LOVE, COMPLICATED – CHAPTERS 1 – 3

Chapter 1 – A Room with a Spectacular View

I’m pretending to pay attention to a conference call when one of the moving men in the penthouse across from mine sets some boxes down and strips his shirt off.

“Zoe, what do you think?”

The deep, disembodied voice belongs to my business partner.

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

It’s my canned go-to whenever I’ve spaced out on a meeting, 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 pull on my earlobe 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 leverage my 20/20 peripheral vision to covertly ogle the mover man boasting a six-pack.

“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.

“Richard,” I begin, “I think at $750 a person for tiny snacks and a glass of wine, everyone will have an amazing time.”

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 smiles but his eyes narrow until they are two tiny slits on his tomato face. 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.

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

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 human being.

“I think it’s clear I’m pretty useless at the administration side of things,” I say, “but that’s why we hired such wonderful people. I appreciate everything you are doing to make sure I don’t screw this kind of 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 CEO is never what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Turning my camera off and hitting the mute button so I can zone out properly, my business partner hands the agenda over to one of our newest vice presidents, Emily Coleman. She opens up a slide deck and begins to present something called motivational color schemes. Mover Man relocates to another room and I push my bottom lip out.

I peer forty-four stories below, toward the Embarcadero. Like oversized ants, San Francisco tourists swarm the 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 across the way. 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 penthouses is the view. Mine points toward the world-famous Golden Gate bridge and Mover Man’s current place of employment overlooks the Bay Bridge and the Oakland Hills. Unless our shades are down, our mirrored living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens are on open display to one another. Usually, I spend my sixteen hour days in a makeshift corner office gazing out at the perfect panorama. Today I got the bonus of Mover Man.

I pretend to stretch and note that he’s still M.I.A. He must be working in one of the apartment’s sleeping quarters. I think about what he might look like 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!

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 got invited to this private chat group to lust over the ladies in the office. Earlier they blew up the chat taking bets on bra cup sizes. You’re my horse. 36B, right?

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

Me: You’re participating in this? FYI – “Silent business partner” doesn’t mean building “Boys will be boys” clubs. 

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

Me: *eye roll* Uh-huh. Good memory, Donnie Brasco.

Will: 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 super tasty 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 twelve 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: *shrug* So am I. It’s no excuse.

Me: Whatever. Thanks for the intel. Will be shutting this garbage down shortly.

Will: As you should. When will hetero 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 code named PeachBuzz. I gag, then 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 sexual harrassment training. The extra long version. Plus 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 professional 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 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 going to piss 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. Still shirtless, 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. Peeking over my laptop, I scan his above-the-neck features to verify they’re 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 loudly. I am reminded I’ll be getting a call soon.

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

I make a face because my camera is off and to me, the idea of digesting and circling back is the buzzword equivalent of sucking on a lemon. Mover Man takes a box into the kitchen and disappears again. I thank everyone on the call 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.”

Grabbing my wallet, I head for my front door. Between clearing out a nest full of deviant 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. As your unofficial mentor, I also 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 acumen for another minute. Tuning out most of his reprimand, I cross the main hallway and push the call button on the elevator. I cut him off when he starts reminiscing about his days as a corporate big-wig. 

“Richard, I’m never going to be you. That’s why Will and I hired you. And 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 us all millions of dollars is my thing. As my trusted chief operations officer, 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 hopscotch on board like a twelve-year old to celebrate my snappy comeback. I snuggle into the corner then feel myself morph into a big red balloon when I turn to find Mover Man stepping onto the elevator with me. He’s pulled his gray t-shirt back on, but my brain only sees his glorious gym lines and that delicious abdominal arrow pointing to the places I haven’t seen yet. 

He nods and flashes me a quick smile that says he doesn’t want to be rude, but he’s in no mood to talk. He’s a giant in real life. I stare up at him and forget my first name for exactly four seconds. Richard pounces on my silence and restarts his sermon.

Mover Man 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 closes and I become painfully aware of my lack of fashion sense as I gape at my reflection in the brass doors.

Checkerboard sneakers, torn up skinny jeans, ancient Bowie t-shirt, messy bun, zero makeup. Gross.

