifted to cartoonish proportion. Tonight she wears a plaid black and red romper (Christine calls this her ‘checkerboard outfit’), with a leather jacket, some ironically tacky silver bangles, a black choker, black tights and combat boots. She’s the kind of girl you maybe avoid because you assume she’s trouble until you find out she goes to UC Berkeley and double majors in Psych and English Lit and asks the best questions her professors have heard in years and then you start to reevaluate, decide ‘Oh, she’s got her shit together, she’s no trouble at all, she’s just a badass,’ this validation of her intelligence and responsibility through enrollment in higher education somehow delineating the boundary between ‘bad’ and ‘badass’.
Not that Sienna hasn’t played into the stereotype she visually represents; her past is murky, even to Christine, having transferred to UC Berkeley after spending a couple years at UT San Antonio and then taking a couple more off, during which she had some pretty harrowing experiences with hard drugs, which she divulges to her friends at irregular intervals, tipsy, smoking a cigarette on some patio or sidewalk in the dark, the latest such divulging detailing a period of three or four months during which she was snorting coke between just about every perceivably distinct activity of her day, until her dealer got busted cause some dude died freebasing an eight ball he’d sold him and the cops shut that whole operation down and her inability find another reliable dealer anywhere near Tulsa effectively put the k-bosh on her cocaine habit, which didn’t exactly break her heart because she was getting hella into molly at the time and it was still novel and fun and didn’t feel like drugs as much. At twenty-six, Sienna is the oldest of the bunch, but still technically like a second-semester Junior or something, due to the aforementioned years away from school. She’s also the kindest, smartest, most ambitious and generally most likable, Christine is pretty sure, which is probably the reason she was able to escape that hellish-cycle of detox and relapse in the first place.
“For Christine, a Dogfish Head 90-Minute Double IPA,” slapping the hoppy glass on a coaster and sliding it in front of her.
“Wow, it’s like you know me,” Christine says sarcastically.
“I take that as a compliment,” Nate says, and Christine is slightly confused because it was a compliment, just delivered sarcastically, because Nate does so obviously know Christine, he’s known her the longest of anyone, all the way back to the second week of freshman year, when he was locked out of his room across the hall from her and she hooked him up with a MacBook charger so he could finish his Intro to Western Civ assignment and submit it from a rather pitiful bearing; anchored to a wall outlet in the east stairwell. Unlike Kosta and Sienna (and to a lesser extent, Christine), Nate has nearly no uniquely identifiable physical characteristics whatsoever; six feet, thin, white, brown-haired, brown-eyed, attractive only in the sense that he’s definitely not unattractive, all solid-colored v-necks, casual button downs and black jeans, Christine can’t even remember what kind of shoes he wears, they’re so generic. A history/art history double major, Nate somehow landed the enviable job of Advisor to the Mayor of Berkeley, despite having no political connections or political stances whatsoever. Nate seemingly looks at the world with a fascinating objectivism, which probably made him a great student of history, Christine can imagine, and concerns himself more with what art museums or botanical gardens he should visit the next time he trips acid than anything tangentially related to the day-to-day minutiae of East Bay policy. Jumping obsessively from project to project, book to book (almost always non-fiction), medium to ever increasingly obscure and hyper specific medium, Nate is perhaps the most interesting to know well but the least interesting to know only passively, his inhuman ability to be charmingly vanilla, devoid of any even mildly unpleasant traits in the company of strangers and acquaintances unrivaled from Vallejo down to Santa Cruz.
“How’s the Youtube series coming?” Christine asks him, sipping her beer.
“Just about finished with the new one, should be uploaded tomorrow.”
“So like you’re editing it?” – Sienna.
“I still don’t understand what kind of post-processing you can possibly be doing. Isn’t it just one take, no-editing, and then upload?” Nate has recently experienced a wave of popularity for his video series called ‘Paint the Thing’, where he takes an everyday object, like say a chair (his most popular video by about twenty thousand views), sets it up on his apartment’s back patio, and paints it all red, all in one take, camera fixed on a tripod, just paints it solidly red, then proceeds to paint the whole thing blue, then green, then yellow, then walks up and turns off the camera, with absolutely no cuts, no music, no talking, no sound other than the ambient noise of the city and the gentle lap of paint on wood. After getting downvoted into oblivion on a variety of subreddits, his series found a cult following streaming on Twitch and with the 4Chan crowd, the thousands of comments alternating between expressions of admiration bordering on worship for the artist and mind-bogglingly lewd suggestions as to what the commenters would like to see him do w/r/t the paintbrush and his anus.
“Eh, there’s more than you think.”
“Then what is it, exactly? What exact edits are you making? Really, I’m dying to know.” This is Kosta, becoming easily frustrated with what he sees as Nate’s effortless success, whereas his work life is marred by an extraordinary lack of success, despite piles of effort.
“A magician never reveals his secrets.”
“You’re not a magician, man, you just like paint a fucking mailbox or doghouse or something, that’s not magic.”
“No see he is a magician,” Sienna interjects, “he’s able to turn paint and a doghouse into hundreds of dollars of ad-revenue payouts from Youtube.”
“For now,” Nate offers wistfully. “But quite honestly, I think the series has begun to lose its spark, its edge. I might only have two or three videos left in me. I only want to be making the show so long as it’s compelling, as long as I have new things to say. As soon as I suspect the next video could represent a noticeable drop in quality, I’ll know my story has been told.”
Kosta slams his hand on the table, leaning aggressively in toward the stoic Nate, but Sienna takes his hand in hers and shushes him like a baby, lifting the glass to his lips. “Worry yourself not with Nate’s unmistakable artistic genius. You are, after all, only a simple engineer.”
“More like unmistakable bullshit.”
“Basically synonyms,” Christine adds.
“This is true.”
The emcee of trivia (not the Regular Guy, Christine realizes with the mildest disappointment humanly possible, who sounds like he belongs behind a microphone, either on a weekday morning FM radio show or hosting Bar Mitzvahs, but the Other Guy, the guy who clearly tried very hard to be cool in college but whose obvious effort precluded him from experiencing anything other than an associative coolness by way of his cool friends), hops on the mic to welcome everyone to Woodstock’s Trivia Night and reads the rules:
- No more than 8 players per team
- No cell phones during rounds (“Missing those Snapchats isn’t gonna kill ya, folks, please put
them awayyyyyy til intermission”)
- Each team must buy two beers per team member and receive the stamps from the bartenders as
evidence on their stamp card
- No shouting the answers out loud
- No standing on tables or chairs
- No intra-team conspiracies
- Please ask the emcee if you need anything repeated (this is less a rule and more a regulation)
- All answers must be legible
- Please send a team member up to turn in and collect your answer sheet after each round
- Have fun! (The regular emcee neither mentions nor enforces this rule)
“Alright and our first category of the night is, in honor of Halloween, ‘Holidays of the World!’
Kosta: “We’re fucked.”
Sienna: “It could be worse.”
Christine: “Nate’ll probably know some of them.”
Nate: “What’s a holiday?”
Meanwhile, back in Walnut Creek (‘The Jewel of the East Bay – Host Your Next Event Here!’ the advertisements in the BART stations read, ads that Christine and Apple alike think are trying tactlessly too hard), AZ has the boys fed and now they’re on the couch watching Sports Center while she cleans up the table. (AZ is one of Christine’s many nicknames for Apple, and probably the one she uses most often. Others include; AZ-DC, Alphanumeric, Alpha Centauri, Appster, The Appster, The App-Star G, AMZ (Apple Motherfuckin’ Zhao), Apple ‘Of-Course-I-Have-A-Mortgage’ Zhao, Boss Lady, Applerino, Applerooski, Queen Zhao, Apple – Duchess of Zhao, The Duchess, The Grand Duchess, and Chairman Zhao. She also refers to Apple’s cubicle as ‘The Court of Appeels,’ which never fails to crack Christine up any time she’s given the opportunity to say it out loud. AZ generally enjoys these nicknames, though she often feels as if she’s missing out on some joke or reference.)
Typically Apple’s mother cooks dinner for the family, but tonight is her weekly mahjong game, which she plays down the street At Mrs. Li’s. Mrs. Li is an old friend from Guangzhou who moved to the Bay about ten years before Apple’s parents did, and she introduced mama Zhao to the sisters Qin (Betsy and Beth, Apple thinks they go by, though that doesn’t seem right), immigrants from Inner Mongolia who Mrs. Li met through her local Asian immigrant-heavy non-denominational Christian church. If someone can’t make the game, the go-to substitute is Mrs. Li’s husband’s former co-worker, Kirk Cousins, who apparently is very good at mahjong and plays in a couple other weekly games, but always refers to the Li quartet as ‘the big leagues’. And so Apple cooked, just some pasta and meatballs, because it’s easy and because her boys will gobble it up no questions asked and after a long day of work the last thing she wants is some spat at the dinner table over one son or another’s dislike of radish or cauliflower or green peppers.
Daniel and Peyton are completely absorbed by the same dudes Apple’s seen on the program for over a decade now (though she can never remember any of their names), counting down the Coors Light 6 Cold Hard Facts about the AFC South, that they don’t even notice that Apple has paused her tidying to watch as well. The AFC South has as of late been the worst division in the entire NFL, but this year finds a three-way tie for first between the Titans, Texans and Jaguars, all three posting 4-3 records, and with the way the AFC North and West have been stinking it up this year (including her beloved Raiders), there’s a decent shot one of them even takes a wild card slot come December.
Two months after arriving in the Bay Area in 2002, Apple had fallen into a homesickness-fueled depression, disliking the largeness and rudeness and complexity and utter lack of cultural sensitivity she found in a life spent trudging bleary-eyed between a shitty apartment in San Leandro across two AC Transit bus lines to a shitty job in Emeryville where her cubicle had no sight of a window and her bosses were all white dudes with receding hairlines and paunchy stomachs that treated her like an idiot. One particularly chilly Sunday in October, after having missed her bus while out shopping for a new pair of shoes (the heel of her best work shoes having been snarled in a sewer grate and snapped off), she elected to get out of the cold and enter a bar while she waited for the next bus. Inside she found a thriving mass of silver and black, decked out in spikes, face paint, armor, heavy beards, bellies protruding from too-small jerseys, giant tits in v necks, bottles and cans littering all surfaces, all living and dying and high-fiving and throwing up their hands and asking ‘Why are they running the ball?’ after every down of an Oakland Raiders game that was being played only three miles to the northwest but was broadcast on about 12 televisions in this particular establishment.
After some friendly women who looked like they should be at a rather grotesque halloween party explained the general rules of the game to Apple (she comprehended almost none of them), she found herself ebbing and flowing with the emotions of the crowd, cheering, sighing, banging the tables, turning to ask ‘What was the hell was that call?’ when everyone else did. She didn’t even notice that three buses had since arrived and departed from her stop, hanging on til the very end to watch the Raiders eak out a squeaker over the Bills en route to their AFC championship season.
