WIP: Separation – ChapterS 1 & 2

The first two chapters of my current work in progress. Romcom silliness with an extra large side of steam below. Rated M for Must Read (if you’re a grown up 18+). If you have any feedback, feel free to reach out in the contact box. Thank you for reading!

Chapter 1 – A Room with a Spectacular View

I am staring into the empty apartment across from mine, pretending to pay attention to a video conference call, when one of the movers next door sets some boxes down and takes his shirt off. Swallowing down a squeak, I quietly thank the stars for my 20/20 peripheral vision. 

“Zoe, what do you think?” 

The deep, disembodied voice belongs to my business partner. 

I blink and smile into my laptop’s camera. “There was a lag on my end. Can you repeat your question?”

It’s my canned go-to whenever I’ve spaced out on a call, but Richard Church knows this. The rest of the people on the call do not. They are new to Livix, Inc. and their fresh, eager faces all sympathize with my pretend predicament. Richard pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose the way he always does when he’s irritated with me, and I flare my nostrils the way I always do to tell him I don’t care. I have more interesting things to do than talk about the holiday party. 

Like covertly ogle the mover man boasting an eight-pack. 

I didn’t even know that was a real thing. I use my sex-ray vision to count them, just to be sure. 

One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. 

Yup. All there. 

“No problem, Zoe,” Richard says. I can hear through his attempt to stay neutral. “I asked what you thought about having The Palace Hotel host. It’s a San Francisco icon.”

The mover man also has those crazy oblique muscles drawing an arrow down toward the parts I also wouldn’t mind ogling. He wears his suit of sexy, steel armor like a gig economy superhero. I calculate the number of months it’s been since I’ve been laid. Nine. Sixteen if I go by my last unassisted orgasm. 

I sigh as Mover Man takes a moment to stretch. 

“This is not my area of expertise, but I think at $750 a person for hors d’oeuvres and wine, everyone will have an amazing time, Richard.” 

I don’t mean it to be funny but a few people on the call chuckle. 

Ah. The joy of being the big boss. Wherever you go, an easy crowd awaits to boost your fragile ego. 

Richard is throwing daggers at me through the screen. I realize my breathy swoon plus lack of attention to the call has been misconstrued as Bored CEO Too Good To Talk About Employee Satisfaction. But, if I tell them why I’m distracted, I might have to fire myself.

“Thanks so much for your thoughtful input, Zoe.” Richard pushes his glasses farther up his nose.

Mover Man uses his t-shirt to wipe a layer of glossy sweat off his carved chest. His shoulders and arms bulge with the effort. I reset and try to pretend I’m not discretely staring at a half naked man. 

“I think it’s clear I’m pretty useless at the administration side of things, but that’s why we hired all of you. Your expertise is critical. I appreciate everything you are doing to make sure I don’t screw this stuff up.” 

My loyal fans chuckle a second time. 

Richard clears his throat which means I’ll be getting a call after this. We’ve only been partners for a year, but it’s been a very long, very intense year where Richard has tried to teach me how to act like a proper CEO and I’ve tried to teach him that’s never what I wanted to be when I grew up. 

He’s the only one who insisted I call myself CEO in the first place. With the last two firms I built, I was just Zoe.

 I turn my camera off and mute myself so I can zone out properly, and Richard hands the agenda over to one of our newest Vice Presidents, Emily Coleman. She begins to present something called motivational color schemes. Mover Man relocates to another room and I push my bottom lip out.

I peer 44 stories below, toward the Embarcadero. San Francisco tourists swarm like ants around long piers jutting out into the bay, but none of them appear to have their shirts off. How boring. 

I crane my neck to see if I can spot Mover Man’s magnificent shape in any other visible spaces. He is working in my apartment’s twin so I am familiar with the layout. 

We are both perched atop the long ends of a building nicknamed The U, and the only difference between the two places is the view. My apartment points toward the world-famous Golden Gate and Mover Man’s current place of employment hangs over a steel serpent known as the Bay Bridge. Our mirrored living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens are encased in thick sheets of iridescent glass, visible only to the horizon and one another. The bedrooms hang on the outer “U” edges, running parallel to the rest of the suite. 

My apartment is styled in something I like to call minimalist boho chic and what my best friend Will likes to call boring. He once made me buy a glass desk that belongs on a Star Trek episode, and I opted to hide it by placing it against the east facing window. I usually spend my fourteen hour days gazing out at the Oakland hills between coding sessions and meetings. Today I got the bonus of Mover Man. 

I pretend to stretch and notice he’s gone missing. He must be working in the apartment’s sleeping quarters. I think about how he might look standing next to a bed, half-naked and running a hand through what looked to be a head of well-styled, dark blond hair. 

God, I need a boyfriend. 

Emily discusses the synergistic benefits of the color blue as my messenger app pulses in the bottom corner of my screen. Will Strauss, my long-time BFF and sometimes platonic snuggle buddy, shoves my dirty thoughts through the 44th floor window. 

Will: Yo! Some of these new dudes we hired are total pervs! 

I am still thinking about Mover Man next to that imaginary, but luxuriously soft mattress. Shame makes me crinkle my nose. 

Me: Tell me more.

Will: I’m so butch they added me to this private group talking about the women in the office. Earlier they blew up the chat taking bets on bra cup sizes. You’re my horse. I still remember from college. 36 B, right?

I was Will’s beard until senior year when he finally came out to his family. We played the more-than-friends game every holiday break. He holds extremely intimate knowledge about me. 

Me: You’re participating in this?

Will: *wink* Can’t blow my cover. Plus, it’s $50 bucks when I inevitably win. *evil grin*

Me: *judgy face* Good memory, Donnie Brasco. 

Will: So, now there’s a vote on who’s the hottest. You’re tied with Monica Li. 

Will sends a screenshot of the poll. One of the new programmers has commented: Zoe’s peach is AAA grade and she’s got that black hair, light blue eye comic book thing going on. Fuck I love older women.

