“You what?” Liz screamed at Dani, dropping her bags on her bed and stomping up the narrow hallway to the living room. “You left the car at the tow lot?”
“They wouldn’t let me get it out. It has to be you. I’m sorry!” Dani stood in the center of the living room, pale. “We can take the 22 over there now.”
Liz went into the kitchen and got a glass of water. “We better. But you are still paying for it, correct?”
They ran out the door, and jumped on the bus outside her apartment. Few hours later, she was back home, getting ready to go to the gym and try to forget this entire episode. City Tow isn’t a memory you want to keep in your mind. Dani was super apologetic the entire time.
After working out to hip hop dance class, Liz had finally cleared out her mind from the wine soaked weekend, and the hours or so lost to the creepy, underbelly of fleecing poorly parked car drivers, and settled in to check her email at Morning Due, a local cafe. Work started Monday morning and she had totally forgotten what was in store for her. Nothing much, and she had to get back to help Dani get back to her flat.
Liz assured Dani that it wasn’t the end of the world, and got her on the bus to go to the train station. Her apartment was quiet and still. She curled up on the sofa and watched a few episodes of bad TV. She drifted asleep and woke up at 8 am with drool down her face and her legs cramped from being curled up all night. Disgusted, she managed to get ready and out to work earlier than usual.
Melanie walked past her cube and then suddenly doubled back. “Oh, glad you’re in early. Have you heard?”
“That press rag blog thing has gotten hold of our deal with Aspert. You have to go over there and convince them to stop hounding us.”
“What?” Liz groggily asked. It was all too confusing.
“Here.” Melanie leaned over her and quickly tapped on Liz’s computer, getting a new browser window open and typing in the URL of the gossip rag. A photo of three of them, Liz, Melanie, and Johnny, laughing and giggling at a winery- Liz couldn’t remember which- and a few paragraphs on what Johnny’s new girlfriend was all about.
“Why do these people care?” Liz said. She looked up at Melanie. “Are you OK with this?”
“I’m fine, I don’t care. Johnny hasn’t said anything about it.” She leaned back on Liz’s desk and crossed her arms. “I’m mostly worried about what this kind of speculation does for the deal. So can you take this guy here out to lunch and find out why they’re so into it, and just try to get them to stop trailing us everywhere.” Melanie opened up Liz’s top drawer. “Use the company AMEX, and pick someplace nice.”
Melanie left and Liz typed out a short email to this guy, inviting him to Pastis on Battery.
She sat there, sipping a white wine and scanning the room. His web site didn’t have a photo, just an artsy shot of his chin and horned rim glasses. She stood up when a young man in shredded jeans, distressed vintage t-shirt, and artfully mussed hair approached her table.
“Paul Collins?” She asked, extending her hand.
“Yep. Liz Clark?”
She nodded, smiled, and sat back down.
“Sorry I’m late,” He started, not taking off his sunglasses and reviewing the one page menu on his plate. “I was up all fucking night with Jerry Yang.” He looked up at her. “You know, right, of Yahoo?”
She smiled. “Oh, that’s neat.”
“Yeah, man, it’s totally chill. He really likes the blow.” He raised his hand in the air and their waiter swung by. “Stoli on the rocks. Thanks, dude.” He turned around to face her again.
“I don’t suppose I could convince you not to run any more Aspert stories? They don’t really want it well known that we’re courting their business. If we get it, sure, but until then it’s a little sensitive.”
“I can’t really just silence everything about Aspert.”
Their waiter came back with his drink and they made their orders.
Liz took a sip of wine. “Hey, let’s talk about this stuff later. I’m just happy to be using the company Visa.”
“You were the brunette in those photos, right?” He was practically leering at her.
Liz nodded. “We were invited by Johnny’s friends to go on this tour. It had nothing to do with the account, well, as much as this lunch has to do with my job.”
“You don’t really talk to reports a lot, do you?” He reached inside his bag and pulled out a few pieces of paper. “Someone at your company forwarded this to me.” It was her dreaded bikini photo that Melanie has circulated all around the office.
Liz sighed. “Oh god. Please tell me it’s not that photo.”
He kept checking the photo and her again. “You look great in here, not that you don’t look great now, but I mean, wooo-hoo. Very nice.”
Liz’s face scorched hot, and mentally she searched for another topic. “So why did you run that story anyways? I can’t imagine anyone’s interested in some boring corporate farts sipping wine.”
“Oh, women always bring in more readers, so you and your boss- that was her, right- and Johnny’s one of those guys we love to trail because he’s of that young digerati generation.”
Liz replied with a simple “Hmmm.”
“So do you like that place?”
“Kind of stuffy, but it pays the bills, barely.”
“You should work at Google. Jerry was asking me all of these things about Google, and I’m like, dude, I just go there to get stories, I’m not like, in or anything. But man, the massages and cafeteria, really excellent.”
He joined his fingers in a steeple. “I’ve got an idea. I’ll run the bikini picture, and in exchange, we’ll squash any Aspert news until they sign with you.”
“Let’s hope they do.”
“Oh they will.”
“Do you know something, I don’t know?” Liz asked.
“No, I don’t think so. Is there something more to know?” He grinned. “Anyways, besides the massages that you can have any time of the day, and the organic cafeteria specializing in local produce, the rumors are true, there are Segways all around. In fact, you could use a segue getting from here to the office. That would so rock. When I’m down there, I’m like always on those things. It’s the best thing in the world. You don’t have to walk anymore, and it’s so fast.”
“Have you thought of working at Google?”
“Oh sure, they’ve offered me positions there, but now that I know what it’s like to work there.” He leaned in to whisper, “They work you really hard. For the first few weeks, they look at who has put in the most hours, and everyone else,” He gestures his throat being slit.
“Ah…” They had both finished their meals. The waiter dropped off the bill. “Don’t worry about it, this is on the company AMEX.”
Paul leaned back in his chair and straightened his t-shirt. “Hey what do you do around here? You want to go get a coffee or something? We’re near North Beach, right?”