Apple would return to this bar every Sunday until the Super Bowl, slowly picking up on the many subtleties and completely unnecessary rules of American Football and simultaneously becoming something of a good luck charm; by the season’s end over half the bar had a hand somewhere on Apple’s person during every Raiders’ field goal attempt, and if they missed someone always said ‘Fuck, who didn’t get a hand on Apple!’ It’s even hypothesized in numerous parts of the East Bay that the only reason the Raiders lost to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, and in particularly horrendous fashion, was because Apple wasn’t watching, having months earlier booked a flight back to Guangzhou to visit family and friends that departed precisely one hour before the coin toss. Missing the Raiders playing in the Super Bowl is one of Apple’s life’s two or three biggest regrets.
She’s been a pretty devout Raiders fan ever since, trying to make at least one home game a season, although she’s never joined in the face-painting festivities of other die hards. She cares not for the 49ers, her NFC team being she guesses the Seahawks, if she has to pick, because they’re another west coast team and she likes their colors and has had a very pleasant time on her two visits to Seattle, although her all-time favorite player is Peyton Manning, despite him playing for fellow AFC contenders the Indianapolis Colts. (Apple justifies this by acknowledging that Manning is a once-in-a-generation pocket passer, equally deft at mid-range as on the 3rd and 20 bombs, always healthy, never tossing up pics in the redzone, very funny in those credit card commercials, devoted to his team and city, and a true sportsman off the field to boot, and besides, the Raiders were never really competitive during his reign anyway, and they had no ‘favorite-player’ caliber players, except maybe Michael Crabtree, but he’s a receiver and Apple would always pick a quarterback. And yes, her first son, born just days after the Colts’ victory in Super Bowl XLI, is named after him. Perhaps surprisingly, Apple has no love for Peyton’s younger brother, Eli Manning of the New York Giants. Daniel is named after her husband’s brother, who died in infancy.)
In a way, the Raiders saved her those first few months in the States; it gave her something to occupy her mind with instead of just thinking about how sad and homesick and depressed she was, something to look forward to at the end of every week. Her male co-workers suddenly stopped treating her like an idiot after they learned she could recite Rich Gannon’s single game and season-to-date passer rating every Monday morning at the weekly Sales-Ops meeting, and then gave her some serious cred after she correctly predicted that the unlikely Cleveland Browns would rally to the AFC’s final wild card slot (their only playoff appearance to date). And despite the losing records, the 2000s and 2010s Raiders continued to bear her life fruit, first in the form of a husband (he was doing marketing for the team and had arranged to interview Apple for a series on local East Bay immigrants-turned-Raiders-fans), then in the form of having something ‘cool’ to bond with her sons over, although every replay of a helmet-rattling tackle incites her to request of some unknown, nameless god for a life in which her sons never actually ask to play tackle football.
To Apple, the Raiders are a manifestation of some of the best things about America. The emotion and camaraderie, not corny, not political or nationalistic, the enthusiasm true and real and tied to nothing but a bunch of giant men slamming into each other and throwing a ball around while wearing a uniform that reads the name of a city your family has been settled in for hundreds of years, or maybe only a few. She’s seen grown men cry, Apple has, over the Raiders, she’s seen guys run 500 line Python scripts to predict who the best fantasy football players will be in a given year, she’s been picked up while clinging desperately to a chair and carried right out onto the street in a swell of post-victory ecstasy. Maybe best of all, though, depressing as it may seem, the Raiders are the reason anyone started treating Apple like a member, not just a visitor, of American society. Not that it’s particularly America’s problem – becoming a real, no-questions-asked accepted member of Chinese society as a western foreigner is next to impossible – but nonetheless, she’s seen scores of Chinese immigrants like herself fall into exclusively Chinese social circles and never really embrace the country they’ll spend the majority of their life in, being always a tourist and an outsider in the only country their children will ever know as home.
Anyway the AFC South looks tight and competitive this year which is fun to watch and the Raiders have a chance to pull themselves to .500 this Sunday against Buffalo, and while 4-4 isn’t a great start to the season, it’s enough to keep them in the playoff hunt into November, which is generally all you can really ask for from the Raiders.
Daniel and Peyton have lost interest in TV and now each have their left hands pinned behind their backs and are sort of jockeying for position to slap the other’s butt with their right hand, the sport vaguely resembling the cat-and-mouse of fencing, and it looks like too much fun for Apple not to join in, discreetly sliding up behind Daniel and giving him a good open-palmed smack on the behind and now the boys have turned and are chasing her through the kitchen, the dog all excited and barking at their feet, now through the dining room, the living room, all the way up the stairs to her bedroom where she’s fallen onto the bed and they’re paddling her butt, well-toned from years of tri-weekly yoga, until it actually starts to hurt a little and she has to convince them as such and get them to stop, which is incredibly difficult when they’re riled up like this, with the dog barking at the foot of the bed, as one might imagine.
Watching the boys turn back on each other like feral dogs, Apple catches her breath and studies their faces. They’ve really started to look like her, both of them, more every day. They’re one quarter white, their father being the son of a second-generation Chinese-American from Beijing and a beautiful flaxen-haired fifth-generation Polish/German/Irish/English/Ukranian-American woman, but most people will probably assume they’re fully Asian, unless puberty somehow makes them look more white, which seems unlikely. Will these sweet little kids, who don’t think about anything but sports and candy and superhero movies and Minecraft and probably the vast assortment of Apps they’ve downloaded onto their shared iPad, truly become angsty teenagers who want to drink and party and smoke marijuana, the way Christine says they might? Apple has repeatedly denied that her boys will ever engage in illicit behavior, claiming that they will always be ‘boring, studious, nerdy, well-behaved Asian kids’, but Christine did make a good point this morning, when she said something along the lines of “I’ve been an American teenager. I’ve known hundreds of American teenagers. I’ve known them for years. Have you ever even met an American teenager?” Apple cannot think of a single American teenager she’s spoken more than like two sentences to.
“Say one of your kids, say like Peyton gets invited to a party, and there’s some cute girl he likes who’s going, and she’s drinking, like there’s alcohol at the party, it’s at some kid’s house and his parents are away, and Peyton drinks cause he like wants to impress the girl or whatever, and then he doesn’t have a ride home except for some other kids who have been drinking, and if he calls you, and says ‘Mom, I’ve been drinking, will you come pick me up?’ would you be mad at him for that?”
“I don’t think Peyton would ever go to a party, he won’t drink. He’s too Asian.”
“Okay I know he was raised by like the Grand Duchess and all, but you never know, like I knew plenty, plenty of first-gen Asian American kids who drank in high school. Like scores of them. So just say, in this hypothetical scenario, that he did drink and he calls you and asks for a ride. Would you get upset at him?”
“Well, I guess I wouldn’t.”
“Would you punish him?”
“I think the shame of having to call his mom for a ride home would be enough of a punishment.”
Christine, spinning around in her chair and tapping a pen on her thigh: “Then you gotta let him know that, AZ, like he won’t call you if he thinks you’ll get mad. You gotta be like ‘Peyton, just so you know, I don’t want you to drink, but if you do, I won’t get mad if you call me for a ride.”
“But then he’ll think it’s okay for him to drink, won’t he?”
“AZ either he’s gonna drink or he’s not gonna drink, and I’m sorry to say, but your opinion on whether or not you want him to drink probably isn’t gonna push that needle in one direction or the other.”
Apple, famously, does not drink. In the maybe eight or nine times she’s had more than a polite sip of alcohol, always at a happy hour for someone’s birthday, or at like The Company Christmas Party, or during a Raiders playoff game, all in the 2002-2003 first-year-in-the-States-era, Apple has had like maybe one and a half beers or glasses of wine or maybe just like the majority of a martini and she’s felt dizzy, and warm, but in a sick, feverish way, and also heavy, like she’s a big bowl of heavy cream being slowly churned, and although maybe she laughed at some silly stuff, the general discomfort of being woozy and feeling like she wasn’t herself and couldn’t make competent decisions was enough for her to stop giving in and trying it after age twenty-five. She’s always wondered if people who enjoy drinking, AKA people like Christine and pretty much all of their co-workers, if they feel the same things she’s always felt and actually enjoy that heaviness, that sloshing around and being dizzy and warm and disoriented, like that’s the point, or if they’re just better at ignoring those symptoms of intoxication and focusing on the positive attributes that Apple’s only had a cursory taste of.
Will Peyton really drink? Of course he’ll try it, some day, but in high school? Could he even potentially smoke marijuana? The idea that he could do anything harder than that is so far fetched that Apple doesn’t even consider the possibility. She was pretty sure only kids in bad inner-city public schools drink and do drugs, but Christine has begun to convince her that even technology-focused magnet schools like the one she plans to send her boys to are perfectly realistic backdrops for experimenting with alcohol, or not, it’s hard to say when they’re still young, but the possibility is far greater than slim, which was a serious wake-up call for Apple. In some ways she feels like maybe she should start researching more about what American teenagers will be like, to prepare herself, but on the other hand, what good can preparing possibly do her? She hadn’t done anything in the way of ‘preparing’ to have toddlers, or elementary schoolers. She had read more than a few baby books during her first pregnancy, which she had found, unsurprisingly (though somewhat surprised that she was unsurprised), largely unhelpful.
Watching the boys tire of their game and lay on the bed at her feet, Peyton tracing the woodwork in the bedpost, Daniel trying unsuccessfully to raise just one eyebrow, she thinks that ultimately, if the kids drink, if they go to parties, even if they (fingers crossed) try smoking marijuana, Christine seems to have done all those things (surely at the most moderate level of moderation), and appears to be succeeding, both in the professional world and, from what Apple can tell, the personal, social world, so maybe that’s all just part of the experience of growing up as an American.
Speaking of Christine, we find that she’s just nailed the final question of round four, closing out a first half that Kosta estimates will see Dog score 17 out of 20 possible points (they actually end up scoring 18) and in position, for the first time in ages, to actually win it all tonight, so long as they don’t get burned in the second half on some category none of them are even remotely familiar with.
After a mediocre start in which they scored three for five on ‘Holidays of the World’ (turns out no one here knows the difference between any of the Jewish holy days), the team had been given a gift in the form of five questions about the state of Texas, which Sienna swept, though Nate had also known four of them himself. Next was Current Events, which doesn’t always show up but when it does usually sees Dog score at least four out of five because pretty much all of them except Nate are addicted to Google News, then there was a ‘Name the Movie from the Quote’ round, also not uncommon at Woodstock’s, which is usually a crap shoot because none of them are really movie buffs but they all have dipped, to relative degrees, into the IMDB Top 100 and have probably seen a good 75 of the movies on that list between the four of them. But things went their way tonight; Kosta knew the quotes from The Big Short and American Psycho, Sienna had got Clueless, they all knew Superbad and Christine had pulled Apocalypse Now out of her ass right at the last minute before the host came around for their sheet. (The quote was “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”)
“Well they haven’t done anything remotely sports related yet, so I feel like there’s for sure gonna be a sports round coming up,” Kosta is saying as he finishes off the last of his Old Rasputin and begins to play with the glass, tipping it back and forth between his hands, a habit that drives Christine crazy and always prompts her to finish her beer so she can get him to go get a second round with her.