Another guy has replied to the comment with: Peach: 100. Eyes: Creepy AF. Straight up Halloween shit. I vote Monica. She’s tasty AF with eyes that don’t freak me out.

Will has the last laugh: Zoe probably wouldn’t look twice at your sorry ass anyway. 

A bunch of idiots reply with the fire emoji and LMAO. 

I glance at my reflection in the window. I was ten years old the last time anyone called my eyes creepy. It still stings. 

Me: Peach?

Will: Your ass. And you have the nerve to call yourself hip. 

Me: I’m 34 not 24. 

Will: 乁(ツ)ㄏ So am I. It’s no excuse.

Me: *eye roll* Thanks for the intel. Will be shutting this shit down shortly. 

Will: As you should. When will men ever learn?

Me: You’re giving them way too much credit. Pimply teens is more like it. Men? Maybe in another 10 years.

Will: *kiss* 

As one of three people who control everything that runs on Livix’s systems, I pull up the chat app’s administration page and find the private group with a few clicks. It’s codenamed PeachBuzz. I gag then I screenshot a few juicy convos and its membership list minus Will. I email the screenshot to our new Human Resources VP, Claudia Ngyuen, with a note: 

Please speak with the women in the office and let me know if anyone is experiencing difficulty with any of these names. If yes, terminate the offender immediately. Otherwise, be sure these employees receive the appropriate training. The extra long version. Written warnings with a termination guarantee if anything like this ever happens again. 

I hit send then add myself to the group’s membership. A new message appears at the bottom for all to see: 

Zohreh Shirazi-Shaw has joined the group. 

I wait. 

Within a few seconds, activity bursts onto the screen. 

Joe Garcia has left the group.

Adam Peele has left the group. 

Martin Albright has left the group.

Three more run for their lives. I’m betting the ones playing dead will claim ignorance about the group altogether, thinking they can outsmart me. I screenshot the log of who accepted the group’s original invitation and post it to the chat. Two more snakes slither out. Back on the holiday party call, Emily is suggesting we “think pink” to promote women in STEM. 

A very desperate and cunning Ulysses Benson replies to the group with: Hey all, I think my account was hacked. This is the first time I’m seeing this chat. What’s this about? 

Ulysses is the group’s creator and the one who rated my ass triple “A” grade – whatever that means. I press the thumbs-down in reply to his ridiculous defense. I very much feel like a Hollywood Roman Emperor. 

Will sends me a separate DM: I’m pissing myself. *ROFL*

I start to type a reply to Will then forget about it when Mover Man re-enters my new neighbor’s living room. His shirt is still missing as he moves heavy furniture around like it’s made of styrofoam. For the first time, I wonder where his coworkers are. He gets close enough to the window for me to make out his face. It’s as handsome as the rest of him. I take a mental note to ask my new neighbor for the moving company’s info so I can have them rearrange my master bedroom for no reason. 

Richard clears his throat extra loud. I am reminded I’ll be getting a call soon. 

“Thanks for that amazing presentation, Emily. For the rest of you, let’s digest, circle back and have a final decision ready by Friday.” 

I make a face because my camera is off. Mover Man takes a box into the kitchen and disappears again. I tell Emily thank you and disconnect from the meeting. My phone rings three seconds later. 

I click the green button and cut Richard off before he can begin. 

“You know holiday party planning is not my thing.” 

I grab my wallet and head for my front door. Between clearing out a rats nest full of pervy programmers and resisting the urge to act out my own Sex in the City episode, I’ve earned a cinnamon latte.  

I can almost hear Richard adjusting his glasses. “Zoe, as CEO of the company, you need to start taking a more pragmatic approach to things. We have fifty employees now, not five, and even though we’re all remote, things like holiday parties and staff appreciation are important. And, as your mentor, I advise you to work on your tendency to say exactly what you mean. Sometimes a little subtlety is in order.”

He lectures me on my lack of executive professionalism for another minute. I’ve crossed the bottom part of The U and pushed the call button on the elevator by the time he finishes. 

“Richard, we both know how important it is to treat people well. It’s partly why I started Livix, remember? But designing new app functionality to support the mission and make millions of dollars is my thing. As my trusted President, spending those millions on hiring good people, giving them holiday parties and bonuses is your thing. Let me do my thing so you can do your thing.”

The elevator arrives and I hop on. I snuggle into the corner and turn to find Mover Man stepping onto the elevator with me. He’s pulled his gray t-shirt back on, but my memory only sees that delicious abdominal arrow pointing to the places I haven’t seen yet. 

He’s a giant in real life. I look up at him and forget my first name for exactly four seconds. Richard pounces on my silence and restarts his sermon.

Mover Man nods and flashes me a quick smile that says he doesn’t want to be rude, but he’s in no mood to talk. I grin way too big and point to my phone as if he can’t see I’m already on it. I sneak a peek at his naked ring fingers. He fixates on my Creepy AF eyes and tilts his head the way people do right before they ask if I’m wearing contacts. I spin away from him. The elevator doors close and I become painfully aware of my lack of fashion sense as I gape at my reflection. 

Slip-on checkerboard sneakers, torn up skinny jeans, ancient Bowie t-shirt, messy bun.

Zero makeup. 

Gross. 

In the four-way mirror, I notice Mover Man has pointed his curious gaze directly on my triple A “peach.” I’m relieved to know he’s straight, but now I have to be cool to win his phone number and I have never, ever been anything close to the definition of cool when it comes to hot men. 

Thanks to modern technology, the days of calls disconnecting in an elevator are long gone, but for once, I am thankful. Richard is rambling on about how I should think about attending a leadership camp in Sonoma. I make uh-huh sounds and pretend Mover Man doesn’t have his long, muscular arms spread across one side of the elevator as he grips the brass railing. I use my perfect peripheral vision to watch his graceful fingers flex. I say okay a lot and start to overheat when I realize he’s staring me down. I turn to face him and for one full breath my imagination predicts an immediate future where he asks if I’m busy later.  

“Can you please press G?”

My imagination is stupid. 