“Oh yeah, sure. We just have to walk over the hill.”
Half an hour later, they stood panting on the Filbert steps.
“Oh man, when you’re on those Segways all the time, you forget what it’s like to climb hills.” Paul said.
Liz looked out over the cultivated gardens of Telegraph Hill, to the Bay Bridge spanning in the distance. “Isn’t this gorgeous? I always wonder how people get their beds delivered to these houses. I mean, this is the only entrance here.”
“And you can’t ride a Segway up here. I mean, if you wanted to.”
They continued to trudge up the hills until they reached Coit Tower, then practically ran down the paved asphalt path to Grant and Vallejo for cappuccino. Sitting at Caffee Trieste, Paul wiped his forehead of sweat.
“Are they going to miss you at work?”
“Probably, but I think I made a fair trade, all in all. Public humiliation in exchange for corporate privacy. God, what has this come to?”
“You know at Google you it wouldn’t ever come to that. They’re all about doing no evil, and respecting people’s boundaries. ”
“I don’t think I could work down there. The commute, for one, and as a copywriter, I mean, there’s no jobs really that…”
“So, Liz…” He reached over and held her hand on the table, “Are you dating anyone? Is there anyone special?”
Liz looked around the cafe, hoping to see anything to distract her and change the subject. “Um, no. I’m happily single. Broke up with an on and off again boyfriend a few months ago. You know how it is, getting used to being alone. It’s important, I think.” She felt him rubbing her hand slightly.
“Well, if you’re interested in getting together sometime for lunch, you know I can show you some fun stuff down on the Peninsula if you’re interested in ever leaving the city.” He smiled slowly.
“Oh, yeah, that’d be fun.” Something was nagging her memory. “Oh shit. I forgot I was supposed to have lunch with someone. Oh, God, that’s so rude, I’m sorry. Give me a sec.”
She walked outside and breathed deeply, leaned against the glass of the cafe, then called Raul’s phone. He didn’t pick up but she left a voice mail. “Raul, it’s Liz. Oh man, I am so sorry! I got caught up in this work thing and I’m offsite. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
She returned to their table. “Have you been to City Lights?”
He hadn’t, so she led them down Grant to Columbus and they crossed the street. For the next hour, they wandered around the bookstore picking up novels, and books. She was enjoying herself, playing hooky, but soon it’d be time to return to work. She picked up a few books but then thought about her budget and let them go. She’d buy them, eventually.
She parted ways with Paul and returned to work. Liz stopped by her cube. “So how did it go?”
Liz crossed her arms. “Well, they’re going to run with this photo they got from our IT department.” She looked knowingly at Melanie, “In exchange for holding off on Aspert deal stuff until then. Turns out they really just wanted to highlight Johnny’s lifestyle, they didn’t really care about the deal. What is up with him, by the way? Is he really such a news item? Such a … playboy? He doesn’t seem that way.”
“I have no idea. I feel like it’s two different people. The nice, considerate, funny guy last weekend, and then I come back to total silence from him, and all this shit online about what a player he is. Who knows.” Melanie walked out. That was rare for her, usually she sat around Liz’s cube forever. And usually she would tease Liz about the bikini photo, too.
Liz got back to her email. It was surprising that after a great weekend in Napa, there was no mention from anyone over there about whether they had landed OK back in Chicago, no nice “we had a great time,” really nothing. Unless it was just too soon to tell.
An hour later, her phone rang. She was packing up to go home so she took the call as she left work.
“Hey, it’s Raul.”
“You heading out?”
“Me too.” By that time she was at the bottom floor and could see across to the copy shop, where Raul was in the door way. She ended the call and waved.
“Let’s get a beer!”
They walked into Harrington’s, a nearby beer joint where everyone had the same idea. Spilling out of skyrises and into the dark, smoky bar to get a pint.
“I feel like I’ve been walking on clouds lately. Rich meals, tons of booze, no exercise, no real work.”
“Oh, just this weekend in Napa with Melanie and her crowd, then most of my job today consisted of a long business lunch.”
“Well,” Raul swiveled to face her and she remarked on his dark good looks, deep set eyes, and dimples. “Today I killed about a small forest, making thousands of booklets for a law firm suing the Raiders. Ask me anything about that case, and I bet I’ll know about it. It’s sick.”
“And even though it’s Monday, I’m still OK. It’s Wednesdays that are tough.”
They had a good time at Harrington’s, but wanted to get out of the financial district and hang out somewhere with better food options, so they walked to Market St. and down the stairs to the BART station. Two stops later they were emerging into the busy intersection of Mission and 16th Street.
“I live right around the corner.” Liz commented as they fielded a few guys passing out Lyndon LaRouch pamphlets.
“I think it’s too early in our relationship for that,” Raul said, “But let’s go to Dalva Bar down 16th here. Man, you really live in the thick of it.”
They faced the glare of the sun setting over Twin Peaks, and walked up the block Liz was so familiar with.
“Oh god, I keep forgetting about the Indian pizza place!” Raul yelled. He grabbed her arm and dragged her inside, and soon they were both munching on curry pizzas. Soon they headed out again and walked into Dalva. It was a narrow, dark bar with dark red walls and a long bar on one side.
“I’ll get them, you’ve gotten everything else.” Liz said, and leaned over the bar to get two drinks. She realized she had no idea what he liked, so she turned back to face Raul, asking, “Martini?” He nodded an affirmative.
“I’ll get two martinis, and…” She noticed that the guy she was leaning against to make this order in the thronged bar was no other than RC. She looked past him and saw Johnny, Brenda, and a few other familiar faces standing and chatting around their barstools. He smiled at her, then looked past her at Raul. His face froze on the smile and didn’t budge.
She turned to Raul, to introduce them, and Raul said, “Oh yeah, RC, how are you?”
“Fine.” RC said, and turned to Johnny, “Look who’s here, Johnny!?”
Raul tapped Liz on the shoulder. “I’m going to go get us a table.”