In the four-way mirror, I peek at Mover Man’s naked ring finger and notice he has pointed his curious gaze directly on my Triple A Peach. I’m relieved to know he’s probably single and straight, but now I have to be cool to win his phone number. The only problem is, when it comes to hot men, I have never, ever been anything close to the definition of cool.

Richard is rambling on about how I should think about attending a leadership camp in wine country. 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 railing. I use my peripheral sex-ray 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 a 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. I push the button and grin as if I’ve established world peace. Then, my right thumb pops up and my left eye winks without my permission. He smiles, bigger this time, but I’m 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’s through the main entrance and gone before I can say thank you. 

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

Richard’s voice is in my ear again. “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 my favorite coffee shop. “Huh? Who’s Barbara? Where am I going?”

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

“Sorry, Richard,” I reply, “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 harassment ring an hour ago and now you want me to sexually harass 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 roll my eyes. I may have made a mistake telling my best friend aka ex-college roommate aka silent business partner 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 realize 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 don’t 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 dress 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, bright red lip gloss. 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 my new neighbor’s 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 air-headed lobby receptionist has mixed up the 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 hope this Ryan Alexander guy is elderly, or married with two, very polite children.

Mover Man has returned with more boxes. He sets them down and takes his shirt off again, using it to swipe more shimmering sweat off 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 up for our regularly scheduled Friday night happy hour, casually stop by my new neighbor’s house to deliver some misrouted mail, and 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. Or, in Mover Man’s case, more naked. 

To the outside world, 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. I’ve argued the finer points of brain-busting data science theory with the kind of men who think women are better at building sandwiches than they are designing silicone chips. But, 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, ridiculously intelligent, gorgeous, wealthy woman any straight dude would be lucky to talk to.

Me: But?

Will: But, remember the guy at the sushi place last week? You started showing him your real life gag reel for some reason. You even 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 then stand up to stretch. Mover Man looks up and stares directly at me. I freeze like a badly posed mannequin. My reflection in the window makes me look like an image search result for the definition of awkwardness. 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 have the urge to get it on film and send it to Will in defense of my dork factor.

I break free of my weirdo 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 at any point, 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 maybe chuckle.

I stomp into my bedroom. It’s past five but San Francisco’s Indian summer is on high heat, and an amber sun dips behind the Golden Gate as I dig through my dresser drawers like a dog looking for its favorite bone. I find some acceptable pieces then 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 fluff out my hair and call it quits. On my way through the living room, I practice casually striding across the floor to pick up Ryan Alexander’s mail, but my foot slides on the smooth tile. In the window, my reflection makes a back kicking motion like a mule annoyed with a horse fly. I’m relieved when I look across the way and see that Mover Man has disappeared from view again.

Taking the stilettos off so I don’t kill myself on my way to get a handsome man to like me, I exit my apartment and put them back on in the carpeted hallway. I roll my shoulders back and clear my throat then tuck the manila envelope under one already sweaty armpit. Attempting my version of elegance, I 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. My mouth goes bone dry as I listen to slow, heavy footsteps approach. 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 once over like he’s seen a million tiny women dressed in expensive French dresses, and my stomach caves a little. When he gets to my eyes, his irritation morphs into confusion. 

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

His green eyes fill up with glitter, and I watch the tiniest smile cross his lips. Too overloaded with whatever activates my dork factor, I don’t bother to let him introduce himself.

“I have mail.”

I shove the envelope at Mover Man like it’s covered in spiders. Will’s advice is making me sound like a cave woman with an AOL email address. Closing my eyes, I shake off my failed attempt to use as few words as possible. I blow out a big breath and open my eyes to see Mover Man frowning again, but this time at 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 strawberry.

I take another breath and reset.

“Anyway,” I sing, “I’m Zoe. 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 start to demonstrate 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’m already breathless. Mover Man makes an amused, merciful face like I’m a foreigner desperately trying to tell him my hoverboard is full of eels.

Will’s text message haunts me. I keep going.

“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.”

The last few words were meant to be inner thoughts, 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 exactly 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 so I slam my internal gear shift into reverse then stomp the accelerator. “I mean … say … heyyyy.” I rest a 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.

Mover Man 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 way 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 ten 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.

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 ridiculously soft skin into my mind. Folding both of my hands behind my back, I sway in place unnecessarily. I guffaw and the sound of my stupidity 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. I adjust and over correct. “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 lives.”