“Yeah but this isn’t the Regular Guy, it’s the Other Guy. The Other Guy almost never does sports,” – Christine, now trying to gulp down the last of her double IPA.
“A very astute observation,” Sienna says. “Although maybe tonight’s just our night and we’ll get all the sports questions anyway.”
“If tonight’s truly our night, he won’t ask any sports questions. We’re at at least 16, maybe 19 tops, and the winners typically end up with like 40.” (There’s always a double point round, making the grand total at Woodstock’s 45. But sometimes the Other Guy throws in little odds and ends double point questions, such as in a recent ‘TV Teachers’ category, when he asked “What was the name of the actor who played the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who repeatedly called for Ferris in the famous ‘Bueller? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Anyone?’ line? And I’ll give one bonus point if you can also name what subject he was teaching.” That week’s incarnate of Dog scored zero of those points.) “So we basically gotta ace the double point round, and then shoot about 66% on the rest and I’d say we got it. So technically we could bomb one round, I mean go like 2 for 5, as long as it’s not the double round, and if we go pretty much perfect everywhere else I’d say we could still win it.”
“Also,” Nate is noting, standing up next to the table, his palms spread generously flat down on the surface, leaning forward, “Bella isn’t here tonight. That means the MechE grads team isn’t here tonight.” Bella is an adorable cocker spaniel, owned by one Francesca Plata, Brazilian international and third year PhD in mechanical engineering, that Nate has an unnatural affinity for (the dog, not the girl, although she is pretty darn cute herself), and her fearsome eight member MechE grad students team wins about 40% of all trivia nights held in Berkeley on a weekly basis. (Woodstock’s allows dogs in their bar. It adds way way less dog-induced chaos than you’d think.) Francesca isn’t here tonight because her advisor is a notable hardass about applying for every possible grant the lab has even a sliver of a chance of receiving, and so Francesca is lying in bed in sweats and a t-shirt furiously typing away and copy pasting links and figures on her 2014 MacBook Air for some obscure DOE grant due at midnight her professor only told her about yesterday, and no Francesca means no Bella, and the rest of her team, while available, just doesn’t really see the point of playing if Bella isn’t around, tethered to a chair, lying on the floor under the table or sniffing the anus of a familiar canine, their affinity for the dog far exceeding that of Nate, which is unbeknownst to Dog, who consistently ridicule Nate for his Bella obsession. Also, Nate would insist naming the team Dog has nothing to do with Bella, but privately he’d concede there could be various subconscious mechanisms at work.
“Okay, so no MechEs, no sports, these are good signs,” Kosta rubbing his hands together aggressively, which he always does when he runs a big chunk of code he’s been picking at for awhile and is pretty sure is gonna work this time. “Is there possibly a third piece of good luck that will make me a true believer that we are destined to win it tonight?”
“I got a super good parking spot like right on Durant, like right in front of the bar, which basically never happens,” Sienna offers.
“I’ll take it,” Kosta says and slams his hand on the table. “Okay, who needs another beer? Who wants to switch to Rasputins? I have a feeling Rasputins are lucky tonight.”
“I’ll take one if you get it for me,” Christine says.
“You want me to pay for it too?”
“Chill kid, I’ll Venmo you.” She finally finishes the last of her beer, not particularly enjoying those last rapid gulps. “I gotta go to the bathroom.” Christine has a thing where she can never go to the bathroom without finishing her drink first. Something about the relative volumes in the glass and in her stomach and the intake and the outtake just makes it seem like it doesn’t make sense to come back from the bathroom and still have beer in your cup, even though the first thing she’ll do upon returning is start on her new drink.
“Don’t fall in!” Sienna calls as Christine bails out of her chair. No such luck on the bathroom vacancy front this time, as both single stalls are locked. No matter; she’s first in line and waits patiently, leaning against the wall, her hands behind her lower back, bouncing passively against the cool brick. Single stalls are so infinitely better than communal public restrooms, especially in a bar setting, that the average extra waiting time is pretty much always worth. After a minute a guy in a green like 80s sweater exits and gives her that little strangers-passing-in-public smile where you kinda grit your teeth when you smile and like shrug and nod your head and look down and Christine does the response to that where she kinda pulls her lips together and flattens her mouth and like nods back and heads in past him.
Here we are in the bathroom, Christine sitting on the toilet, phone out of course, checking in on the Snaps and FB messages she’s not been able to check because of Rule 2, and after those are cleared (nothing particularly interesting) she checks back in with Google News for maybe the 17th time that day just to see if anything broke in the Russia Investigation or some other huge Code Red scandal has broke that maybe will finally get Trump impeached, but the top story is still about this week’s mass shooting and so she browses Instagram for about ten posts, then Facebook until she’s seen like nine links from people talking about gun control in the wake of the most recent shooting (some maybe are even referencing last week’s shooting) and that’s about exhausted, and so she gets up and flushes and goes to the mirror. She’s not feeling too rushed in here, as she is in other single stalls at crowded bars, because there’s another bathroom and because there was no one else waiting when she came in so no one knows how long she’s been in there except her teammates (we now see the truth behind Sienna’s ‘Don’t fall in!’ comment).
Standing, leaning on the sink, looking in the mirror, adjusting her hair so it’s exactly how she wants it (of course it won’t look like that when she gets back to her table, but she won’t be looking in a mirror then, either), stepping back to observe her outfit – one of her good ones, reliable, in the prime of its lifetime, at least a year or maybe more from retirement. She looks very carefully into her eyes and realizes she’s pretty tipsy. Only two beers in (remember the shower beer), but the double IPA was like 8% or so, so not unreasonable, considering she hasn’t eaten dinner. The Old Rasputin which is actually being poured at this same exact moment will definitely put her into the shallow end of Drunk with a D. Which is all she’s really trying to go for tonight (unless they actually win, she guesses). And so another weekday drinking arc has been successfully plotted, its course maintained.
Everything on her person looks fine, there’s nothing left to do on her phone, but Christine lingers in front of the mirror another maybe 70, 80 seconds. She has a strong emotional attachment to standing in front of bathroom mirrors alone, in some state of not sobriety. Often, though she’s not really drunk enough in this particular case, she’ll take a photo of herself in the mirror, not smiling, never to be posted, holding one hand up, her left hand, waving hello to a future drunk version of herself that will stumble across the photo. This is her bridging the gap between the present-moment Christine and all the Christines of yore who have stood tipsy or drunk or really hammered in a bathroom, alone, sentimental, in the eye of a hurricane before falling back out into the social vortex of the bar or party. Right now, in this moment, she could be twenty-first birthday Christine, blasted out of her mind at some bar she’s never known the name of in SF somewhere. Or 20-year-old Christine, the night she met her ex Amir at a party and came in to collect herself because she was pretty sure they were gonna fuck that night and she was hella hella into him. Or even wee eighteen-year-old, freshman Christine at her first real frat house banger, looking at the mirror and smiling like an idiot because the college life she had been promised by countless movies and the internet was real, it was actually real! For once something was as good as advertised, better than anyone could have described to her. And she still had four more years of it! Or she could even be the Christine from the Coma Years, pipsqueak basically flat-chested fifteen-year-old Christine, at her first house party with other girls and boys from the soccer teams, confused out of her mind but pretty into that red-headed junior Cole Neary who keeps talking to her and doing shots with her but no way he’d try to actually like do anything, not tonight, would he? Would he actually ‘get with’ little high school Christine? She wasn’t even hot! Wait, was she? Was she actually like, well maybe not hot, but like, cute? Is that what this means?
In this closed room, staring in the mirror, Christine is both ageless and the sum of all ages, a probability density function in which every possible state exists, states of anticipation, excitement, surprise, naivety, joyful ignorance of where the night would lead to next, each represented by some probability, however small, and emerging from the bathroom collapses that wave function and she becomes nothing but the boring twenty-three-year-old working stiff Christine that knows exactly what’s next and what’s in store this week and the following week and well basically it seems like her whole life at this point.
She turns sharply to the right and bursts out the door into the din of the bar.
This all goes down about half an hour before Daniel, the younger of the two Zhao children, has just about nodded off on the couch while Apple and Peyton are still tuned into “Mean Girls”, a 2004 high school comedy Peyton stumbled on while idly surfing the channels. Apple actually saw it in theaters (early date with her now husband) and is pretty sure it’s on Netflix, but she withholds alerting Peyton to this possibility because she thinks if the movie is drawn out enough with commercials maybe he’ll give up and head to bed before it’s over. Of course this plan could backfire, but Apple doesn’t actually mind the commercials because it gives her a chance to ask Peyton some questions about one line or another that were too quick and slangy and flew over her head, though she’s certain she’s understanding the film far better than she did thirteen years prior, which injects her with a small dose of pride.
They’re at the scene in the movie where the red-headed main character girl (portrayed by some actress whose name Apple can’t remember but she’s pretty sure she’d know it if someone said it) is hosting a house party while her parents are out of town to like try to impress the other kids or get them to think she’s cool or something, and Apple immediately begins imagining the party unfolding in her own home. Peyton opening the door for wave after wave of American teenagers (she has trouble picturing Peyton at any older age, so he’s ten in this fantasy but all the other guests look exactly like the actors in the movie), leading them to the kitchen, where her granite countertops (redone in 2013) are covered in bottles of all shapes and sizes and colors, the kids begin pouring everything sloppily into plastic red cups, spilling as much all over her Chilean Tile floor (also redone in 2013 – the whole kitchen was redone that spring). Soon the house is packed tight to the walls with sweaty teenagers, the red cups coating all surfaces, sticky drinks (Apple basically imagines alcoholic drinks as soda, not a terribly inaccurate substitute for someone so unfamiliar with the typical contents of a high school party’s red Solo cup) poured all over the den’s leather sofa, seeping into the cracks, the TV and speakers being smashed by kids with green and orange mohawks, the dog yapping and running all over the place. The furniture on the back deck (built by her husband and his brother in the summer of 2011) is all turned over, the cushions torn to pieces as if by wild animals, and kids fill the backyard like they’re awaiting the start of a concert. There are plates, disgusting with food remnants, piling taller than Apple in the sink. Cans and bottles are everywhere. Nobody is using a coaster. The coffee table in the living room has been smashed through its center. Family pictures lining the stairwell are either skewed at dizzying angles or have otherwise been knocked to the staircase below, leaving trails of shattered glass up and down the steps. A single shot of the downstairs bathroom’s white hand towel, completely soaked with red wine and utterly ruined, discarded and trampled on the floor, sends a shudder through Apple’s spine.