Liz agreed, and turned back to RC and Johnny. “Heya Johnny! Yeah, I’m with my friend, he just walked down to get us a table. Neat seeing you guys. By the way, I had a great time up in Sonoma, Johnny.”
Johnny smiled and said he was glad to have her.
“Melanie says Hi. I didn’t see her as I was heading out, or I would have invited her out.”
“Oh cool,” Johnny said, “Well, I’ll see you around. Good running into you!”
“Oh yeah, totally. See ya!” She got the drinks, and paid, and walked back to where Raul was standing, at a tall, small table.
“God, I feel like we should invite them over. I mean, what do you do when you see clients at a bar? Like, buy them some drinks or something?”
“Oh please do not invite them over. That guy, RC, we go way back, and not in a good way.”
She sipped her martini. “So I’ve been meaning to ask you, what’s the deal with that? You mentioned something the other day about how you know those guys, and how I should avoid RC. Though I have to tell you, it’s too late. He was on the Napa thing last weekend. Oh, I had a little too much alone time with RC, that’s for sure.” She laughed, but Raul’s face darkened and he looked away from her, towards the line-up of beer taps.
Raul looked down the bar. “God, it’s so weird seeing them. I thought that since they were in Chicago, I’d never see them again.”
A long time ago, I was in Stanford MBA program. Things were looking good, and then I heard this man speak one day on a case study of turning around a shipping company. We all went out that night, and sooner than later, I got swept up in the world of Joss Case.”
Liz was about to interrupt him, to tell Raul that she knew Joss, but he held up a hand to continue. “I know, he is the head of the conglomerate that owns Aspert, heck, he ends up owning half of almost every industry if you look into it. He convinced me to ditch the MBA program and come work for him. He was like a father to me, showing me the way. Everything was great, I was handling things for him, traveling to the holdings, taking care of almost everything. Then, all of a sudden the rug got pulled out from under me. See, I didn’t know how old school ties are a lot stronger than basic business sense. RC came back from his dot-com adventure and realized I was a threat. Since he was tight with the family from back in the day, Joss just handed over everything whenever RC asked for it. Finally I just quit, started my own company. Unfortunately the Dot Com bubble burst, and I had to really, examine myself, and what I was doing with my life. ”
Liz wondered how he could have gone from the Venture Capital scene to working at a quick copy joint in the Financial District.
He took a long draw on his pint and wiped his mouth. “I know, what the hell am I doing at a printing shop. Well, to be honest, I’ve been temping for about two years. It’s been great. Because all I want to do is paint.”
Liz relaxed. “I know RC seems like this totally stuck up guy, but I can’t imagine he’d just take over your stuff.”
“See, those people don’t get it. I had to work for absolutely everything I had. I didn’t get anything for free. Well, except for the scholarship to Brown, but that was so much fucking work, it didn’t feel like it was free. And then, you have to work full time when you’re there and all these other kids get to just party and live it up, while you have to study, then work all night.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy. I …”
“Seeing that portfolio come through the shop, that was …”
“I understand.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Believe me, this weekend in Napa was kind of surreal.”
“Let me guess. MaryLouise, Johnny’s aunt, thought you were very useful person to have around the house. She used to do that to me all the time. It drove me crazy. I mean, I certainly don’t mind helping out, but she would leave me lists of things to do in the morning. For some reason I never saw lists for RC.”
Liz laughed. “Oh god, it was so awkward.” She mimicked MaryLouise’s high toned voice. “I’ve been to the Sorbonne.”
They laughed together.
“Man, if I had that house,” Raul said, “It would be this cool gathering place for my friends, and I could turn those stables into a huge painting studio.”
“Did you spend a lot of time there?”
“Yeah, before RC came back on the scene. I went there probably every spring, when MaryLouise was in France. Me and Joss would buy art, or sometimes just drive around and talk. You know what it’s like up there, the long dusk, with a glass of wine, or two, and conversations outside as it gets darker, then you don’t even go in when it’s late, just sitting outside in the night, talking” He was quiet now, looking at the pint. “But, you know, things change. It’s cool. I’m over it.”
She didn’t say anything, and sipped her beer.
He looked at her for a while. “Well, I would ask you back to see my paintings, but that line wouldn’t get me anywhere, would it?” He reached his arm around her and nuzzled her neck. She didn’t feel like pulling away like she had with Paul this afternoon. Raul had moves, that was for sure.
“Well, I need to get home. This is the first night my sister hasn’t been crashing, and I need to see what damage went in her path.”
They hugged goodbye and he gave her an extra back press. She walked out to BART and caught the next one to her street.
The Mission was quiet on Monday. She plowed through the commute pedestrian traffic, past the Pakistani pizza store, the Afghanistan cafe, and a burrito shop. She stopped in to pick up a chicken and rice super, with avocado and cheese. Munching on the tortilla chips as she managed to haul up the last 4 blocks in the early evening Western glare, she tried to put together the stories. Raul said he was over it, but she wondered. He’d been dying to tell her that story. RC, he was stiff, but he didn’t really seem to care about anyone but himself, enough to be malicious. She hadn’t really seen him do much of anything since she met him. She wondered what Johnny was about, during all of this. And then she thought of Raul, and the deal she had made. She might as well just not go into work tomorrow, if they broke the story with her photo.
She got a burrito coma the instant she finished her last bite. It sank in her belly like a heavy stone. She curled up on the sofa again, an afghan pulled over her, and clapped the lights off.
Tuesday came and went without any drama. The bikini photo didn’t post, and Melanie didn’t bug her with any news about her burgeoning romance with Johnny. The week crawled quietly along. on Friday, she ended up checking out Raul’s work in his studio in Lower Haight. They met for a quick glass of Chimay at Noc Noc, then walked up a few blocks to his street level flat. The first two rooms were full of large canvases of red fire hydrants. He hung most of his work, and he had two shows going on simultaneously, so he spent most of his time painting. She admired his focus, and he had a easy, deft way with his brush. She liked the striking paintings, and when he offered one for her to hang until he needed to show it, she readily accepted.