Relief floods my system as I manage to sound coherent for once. He dips his A-list actor 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 door frame, and his shirt lifts a few inches above his hip. I use my sex-ray vision to appreciate all the hard work he’s put in at the gym.

Suddenly, 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 water all over my spicy plans. I immediately plot my escape then 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 quickly 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 bossman serious. He focuses his intense stare on my forehead then appears to turn on his own sex-ray vision. The tiny flowers on my dress go up in flames. 

I take another step back and laugh, then 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. “Where?” 

The tone he uses makes me feel like I’m being grilled by a TV detective. His eyes drop to my left hip as he tongues the corner of his mouth. I hold my breath. Is he flirting? I swallow hard 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.”

Needing 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 curse myself for not bringing my phone to document the event.

“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 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 grin deepens as his gaze bounces off my rear end.

“You, too,” I squeak, then I 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 us a third round of tequila and hangs a long, sturdy arm over my shoulders. We’re snuggled onto a 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.

So far, the inquisition has gone better than expected. I still have all my limbs.

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

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.” He raises an 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 hundred hour work weeks and my dork factor, I’m going to be single forever.”

Will pats me on the back like I’m the losing quarterback in the Superbowl. I reach over 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, lanky but fit, goes to therapy. Adorable.

For the 426th time, I make a wish for the Universe to send me his straight doppelganger. Or at least someone who can accept, what Will calls, my Zoeyness.

He hands me a tiny glass filled with liquid numb, then 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 wives and 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 keeps 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 smile at my BFF to cover the cringe that wants to spread over my face. I know Will means well, but the collective prayer to end my singleness makes me 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. Apologizing, I feel my face catch fire. 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 while Will plants a giant kiss on my cheek then leaves to dance. I am left alone to eavesdrop on mid-flight conversations, smile awkwardly and stare at my shiny red shoes. The server comes by and I decide to cash out so I can go home. I probably need to drown my sorrows in a bathtub filled with fancy soap until my vibrator runs out of juice.

I hand the waitress 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 reads my confusion, 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. Looking over his fashionable outfit, I can’t decide if I like him better with clothes on or off.

The third 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 and one is the calm, collected woman I one day hope to be, I am a slightly heart-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. Two is my limit, and I’ve already been overserved.”

I turn my head 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. Smiling, I 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? Eh. Probably not. The tequila and the woody scent of his cologne must be making me delirious. I blink and try to clear my tipsy head then 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 slow and steady once over from head to toe that makes me hold my breath and suck in my stomach.

“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.

“Hey, how did you do that?” I ask.

“Bartender code.” He flattens one hand out. “The sign for bottled water.”

I listen to myself ask a really stupid question. “Neat. Are you a bartender?” Our matching penthouses pop into my head. “I mean, were you a bartender … once? Before you do … whatever you do now? I mean … yeah … so, what do you do?”

I realize 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 a few years before that.”

I nod and chug my water like I’ve been wandering the desert for a week. I probably 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 what could be considered the darkest day of my life.” He huffs as he thinks this over. “So far, anyway.” 

Some invisible giant takes a seat on his supermodel shoulders. They slump down as far as they can go and the rest of his majestic features follow. I think about the manila envelope corner stamped Riley & Levine Law. His eyes shift to the beer glass he’s got perched on one knee, and I resist the urge to reach over and squeeze his wrist. 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 usually am when I’m not trying to get someone to like me.

“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 anyone in my group.” I point to the mix of ex-crushes and former colleagues, some of who 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 … and I might think you’re a little sexy, too. My tequila powered air conditioner short circuits.

“Maybe some other time,” he says, picking up a playful tone. 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.”

Uh-oh.

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 definitely 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 a bunch of weird shapes.

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 for help.

Meanwhile, I keep shoveling.

“Oh! I remember now. Yes, I wanted to task you with some … furniture relocation. You know. Since I thought you were a mover?”

My own skull can’t even handle the idiocy flowing from my mouth. It betrays me with open disapproval, swaying left to right. 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 snap 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 the 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 while I press my traitorous lips together so nothing else can slip out.