Now the Peyton in the fantasy, looking far out of his depth due not only to losing all control of this raucous house party but also because he’s still only ten, he’s observing the scene with wild panic in his eyes from the top of the staircase, looking out over the railing, while a girl and boy holding hands push past him on their way up to Apple’s bedroom (she chooses not to follow through on the details of what goes down once they’re inside). He’s trying to yell out at the crowd to tell everyone to go home, but the music is too loud and the kids only party harder, then his eyes become huge, filled with terror, as the headlights of Apple’s approaching 2013 MDX slow and turn into the driveway, pulling up the little hill, the kids noticing as well and screaming and booking it out of there as fast as they can as the door handle turns and the parents Zhao descend upon the slaughtered husk that was their home.
Looking over across the room, Apple is first relaxed by the immaculate state of her couch and coffee table. Peyton wears an expression of absolute indifference. He could be sleeping with his eyes open, glazed over, staring at television as if hypnotized, the redheaded girl in a very tight fitting dress getting frustrated and flustered with some boy or another. She’s tempted to say something, in a joking tone, of course, about how she hopes he’ll never throw a party like that in her house, but then rethinks it, not wanting to impregnate him with the idea of doing such a thing. Christine stated she thinks about 50% of Americans get drunk for the first time in high school, and that half of those drink with some regular frequency. What percent turn their poor parents’ homes into nightmarish scenes of drunken teenage debauchery? Five percent? Ten? More? Does every kid who drinks take upon themselves an unofficial burden of hosting the night’s proceedings at least once in their high school lifetime? She makes a mental note to ask Christine in the AM; it would be a valuable stat to have.
Christine is the source of nearly all of Apple’s knowledge pertaining to being American between the ages of ten and twenty-three in the 2010s. She knows her husband’s teen years to as fair a degree as he can remember (and is comfortable telling her about, she supposes), but, ten years her senior, he’s from an era so different than that of their own children that gleaning useful information from his tales feel like attempting to fix your internet with a rooftop satellite dish owner’s manual. Additionally, her husband grew up in Nowheresville, Northern California (a farm outside Yreka, actually), and his childhood hobbies of tying up squealing piglets and disappearing into the mountains for two days with his friends at age 12 without garnering a single shred of alarm from anyone’s parents, he tells an increasingly incredulous Apple, are light years away from the internet-revolving, padded-walls and -floors, safety-trigger-always-on, parents setting child filters on the internet suburban life they’ve built for the boys in Walnut Creek (“The Jewel of the East Bay – Host Your Next Event Here!”).
Maybe she should have Peyton meet Christine. Not now, but in a couple years, maybe. To see that you can be ‘cool and hip’ (Apple doesn’t think these exact words – actually, a lot of this is in Cantonese) while still getting good grades and studying and going to a good school. Maybe if he’s curious about drinking she can even point him in Christine’s direction if he has any questions that Apple is unable to answer. This is all assuming Christine is even gonna stick around for a few years, the likelihood of which Apple has trouble placing. And assuming Peyton is even interested in sharing with her; he might be terribly shy or awkward around an attractive girl in her early-twenties. Or that she could even arrange the meetup – the office doesn’t celebrate Bring Your Child to Work Day, perhaps she could invite Christine over for dinner one night? Would that be weird? Would Christine even want to come? And then what, would Peyton and Christine discuss the finer points of American teenage drinking culture at the supper table over roasted duck and broccoli with oyster sauce, her mother and husband and Daniel and Apple herself leaning in with smiles of polite curiosity plastered on their faces? (Note: Apple’s concerns about parenting a teenage son exclusively involve Peyton. Although Daniel is only two years his junior, she almost never considers the fact that she’ll eventually have two teenage sons at once. She figures that if she can figure out how to manage Peyton, then Daniel will be easy a breeze; he’s always been the easier child, anyway.)
Peyton’s head is bobbing, his eyelids fluttering, and Apple is overcome with a mild high at the realization that bedtime will be a painless affair. About 40 minutes ago her husband, Sam, sent her a text saying that he was still out celebrating today’s launch of the company’s new website with the other members of the project team, and would it be alright if he wasn’t back until around midnight, to which Apple responded “Of course! I will put kids to bed. Have a good time – you earned it! :)”. Sam also does not drink; not because he dislikes intoxication, but because he has gradually just lost his appetite for getting drunk as a result of aging through his thirties and forties while dating and then marrying and fathering children with Apple. He’ll still have a beer or a glass of wine when it’s polite and appropriate, but otherwise he feels no strong desire to have even a single drink, except that once a year or so when he goes back to Oregon to see his college friends, at which point his drinking habits become nothing more than a murky and surprisingly vague report back to Apple on the way home from the airport four days later. Her mother had come home an hour back and had gone straight to bed, her mahjong game having evacuated about three day’s worth of the carefully maintained energy of the elderly.
Not that the other two adults of the Zhao household are much help at bedtime, anyway. Since moving in with the family four years ago, her mother has only ever been responsible for putting the boys down when Apple and Sam have the rare latish night out with another couple or friends, to which they’ve only ever come home to Momma Ling passed out on the recliner and the boys either asleep or barely awake on the couch or the floor, a video game’s protagonist idling passively on the television screen before them. And Sam seems to do more work riling the boys up than settling them down, his own playful instincts seeming to kick in right around their second wind at circa 10:00 PM. His main useful attribute is physically carrying the children up the stairs, so as to not risk waking them and sparking said second wind, but this skill is a bit overrated in Apple’s opinion; she’s found she can just as effectively herd them up the steps in their hemi-slumbering states without adding any additional probability of a wrangle-inducing wake-up.
The one person who had been a true asset at bedtime had been Apple’s late father, who, in his single year living in the States, had developed a knack for winding the boys down slowly with stories from his own boyhood, using the opportunity to work on his limited English, throwing in a fair bit of Cantonese, tales of busy streets, crowded homes, evil teachers and suspicious neighbors, of ghosts in the closets, spectres of dead animals, unexplainable sounds in the yard. Of train rides through the countryside. The first time he’d been to Hong Kong, the first time he’d left China. Her boys had liked these stories; they had four or five favorites they asked for repeatedly. When her father passed from a stroke in 2014, one of the myriad thoughts that had daggered through her brain tissue during the days preceding the funeral and stuck like an arrow in a target had been whether Daniel and Peyton would ask her to tell her father’s stories to them. To her relief, they never had. These days, Apple finds herself thinking of her father less and less, their relationship not passing any litmus test for ‘warm’ or ‘loving’, but her nonetheless wishing he had been with the family through at least Peyton’s marriage, maybe even to see a great-grandchild. But bedtime always stirs the most sympathetic feelings she possesses for the man. He had softened with age, and watching him with the boys, wrestling on the floor of their living room, under a giant blanket, was for Apple like looking through a portal to an alternative dimension’s depiction of her own childhood.
Apple Zhao gradually drags herself from the warm embrace of the massive armchair, not a small task in and of itself, and tugs the boys by their shirts. Slowly, painfully slowly, they arise, eyes mostly still closed, and she pushes them gently on the small of their backs and guides them along the well-trodden path from the den, through the kitchen, down the hall and up the steps, into their respective bedrooms, where they collapse into the small twin beds. Technically they should brush their teeth, and Peyton should change into pajamas, but Apple elects not to fuck with a good thing tonight; it’s been a long day, and as a parent, she’s learned to take even the smallest victories whenever she can get them.
Fortuna has indeed completed its slow arc upward for Dog, who after two years have finally entered the tallying phase of trivia night with the nervous anticipation and expectation of victory. There’s an electricity to the table, as the four teammates and friends make no attempt to hide their excitement. Kosta runs through the score prediction for maybe the third time. He’s typing it out on his phone.
“Okay so we’re at 18. The guys with the golden retriever had 16, then those girls had 15 and the freshman team had 15, then the next highest was 13, right?”
“Yep no one had 14, I definitely remember how no one had 17 and no one had 14.”
“Okay right, so then you guys are for sure for sure we went 10/10 on the music, right?” The music round had been one of a few double point variations Woodstock’s employs, this particular round consisting of a series of five covers of pop songs, just the first verse up to the start of the chorus, and typically blues, jazz, swing, folk, bossanova, ragtime, latin, string quartet or accordion covers, to properly conceal the original tune. Teams are awarded one point for the song name and a second for the artist. By far Dog’s biggest strength is music, the effect amplified on nights when music is the double round. Nate and Sienna have an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything that’s made an appearance on the Billboard top 10 since like 2001, and Christine has yet to see them miss more than maybe five songs ever. When the track plays over the bar’s PA, they both stand leaning on the table, chins in hands, looking up at nothing in particular, and race to be the first to swiftly grab the answer sheet and jot the song and artist names down while Christine and Kosta watch vacantly. Christine usually knows the song after one or another teammate has whispered it to the group, she sometimes even gets it right around the same time, or maybe a second or two later. She just doesn’t understand how they can hear like the first three or four words of the lyrics and know it right then and there. Kosta, by contrast, never seems to know any of the songs, except maybe if it’s like early 2000s pop punk or alternative stuff, for example tonight he knew The Killers’ ‘Mr. Brightside’, covered by a folk country band playing on banjo and fiddle and singing four part harmonies, the tempo jacked way up, which just served as further proof that the stars had truly aligned for Dog.
“Yeah definitely 10/10 there, no question,” Sienna answers.
“Okay so now we’re at 28. Then geography-”
“Pretty sure five for five, but at worst, three or four.” Nate was solid on geography but far from a five point lock. Tonight hadn’t seemed too hard, though. Christine had known at least two or three of them, one of which (what is the name of the strait that runs through Istanbul?) Nate had been embarrassed to admit he’d never learned.
“Then let’s say conservatively 31. Okay then impressionist painters, definitely got Monet was the flowers, definitely got Van Gough was the ear, uh…”
“Degas,” Nate says.
“Right, that was the ballet one, right? That’s three, you sure on Degas?”
“Positive. It’s my phone case.” He again shows off the back of her iPhone 5, which displays Edgar Degas’ Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, 1874.
“Then the other two were the one about La Belle Epoch, France’s golden age, and the poster artist was Toulouse-Lautrec.”
“Okay so that’s five? Positive five?”
“So that puts us at 36, maybe 37-38. And then just now the general trivia, we think we got them all, right?”
“So then 41 maybe 43, so the only way anyone can catch us is… so then 45 points tops, right?”
“No 46, the last question about the chemical symbol had the bonus, remember?”