They went back to Noc Noc for another drink before she continued home. He walked her to the Muni tunnel, a landmark for them both, strangely, as an in between stop, and he kissed her for the first time. She liked his looks, she liked his sense of humor, and she left the kiss wishing there was something more. But she was uneasy also. He had an energy and she didn’t quite understand its source.
She spent the weekend doing random errands and staying inside, in general. On Monday, at work, Melanie stopped by. “You free for a coffee? Let’s get outside. I need to leave this place.” She walked down the hall without checking to see if Liz was following her, though Liz was. They chitchatted until the sun was on them and both were sure most people walking by were not coworkers. They walked to the redwood park at the base of the TransAmerica building and sat near the pond, with metal sculpture of frogs leaping around on the surface.
Melanie pulled her hair back and smoothed her curls, then looked at Liz with a sad expression.
“What is it?” Liz asked. She hadn’t seen Melanie like this, ever.
Melanie sighed, and sipped her latte. “I was looking through some friend’s pictures on Flickr, and was just clicking around, and came across Johnny, Brenda and RC and those guys, all out. And the photo was dated yesterday.
“Listen, he really likes you. I saw that. Whatever is going on, there’s an explanation.” Liz said.
“Right. I did get a great feeling that weekend. It’s just tough not knowing what’s going on with him.”
“I’m sure if it was serious he’d say something. He’s probably just busy.”
“He didn’t look busy.”
Liz nodded. Who knew what guys were thinking. “So did I tell you what I heard about Aspert?” She relayed the whole story from Raul about his impression of Joss and RC to Melanie.
“That’s awful. I can’t imagine Johnny’s dad being so oblivious, though. He seems more practical. What would he gain from pissing off an old protege?”
“Who knows, maybe he was just wowed by RC somehow and didn’t care anymore about Raul. It sounds sad, though, the way Raul talks about Joss is like he’s a father figure. I think he really misses having that connection. It’s not just about the lifestyle and the perks, like he was talking about just sitting around talking with Joss. I could believe it of RC. He seems so into himself, that he wouldn’t even notice whose place he was taking, or who was impacted by his actions. He’s just after his own goals. ”
“So, when did Raul tell you all this?” Liz smiled slowly.
“Oh, we got a beer the other day after work. And then I saw his paintings.”
“That sounds so cliche!” Melanie laughed.
Liz laughed. “Yeah it does, doesn’t it. It’s true though! He paints these fire hydrants. It’s really cool. Sounds odd, but it’s cool. But we made out a bit the other night. Nothing really intense, just a little goodbye kiss.”
“Wow. I had no idea!” Melanie had a big grin on her face. “Liz has a boyfriend!”
“No, it’s nothing like that, it’s just, hmmm. Mutual interest, that’s right. We’re still kind of finding out about each other. Slowly. I’m not doing another one of these seven year on and off again things. Those just, you know, aren’t worth all of the drama.”
Liz put her hand on Melanie’s shoulder. “I’m sure it’s got some perfectly good explanation. Don’t worry.”
They finished their lattes and headed back into work.
Liz logged onto her email, checked the status of some of her work submissions to see if anyone had gotten back with comments that she could actually work on. An hour or so into work, when she was good and focussed on coming up with a punchier version of a messaging proposal for one of their clients, her cell phone buzzed. It was Paul Collins from the gossip rag. Her stomach plummeted. Was he warning her that he was going to run the photo?
“Hey there, Liz. It’s Paul.”
“Yeah, I see your name on the CallerID.”
“Wow, I’m in your cell phone? That’s a little fast.” He chuckled.
“Sure, Paul. What do you want?” She didn’t mean to sound so harsh and wished she could take back her tone.
“Well… we’re going to run some photos of your friends and I just wanted to get a comment from you.”
“Please tell me it’s not the bikini photo.”
“Well, no, but I wondered if you cared if we did more profiles of the Aspert guys, just not in connection with your firm.”
“Oh yeah, I don’t care.” She swiveled around until she could see into Melanie’s office across the hall, at an angle. “Who in particular are you talking about, by the way?”
“Oh, I have some photos of Johnny Case naked in a hot tub with some girls without a lot of clothes on. We’re working on the angle, but it doesn’t really matter since this will bring in the readers. These girls are hot. Not as hot as you though, of course.”
Liz rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well, uh, can you send that to me first for some… damage control?” She slipped back into her cube. “And when was that taken?”
“Wow you’re good at your job. That was fast!” She tried to smooth over some of the ruffled feathers.
“Hey I also wanted to know, if you’re available for dinner tonight. I’m going to this schmoozy thing first, and I thought you could meet me there, then we could go get something to eat.”
“Oh sure, that’s no problem.” She rung off without really thinking of what she had just agreed to and checked her email. Good as his word, Paul had forwarded the incriminating photo of Johnny.
She got an email from Dani about coming up tonight and she quickly responded with a “Sure.” In her mind keeping Dani safe was keeping her closeby.
She went to the cafeteria and got a cup of coffee, and walked back, stopping at the printer to pick up a printout of Paul’s email. She stopped at Melanie’s office and lightly tapped on the open door. “Hey,” she said.
Melanie was engrossed in cross checking some spreadsheets against her monitor. “Hey what’s up?”
Liz closed the door, and placed the photo on Melanie’s desk near to her documents.
“Oh.” Melanie looked at it, and looked up at Liz. “Where did you…”
“Paul told me he’s going to post it soon. They’re doing a whole playboy angle on it, I think. Just wanted to show you before you saw it everywhere.”
“Thanks.” She said, and pushed it aside. Then, picking it up, turned it over. “I just thought he was someone different, I guess. I was wrong.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty surprising.” Liz sipped her coffee. “So, this puts off the publishing of that bikini photo, thank God. I’m dying on tenterhooks here. When is he going to publish that?”
Melanie leaned back and re-crossed her legs. “Liz you’re so naive! He’s just holding onto it until you guys hook up, or a slow news day, whichever comes first.”
“Maybe I should call Johnny and tlel him to keep galavanting, then it’ll enver go up. Sorry, that was tasteless.” Liz knew as she was saying it that it was not going over well. “OK I’ll creep out before I say anything worse.”