His voice is soft and deep and raspy in a way that makes me want to do anything he asks. Before I forget, I push the button. Then I watch my right thumb come up and my left eye wink without my permission. He smiles, bigger this time, but I am horrified that I’ve just channeled a 1980s sitcom character. 

We time travel and arrive at the ground floor before I can recover from the embarrassment over my Fonz revival. He holds the doors open for me as I scuttle out, but he is through the main entrance and gone before I can say thank you.  

Apparently, my AAA ass wasn’t enough to overcome my 8th grade attire and general state of nerdiness. 

I hear Richard say, “I’m glad you agree, Zoe. We can have Barbara get your travel arranged.”

I frown and wander across the building’s tree-lined promenade toward the coffee shop. “Huh? Who’s Barbara? Where am I going?”

Richard sighs. He is clearly so very disappointed in me and my lack of interest in corporate decorum. “Barbara is our new executive assistant, remember? Did you listen to anything I said?” 

“Sorry, Richard,” I reply, genuinely this time, “there was a lag on my end.” 

. . . . . . . .

Will: When he takes his shirt off again, send pics.

Me: Uh, no. I only busted up your icky sexual harrassment ring an hour ago and now you want me to sexually harrass the mover next door?

Will: We’re all hypocrites. Relax. I’m not your employee and neither is he. If I had it my way, you’d do a lot more than harass him. 

I sip my latte and resist the urge to reply Ditto. I may have made a mistake telling my best friend aka ex-college roommate aka silent partner aka double agent about Mover Man. 

Will: How long has it been again? Two years?

Me: Um, what. No. Six-ish months. 

He delays his reply and I know he’s doing research. I sigh. 

Will: You mean nine? That dude you hooked up with after the Adele concert was in January. I was there remember? You want to know what I think?

I do not but he’s going to tell me anyway.

Will: I think you should go over and ask for a cup of sugar. But in an outfit that doesn’t look like something my nephew wears. Wear that outfit you wore to my birthday party. The one that made my brothers circle you like wolves all night. 

I think back six months and remember the ensemble.

Strapless mini dress, red stilettos, black stockings, enough smoky eye to start a forest fire. 

Total trollop. 

I have made a huge mistake telling Will about Mover Man.

Me: So you want me to cosplay as a hooker and ask if the mover guy can break into his boss’ kitchen supplies for a cup of sugar? This is your plan to get me laid?

Will: At least it’s A plan. 

I grab the stack of mail I picked up on the way back up from the coffee shop and filter through it. At the bottom, there’s a large envelope from a law firm listing the address for the apartment next door. 

Ryan Alexander 

80 Bay Street, Apt. 44E

San Francisco, 94133

How convenient.  

The lovely but airheaded lobby receptionist has mixed up our post again. It was a weekly occurrence with my old neighbor, Sergi Romanov, who loved to spend his father’s oil money hosting raves that would go until dawn. The only time I ever put my shades down was to block the neon laser beams shooting out from his apartment. I quietly hope this Ryan Alexander guy is elderly – or, married with two, very polite children who are into reading and other activities requiring silence. 

Mover Man has returned with more boxes. He sets them down and takes his shirt off again, using it to swipe more shimmering sweat away from his unbelievable body. I type nonsense into a blank email to look busy in case he senses my sex-ray vision. I glance at the very important looking manila envelope with my new neighbor’s name on it. 

A ping from my laptop tells me Will is reading my mind.

Will: You’re gonna do it, aren’t you? *evil grin* Bwahahahaha! 

My devious plan has transmitted itself to Will through the same connection that once made us friends on the first day of college. 

Me: If by that you mean I’m going to dress for an evening out with you, casually stop by my new neighbor’s house on the way to deliver some misrouted mail, then ask for Mover Man’s number and hope he doesn’t laugh in my face, then yes. 

Will: YES!!!!!! 

Me: *eye roll*

Will: Wait. Don’t … say things. 

I scowl at the screen. 

Me: What does THAT mean??

I know exactly what it means. Like the accidental Fonzie impression in the elevator, I tend to overreact when in the presence of someone I’d like to see naked. In Mover Man’s case, more naked. To most people, I am an accomplished, professional woman in tech who has built three successful software companies. I’ve been interviewed on local morning shows and grilled by investment tycoons with over nine figures in their bank accounts. 

To any man I’m even slightly interested in, I am a verbal train wreck. 

Will: You know exactly what it means. You are an amazing, accomplished, ridiculously intelligent, gorgeous, megawealthy woman who I would have married in a heartbeat if I were straight.  

Me: But?

Will: But, remember the guy at the sushi place last week? You started showing him your real life gag reel and told him about the time you pooped your pants in high school gym class. Don’t do that. Don’t say EVERYTHING that pops into that brilliant but totally bananas mind of yours. Get in. Get the digits. Get out. Capiche?

Will is typing as I’m typing. Our responses arrive at the same time. 

Me: Whatever, some guys would find that charming. Will: No one will ever find that charming. 

I send a rage emoji and sign out of the chat app. Mover Man looks up when I stand. He stares directly at me. I freeze like a photo under the definition of awkwardness in a picture dictionary. I wave but my hand barely complies and now I’m sure I look like a slowly melting ice sculpture. Mover Man smiles, waves back, then shakes his head. He wrangles a dining room table into place and I think I see him chuckle. I should have gotten it on film and sent it to Will in defense of my dork factor.

I break free of my mold and pick my phone up on the way to my bedroom. Will has sent me a text. 

Stay focused. “Hey, would you like to get a drink?” That’s eight words total. No more than that! If you say more than eight words, STOP TALKING.

I type out the interaction I had at the window and press send. Will sends the embarrassed emoji, the rage emoji, the zipped lip emoji and a set of prayer hands.

I roll my eyes. Whatever. Will didn’t see Mover Man’s almost chuckle. 

It’s past five but San Francisco’s Indian summer is on high heat. An amber sun dips behind the Golden Gate as I dig through my dresser drawers like a dog looking for its favorite bone. I layer myself in flowery lotions and undergarments that make me feel beautiful but also in need of liposuction. I have gone to yoga five days this week and I usually run ten miles on the weekends. The female lingerie industry is rigged. 