Q: What is the chemical symbol for Tungsten? And one final bonus point if you can name the original name of the element which gave it this symbol. A: W, Wolfram.
“Oh right and we got that, so 42 maybe 43 or 44, out of a possible 46, and the next best team had already missed four… so then no one can catch us, right? Only if the 16-point team went perfect? That’s the only way, right?”
“Seems like it.” Kosta is now rubbing his hands together so fast Christine is scared he might start to chafe his skin.
“Holy shit we did it.”
“Maybe. You never know, maybe we were super sure about like a song but just spaced and it was something else entirely.”
“Okay, not saying we won, not gonna jinx it. Just feeling good, not gonna think about it – I’m just not gonna think about it! We’re just here, having a casual beer, what’s trivia?” Kosta is shrugging and pacing around. “No trivia, just a casual beer, so maybe we did good? Who knows? Not thinking about it.”
“Yep, definitely not thinking about it,” Christine says. “Guys look how hard Kosta is not thinking about it.”
“Hey Kosta can I not think about it with you? How do you do it, just pace back and forth, rub your hands like this?” Now Christine and Sienna are pacing behind Kosta, rubbing their hands, all having a solid one-to-two-beer laugh.
“Okay okay, I’m excited, what can I say? I’m pumped!”
“Regardless, we should for sure do a shot to calm the old nerves before the big announcement.”
“Why, I suppose I am. They don’t call me Nate ‘Moneybags’ Hernandez for nothing.”
“Wait, that’s not even your last name.”
“Man I’m dying to know how much you’ve made off those Youtube videos.”
“Not as much as I’ve made investing in Bitcoins.”
“Yeah what the fuck, you’re loaded, you should buy us a shot every night.”
“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you now. Is tequila okay with everyone? Provided I provide the requisite salt and limerino?”
“Ugh, I hate tequila.”
“No whatever, ignore him, tequila’s fine, just hurry they’re about to announce it.”
Christine watches Nate skip, like literally skip in giant skips, to the bar. She’s always sorta had a thing for him, long past since realistically acting upon. The wackiness, the randomness, the sort of order within a cloud of chaos that seems to be his mind. She craves what seems like complete immunity to stress, tension, over thinking, awkwardness and worry. None of this seems to bog him down; he seems to have no opinion whatsoever of what other people think of him, which always makes everyone like him more. And then good things just fall into his lap; like the job working with the Mayor. Christine is like 95% sure if she could stop caring about if things are happening and whether or not she’s making them happen, then good things will just start happening to her, the way they do to Nate.
In reality, Nate is probably the most fucked up on the whole team. If everyone had a scale of how depressed they were, like on a 1 to 10, Sienna, with the darkest past, would probably come in at the bottom (or on top, depending on how you look at it) at a high 2, maybe a low 3. This is mostly due to her having been through so much shit, so much more real, realer ass shit than anyone else here that the ‘stress’ of being an undergrad at a competitive university seems like fucking dip in the pool next to her average day during year 21 or 22 of her life. Any lingering depression is just due to having survived that stuff while many of those she knew at that age, people who had the intelligence and ambition to also make it out of there and enjoy the dip in the pool life, but for whatever reason couldn’t escape the drugs, were now non-existent, dead, no thoughts, no feelings, no ambitions, their bodies rotting in the ground or sitting in cheap little urns, and she thinks about at least a couple of them every single day, which is a bummer but also the best motivation to stay on track.
Kosta is about a 4, which signals that he’s an average, healthy grad student. This is due almost entirely to worry regarding funding and his advisor, an old-school conservative Serbian who doesn’t understand the concept of taking time off from research and uses every trick in the book to keep Kosta from earning anything more than the meager poverty-level paycheck he receives monthly from the university. Christine is probably a 6, though about a year ago she was in the high 7s, mostly owing to her breakup and how she’s still daily trying to accept, like really accept, the fact that she’s got a day job now and that this is pretty much how it’s gonna be for the next thirty years until she’s old and not cool anymore.
Unlike Christine, Kosta isn’t so much depressed about being an adult as he is unsure of where exactly he fits into the world of adults. He’s in grad school essentially because he didn’t know what else to do, staying on in the lab where he’d done his senior thesis being by far the easiest transition one could make out of undergrad, not having to fill out resumes or go to career fairs or wear a tie or get a haircut or god forbid make a LinkedIn account. He’s pretty sure he’s not passionate about civil engineering, but he’s also pretty sure that there’s not really a job out there for him that he’s truly passionate about, and the idea that he’s destined to put his heart and soul into a career he truly cares for seems more and more to be a fantasy, a fabrication they tell you in middle school and high school to keep you motivated. He’s secretly holding out to fall in Love, like real Love with a capital L, because that’s the one thing he truly has not tried at all yet and it seems to have worked wonders for some people he knows, grad students that are super stoked on their babies or their spouses or their home improvement projects, but he’s like 50% sure that real Love is also a fabrication and everyone else is just lying to themselves to cope with having realized as much.
But Nate is probably high 7s to low 8s, and is incredibly adept at hiding that from anyone who seems like they have a stake in his happiness. He doesn’t want to bum anyone out or let them down, alter their thinking that he’s got his shit together so well, emotionally speaking, but the kid is seeing a therapist once a week to cope with some incredibly gnarly LSD experiences he had this year, which he can sort of forget about if he’s active and has his mind at work, either creatively, working on art or music or videos or some programming thing, or by being social, by talking and being around people. That’s why he’s always at trivia, why he’s such a lock to go out, to not bail, he’s basically the least flaky guy Christine knows, because any time spent alone is like letting rats nibble at his brain. And he’s never truly been able to escape, the visions of those trips sort of lurking at the back of his mind at all times, ready to come out if he lets his guard down and engages in any conscious self-reflection.
The bad trips – there were two of them, and he hasn’t touched anything harder than weed since the second one – they aren’t how they get portrayed on the internet or in movies, but then again how the fuck can anyone successfully portray psychedelics for the uninitiated? There were no like hallucinations, no monsters or frightening visions, no rooms warping and closing in around him or nightmares from childhood flashing before a pitch black empty universe like a DSLR.
Rather, for the first one, it was more like this; he just started to want to be off the ride. Things were going fine, but he was with a large group of six, too large, and then two of the guys had gone silent, and a girl was getting very bosy and paranoid, and then all of a sudden, it wasn’t fun anymore. Like at all. The complete sense of wonder, of escaping this universe and being plopped down into a new one, where it’s like your whole life has been in 240p and then someone shows you 4k, where you can’t remember anything about your job or the logistics of driving a car or sending an email or operating a computer, you’re just experiencing all this incredible visual stimulation which gets your brain thinking about your classic shit, that stuff that’s been bugging you the last few months or last couple years, the shit you always think back on but in a completely new way, a completely new visual representation, so that you can think out your problems in ways you never could sober, and then that glow stays with you, and you bring it back to your sober life and you’re like ‘Yeah, that was real. I know what to do now, I know what decisions I have to make.’ Nope, on this one, he just didn’t wanna be on acid anymore, and he couldn’t get off, and that sucked. And the whole day sucked and he felt shitty for about a week.
Not wanting to be go down like that, to be defeated, humiliated by the drug, and remembering the good times, he tried it again, alone, the plan being to just watch some movies and listen to some music he’d been meaning to experience on LSD and have a mellow day of remembering why he liked the drug in the first place. But again, much to his horror, all the excitement and positive attributes of tripping failed to materialize. Instead, he was just very much on a drug. Alone, in a room, very on a drug. Thick is the best word for it, like real thick inside a trip, layers and layers and layers deep, wrapped up so thick that every step toward thinking your way out of it results in five somersaults backward, even deeper inside. And somewhere in there he had the stark, profound realization that if anyone were watching, like if there was a hidden camera, and he could look at the footage later, of him in his room, the walls wouldn’t be shifting in super ultra HD the way he was seeing them, and the room’s objects wouldn’t appear more real than real life, like he could actually see in three dimensions and the world existed in four. It would just show him, sitting, silently, alone, in a chair. That’s what the footage would show. But there was no footage. There was nobody watching, there never had been, and there never will be. Not when he was alone, not 99.9% of the time he was alone. The only way these moments in this bedroom would ever be experienced by anyone would be through his own crazy, tripped out of his mind eyeballs. And these parallel truths scared him more than any fact about reality ever could.
Then it just became a death spiral, a Psychedelic Terror Episode, Wikipedia calls it. It was like his brain was being pressed repeatedly into a frying pan by a spatula, like someone cooking a burger. He couldn’t focus on one thought longer than half a second. He had no control over his mind. Every idea was garbage. Everything looked like garbage. Every thought; garbage. He tried to put on some music to calm himself, put on his nice Audiotechnics M50 headphones and dialed in some Fleet Foxes; they sounded like complete garbage. Fake and 2D and garbage. He was completely trapped. The trip timer he’d set on his iPhone said it’d only been 1.5 hours since he’d dropped. He still had 10 to go to be fully out, about 4 or 5 hours of that buried very thick in it. The peak was still two hours away. This all basically made his brain explode.
Now Nate can’t really be alone without having the flashbacks of remembering what that whole ordeal was like, and he can’t smoke weed (took about four tries before he sadly realized he had to put even that mild drug on indefinite hiatus, because it always caused him to remember those feelings twice as vividly, though he still picks up for Christine and his roommate), and he’s pretty sure he’s killed something inside himself, not just the whole ego-death thing, which pretty much happened the first time, when he realized that the world behaves exactly how the science books say it does, that he’s not the protagonist of any unique story, that his consciousness isn’t real, etc etc. But rather, the drug killed some part of him that could once enjoy drugs. Or just enjoy new experiences, weird experiences. The part of him that can sit alone in a room and reflect on what he went through and not want to open his wrists up right then and there. That part seems pretty fucking dead, but maybe after enough time and some good sessions with this therapist he rather likes, then maybe he’ll start to grow it back.
So anyway here’s Nate coming back with the four shots, held together between his two hands, with a coaster sitting atop the four glass rims holding four lime wedges and a tiny mountain of salt. Christine thinks he looks just great like that, carrying four shots, mouth wide open, tongue out. Like a dog; not a care in the world.
Apple’s standing in the front yard, wrapped in her parka, Pepper sniffing around the yard on a long leash she holds absently at her side. All the lights are off in the house except the one on the porch and the one bulb above the stove she keeps on in case one of her boys comes down stairs for like a glass of water or something. She’d wanted to just stay upstairs when she’d put the kids down and passed out til Sam came home, but she’d remembered that she had to take the dog out, and that she’d left the lights on and that the doors were unlocked and so she made her way down, where she noticed for the first time the mail stacked neatly on the dining room table, brought in by her mother, and had gotten side tracked sorting through it, sitting at the massive armchair, ripping open each envelope neatly with a letter opener with her tiny legs up on the Ottoman, and has only now gotten around to bringing the dog out, curiously to the front yard, even though they almost always let him out in the back, leash free, because she kind of wanted to look at the street and the houses and see some cars or something. The dog’s been relieved and is now lying prone beside her but still she stands, holding a glass of room temperature water the way someone might stir a glass of red wine at the end of a long night.