“You are 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 … I dunno … 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 unfazed. He has his bossman 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. The tiny alien usually in charge of operating my brain awakens from her tequila nap and starts floundering at the controls. I watch her slap buttons and twist strange levers, her forehead covered in my desperation. In the commotion of blood cells rushing past my ear canals, I misinterpret Ryan’s reply. It rearranges itself in my memory as an affirmative statement instead of a question. 

“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 too much to drink, I think.”

Ryan stands, and his energy flips 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 told him my dog just 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. Hey, I’ll see you around, hot mover guy! I have a lot of sugar!”

Ryan shakes his head. “What?”

“Nothing! Bye!”

I spin and wave at my group on my way toward the exit. No one notices. I figure they probably changed the channel back when I almost fell off the barstool. I look for Will but he’s disappeared somewhere with his auburn love interest. I pencil Strangle Best Friend on my mental calendar.

As I push through the bar’s tall double doors, I glance over my shoulder 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. Working my way through a crowd of people entering the bar, I lose sight of him. 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. See you around, weirdo.”

My shame demon clicks on her slide deck and shows me the woman I left him with – a distant member of my 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 shame monster back into her box.

My stomach rumbles a second reminder that I traded dinner for three shots of tequila and a manic, five hour coding session. I tried to fit in some time with my vibrator, too, but the thing refused to power up so I threw 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 hand-painted, 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 raves.

Tiptoeing for old time’s sake, I follow the path that keeps me in stealth mode as I enter my living room. I see my new neighbor’s lights are on, but no one seems to be home. I stop and stare into Ryan’s 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 six-pack complete with signature obliques, and I feel myself swoon over the way he uses his eyes to promote his bedroom potential.

Ugh. 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. As he walks past his kitchen bar, her arms and legs swirl over his back and torso while her mouth sucks at his with an almost unbearable level of expertise. My feet deploy tiny suckers of their own, fastening themselves to the stone tile beneath me. 

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. Between my frozen feet and unblinking stare, I’m living in some sort of sexy Kubrick reboot. 

Ryan sets his beautiful pet octopus down on the table which buys me a front row ticket to his evening plans. When Octopus Lady unbuttons his shirt, I resist the urge to bang on the glass and shout that I’ve seen him half-naked first. I shrink back a little when 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 clashing 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 listen to 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, they are the king and queen of the jungle, and I am the cheeky monkey perched in a tree, pilfering through a stolen camera case and fumbling with strange buttons.

I swallow down a thick glob of self-disgust 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, even when he would cup his hands around both eyes and peer into my apartment like a North Sea fisherman scanning for icebergs.

Just in case, I remain in place 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.

Back on the erotic escapade channel, Lion Woman/Octopus Lady 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 rib cage, I mentally start to draw the schematics.

Lion Woman is too cool for panties. Or, body hair. I stop caring when Ryan unbuckles his belt and pulls it off with suspenseful intent, then 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 the condom 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 between Lion Woman’s legs and her face dissolves into ecstasy. I gasp as he wraps his hands around her thighs and yanks her body down, burying himself deep inside her. I can almost hear her cry out as her mouth forms the words Oh god, yes!

I cringe at my own lack of self-control. 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 when Ryan jerks his head in my direction again.

Unbelievable!

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

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 directly at me like he’s planning to gobble up his nerdy neighbor next. My robe falls open, but I barely notice. For a millisecond, I assume he’s commanded it with his secret superpowers.

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

I get 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. For what feels like an hour, I twitch and whimper as if Ryan had been hard at work between my legs instead of hers. Eventually, 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 and moved on.

I pant quietly and swear under my breath as if my neighbor might hear me. It takes me twenty full inhales and exhales to recover. By the time I sit up again, Ryan is guiding his co-star toward his front door. She sways her perfect ass as she holds her purse over her shoulder using one, very hip fingertip. He pecks her on the cheek and smacks her on the rear before she grins and turns down the hallway. He disappears for a few seconds then returns to the window, his limbs swaying loosely 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 breath 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 Patty status to cultivate this one, unrequited moment of bliss.

Ryan pushes back from the glass and staggers toward the hallway leading to the bedrooms. The lights go out. I stand and refasten my robe, ignoring the shame monster 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 as 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 twinkle across San Francisco.

I eat my undeserved treat and turn my shame monster 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. She degrades me for denying myself an evening with a sweet, unbelievably handsome man, then judges me for indulging my inner deviant.