In a show of compromise, I slip on the dress I wore to Will’s birthday party. It’s a strapless black number with tiny red roses embroidered on an outer layer of tulle. I picked it up in Paris when I took my parents there last year. I make another compromise and wobble into the bathroom on my red stilettos bare legged, then apply some light makeup. I avoid the tiny shadow cases that give me raccoon eyes. I curl the long lashes my few female friends swoon over and stop. Whenever I add mascara, I eventually look like an overworked showgirl on a smoke break. 

I take my hair down and fluff it out. I do my best to casually stride across the living room to pick up Ryan Alexander’s mail but the stone tile is slippery and my foot slides. My reflection in the window makes a back kicking motion like a mule annoyed with a horse fly. I am glad when I see Mover Man has disappeared from view again. 

I take the shoes off so I don’t kill myself on my way to get a handsome man to like me and put them back on when I’m in the carpeted hallway. Tucking the manila envelope under one already sweaty armpit, I roll my shoulders back and clear my throat. I attempt my version of elegance and sway my arms slowly as I walk past the elevator. The mirrored doors reveal that I look like a sinister wolf cartoon creeping up behind an unsuspecting child. I adjust and walk like a human being. I have never been good at anything requiring grace. 

I turn left into my neighbor’s foyer and press the doorbell. I hear slow, heavy footsteps approach from the other side of the door and my mouth goes bone dry. The door opens and Mover Man has an annoyed frown on his magazine cover-worthy face. His shirt is back on and wet with sweat. He gives me a bored onceover like he’s seen a million tiny women dressed in expensive French dresses and red high heels. My stomach caves in a little. When he gets to my face, I see a flicker of recognition and his eyebrows calm down. 

“Hi,” I nearly scream at him, “I’m the … Zoe … the neighbor … Zoe. I come from … next door. I was in the elevator. Before.” 

He nods and his eyes glitter. I see the tiniest smile cross his lips. I don’t bother to let him introduce himself. 

“I have mail.” 

Will’s advice is making me sound like a cavewoman who still uses AOL. I shove the envelope at Mover Man like it’s covered in spiders and he accepts it. Closing my eyes, I shake off the failed attempt to use as few words as possible. I blow out a big breath and look at Mover Man who is now reading the mailing label.  

“Sorry, I get nervous talking to new people. God, you’re big.” 

He looks up. I feel myself turn into a giant tomato. 

I take another breath and reset. 

“Anyway,” I sing, “I’m Zoe and I was on my way out and needed to drop off your boss’s mail. The girl downstairs sometimes mixes up the apartments, you know, because we’re 44E and 44W.” I’m making Egyptian dance hands for some reason. “It’s an easy mistake to make.” I shake my wrists out. “Geez, how big are you, exactly?” 

I am already breathless. He makes an amused face like I’m a foreigner desperately trying to tell him that my hoverboard is full of eels. 

Will’s text message haunts me. 

“Wow. Okay. My friend told me this would happen. I think I’m going to go now. I do this thing where I talk too much and say whatever is on my mind. Last week I told a guy,” I run the back of one hand over my forehead, “… oh no, Zoe, don’t say that again.” 

I think I’ve only thought the last few words but Mover Man’s extra high brow expression tells me I’ve said them out loud. I cringe and press a hand over my mouth for two seconds before more words tumble out. 

“So, yeah, oh … my god, I really just came here to give you something for your boss and to ask for your … ,” he grimaces and I slam my gear shift into reverse then stomp the accelerator, “ … I mean … say … heyyyy.” I rest my hand on my hip in an attempt to look cool and end up doing a one-sided chicken dance. I wish for time travel to exist. 

He looks like he really needs to laugh. I take that as a good sign. 

“My boss?” he asks. 

I squeeze one eye shut and recalculate. “Yes,” I stab the envelope too hard with one finger. “Ryan Alexander? Is he not … are you not … wait.” I remember asking myself where Mover Man’s friends were. I scratch my head and feel my face exaggerate confusion to an ugly degree. Who buys a $10 million dollar condo and doesn’t hire movers? 

I am very sweaty. 

“Zoe, right?” 

He asks using that husky, sweet tone he used in the elevator. If anything, my bias expected him to sound like SpongeBob Squarepants’ BFF. I need to say that out loud. 

Will’s voice on a rage emoji face pops into my head. If you say more than eight words, STOP TALKING. 

I nod furiously instead. 

Mover Man holds his hand out and says the thing I know he’s going to say. “I’m Ryan. Nice to meet you.” 

I shake his hand long enough to sear the memory of his soft skin into my mind. I jerk back and fold both of my hands behind my back then sway unnecessarily. I guffaw and it echoes down the hallway.

“Ha! Yeah. I knew that. I mean. I know that … now. I’m smart.” It sounds very much like I am not smart so I overcorrect. “I run a software company. I program predictive analytics with complicated code and stuff.” 

God help me.

“Which one?” He seems genuinely interested. 

I’m happy he cares about what I do, but I need to pee. “Oh, uh, Livix? We match people with the best place to live domestically and overseas based on profession, lifestyle and income, and we help them relocate. Our mission is to help people live their best life.” 

I am relieved I manage to sound coherent for once.
He nods and smiles. He dips his chin and looks at me from under his brow the way models do in social media posts. I want to press the tiny heart a million times. 

“Yeah, I know it. Brilliant idea.” 

He braces one elbow high up against the doorframe and his shirt lifts a few inches above his hip. I use my sex-ray vision to appreciate all of the hard work he’s put in at the gym. 

A five-alarm fire alarm goes off in my brain. Miniature, helmet wearing people clad in heavy coats and pants are waving me out of a burning building with Ryan Alexander’s name on it. The reality that he’s not some random guy I’ll never see again after he rejects me sprays ice-cold milk all over my spicy plans. I plot my escape and take a big step back in my ridiculous shoes. 