“Thanks. See you later.” Melanie went back to her job. It’s like Liz could have told her the world was going to end in that tone of voice, she was a cold cucumber. Liz knew her better, she was trying to manage the hurt of Johnny not calling her since their weekend, and ignoring her feelings was one way of dealing with it.
Melanie finished up a couple of revisions and forwarded them along. Around 7, she packed up her stuff, turned her computer off and grabbed her bag. She got a text message from Paul to meet him at the event, a launch party for some new company. He had told her the name a million times, but it wouldn’t stick in her mind, but she didn’t doubt there were missing vowels here and there.
When she got there, a long line wound down Sutter Street, in front of theaters where there were no lines. She stood near the end, stomping the cold out of her feet and blowing on her hands. She started to chat up her neighbor, who had heard this was the “most awesome post-dot com party ever.” Paul walked the line and took her hand, leading her through the front door. Once she got in, a petit, voluptuous girl with pink lipstick handed her a gift bag with DVDs of Asian manga porn, a tiny t-shirt with the company’s name on it, which she discovered was “Fuckr.”
She didn’t even notice Paul had left until he squeezed through a crowd of people and slid his hand around her waist. He looked at her t-shirt. “Isn’t this great? I can’t believe they got it copywrit.”
“Ugh, yeah it’s crazy, just kind of…” She couldn’t figure out what was distasteful. “Uh, what do they do?”
He looked over her head at the crowd scanning it for someone. “Totally cool. Pud’s doing it so it’s got to rock. Google is an early investor, of course. They just recognize talent like this.”
“From Fucked Company. THey were this blog before blogs, that wrote about the downfall of all the Dot Coms. It was intense. Oh here he is now.”
A tall guy with receding hairline stood near the bar talking to a few women. Paul jostled them aside.
The guy smiled at him and continued talking to the girls. Liz tapped on Paul’s shoulder and asked him to get her a gin and tonic. He smiled, and she walked over to the catering table and grabbed a sushi roll, selecting the vegetarian ones. The club was loud, and one table had about ten different kinds of tequila. She was tired, though, and wondered how long Paul would want to stay here. She wondered why she was here at all, since Paul kept darting off to try and talk to various people in the crowd.
She walked over closer to the door. If Paul saw her, she could bring up the topic of leaving. Pud walked over to her to rifle through his coat, which was on teh coatrack nearby.
“Hey,” He smiled at her.
She returned his smile and sipped her drink. “So you’re the found of this?” She gestured at her gift bag.
“Yep, that’s me. You’re with uh, that guy from the uh,…”
“Paul Collins, over there.” She pointed at Paul, who was now talking to another group of people, though she could tell from their expressions they were all zoning out.
“Right… well, that little t-shirt will look great on you.” He said, obviously checking out her rack.
“Oh please.” She shook her head.
“You didn’t like that? I’m sorry. I promise never to raise my eyebrows suggestively again.”
She laughed, and Paul saw them and started to walk over.
“Alright, I have to mingle, but if you’re intersted, we’re all headed over to Tosca after this- the private room.”
She smiled and nodded and Paul came over, but Pud had already left.
“What did he say?” Paul asked, looking after him.
Liz knew if she mentioned the afterparty, that he would want to go, meaning she was stuck here for another few hours until it wound up. Then, she got an idea. She played with the buttons leading up this neckline. “Well, for a simple exchange of a certain picture, I can tell you about an invitation Pud gave us, for later tonight.”
“Um… ” He looked at Cantina, the graffiti on the wall, practicallly covered up by hipsters in tight jeans and spiky hair, girls laughin and doing tequila shots. “OK, I see your point. I won’t post the photo. I’ve been working really hard trying to prevent it from getting published, really.”
“I just can’t handle waiting for it to go up. So let’s just not post it at all, OK?”
“I promise. Now what’s going on?”
“He invited me up to Tosca, the private room. After.”
“Oh excellent. That is so cool.” Paul sipped his drink and went to get them some more.
She sighed. She was happy, but now had to hang out at this place longer. Might as well make the most of it. She trailed behind Paul and started chatting with some of the women Pud had been talking to earlier. She managed to have some good conversations, so that when it rolled around to bar closing time, she stumbled with Paul out to the street and caught a quick cab ride to Tosca. There, they were let in and locked behind, escorted to the private room. Pud was true to his word, a couple of bottles of Jacks, tequila, and a few mixers were sprinkled around. Liz found her new friends, sank into a red velvet sofa, and continued chatting. When it got to be around 3am, she begged Paul to leave, and they set out to get a cab.
The fog was staying in that night, so she was truly freezing, and the damp cold snuck into her layers and with the fatigue, she just couldn’t stop focusing on getting into bed and curling up and sleeping for a millennium.
She didn’t quite notice the hug, kiss, or cuddle Paul gave her as he tucked her into a cab and she gave instructions on where she lived. The driver seemed used to incoherent, sleepy, drunk people because he drove quickly across town. She held a twenty tightly in her hand so she wouldn’t have to rummage in her bag later.
Bed never seemed more comforting and warm. Her mind buzzed with the booze and conversations. She was deeply happy that she wouldn’t have to worry about the photo.
Her alarm drove her crazy the next morning. She bashed it into submission, ripping the cord out of the wall, only to jump out of bed with an adrenalin rsh when she heard the tumblers on her front door lock turning. “What the…”
Dani stood in her hallway. “You totally forgot about me, and your friend found me outside work with my bags, and he me up. But I am so mad at you.” She stormed down the hallway to the living room and Liz coudl hear her dropping her bags angrily on the floor.
“Dani, I am so sorry.” She grabbed a sweater and pulled it on and ran to the livign room. “I was at this thing, and it was so noisy, and I dind’t check my cell. ” She hugged her little sister, who seemed to be getting over her anger.
“Yeah, well Raul was there, so it wasn’t a big deal. But it was jut kind of sucky waiting downtown for an hour at that park.”