Soon, I feel hot tears zigzag down my cheeks as I realize I’ve reached a new level of hopelessness. 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.

Recalling the day Chris left because he said I never made enough time for him, I cry and wonder what might be wrong with me. I cry harder when I think about Someday and its padded, lifeless form waiting for me to come back to an empty bed.

Finishing the pint of ice cream, I write off any remaining chance with Ryan Alexander, then lie and tell myself I’ll do better next time.

Chapter 3 – Shame & Thai Food

I’m finishing my Sunday run and stretching outside my building when I glance inside the coffee shop to find Ryan staring out through a window. Before I can bolt for my apartment, he’s blocking the cafe’s entrance, yelling at me.

“What can I get you?”

I wave him off then huff and puff my reply. “No, thanks. Really.”

Really, really. I can’t imagine having a conversation with a man I watched give a live, five-star, x-rated performance for at least another week. Maybe never if I can move out without him somehow noticing.

Ryan holds an index finger up and gives me a stern Don’t Move look before going back inside. I don’t know why, but I stand there petulantly, like I’d be in big trouble with the boss if I left. Through the window, I watch him charm the barista as she laughs and presses an Oh My palm to her chest. He points towards me and I wave to her. She waves back and nods excitedly before getting to work.

For ten full seconds, I rationalize that him knowing something as intimate as my coffee order makes us even in the Hey, guess, what? I’ve seen what you can do with your thumb! department.

I stretch some more and cringe when I hear his voice again.

“Good morning, you look fantastic.”

I’ve seen myself after a run. I look anything but fantastic.

Old athletic tights, sweaty tank top, wet ponytail, red face. Ew.

I roll my eyes. “No, I don’t, but thanks anyway.”

The formation of a complete sentence surprises me. At least my self-hatred has tamped down any potential for more Zoeyness. I take a moment to notice he’s dressed in gray sweatpants and a fitted black t-shirt outlining everything I’ve already committed to long term memory. To make things worse, he’s topped off by a baseball cap that amplifies his cuteness to an irritating degree. 

He hands me the coffee and frowns as if he’s trying to figure out what he did wrong. A big, neon sign spelling out JERK lights up my frontal lobe.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I ran really far today. Let me start over.” I conjure a person unashamed of themselves. “Good morning, Neighbor. Thank you for the coffee, and the compliment. That was very sweet.”

He brightens. “You’re welcome, Neighbor. It’s good to see you again.” 

I’m taking a giant sip of my cinnamon latte when he asks, “How was your Friday night? Get home okay?”

My eyes bug out and my throat closes up. The fluid stuck in my mouth starts to peel my lips apart. To avoid spraying Ryan with the coffee he just bought me, I tilt my chin back and force myself to swallow. Then, pretending as if I didn’t just look like a snake guzzling its breakfast, I hold up my cup as if I’m making a toast.

“Yepperino!”

What the hell did I just say?

He belly laughs and his eyes do that glittery thing that makes me all gooey inside. “Okay, good. I wasn’t sure because your shades have been down.” 

He actually sounds worried. I frown and wonder if he’s been worried about me, or worried I saw him with his fashion runway visitor. Probably the latter. Why would he care about a nerdy neighbor he’s known all of two days?

“You headed up, Flanders?” he asks.

I shrug. I guess so.

“Sure.”

I try to smile but my lips twist awkwardly. I take a step forward and almost trip on my own feet. Ryan catches me and I thank him as I turn into a giant beet. I think of Lion Woman’s confident swagger as she strolled out of his apartment Friday night, clasping her purse like the coolest gal in San Francisco. My uncontrollable need to blurt takes over again.

“Listen, I’m really sorry I’m such a dork around you. I didn’t mean to leave the bar the other night. I just got … overwhelmed. I have trouble … being normal sometimes. A doctor once told me I was on the spectrum, but I probably have some permanent defect when it comes to talking to nice men.”

Something in my voice makes him wrap a warm hand around my bare shoulder. His eyes bleed pity. “Hey, no, don’t think that, Zoe. I think you’re incredible. I wouldn’t change a thing about you. Everything okay?” 

What he’s said is ridiculously sweet, but all I can think about is how fast he’ll scratch my name off his Incredible Women list if he ever finds out that I’m a pervert. My will to freak out over his compliment dies before I can say anything goofy. I don’t even bother to ask why he thinks that.