“Okay, Ryan Alexander, nice meeting you.” I press a palm to my stomach and bow as if he’s royalty and I’m his loyal subject. “I must be going now.”

I want to say he looks disappointed but I remind myself I’m insane. 

“Where are you headed?” he asks. 

He wipes his forehead on his shirt sleeve and when his gaze returns to mine, it’s changed from slightly amused to super serious. He focuses his intense stare on my forehead, and I suspect he’s using his own sex-ray vision.

I take another step back and laugh. I flip my hand at him as if he’s being too much.

“Oh, nowhere. I mean … wait. I’m going out. With friends.” Whew. 

He persists. The tone he uses makes me feel like he’s my boss. “Where?” 

His eyes drop to my left hip. He tongues the corner of his mouth. 

I hold my breath. 

Is he flirting? 

I swallow as I realize I’ve forgotten what a man flirting with me looks like.  

“Oh, a bar on the corner.” I guffaw again. I want to die a little. “The Green Dolphin? They have live jazz on Friday nights.”

I need to retreat and regroup. I wave a goodbye that mimics an excited five-year old waving to Mickey Mouse. “Okay, I’ll see you around the neighborhood, Ryan.” 

I hinge both arms at their elbows and do a weird little shuffle. I am out of control. Ryan chuckles. I wish Will were here to witness it. 

“Six-four,” he says as I turn away to prepare for an impromptu 100-yard dash. 

I stop mid-launch and look over my shoulder. “Huh?”

Ryan rests one hand on the top corner of his door as if everyone does this. “You asked how big I was. I assume you meant how tall?” He grins and his green eyes fill with mischief. “I’m six-four. Thank you for the mail, Zoe. It was very nice meeting you.” 

His gaze bounces off my rear end and his grin deepens. 

I squeak, “You, too,” then quickly wobble my way to the elevator so I can hurry up and get to the bar. I’ll need at least two shots of good tequila before facing Will’s sure-to-be-disgusted inquisition.

Chapter 2 – First Impressions 2.0

Will orders me a fourth shot of tequila and hangs a sturdy arm over my shoulders. We’re snuggled onto a long, leather sofa surrounded by a bunch of people we both know for different reasons. The jazz ensemble is playing a slow and low Louis Armstrong reboot. 

“At least he seemed interested?” Will sounds doubtful. 

The inquisition has gone better than expected. I still have all my limbs. 

In my mind, I replay my fumble on the 44th floor for the hundredth time. Despite Ryan’s flirty peeks at my body, which I may have completely hallucinated, I am convinced I blew it. 

“Sure. In a ‘my neighbor has special needs and I should look out for her’ kind of way.” 

Will bites his lip so he doesn’t laugh in my face. “Well, it’s like you said, he is your neighbor and you probably don’t want to do anything that might make sharing the penthouse floor uncomfortable. Probably.” He raises one eyebrow that says I should absolutely make sharing the penthouse floor uncomfortable. 

The tequila arrives with a small dish of sliced lime. I take one and nibble on it. 

“I swear, no matter how successful I am on paper, between the 80 hour work weeks and having zero game, I’m going to be single forever.” 

Will pats me on the back like I’m the losing quarterback in the SuperBowl. I look over then reach up and swipe some salt off his lip with my thumb. He smiles and I am reminded my best friend is an absolute hottie. 

Tall, dark hair, hazel eyes, lean and fit, excellent dresser, goes to therapy. 

Adorable.  

I wish for the 426th time for the Universe to send me his straight doppelganger. 

Or at least a close copy. 

He hands me a tiny glass filled with liquid numb, then he raises his own tiny glass and rallies our group. “Hey, hey, hey! Listen up.” 

Slowly, eight pairs of eyes attached to happy, half-drunk faces shift in our direction. Some belong to guys I once tried to date. Others belong to their girlfriends.

“Raise your glasses,” Will says, “I want to make a toast to Zoe. The smartest blue-eyed hacker babe this side of the Bay. She’s made us all rich with her brilliance and continues to keep us around when she probably deserves better. Tonight, may our Princess Charming find her Prince.” 

Whoops and hollers erupt in our section as we all drink. I know Will means well, but I feel like a charity case. 

Jose Infante, another friend from college and a guy I used to have a massive crush on, tries to high-five me. I miss and nearly slap his girlfriend’s drink into her lap. I apologize and feel my face go red. She shakes her head and laughs in a way that tells me she totally expected me to do that. I am a hopeless geek. 

The couples go back to their individual conversations. Will plants a giant kiss on my cheek then leaves to dance. I am left to eavesdrop on mid-flight conversations, smile awkwardly and stare at my shiny shoes. The server comes by and I decide to cash out so I can go home. I need to drown my sorrows in a bathtub until my vibrator runs out of juice. 

I hand her my card but she waves it off. 

“Already taken care of.” 

I frown. Will and I rotate happy hours and it’s my turn. The server points toward the bar and walks away. 

I scan the stools like an ancient dot-matrix printer. On my third pass, I spot my new neighbor casually leaning against the bar like he’s waiting for someone to take his photograph. He raises a beer glass and grins. 

I haven’t recognized him because he’s dressed in belted black slacks and a silky gray button down. I can’t decide if I like him better with clothes on or off. 

The fourth shot of tequila spreads its warm, nerve killing agent through my veins. I’m halfway to the bar before I realize I’m halfway to the bar, but on a scale of one to ten where ten is the goofball maniac performance I gave in his foyer, I am a heart-slightly-racing six. 

This time, I wave like an adult as I approach. I open my mouth to say hello but he beats me to it. 

“Hi, Neighbor.” 

He sort of sings it as if we’re old friends who tell a lot of inside jokes. He takes a seat on the barstool and pats the empty one next to it. His warm and welcoming gaze relaxes me down to a slow-and-steady four. 

A few tipsy butterflies fly away as I hop up onto my seat. “Hey. Thank you for picking up my tab. That was sweet of you.”

“Can I get you another?” he asks. 