It’s not often Apple has alone time at the house like this. Either her mom or Sam or the boys are always around, and more often than not she herself isn’t around. It’s 10:53. Sam will be home in maybe an hour, maybe more. She’ll be waking up at 6:45 tomorrow so she could get something close to eight hours if she hits the hay right now and sleeps through the night, which would be the first time she’s gotten a full eight in over a month, but her mind, tired as it is, somehow keeps running thoughts on the lowest energy setting, not quite ready to power down for the day. She finds herself thinking again of Christine, right this moment about Christine’s outfits, how she’s maybe the most casually dressed female at the office, but how she still looks very cool, like she knows exactly what she’s looking like and really owns that aesthetic. Apple dresses business casual, with a jacket and heels and more makeup on Key Decisions Meeting days or Board of Directors Meeting days. Apple likes how she dresses and so does everyone else, a solid mix of floral-print floor length skirts, colorful blouses, chic cardigans, slim black suit pants, the occasional fringe or off-shoulder top, a leather jacket when it’s not too cold out, otherwise a fur-lined child’s parka to protect her tiny frame from the chilling East Bay winds. But Christine dresses her age and it’s refreshing in a way that Apple’s outfits, professional as they may be, never will be.
Suddenly a thought strikes Apple and she’s immediately embarrassed and then ashamed and then confused about why she’s ashamed. The thought is that she’d very much like it if Christine were her daughter. She’d never afforded herself the selfishness of feeling sad that she wouldn’t get to raise a daughter, to watch her become beautiful and dress well, but she’s seen the thought lurking at the back of her brain like a dark silhouette against a moonlit sky, and just now it seems to have reared its head by manifesting as Christine.
Apple’s never really worked closely with a young woman before; all of her previous subordinates have been either young men or women close to her age, married, cutting the same cloth as her on the regular. And now, four months since hiring Christine practically on the spot because she had the exact, like exact qualifications listed on the job application – B.S. in statistics, computer science or mathematical economics, 1-2 years working experience, knowledge of Python, SQL and R with advanced knowledge in at least one, advanced knowledge of Microsoft Excel, ability to visualize data effectively, experience working in large datasets, previous experience related to renewable energy preferred – and had spoken so eloquently and politely but with an undeniable energy and enthusiasm, she felt as if she were somehow falling for the girl, not romantically but as someone she felt she had myriad to learn from, who could brighten her life, turn a corner, assist Apple in navigating high school and college America while simultaneously affording Apple the chance to professionally mentor someone she wanted nothing more than to watch blossom and someday replace her on the company hierarchy, on that inevitable day when Apple would move on to a slower-paced job closer to home (probably in five years, she’s calculated many a time).
And she kind of wants to be like Christine, too. To almost turn back the clock and grow old with a little of Christine in her. Somewhere inside herself, Apple wishes she didn’t come across so hard as the stereotypical Asian immigrant. That’s another big reason she clings so tightly to the Oakland Raiders; it separates her from those like her. She recognizes how she looks; extremely dedicated, polite, somewhat shy, doesn’t drink, married an Asian guy (although his native citizenship is a strike against the stereotype), never went to a party, never afforded herself the luxury of ‘fun’ in middle school, high school, college or grad school. The stereotype exists because it’s so gosh darned true about so many that manage to navigate the hair-pulling draconian process of successfully immigrating to America from China; the Chinese wildcards, few and far between as they are, never end up over here. It’s always people like herself; willing to put the nose to the grindstone and grind out an existence based around birthing and raising ABC kids (American Born Chinese – Apple actually likes the term ‘ABC kids’, she thinks it’s cute in a Sesame Street sort of way) that will never know even her relatively mild struggle when compared to her mother’s enormous struggle, which again is relatively mild compared to her grandmother’s titanic struggle, which are all dwarfed, struggling-wise, by whoever her oldest ancestors were that lived through the Qin Dynasty or the Ming Dynasty or the Song Dynasty or the Warring States Period or the numerous floods and blights and purges and slaughters, when even existing as a female was an exercise in torture resiliency due to the practice of foot-binding. (Apple has thought on more than one occasion that perhaps the total pain suffered by hundreds of millions of Chinese woman enduring foot binding every day for 3000+ years is about equal to the total pain suffered by everyone else over the entire course of human history. As a math person and data scientist, she’s morbidly fascinated by how one might attempt to quantify human suffering.)
But maybe staying within the lines of her stereotype isn’t so bad, if Daniel and Peyton end up happy and successful and enjoy raising kids as much as she enjoys raising them, and if she can, in maybe thirteen or fourteen years, once Daniel’s through grad school, if she can throw her little legs on the Ottoman once and for all and survey the work her and Sam have done on these boys, and if they aren’t drug addicts or clinically depressed or struggling to make it in some godforsaken industry the future’s technology creep is actively obsoleting, if they seem like their lives are on track to be at least as successful as Apple’s own, but hopefully far more colorful, filled with exotic vacations and responsible parties and thoughtful, tasteful, well-educated girlfriends, then staying in the lines will have been well worth it, a tiny blip of a cost for the reward of feeling like she’s successfully done all she was born unto this Earth to do, future be damned.
And now she’s thinking that maybe it’s not that she wants Christine as a daughter, but that Christine reminds her somewhat of how she’d like her own children to turn out. Rather than just fantasizing about Peyton at twenty-three, she has a physical, real-life example of what that might look like. Christine’s talent, her energy, her knowledge of all things American and cultural, her nicknames for everyone and everything, the disposable camera photos of her friends, always at a party, or maybe on the beach or on a mountain, their arms over each other’s shoulders, pinned all around her cubicle with thumbtacks, the way she describes her ‘good not magical’ Tinder dates or Brumble dates or Coffee Meets Donut dates with all these Bay Area guys that Apple always thinks are far more handsome than the boys she remembers courting her when she was Christine’s age, the way she spins around in her chair or plays with her hair or lies on the floor of The Court of Appeels and holds her stomach and says “AZ I ate so much duck, waaayyyy too much duck, I’m in a coma, AZ I’m in a coma, I’m so full, why did you let me do this?! I need a nap, like for real can I nap right here? Is that chill?”, her ripped jeans and her sheer backless top and her turquoise necklace and her cool jean jacket and her aviator sunglasses she wear when she’s hungover and her dyed blue tips and her Chelsea boots and her flannel shirts and her Scotland soccer jersey and the pins and buttons that cover her backpack and her beret that somehow doesn’t look tacky, her placing of her social life right there next to her work life on the sorted descending list of priorities, these are all qualities Apple can’t teach her boys herself but hopes they develop their own idiosyncratic versions of, this is what it looks like to be American, not the guns and obesity and skimpy jean skirts and ten-gallon hats (Apple refers to them as ‘Cowboy Hats’ or ‘Texas Hats’) that some of her rather insular fellow countrymen think of when they think American, but rather a complete absence of any discernable stereotype. Forget staying inside the lines; there appear not to be any lines at all. In this way, in Christine, Apple can see an approximation of a future, not just a logistical and professional future but an emotional future, she hopes Peyton and Daniel will one day enjoy. And so of course that manifests itself as watching Christine through a maternal lens; she’s looking at Christine but she’s seeing Peyton and Daniel.
Apple kind of claps her hands together, satisfied, and the dog stands upright, ready to move at once, its eyes trained on Apple’s own. It seems like her mind has now settled, reached a conclusion she’s content to go to bed on. The dog is brought in, the lights are turned off, the doors locked, the pajamas donned and the teeth brushed. The bed greets Apple’s unending stream of consciousness with a healthy injection of work-related thoughts, but she can tell that sleep is well on its way. The last time she looks at the digital clock it reads 11:12. It seems she may get eight hours after all, if you round up. She doesn’t even wake when Sam quietly enters the bedroom and snuggles into his side of the bed beside her.
Team Dog won tonight’s trivia, and it wasn’t even close. The squad ended up with 43 points, while the astute freshmen with impressively convincing fake IDs trailed in a distant second at 38. The prize for first, as always, is two large, 22 ounce bottles of whatever the team wants (they elect for a couple of rather expensive Belgians) and a $25.00 gift card, usable for up to two weeks, which means the group will definitely be coming back hard next Wednesday, although Kosta isn’t sure he’ll make it because he has a conference in SF all day that day and might be getting back late, so then they’ll save the gift card and definitely be back two weeks from tonight.
The Belgians are nearly double digit ABV, and between 11 oz of that, the pint of Old Rasputin and the tequila shot, plus the two beers from before, Christine is right around the median of the distribution of all previous times in her life she’s been Drunk, not tipsy but Drunk with a D. Sienna only had one beer and the shot, so she’s good to drive and offers Christine a ride home, knowing that Kosta lives right around the corner and that Nate has his longboard. The group hugs outside the bar, which they don’t normally do, but tonight it seems appropriate, and Christine piles into the front seat of Sienna’s ‘88 Volvo 780 that runs remarkably well for a car that old, courtesy of Sienna being well-acquainted with a rather gifted former-mechanic/meth addict back in Lubbock.
The car starts, the ancient dash lights jump to life, the radio, only ever tuned to UC Berkeley’s own 90.7 KALX, plays some kind of experimental electronic tribal music at a pleasantly low volume. Sienna whips her head 180 degrees over her right shoulder and backs up before rocketing out of her spot right into the red light thirty yards ahead at Durant and Telegraph. The girls are silent, but it’s not awkward. The glow of victory is diminished in intensity in the absence of Nate and Kosta.
“How’s work going?” Sienna asks after a couple minutes.
“Pretty good. Can’t complain.”
“How’s Apple Zhao?”
“The App Star G? Still kicking ass, as usual.”
“Think she’d ever come out to trivia?”
“Lol, I actually invited her to my Halloween party.”
“You’re kidding. What’d she say?”
“She said she’s gotta take her sons trick or treating.”
“Is Peyton gonna go as Peyton Manning?”
“No, apparently they’re both going as Thor.”
“Ha! That’s perfect.”
“I know, right? Good old AZ-DC.”
“The Duchess herself.”
“Alpha Centauri. I hope I can kick ass as hard as she does someday when I’m a mom.”
“Don’t we all.”
“But you don’t ever wanna be a mom, right?”
Here Sienna takes a second to answer. “Probably not. Although I think it’d be foolish to know what mom-age me will want.”
“Technically you’re mom-age already.”