“Wow, how did Raul know you?”
“He said I looked like you, isn’t that funny?” She tied her hair back and walked into the kitchen. Liz followed her. “Yeah, we went to Lower Haight to get a schwerma, and he offered his couch. I left a bunch of calls on your phone, but you never called back.”
“Why aren’t you at work today?”
“I told you! It’s a company day off because of some thing with the executives, and a seminar or something.”
Liz and Dani had cereal and coffee, and Liz left for work. She entrusted dani with an extra set of keys with instructions that unexpected arrivals were not OK unless it was a total emergency. Sitting on the F-Market to work, Liz came to terms with the fact that she was in no way ready to face the day. At work, the screen swam and dove in front of her. Even with four Excedrins, she couldn’t shake the hangover. She put on her tennis shoes at lunch and started on a big walk up Nob HIll hoping to at least sweat out the booze.
“What happened to you?” Melanie said, when Liz had come back and finally tried to get back to writing.
“I look awful, don’t I.” Liz combed her hair back and warmed her cheeks with her hands. “I have the worst hangover. I went out last night with Paul.”
“I thought you liked Raul.” Melanie said.
“You know, Paul requires a certain level of.. placating?” Liz said. She couldn’t think of any good words today. “I think, though,” she leaned back and crossed her arms. “So, I think that he’s going to finally kill that photo. I have to tell you I’ve been on tenterhooks since he got his hands on it.”
“I have to tell you Paul sounds like a really horrible person.”
Liz choked on her coffee. “I know, I know. I don’t like him like him, he’s like a necessity. A means to an end?”
Melanie came in and leaned on a file cabinet. “But what can he expect? Putting you in a situation like that. Men. They are just horrible.
“I don’t think I have to, um, do anything with Paul anymore.” Liz looked up at Melanie. “You’ll die. I made a deal with him. This guy who started the company was kind of coming on to me, and told me about this private after party. I told Paul I’d tell him where it was if he killed the photo.”
“You play quite the game yourself, you know.” Melanie seemed somewhat proud of Liz.
“It’s a dog eat dog world?” Liz grimaced inside at the cliche. She was really, truly not herself today.
“Ah, it’s so intense. Dani showed up this morning. I completely forgot she was coming up. Anyways. Enough about me. What’s up with you?”
Melanie grimaced. “Nothing, and I mean, Nothing.”
She wandered back to her office. They would find out about the Aspert contract soon, and with Paul removing her photo from the blog, life seemed to calm down a little in almost every aspect.
Liz liked her job, she got to express herself. She was worried about money, but mostly thought it was her own ability to budget and control expenses that was the fault. She tried to impart some of her knowledge about money matters to Dani, but she was too young to be able to really grasp it. If Liz was honest with herself, she’d always been pretty good about money. So what was Dani’s problem? She just didn’t think it was a priority?
That night, Dani made broiled chicken and they sat and ate and talked about various things. Dani wasn’t settling in very well on the peninsula, and she wanted to move in. Liz was receptive, though having Dani start in her own place was a big move for being independent. Raul called an hour or so after and Liz invited him over for TV and dessert. Dani and her walked to the liquor store to pick up some cookies.
Raul showed up with a DVD and they all sat around the living room watching it. Liz was seated next to him, and he reached his arm around her shoulders, and Dani sat on the floor with her back up against the couch. It was so cozy Liz fell asleep halfway through.
She woke up an hour or so later to walk Raul home. They kissed on the doorstep and talked about meeting up tomorrow or the next day for lunch.
Dani crawled off to bed, and Liz herself fell asleep quickly.
All peace was at an end the next day, as she received an email from Melanie to come to her office. Aspert deal had been signed, and she’d been told by RC. For some reason Johnny was no longer talking to her, and he had removed himself from the account. RC didn’t give any clue as to why, but he himself was offloading the account to some other managers, as well. Melanie looked awful, but was trying to contain it.
“Let’s get out of here.” Melanie said, “We can celebrate the huge bonuses we’re going to get, early.”
They set off for the new spa in the new mall, and were quickly surrounded by good smells, hot towels, and one woman scrubbing her feet while another massaged her face. Later, over wine and dinner, Melanie dropped another bomb on Liz.
“Liz, they need someone to fly out and finish up some loose ends. I can’t do it. You know I can’t, really. It would be too awkward, can you go?”
So then, a few days later, Dani comfortably installed in her apartment to get mail and move the car, among other things, Liz was on a flight to Chicago. She had been surprised by a quick email from RC that he would love to take her to dinner when she arrived. She was flying in at 5pm, having caught a morning flight from SFO.
A driver with a placard, “Elizabeth Correl,” waited for her outside of security, which was a first for her. He got her bags and then drove the Town Car to the Four Seasons. As she checked in, she received a note from RC. He was waiting in the lobby bar. She went to her room, dropped her stuff and ran a comb through her hair, then ran down to meet him. She was strangely energetic, glad to be relieved of the cramped airplane and taxis.
RC greeted her, and they sat down to two glasses of wine.
He seemed kind of stilted, which made her laugh. “This is your hometown, you should tell me all of its hidden secrets, like what it’s like to be at a hotel bar downtown, and what we’re missing being at a hotel.”
RC smiled, “I like hotel bars. You don’t get the usual Chicago people. It makes you recognize how different people are.”
She sipped her wine. “I’m surprised we got your account.”
“Did you think your presentation was that bad?”
“We just hadn’t heard that much from you after that weekend. Speaking of the weekend, I never had a chance to ask you, but did you see that photo of us? I got quite a lot of flack for that. I had to convince people that I wasn’t in the couple, just Johnny and Melanie.”
RC raised his eyebrows. “They’re a couple?”
“I was there, it seemed to me that they were… getting along.”
“Did you have a good time?” He looked at her with real interest.
“Um, yes, I did. That house is gorgeous, and it was so generous of MaryLouise to let us all crash there after the wine tour. Just sitting out in the warm evening. Ah, I can feel it now. It was lovely.”