“Yeah,” I say instead, “I think I just need a nap. I spent all night coding.” And figuring out how to become invisible. “My brain is fried.”

The genuine mask of concern on his face evaporates. Behind it is a devilish grin.

“Let’s get you to bed, then.”

I feel my eyes bug out then immediately depressurize. Eh. He’s probably just flirting the way guys do when they know a nerdy girl is interested in them. For practice. I remind myself that I am a peeping monkey in a tree and he is a graceful, ferocious lion, pacing the African prairies in search of a lioness.

The urge to cry for no reason strikes so I cover it up with another ugly guffaw. “Okay,” is all I can manage.

Ryan presses his hand to my back and we move inside, heading toward the elevators. As we board, five other residents join us. I’m thankful for the cover until I notice one of them is a brunette in a low-cut dress with a rack built to break necks. I look up at Ryan, expecting him to be ogling our neighbor, but his sex-ray vision seems to be turned off. He smiles down at me and moves his soft thumb gently between my sweaty shoulder blades. It makes me want to cry again. 

My shame monster was right. I am completely incompetent. 

We reach our floor and Ryan walks me to my door.

“Thanks,” I say, glad to be standing at the precipice of what is sure to be a full breakdown once I enter my apartment. “I appreciate the kindness. One of these days, you’ll have to let me buy you a drink.”

“How about tonight? Have dinner with me.” 

He is as smooth as he is everything else. I am not.

“Wha? Oh. No, I don’t … I’m doing …” The image of the belt laying on his dining room table pops into my mind. I feel myself go up in flames. “I’m … working. Maybe … the future … I mean, another time.”

Narrowing his eyes, he sips his coffee like he plans to ask me if I want a lawyer.

“Okay, Zoe.” Leaning against the wall, he slips one hand into his pocket. His gray sweatpants are ridiculous. He grins and my knees wobble as they turn to jelly. “But, one of these days, I’m going to come for you … to collect.”

A tidal wave of heat washes over my whole body. I press my thumb to the pad awaiting my fingerprint and fumble with the handle as the deadbolt slides open. This man is a freight train and I need to jump off his tracks before he demolishes me. Even though part of me really, really, really wants him to.

Will would not be proud.

Whatever look I have on my face prompts one of Ryan’s chuckles. 

“At least tell me if you know of a good Thai place nearby,” he says.

Stepping inside my apartment, I hide behind the door, peering out at him as if he’s a religious solicitor I’m planning on shooing away.

“Oh, um, Osha Thai. Best in the city in my opinion.”

Like a good proselyte, he barely lets me finish. “Favorite dish?”

“Huh? Oh. The beef salad. I live for it.”

I realize how true this is and decide, on the spot, to create a dating profile. I hate dating apps but living for a beef salad is even more pathetic than watching my neighbor have sex.

He nods his thanks then crosses his chiseled arms over his chest. They promise to brace me up against a wall for hours. “I’m serious about what I said, Zoe.”

I can tell.

“Oh, totally,” I agree. “Yes. I know I owe you. Thanks again for the coffee. And the company.”

Walking away, he nods then looks back over his shoulder. I hear myself let out a little schoolgirl sigh. He really needs to be in magazines.

“It was my pleasure. Neighbor.”

I close the door, lean back against it, then slide all the way down. I do not cry as expected. Instead, I’m going to come for you echoes through my brain until I need to press my cheek to the cool tile to keep from overheating. It’s too late. With a few magic words, Ryan Alexander has turned a sneaky tree monkey into a puddle of melted ice cream. 

I spread out and wonder what it might feel like to have his thick, sandpaper tongue lick me up off the floor.

. . . . . . . .

Will: Have you lost your fucking mind?

My replay of this morning’s events have conjured Will’s inner sailor. Swearing is his third favorite thing to do besides watching cheesy romance movies and tracking redheads.

Me: Probably.

Will: Let me repeat this for the gazillionth time because I’m still in denial about it.

Me: Okay.

Will: You connected with him at the bar. You Zoed out and ditched him when it was TOTALLY clear he wanted to go home with you. Then he picked up some random because you ditched him and you had a three-way with both of them.

Zoe-ing out is what Will uses to describe my lack of social skills. 