“Sometimes I think about what it’d be like to have to like actually care for a child right now, like still at Cal, doing my classes, come home and actually care for a little baby, you know like buy the food for it, and deal with it crying at night and figure out where it’s gonna stay while I’m at school, and like breastfeed it-”
“Ugh just thinking about breast feeding a little human sounds so gross to me right now. Just the term even – breast feeding. Like it’s feeding on you. Like a fish.”
“Totally. So yeah like breast feeding or like feeding it, whatever else- it’s fucking insane. There’s just no possible way. Like 0% chance I could do that right now.”
“And there are girls our age doing it!”
“I know, right? I mean I don’t think too many of them are in school, but yeah for sure they really are, I know tons from Texas.”
“I am laughably unequipped to mother a child. Like besides even the logistics of it, I don’t think I’m even emotionally ready for the good parts, like the ‘watching a human being grow’ parts. Like I don’t even give a fuck about a kid right now, it wouldn’t even make me happy to see it grow.”
“Well, you don’t really know, it might be different once you have one.”
“I think it’d just depress me. It’d remind me even more that my youth is over, shut, door slammed shut for good.”
“Your youth is over? Jeez I’m three years older than you, does that make me like an old cat lady?”
“No you’re like two times more youthful than me. You have red hair and kick ass style and you’re still in undergrad.”
“Ahh, my classmates feel like children sometimes, though. Like sometimes I hear a girl say something and I just have to double take, like ‘Am I actually in the same class as this person? Are we actually at the same stage in our lives?’”
“Yeah, sometimes it’s like that even if you’re the same age as them.”
“Getting old sucks. I don’t know how the hell I’m ever gonna be forty and not be depressed about it.”
“You’ll be alright. Everyone else figures it out.”
“Seems like everyone else already figured it out.”
“You know Christine, I think one day you’re gonna look back on being twenty-three and fretting about the end of your youth and think ‘God I was stupid, now I’m old, then I still had everything.”
“You’re totally right, I know that.”
Sienna slows down in front of Apple’s apartment building, puts the car in park, kills the engine and says: “So why don’t you act like you still have everything? If you’re so concerned about this day job and like the monotony of everyday working life, why don’t you go do something different? Move to Europe or something.”
“I know, you’re right. I should. I should move to Europe.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I think… I think maybe because it’ll feel like I didn’t learn anything, like I’m still running away from adulthood. Like I’m avoiding all this. But eventually, I’ll have to face adulthood, either here or in Europe or in Australia or anywhere. So I guess I wanna just figure out accepting it and kill it for good and then make a big move like that.”
“Well, maybe being there, and having like a mid-twenties renaissance, maybe that’s what you need to accept it. Maybe you don’t have to go through this depressed. Age gracefully, as they say.”
“Possibly. But I’m gonna try and stick it out at the job for at least a year I think. Maybe next summer I’ll think about it.”
“You should. Take responsibility for your own happiness. Make the move. I did, and it was a pretty good call for me.”
“Right, yeah it seems like it.”
“Yeah… hey, you wanna come in and smoke and like chill for a little?” Christine smokes weed but not cigarettes. Sienna, like many former drug addicts, smokes cigarettes but not weed. Unlike most former drug addicts, she drinks. This might be because she didn’t drink back when she was a drug addict.
“I’d love to but I really gotta get back and get to work on a paper.”
“Is it due tomorrow?”
“No, but I’ve been thinking about it and I finally have the motivation to get some serious words down so I don’t wanna waste the momentum I’ve got going in my head.”
“Yeah I know the feeling, you should go work on it.”
“Next time. Halloween party.”
“Do you have class in the morning?”
“9:00 AM, Korean Lit.”
“Wish I was going.”
“Wanna come? We have a twenty-page paper due next week.”
“Maybe not. Is the professor chill?”
“Thirty-ish badass lesbian, crew cut, wears jeans up to her ears.”
“I feel like I would be content if I woke up one day and that was my life. Maybe aside from the hair. I really like my hair.” Christine leans over to look at her strawberry blonde locks in the passenger side mirror.
“Yeah, you do have great hair.”
“Thanks.” She looks back at Sienna, feeling kinda drunk. “Well, I suppose I will depart.”
“Okay, I’ll see you soon.”
“Bye bye, thanks for the ride.”
“No problem, give Apple Zhao my regards.”
“Lol, sure thing.”
They kind of half hug before Christine gets out. The car jolts away as she ascends the exterior staircase, up to floor three, key in the lock, greeted by darkness, foot darting around, looking for the floor switch that activates the standing IKEA lamp beside the TV stand. Christine has a roommate, Nkechi Soyebo, a girl she knows from helping plan a career fair once and afterward became acquaintances with, not exactly friends but friendly, and they both happened to be looking for housing at the same time in the same price range and Nkechi seemed quite put together so Christine took a gamble on living with her without really knowing her too well, which has worked out fine because Nkechi basically lives at her boyfriend JT’s, who also has a two-bedroom, but JT’s roommate Kyle (or is it Kevin?) is always at his girlfriend’s place, who has a studio and whose name escapes Christine although she’s met her once and the girl is very tall and has resting bitch face and is kind of stuck up, in Christine’s opinion.
So Christine lives ‘de facto alone’, as she tells people (they always put de facto in italics, Christine thinks to herself when she says it), which is very convenient of course and great when you wanna come home and just not talk to anyone, but that’s what a bedroom’s for and really Christine was hoping she and Nkechi could become friends, and watch Netflix shows together and tell each other about their Tinder dates after they got home from them and maybe even like take a weekend trip to Portland together sometime. But next year Nkechi will probably get a one bedroom with JT and Christine will stay right where she is ‘cause the rent is as good as you’re gonna do in Berkeley (900 a bedroom) and the apartment has a dope balcony and gets a lot of natural sunlight and is on a pretty street fairly close to downtown, and so she’ll put out the requisite posts on Craigslist and Facebook and the Berkeley Housing Portal and interview a slew of girls (or possibly even guys, maybe gay guys or even a straight guy provided she gets zero vibes from him) in the hopes of finding what she didn’t get out of Nkechi.
All this time Christine has been absent mindedly grinding weed in her four-piece grinder, the last nug of an eighth of a stativa-dominant hybrid called Blue Dream that Nate picked up for her a couple months ago (he has a medical card for a wrist he broke three years back). Christine has cut back on her smoking over the past year, going from daily to weekends and social gatherings to about once a week, which is where she is now. This is all a result of her occupation/adulthood/breakup related melancholia, as she finds that weed tends to make her even more pessimistic about her life’s future trajectory, but tonight she’s drunk and not thinking and has decided she’s just gonna go ahead and smoke and see what happens and if she gets sad and it sucks she’ll just know better for next time and maybe she won’t ask Nate to pick up weed for her anymore, at least for awhile.
Lighting the bowl, careful to corner it, as is etiquette, and generally a good practice even when alone, she stands on their little patio, looking down Hillegas south toward Oakland and taking a hit, not holding it very long like she used to, since her tolerance is so much lower now. She’s brought her MacBook out and placed it on their tiny little aluminum table, the screen cracked and distorted on one side, and plays from it the recorded sounds of rain and thunderstorms, which Christine often prefers to music. She tries to remember the last time smoking weed was fun, like really fun, not just fine or doing it casually at a party but like silly fun. Well most of the really silly times were with Amir, so it was probably then, before they broke up. Maybe even like the week they broke up, it could have been. They used to get so silly. Sometimes they’d have sex, blazed out of their minds, both barely even there, but also everything feeling so warm and amazing, sometimes just bursting out laughing right in the middle of it. But usually they’d watch some cartoons, Adventure Time or Rick and Morty or something, and eat salty snacks and lay in bed and just laugh their asses off. So then it’s been just under a year now, since weed was really fun. Man she should quit smoking.
Christine and Amir met at a kegger in early November of their junior year. It was a party to celebrate finishing a huge coding project for a class about Smart Cities, one of the most work-intensive group projects Christine had ever been a part of (their team designed a model for optimizing energy resource management in urban Phoenix, AZ). Amir wasn’t in the class, he was just a good friend of one of Christine’s group’s members, and the two had hit it off, thanks in no small part to the sheer ecstasy and desire to get absolutely shit-faced Christine was reeling on as a result of finishing the project. They had sex that night; within a week they were Facebook official.
Christine had had two previous boyfriends; the classic high school holdover who made it two months long distance in college before Christine dropped him like a hot potato over Thanksgiving break, and a very clever and affable young man who was also terribly shy and non-committal whom she hung on to for about four months from freshman spring into the summer before dropping him in a pretty painless but eerily non-personal breakup over the phone.
Sophomore year was the Year of Two-Week Hookups, where Christine found herself time and time again drawn in by one guy or another’s charms, hooking up, going on one or two dates, accompanying him to a party or two, then approximately two weekends post meeting, realizing he was either immature or sexist or controlling or uncommunicative or very strange in bed, not the kind of strange you can work with but the kind you definitely cannot even begin to be okay with, and like this she drifted through sophomore year, convinced by its terminus that every guy at Cal sucked, except for the guys she had already thrown unofficially into the friendzone (a couple of the Two-Week Hookups were friends; things did not end well, she stopped making that mistake), like Nate and Kosta (though she’s never been attracted to Kosta – too hairy) and a few others.
Then she met Amir, and all of a sudden it was like ‘Yes, this is what a real boyfriend feels like.’ Depictions of couples in movies or the internet or the disgustingly happy and sweet couples she encountered in real life suddenly made sense. The Beatles made sense. Gilmore Girls made sense. Staying in on a Friday and getting blazed and watching Adventure Time and making a mad dash for the convenient store down the street in the rain for Doritos and Snapple was as good or better than most of the parties she was going to. Pregaming together, dancing their faces off in some apartment to like Nicki Minaj or Kanye, stumbling home together drunk. When he’d meet her outside her lecture hall and bring her a hot coffee in a cardboard cup during the chill of late autumn or winter and take her hand and they’d walk back to his place to have afternoon sex while his roommate was in class. Going home to meet his family, watching him and his dad get into debates about football, helping his mom in the kitchen. Late night Skype sessions their first summer apart, her in Seattle, he in Costa Rica with the blank white wall with the crack in it behind him and the terrible internet. The first time they saw each other again and got to fuck after that summer was over. When he surprised her and took her to Napa to go hot air ballooning at like 4:00 AM on her birthday. Watching him and his friends wrestle on the carpeted floor of their apartment. Meeting him at a coffee shop where they’d both plug in their headphones and whip out their Macbooks and either do homework or browse Reddit beside each other, every now and then pointing out some funny gif on Imgur or some girl they both hated’s obnoxious Facebook post. Pumpkin picking two weeks before Halloween their senior year. Him pregaming with all her female roommates ‘cause she was stuck in traffic coming back from SF and she came in the door and they were all drunk and he was like dancing for them and just generally nailing it. The stupid winter hats he used to wear with the ear flaps. His framed Pulp Fiction poster in his bedroom. Cuddling in those tiny twin beds that are so small you have to cuddle, you’re forced to, if you want to sleep at all comfortably, her forehead against the glass of the window beside her bed, looking out into the Berkeley night, thinking about all the homework she had to do but as long as she saw him every day then who fucking cares.