RC smiled, and she hadn’t seen him do that much. It was time to eat, so he escorted her into the hotel restaurant. She decided on fish, something light, and he ordered steak.
They talked about his Dot Com, that he had started while Raul was the Golden Boy of Joss’ conglomerate. RC didn’t mention anything about Raul, barely mentioned JOss.
“So, I don’t get where Aspert comes in?” She said, finishing off her rice and fish. She had been ravenous, strangely.
“Well, I had known Johnny for a long time. We were in school together. Detroit Science. Then, well, when I was doing the whole venture capital round robin of investors, you know, all of those meetings, I ended up being in that world again. It was a natural once I sold the Dot Com thing, and I needed to get home. There was some stuff going on with my family, that I had to just be there for.” He swirled his wine. He was ten times more relaxed than in Sonoma, and she didn’t think that possible. “It was so convenient to be able to be there, and be able to work with Johnny, and his dad, who is a great guy.”
“You know what’s odd, I’ve been hanging out with this guy who says he knows you.”
RC looked at her quizzically.
“Raul? He says he was a top dog at Joss’ conglomerate too.”
RC looked down at his food, saw it was empty, and picked up the dessert menu. “You care for dessert?”
“Oh yes, and some coffee. I know it’s late, but I hate having dessert alone.” She looked around the restaurant, half-full of couples like them, middle-aged or more, quiet and subdued. “Last night was so different.”
He consulted her about desserts and they decided on the blackberry cobbler. After ordering, he turned to her, “What did you do last night, then?”
“Oh, a friend came over, we watched a video, and my sister joined us.”
He asked her questions about Dani and she replied with information about her sister’s arrangements. “Neither of us had much growing up, so we kind of lean on each other. That’s one reason Napa was so crazy, because I just don’t usually do that kind of thing. I think that’s our American system, it’s not class based, it’s economically based. I don’t even consider myself a have-not, but in some circles, the difference seems vast.”
Their coffee and dessert arrived, and he slowly turned cream around in his cup. “I should think in basic things it doesn’t matter, that it’s all superficial originally, when you don’t know someone.”
“Do you tend to hold onto these things forever, all the while remember, ‘she came from nothing…’ that kind of thing?”
“I guess I do to the degree that everyone can’t quite shirk their first impressions, but I don’t think so essentially.” He sipped his coffee and looked at her, “Where is this coming from? Are you talking about someone in particular?”
Liz was tired and also tired of fighting other people’s battles. “No, just wondering, in general. It’s great, doing rich people stuff, don’t get me wrong, it’s money well spent if I had the money I’m sure I’d spend it on something gaudy and awful.”
“Oh come on, we’re not so terribly different.”
Liz leveled a look at him. “I can’t tell you how bad it was. I barely scraped by on that trip to the wine country. If Melanie didn’t act as my safety blanket, it would have been a sad state. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable not knowing how much things cost, and in those circles, it seems you never know.”
“‘In those circles,’ well if you continue at Aspert the way you are now, that may be a circle you’re in.”
Liz laughed. “Sure, sure.” She folded her napkin in her lap and looked at him squarely in the light. “OK, I’m sorry I’d love to hang out some more, but I’m truly beat.”
He said he had to call it a night as well, and escorted her out to the lobby. They said goodbye, and he told her about how to get to the offices tomorrow.
As Liz drifted off to sleep she was curious at the attention RC paid to her tonight, it seemed strangely misplaced. John and he were so non-communicative when they had come back from Napa, she thought that he was as uninterested in her as she was in him. This behavior tonight seemed more than professional interest, it actually seemed like he wanted to be her friend. He listened when she talked about personalities on the project and little issues that had already arisen.
The next day at the offices were relatively straightforward. She concentrated on the project goals- acting as Melanie’s project manager far more than a copywriter. She got a look of surprise from one colleague when she handed over her business card, with copywriter written on it. RC showed up around 4pm.
“I thought after our converation last night, you might be interested in seeing a different side of Chicago than the Four Seasons.”
“Oh, it’s not all Godiva mints on your pillow, Michelin ranked restaurants and…”
“No, it’s not. There’s a place my parents love to go when they’re downtown. It’s really good food, affordable, and ethnic.”
Liz smiled at his quaint use of the phrase “ethnic” to describe, what, exactly? Non-French food? All the meals she had eaten with him were either Italian or French, so he must mean “food from swarthier nations.”
They arrived in a neighborhood Liz had no idea what it was called or where, but it was small, and the dishes were a fourth of the Four Season’s. In under fifteen minutes she was presented with a platter of Greek food, half of which she’d never sampled in San Francisco.
RC poured them some cheap Greek wine, and they toasted to discovering ethnic food.
“So tell me about your family.” He asked.
The floodgates opened. She described her large, far flung family. Her father and mother were in Korea, where he had started as a diplomat when she was 15, and she had lived with an aunt stateside. Her siblings were all over the world, but her littlest sister, “The baby,” Dani, was here with her in the Bay Area.
“Things have been tough for her. I mean, she grew up in Korea mainly, but when she went to college here, it was just hard not to have her folks nearby. We all try to pick up the slack, have her over for vacations, a homecooked meal, but that means a long domestic or international flight, even if that. I’ve been the closest one for the past few years. She’s great, don’t get me wrong, and I love having a sister nearby. Do you know of anyone who didn’t go to high school in the states? For her, she just missed out on a lot of lessons, and she doens’t even know she is missing them until it’s too late. Mostly, speaking of, we argue about the car.”
RC heard her talk about their latest car snafus, the back and forth on Caltrain, the suburban rail between the southern peninsula and San Francisco, and her new job. “It’s a small high tech company. She’s starting with an English degree, and it’s OK, but she’s just not,” Liz struggled to find the right word. “It’s like she’s not that interested in almost anything right now.”
“Johnny was like that. That’s why he went abroad. He had the luxury, though,” RC picked at his plate, which was almost completely clean.
“Wow, you get an award for the cleanest plate.”
“I didn’t know there was an award.”