“Oh, no. I couldn’t. Three is my limit, and I’ve already been overserved.” 

I turn my head and glare in Will’s direction. He can’t be bothered. He’s slow dancing to a Billie Holiday tune with a handsome redhead, and Gingers are his favorite. 

“You two seem very close,” Ryan says. 

There’s a note of apprehension in his voice that surprises me. I recall sitting on the leather sofa with Will draped around my body like a feather boa. I smile and look back at my new neighbor. I like that Ryan hasn’t assumed that Will is gay simply because he’s dancing with another man. Queerness is a spectrum, and straight men are usually blind to its colors. 

“Will and I went to college together. We are very close but he is very much into men … and only men.” 

Ryan lifts his chin in an a-ha motion and my peripheral vision catches the rise and fall of his chest. Was that a sigh of relief? Probably not. The tequila and the woody scent of Ryan’s cologne must be making me delirious.

I realize I’ve assumed my neighbor isn’t queer simply because he ogled my peach in the elevator. For all I know, he’s into furry culture. 

Will’s right. We’re all hypocrites. 

“What about you?” I ask. “Are you into men … or women … or?” 

He gives me a once over from head to toe that makes me hold my breath.

“I’m very much into women,” he clarifies. “And only women.”

A glass of water magically appears on the bar next to me. Ryan nods his thanks to the bartender and she shifts her eyes between the two of us as if she’s calculating a math problem in her head. 

“Hey, how did you do that?” I ask. 

“Bartender code.” He flattens one hand out in front of me. “The sign for bottled water.” 

I listen to myself ask a really stupid question. “Neat. Are you a bartender?” I think about our matching penthouses. “I mean, were you a bartender … once? Before you do … whatever you do now? I mean … yeah … so, what do you do?”

I’m slowly creeping back up to goofball-maniac status. I clear my throat and reach for the water glass. Ryan grins and his green eyes twinkle. 

“I belong to an investment group, and I day trade on the side. But yes, I was a bartender for ten years before that.” 

I chug water like I’ve been wandering the desert for a week. I need to go home before the booze witchcraft wears off. 

“I’m really sorry about earlier,” I blurt. “I have trouble talking to … new people.” 

Ryan frowns and shakes his head. “Please don’t be. It brought a big ray of sunshine to a pretty dark day.” 

His tone started out cheerful but then dipped straight down. His features follow and some invisible giant takes a seat on his supermodel shoulders. I think about the manila envelope corner stamped Riley & Levine Law. His eyes shift to the beer glass perched on one knee, and a very non-awkward silence passes between us. This is a first for me. 

I do something I’ve never done before and act like the person I wish I was in moments like these.  

“Listen, I know we’ve only just met, but do you need to talk about anything? Despite all indications to the contrary, I am a good listener. I can even put full sentences together occasionally. Ask any one in my group.” I point to the mix of ex-crushes and former colleagues, some of whom are eyeing me with great interest. 

Ryan smiles and peers up from under his brow. It’s a look that says I know I’m sexy as hell and I know that you know I’m sexy as hell. The internal air conditioner making me so calm, cool and collected short circuits. 

“Maybe some other time,” he says. His deep voice drips with so much honey I want to swipe my finger across his lips and taste it. “What I’d really like to talk about is what you came by to ask me.”

I gulp and puff out a breath. He shifts on his stool and presses his knee against mine. My eyebrows pop up and down like a spastic jack-in-the-box. I should have ordered another drink. 

“Oh, did I say that?” I reach up and clutch my imaginary pearls. “I think I meant task? Like I came by to task you with something? You know. Because I thought you were a guy who, like, does tasks?” I feel my face make weird shapes. “Oh, I remember now.” 

If there was a red buzzer labeled BULLSHIT on the bar, Ryan’s hand would be hovering over it. He sighs and chuckles. I glance over at Will’s position on the dance floor and use my fake psychic powers to telepathically scream his name. 

Meanwhile, I keep shoveling. 

“Yes, I wanted to task you with some … furniture relocation. Since I thought you were a mover?” 

My own skull can’t handle the idiocy flowing from my mouth and it betrays me with open disapproval. Ryan shakes his head in time with mine and together, we become synchronized dissenters.

“Zoe, I have a photographic memory.” He finishes his beer in three gulps. I double check his jawline and Adam’s apple while he does it to make sure they’re still perfect. “You said, ‘No, I really just came here to give you something for your boss and to ask for your …  I mean … say … heyyyy.’” His heavy timbre in full effect, he mimics my cadence and pitch perfectly. He is adorable and terrifying. 

I scrunch both eyes closed and rub my forehead, praying he’ll be gone when I open them again. 

“Zoe, were you trying to hook up with the mover guy?” 

He sings his question with a combination of notes that promise I’ll be forgiven if I just admit I ate the last cookie.

I crack under the light pressure. 

“Yes?” I ask no one. I need to leave. 

He laughs and I press my traitorous lips together so nothing else can slip out.

“I think you might be the most transparent woman I’ve ever met,” he says. “Terrible liar though. Two qualities I find extremely attractive.”

I guffaw. My intoxication cloak is vanishing and revealing my true self. I look over at Will again, but he’s got his tongue in Gingerman’s mouth. I want to throw my empty water glass at him. 

My lip seal breaches. I stare at the bar’s exit as I stutter through another sexy soliloquy. 

“Nah.” I hop off the stool as if it’s my first time. Ryan readies to catch me then relaxes when I don’t topple over. “But yeah. I mean … I did think you were the hot mover, and I may have thought, you know, if you were single, and straight, that I would ask for your number, but then … like … you were my neighbor.” I say it like Ryan being my neighbor is the dumbest thing in the whole world. “And so, you know, we … can’t … do … that.” It’s clear to everyone within a five foot radius what that translates to.  

Ryan is unphased. He has his super serious face on again. 

“We can’t?” he asks. 

A few flames flicker through his steady gaze. I notice he’s almost pouting. 