They graduated in 2016, still going strong. He had got a job in SF. She was staying on to work with a professor as a research assistant while she looked for work. They decided against living together, mostly because he didn’t wanna commute into SF every day and she couldn’t afford SF prices, but she was actually excited that they’d have a place to stay on both sides of the Bay, figuring they’d spend a lot of weeknights and most weekends together. That summer was a blast. No school, no homework or exams, drinking and smoking and sex out the wazoo. Pure carnage. Most of her friends were still around. No one was sad.
This is when she started to think about well could she go the distance with Amir? Of course she’d thought about this, just pondered, in daydreams, with her previous boyfriends, but now it felt like a real life possibility, like not just some far-off cloudy maybe someday fantasy, but like they could make real life logistic decisions to make it happen. She experienced the shock of realizing she was thinking about the future in terms of two people, calculating him into all of her potential plans. Applying to jobs outside of the Bay was not a possibility, if they could actually go the distance. Could it really happen this early, at only 22? Was she being tricked by young love, or was this real? She had no way of knowing, but she knew that they got along quite well, that they never fought, that their goals and ambitions for life generally lined up. She decided she didn’t really need to think that hard about it. She’d just keep on keeping on, going with the flow of the relationship, not trying too hard to figure out what was at the end of the tunnel. She realized one night in September, in a brilliant drunken epiphany, that she couldn’t fuck up; she’d know, in time, if it was the real deal, if they were really gonna go the distance, or if they weren’t. The longer they were together, the more the truth would reveal itself to her. She shared this epiphany with Nate and Sienna; they agreed with her logic. Secretly, deep inside, she was already starting to sense which way it would go, that yes, this was indeed the real deal, that they were gonna go the distance, that she’d never have to spend her twenties dating stupid guys on dating apps or her thirties drinking herself to sleep worried sick over whether she’d ever get to be a mother, if marriage was even in the cards for her or if she’d be single in her forties, watching all her friends raise kids and be constantly tired but incredibly fulfilled in ways she’d never experience, sitting on a pile of money in the bank and absolutely nothing to show for her life’s efforts. She’d get to skip all that, because she met Amir Saidi at a kegger when she was 20-years-old and sometimes you just get lucky.
Then on Thursday, November 10th, two days after the election, and two days before their two-year anniversary, he broke up with her. He was cold, brutally honest, completely sure. They were in her bedroom. He told her he’d been feeling it for a while, but hadn’t given her any signs, because he hadn’t ever wanted the relationship to be shitty. He said the minute he knew it’d get shitty, he was gonna end it. Not let it get bad, not incur pointless fights, not prolong the thing by launching it into an irretrievable death spiral. He did not cry. He explained that as good as they were together, he did not want to spend the rest of his life with her, and it’d be wrong to pretend for even one more day that he might. He did not know who he wanted to spend his life with, but it was not Christine. It wasn’t due to any fault of her own. She had been perfect. She just wasn’t his future. And he was 100% certain of it, and no matter how much she cried and pitifully begged him, too stunned to be embarrassed, her heart dropping like a bowling ball released from the top of a building, the dread piling on, more and more, no matter what logic she tried to use, logic like he couldn’t know yet, that more time would help him know for sure, that she was changing and he was changing and maybe in time he’d realize that he’d made a mistake, that this was just a phase for him, it became more and more devastatingly clear that nothing was going to change his mind. And she was sobbing so many tears it was remarkable that they could even keep coming out, her bed sheets soaked, piles of tissues on the little table beside it. He called Sienna for her and left the phone ringing on the bed beside her and left, and she hasn’t seen him since.
He’d offered to grab coffee a few times, and once she’d said yes, but she cancelled an hour before because she couldn’t stomach going, she got physically sick, she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him again, she never wanted to see him as anything other than who he was when they were dating, she didn’t want to know how he was doing, how his job was going, whether he was adjusting alright (of course he was), if he was seeing anyone. She didn’t want to tell him about how many nights she’d cried into her pillow, forehead against the window, remembering the good times, and she didn’t want to lie, either. She never wanted to see him again. She didn’t want to ask why, she didn’t want to know if he ever regretted it. She didn’t want to open up even the most remote possibility that they could ever get back together, because she knew if she believed in it she’d have to endure the breakup all over again. By mid-January he stopped texting her. She unfriended him soon after. She’s positive that someday she’ll run into him in some bar in SF or the East Bay, but thus far fortune has looked out for her in this most minimal of ways.
By April she was over the worst of it. That was the last time she had any kind of clearish vision for the future, a vision she was excited for, even. With the end of her one-year research contract looming, she finally got her shit together, job-hunting wise. She wasn’t especially psyched about working a desk job, fearing a daily grind that would begin and not end until she was like 60, feasting away at her idealism and her soul, but she saw no alternative. Her only skills were computer-related. Moving back home was out of the question, and staying on to research another year was a lower paying version of getting a real job. After about 50 applications she finally got an interview, nailed the technical piece and landed the data science job, directly under The Duchess of Zhao herself.
Apple Motherfuckin’ Zhao, now there was someone who figured it out. Immigrated at twenty-five with no friends, no family and only textbook English and within three years had landed a husband, a sweet job with a hot new company and a mortgage. Apple Zhao fucking barely spoke English and she met somebody. And now she’s raising some very sweet looking kids with a husband she loves and living it up in Walnut Creek (“The Jewel of the East Bay: Host Your Next Event Here!”) with her mom and her dog and dressing like a motherfucking Duchess, nails every Board Meeting presentation with her eyes closed in her like third language. She had it so much harder and she still killed it. What was the difference? What did Apple have that Christine didn’t?
Work-ethic, mostly. And perspective. Patience, wisdom. Realistic expectations for life. The determination to follow through on them. Christine thinks she’d like to visit AZ at her homestead, see how the Duchess does it behind the scenes. Meet the husband. She’d like to go on a double date with them, some day. Out in Walnut Creek, to that Chinese restaurant she always tells Christine about. See this country boy from up near Yreka for herself, the country boy who somehow got into sports marketing and won the heart of head-down zero-alcohol no time for nonsense App-Star G. But first she needs someone to double date with. Nate? No, too weird. She wants it to be an actual boyfriend. A guy she’d be proud to have Apple meet. That should be the baseline, she thinks with a smile; if she can’t proudly bring a guy to meet Apple Motherfuckin’ Zhao, then he’s not good enough.
Christine’s only taken one hit, but she felt it, and she puts the bowl, three quarters of it still freshly packed and bright green, on the ground below a little wooden chair. She can see the lights of the Bay Bridge from her balcony, through the gap between a pair of houses across the street. She’s crossfaded and she’s got a couple of static tears on her cheeks and she remembers again why she hates smoking weed. Now she is on the more blazed end of crossfaded and she won’t be sober until she wakes up and she’s just thinking about Amir and her life and this is why she can’t smoke weed anymore. Very abruptly, leaving no time to reconsider, she taps the bowl’s contents out over the railing to the ground below. This actually makes her feel somewhat better.
It’s late and she should get to bed, but going to bed means waking up and going to work, and the thought of it just kills her, so she elects to stay out a while longer. She checks her phone; it’s 11:59. There’s a group message from Kosta; it’s a picture of the gift card accompanied by the text ‘CHAMPIONS!!’. There’s also a new Tinder message from a short latino guy named Javier. She swiped right on him because she liked that he wore bolo ties, and one of his pictures was with his little brother who looked like he was about four-years-old and suffered from Down’s Syndrome, and she thought that was sweet, that it looked like he really loved him and looked out for him and that maybe he’d be like that with her, like maybe he was just one of those ceaselessly caring guys who’s just super nice, almost too nice, like not enough bite, not enough sarcasm, not gonna last long term with Christine, but maybe he was actually pretty funny and unflaggingly sweet and maybe a couple dates with him could be nice because honestly she doesn’t need a whole lot of sarcasm and bite and wit these days, she could use a little enduring kindness on her behalf, and maybe she could meet his little brother and his family and have dinner over there and he’d be the first real rebound from Amir and she’d probably cry, thinking about how he reminded her of Amir, but someone has to be the rebound and he looked like a nice guy, not pretentious, not an asshole, not trying to be The Most Clever Guy on Tinder but just a caring, short, older-brother type Latino dude who wears bolo ties.
She checks the text; it says ‘Hey.’
* * * * *
The next morning, Apple makes the train by 7:00 and is in the office a little after 8:00. Christine rolls in at 9:14.
“Hey, what’s up.”
“Oh, hello, good morning.”
“Yo, check it out AZ we’re matching!” Christine’s in green jeans and her sheer black top, with a thin white sweater over it. Apple’s in the green, white and black floral-print floor-length skirt Christine likes so much and a tight black long-sleeve crew-neck.
“Oh yeah, it seems like we’re always matching!”
“We should start calling each other up the night before to make sure we’re always coordinated.”
“How else can we dominate the company if we don’t look like a team?”
“I agree, it could be a useful strategy in meetings.”
“That’s what I’m saying!” Christine gives her an enthusiastic high five. “So, how was your night?”
“Oh, pretty boring, my husband was out so I just made dinner and hung out at home and slept.”
“Sounds solid to me. What’d you make?”
“Just pasta and meatballs, because it’s so easy and Peyton and Daniel like it.”
“Good call. I always loved spaghetti night.”
“How was your night?”
“It was fine, went to trivia with some friends.”
“Oh right, you usually do that on Wednesdays, right? How did your team do?”
“Oh, actually we won. It was the first time we ever won.”
“Wow, great job! If the whole team is as smart as you, I would think you would win every week.”
“I’m basically the dumbest person on the whole team, but it’s hard, it’s in Berkeley so it’s a lot of smart kids.”
“Oh, I see. Well I’m sure you’ll win again soon.”
“Thanks AZ.” Christine turns to go grab some coffee, then turns back. “Hey, do you have lunch free again today? Would you maybe wanna go get tacos?”
“Oh, sorry, I have meetings from 11 to 2, but maybe we could go tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow it is.” The women smile at each other. Christine goes to get coffee, the ten fluid ounces of steaming goodness 100% necessary to be any kind of productive before 10:00 AM. Apple doesn’t drink coffee; it keeps her up at night. Instead, she keeps a small kettle of warm green tea on her desk all day long, on a colorful woven coaster made by her mother. She watches Christine walk all the way down the aisle, toward the kitchen, and ultimately out of sight, then her eyes come back to the blinking cursor on the screen before her and she continues writing the reply email she was working on when Christine came over to say good morning.