“I guess the award-worthiness isn’t really applicable anymore.” Liz pouted. “Oh I miss those childish goals. I should make one now. If I can go throughout the evening without mentioning money, or my lack of, that will be my brownie prize.”
“And I will buy the brownie. But really, I don’t think you talk about it that much, or at least to me.”
“Perhaps I don’t because you have so much of it, I know it would be awkward?”
RC was quiet, and then turned and summoned the waiter, to bring them some grappa. “This is a requirement, the end of the meal, we should have grappa.”
She laughed. “Alright. I thought you were mad for a minute there.”
He settled back down and he instructed her on how to properly drink grappa. After the last shot, he seemed more relaxed, though he hadn’t touched his tie to loosen it all night, she noted.
“The thing is, it’s not that I have a lot of money. It’s that, well, that it’s always been around me. Actually having access to it and having something to do with how it is spent is a rather recent phenomenon. When I was growing up, my parents were probably just like yours, except that I heard stories of their bohemian life in Paris, expensive rugs and crystals amongst paint supplies and typewriters. They had a few years of artist lifestyles before settling down to jobs. My father is a banker, my mother is a professor. So, there most of the time, they provided everything. I don’t think I setup my own bank account until I started handling my first company. We always just put it “in with the trust.”” I had a trust fund, it’s true. I’m everyone’s stereotype about a trust fund baby.”
He seemed bitter then, and she let the subject of impressions other people have of him, slide. “Where are your parents now?”
“They’re travel quite a bit. When they’re not travelling, they’re here in Chicago. She retired from her tenure a few years ago and started visiting all of the places she’d taught. She teaches the geography of indigenous peoples.”
She remembered her earlier decision of his use of the word “ethnic” and took it back, in her mind.
“Thank you so much for taking me out and about in Chicago, I’ve really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure I was that welcome of a guest up in Napa, but you’ve really made me feel welcome here.”
“You didn’t feel welcome in Napa? What happened?”
“Oh, nothing in particular. Well, Melanie and I didn’t hear anything from you guys afterwards, so I wasn’t sure.” She really wanted to ask him why Johnny hadn’t contacted Melanie, and obfuscated it with the royal “we.”
RC looked at her, “I mean to call or email, but I was in a pretty big rush. I had to meet with some other suppliers there, and then I came right back. And I knew we’d have you over, so I’d just catch up then.”
“You knew? In Napa I thought you weren’t sure, it didn’t soudn that positive. In fact, we were quite surprised when you took our agency on!”
RC looked at her quizzically. “You were surprised? Hm. I thought I made it clear, there were some small issues, but I was considering it. Hmm. That’s odd.”
She wanted to throw up her hands. This guy! He was so… so… Oh well, let it pass. Things were all OK now. “OK, well, let’s take a walk or something. This grappa is strong stuff.”
She twisted a scarf around her neck, and he helped her into her coat. Leaving the cosy, warm restuarant, they strolled out into the cold Midwestern fall weather.
“Are you happy here?” She asked him.
He pointed one direction and they both started walking.
“That’s kind of a big question. Happy in what regard?”
“I don’t know, whatever way you want to interpret, I guess.”
“I’m happy to be walking here, with you, tonight. Having had some very fine grappa, and some even better spanikopita.”
Liz laughed, “Yeah, that spanikopita was amazing.” She was thinking about the light flaky bits of phyllo dough and ricotta and spinach when she noticed that RC had stopped, and was pulling her hand back against the wall of a shop.
“Liz…” He started to talk, then dove in for a kiss.
She was so shocked, she didn’t stop him right away. “RC,” and she waited until he stopped, then stepped back. “I’m uh, I’m sorry, I, I didn’t get the idea that we were… I thought we were out as colleagues.” She wiped her face, confused. “I’m sorry, it’s all obvious now, I just was surprised.”
“Obvious, what? That I’m attracted to you?”
Liz looked at him. “That this was a date. I thought this was a business dinner, because I’m in town for my company, and you are technically a client.”
“Oh geez. Is this sexual harassment now?” He stomped off down the sidewalk, then thought better and marched back. “Liz, ever since Napa, it’s been this flirting contest, come on! The bikini, at the pond, and at Medjool, and …”
Liz kept looking at him, trying to reprocess the entire past couple of weeks from this viewpoint. “I’m sorry if I gave the impression, but…”
“… and in there, asking me if I was happy. I mean, that’s what you say to your boss in the morning? ”
“I meant, were you happy… in Chicago, and not somewhere else, like California, where you had that startup!” Now she was getting exasperated.
“I like you, Liz. I’m sorry.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked over her head at the street and the taxis.
“OK, I just should tell you, that I’m seeing someone. I would have told you earlier, if I had thought, you know, it as that kind of thing.”
“I just thought, you might feel like, being with me, you know, for a short time. No big commitment. I’m not really looking for someone long term, and relationship sand me have resulted in, well, to be frank, fortune hunters and weak-willed women who “want to be saved.” I don’t like to be a rescuer. And, to be honest, from the conversation we had tonight about your lifestyle, I could easily seeing it come to that. You seem to be one of those types that make a series of poor decisions and then walk around wondering why life makes them a victim. And if your friends are any reflection on yourself, the aging vixen fortune-hunter works on TV, not in real life.”
“I can’t imagine really wanting to be with a man who has never really earned his living, and doesn’t know the effect of his actions on others. I knew from the moment I met you in that elevator, that you were a pompous, conceited ass. If I wasn’t already dating someone who is totally real, down-to-earth, in your words, “ethnic,” I wouldn’t let things like class and stereotypes get in my way of happiness.”
“That’s all very nice and Hallmark, but can you honestly imagine splitting the rent on a place, when I earn a quarter of a million, and you earn, what, 70K?”
“Is salary compensation usually a criteria in a date? Sounds like you’re fortune-hunting to me.”
“Here’s my cab. I’ll … well, goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” Liz debated on not saying goodbye, but had already been completely juvenile in the last few exchanges, and, regardless, her mama had raised her right.
She hailed the next cab and asked for the Four Seasons.