The red alert siren from Star Trek echoes throughout my entire body. I begin to sweat again and in the commotion of blood cells rushing past my ear canal, I misinterpret Ryan’s reply. It rearranges itself in my memory as an affirmative statement instead of a question. 

The tiny alien operating my brain has officially forgotten how my mechanisms work. I watch her flounder at the controls, her forehead covered in my desperation.

“Exactly,” I agree. 

Ryan frowns and cocks his head to one side. I step away from him. I need to make a run for it before my brain operator gives me the finger and walks out on the job. 

“I’ve had a little too much to drink, I think.” 

Ryan stands, his energy flipping from unbearable flirt to protective big brother. “I’ll walk you home.”

I hold up both palms as if he’s offered to poison me. “No! I’ll be fine, I promise. I’m used to going home alone.” 

Ryan looks like I’ve just told him my dog died. I back away slowly. “Thanks, again, for the drinks, Neighbor.” 

I turn into a baseball umpire and signal my own strikeout. 

“Zoe, are you sure you don’t want me to walk you home?” 

My brain operator folds her arms disgustedly. Smoke is billowing out from the control panel. “I’m sure, and thank you, again. Again! Hey, I’ll see you around! I have a lot of sugar!” 

Ryan shakes his head. “What?”

“Nothing! Bye!” 

I spin and wave at my group on the way out. No one notices. Will has disappeared somewhere with his auburn love interest. I pencil Strangle Best Friend on my mental calendar. 

As I push through the tall double doors, I glance back at Ryan. He’s staring back at me, his face a conflicted mess of confusion and concern. I give him the famous Fonz thumbs up and he grins, but it’s lost all of its luster. I lose sight of him as I work my way through a crowd of people entering the bar. When I look back again, another woman has already taken my place. 

. . . . . . . .

My stomach wakes me up at midnight demanding pancakes and bacon. I silence it by rolling over and suffocating it with a body pillow I bought myself for Christmas. I named it Someday. As in “Someday, you’ll snuggle up to a real man instead of a stuffed one.” 

I try to fall back asleep, but the same shame monster that kept me awake until eleven comes barreling out of her dark closet. She picks up where we last left off and screeches about how I screwed up a perfectly sexy opportunity to hang out with Ryan “Scorching Hot, Crazy Successful and Totally Sweet” Alexander. 

I let her replay the scene from the bar where Ryan basically said “Let’s go back to my place” and I basically said, “What are you, crazy?” and he was like “Wait, what?”, but all I heard was, “Yeah, you’re right, a guy like me could never be into a complete dork like you. Let’s call it a night.”

My shame demon shows me the woman I left him with – a distant member of our collective friend group who’d apparently been betting against me. She is my opposite in every way possible. Tall, blonde, available for things like spontaneous weekend adventures, and confident in the presence of handsome men. 

I shove the fussy monster back into her box.

My stomach rumbles a second reminder that I traded dinner for four shots of tequila and a manic, three hour coding session. I tried to fit in some time with my vibrator, too, but the thing refused to wake up and I ended up throwing it in the trash along with any hope for a neighborly love affair. 

I get up and resolve to wallow in carbohydrates. 

Over my naked body, I pull a beautiful, silk kimono I bought for myself in Japan a few years back. I head toward the kitchen in the dark to prevent retinal damage. When Sergi was my 44th floormate, I gained a new talent for navigating my apartment in total darkness whenever I wanted to avoid a drunken midnight invite to one of his parties. 

Tiptoeing for old time’s sake, I follow the path that keeps me in stealth mode as I enter my living room. My new neighbor’s lights are on. I stop and stare into Ryan’s empty apartment, imagining what it might look like if I were there now, making out with him on his ultra-modern leather couch. I reminisce about his eight-pack complete with signature obliques, and I swoon over the way he uses his eyes to promote his bedroom potential. 

I really wish my vibrator hadn’t broken up with me. 

Releasing my brake, I roll toward the kitchen. I screech to a halt when Ryan comes into frame with a woman attached to him like an octopus. Her arms and legs swirl over his back and torso as her mouth sucks at his with an almost unbearable level of expertise. 

My feet deploy tiny suckers of their own as they fasten themselves to the tile. 

Ryan strolls into his dining room as if he’s carrying a bag of groceries instead of a gorgeous Asian woman with long, black hair. She’s wearing a dress that looks more like a long, slinky tank top. Her perfect doll feet are tucked into strappy, high-heeled sandals, and as they dig into the backs of Ryan’s thighs, I develop a severe case of shoe envy. 

I know I should turn around and go back to bed, or at the very least, close my eyes, but my eyelashes sprout tiny beads of glue and cement themselves to my eyebrows. 

Ryan sets his beautiful pet octopus down on the table which buys me a front row ticket to his evening plans. Octopus Lady unbuttons his shirt. I want to bang on the glass and shout at her that I’ve seen him half-naked first. He runs his hands up her thighs, exposing a pair of flawless legs. 

Neither of them has come up for air since arriving on scene. The longer they kiss, the more desperate they become. Their lips and tongues and teeth clash in the sexiest battle I’ve ever seen, Octopus Lady perfectly matching Ryan’s ferocity with her own. 

She lays back and writhes beneath him. When he moves to kiss her again, she takes his throat in one hand and pushes him away. It’s a violent gesture but he grins as if she’s done something fantastic. He jerks the top of her dress down and devours one of her breasts. 

I hear myself whimper. 

Instead of sea creatures, I think of lions snarling and scratching their way through mating season, their deep, desirous yowls echoing out into tanned African fields. In this scenario, I am the cheeky monkey perched in a tree, pilfering through a stolen camera case and fumbling with strange buttons. 

I swallow and unstick my left foot. Ryan lifts up, turns his head and puts me directly in the crosshairs of his heavy lidded gaze. I freeze. My heart has a mini-seizure until I remind myself there is no way he can see me. My former nighttime ninja training rendered me completely invisible to Sergi Romanov, even when he would cup his hands around both eyes and peer into my apartment like a North Sea fisherman scanning for icebergs.

I remain in place just in case and call myself a creep. The part of my mind that acts like a seedy strip club owner asks why I have such a big problem with free, high-quality pornography. It even has the nerve to claim that Ryan could put his shades down if he really wanted to. I roll my eyes and agree with it to shut it up. 

The woman uses a red-painted fingertip to guide Ryan’s chin back into place. He smiles at her, and I am overcome with the need to invent temporary body swapping. When he pushes the skirt of her dress up to her ribcage, I mentally start to draw the schematics. 

Lion Woman/Octopus Lady is too cool for panties. Or, body hair. I stop caring when Ryan unbuckles his belt and pulls it off with suspenseful intent. I almost fall over when he loops it around Lion Woman’s wrists, expertly maneuvering the leather into place like he makes impromptu handcuffs for a living. She arches her back and lowers her arms over her head until her bound hands are resting on his table. 

After removing his shirt, he reaches into his pocket. He pulls out a shiny black square that he tears open with his teeth.

I reverse time and picture the two of them together, holding hands and laughing as they leave the bar and jog to the corner store downstairs. Her arms and hands snuggle his warm, sculpted body as he asks the cashier for a condom, grinning like a man about to be laid. 

Then I wonder if he had it in his pocket the whole evening. Maybe when I ditched him at the bar, he scratched out my name and wrote hers on its packaging instead. 

I watch him unzip and hate myself. 

He slips inside Lion Woman and her face dissolves into ecstasy. I gasp as he wraps his hands around her thighs and yanks her body down so her bum is nearly hanging off the edge of the table. I can almost hear her cry out. Her mouth forms the words Oh god, yes! 

It’s time for my peep show curtain to come down. I am so warm in so many places I can’t see straight. I desperately need to go to bed and masturbate the old-fashioned way. I begin to back up toward my bedroom. Ryan jerks his head in my direction again. 

Unbelievable! 

Unless Ryan Alexander is a superhero disguised as a wealthy, good-natured finance guy, my apartment should be nothing more than a giant black box to him. 

Lion Woman straightens one leg and rests her strappy high heel on his shoulder. He keeps perfect rhythm as he pushes deep and feasts on her ankle, glaring at me like we are actually making eye contact. My robe falls open, but I barely notice. For a millisecond, I assume he’s telepathically commanded it with his secret superpowers. 

He returns his focus to the lioness gyrating beneath him. He reaches between her legs and thumbs her clit like he’s playing his favorite instrument. I swallow hard then moan quietly while I watch him bring her to eye-rolling orgasm. She shakes her head back and forth wildly, straining against her bonds. He presses her thighs flat against his torso as he pushes even deeper, quickening his pace to hardcore levels. 

I am light-headed enough to need to grip the edge of a nearby sofa. I hear Oh, Ryan slip out from between my lips. His face tightens like a fist then blooms like a rose as I squeeze my thighs together. I shudder hard then drop to my bare knees and convulse with impossible but undeniable rapture. The stars fade from my vision, and I fold forward to press my sweaty cheek to the floor. I am dazed and astonished by my own body. 

My orgasms usually require a patient man with a lot of free time or a tiny machine with advanced functionality. In bed, I mostly end up faking it because after thirty minutes, my partners always look like they might have a stroke. Never have I come without touch. The last time I read about someone claiming touchless orgasms were possible, I filed the author under Bullshit Influencer Trying to Make a Buck then moved on. 

I pant quietly and swear under my breath as if Ryan might hear me. It takes me twenty full inhales and exhales to recover. By the time I sit up again, Ryan is guiding his guest toward his front door. She sways her perfect ass as she holds her purse over her shoulder by one, very hip fingertip. He pecks her on the cheek and smacks her on the rear before she grins and turns away. He disappears for a few seconds then returns to the window, his limbs swaying as if being operated by a sleepy puppet master. 

His pants are unzipped and barely hanging onto his hips. The belt lies limp on the table like a discarded toy. I peek at the soft hair weaving a wicked trail down from his belly button to the perfection between his legs, and I imagine how amazing it would be to know his touch. 

He presses his forearm against the glass and rests his forehead against his wrist, gazing into my apartment as I secretly gaze back at him. His chest swells and deflates like the tide rolling out lazy waves. I match my breathing to his and feel tears well up in my depraved, privacy invading eyes. It feels so good to be intimate with someone again, even if I had to diminish myself down to Peeping Pauline status to cultivate this one, unrequited moment of strange bliss. 

Ryan pushes back from the glass and staggers toward the bedrooms. The lights go out. I stand and refasten my robe, ignoring the prickle of shame walking cold fingertips up my spine. 

“Hal, close the pod bay doors.” 

The shades descend on command, preventing any further unintended surveillance of Ryan’s erotic acumen.

“Hal, kitchen lights, low.”

The kitchen lights slowly brighten. I float toward the refrigerator. I open the freezer drawer and pull the pint of emergency ice cream buried under ten layers of bagged frozen vegetables. It’s double chocolate fudge. I rummage for a spoon and wander into my dark bedroom, curling up on my purple velvet lounger to watch the city lights sway across San Francisco. 

I eat my undeserved treat and turn my shame demon loose. She goes on and on about how I’m completely incompetent when it comes to relationships and men in general. She berates me for being so good at things like building and selling multimillion dollar companies, and so bad at finding and keeping anyone who wants to spend any time with me – besides Will, and my group of failed dating attempts. She degrades me for denying myself an evening with a sweet, unbelievably handsome man, then judges me for indulging my inner deviant. 

Eventually, I feel hot tears zig zag down my cheeks as I realize I’ve reached a new level of desperation. I’ve just spied on my neighbor having sex, and it’s been six years since I had a real boyfriend. His name was Chris. He was sweet and sexy and patient, always bringing me flowers and gifts for no reason. 

Last week, a mutual friend sent me a link to his wedding pictures. I recall the day we broke up because he said I never made enough time for him. 

I cry and think about Someday and his padded, lifeless form waiting for me to come back to an empty bed. 

Finishing the pint of ice cream, I lie and tell myself I’ll do better next time.


Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

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