Me: Um … No. Technically, I Zoed out, then I spied on him and his possible girlfriend.

Will: Whatever. He could have lowered his shades. He either wanted you to watch him, or he was too thirsty to care.

He and my seedy strip club owner must be friends.

Will: And she’s not his girlfriend. No one fucks a girlfriend on a table and then walks her ass to the door. And – trust me on this – in a three-way, someone is usually watching most of the time. Now, stop interrupting.

Me: *eye roll*

Will: So you connected with him at the bar. You Zoed Out. You had a three-way. Then, this morning, he buys you coffee, flirts with you and basically promises to tear your shit up. THEN, you shut the door IN. HIS. FACE. Did I get all of that right?

He’s worse than the naggy demon in my head.

Me: Technically, he was walking away. Anyway, it would never work. He’s a lion, and I’m a monkey.

Will: Uh, what the fuck does that mean? TECHNICALLY, you’re the fucking Queen of the Jungle in this stupid ass scenario. And we’re not fucking marrying him, are we?? What happened to the whole hot mover guy fling thing?

I love it when Will gets like this. It’s the only time anyone would suspect he’s gay. I can see him now – face on fire, hands flailing and head rolling as if someone called his perfect, Betty White mother a street walker.

Me: I got lonely between Friday and today. I don’t want a hot mover guy fling thing. I want a Someday in real life thing.

Will: *rage face* I hate that pillow! It sets an unrealistic standard. No guy wants to cuddle all night. Our arms go numb. I’m going to burn that fucking thing the next time I sleep over.

Me: Please don’t. And you’re not ALL guys. My Someday in real life would definitely want to cuddle all night.

I can almost hear Will taking ten breaths and pounding his fist on some hard surface nearby. I wait.

Will: *heart emoji* Zeebee, I love you. If you need a cuddle from something with a heartbeat, I am happy to come over and snuggle you in place of that *rage emoji* pillow. Ryan obviously thinks you’re incredible (duh). He even said it, right? Please stop thinking you aren’t just because you haven’t found your Someday IRL yet. 

I sink down onto my couch. Zeebee is what Will would call me in front of his family when we used to pretend to be an adoring, “sure to be engaged any day now” straight couple. It usually followed a loving kiss on the back of my neck. Those pretend kisses were the best.

I sigh and change topics.

Me: I love you, too. What’s up with Gingerman?

Will: Uh, his name is Peter, not Gingerman thank you very much. And Peter is delicious.

We chat for a few more minutes about how amazing Peter is, then I immerse myself in lines of binary bliss for too many hours. After I’m good and cross-eyed, I take the bath I was supposed to take on Friday night, promptly falling asleep and waking up with mild hypothermia. I warm myself up in the shower for thirty minutes then dress in my self-care uniform. 

Nina Simone tank top, pink flannel pajama pants, Muppet slippers, freshly blow-dried hair. Perfection.

Just as I’m snuggling into Someday with my laptop to research the latest in vibrator technology, my doorbell rings. I fumble for my phone, sending Someday to the floor by accident. By the time I find my mobile and launch the security app, my doorbell camera tells me no one is there. The last recording shows a food delivery guy smiling and holding up a paper bag. I sigh and immediately regret voting Yea on a building initiative to grant gig workers access to all floors.

Muppet heads fly as I stomp through the living room. I pull open my door and read the receipt from my favorite Thai restaurant.

Ryan Alexander

80 Bay Street, Apt. 44W as in Wrong Apartment Number

Ugh. Why?

I give serious thought to calling the lobby receptionist and tipping her $100 to come and take this wonderfully smelling Thai food next door. Then guilt hammers at my gut, telling me what a total ass I’d be if I spied on my neighbor and let his dinner get cold. As I prepare to cross the hallway, I remember what I’m wearing. I shrug and get moving anyway. I’ve certainly seen more of him than I should have, and the guy has already seen every other version of me. What’s one more?

Besides, I’ve already established that I’m a monkey and this outfit seems perfectly suited for monkey attire.

As I walk the food down the hall, my stomach throws a fit and claims I’ve only ingested coffee, a protein shake, and tortilla chips today. I promise it, for the fifth time, that I will make pancakes and bacon when I get back to the apartment. I knock on Ryan’s door. Hearing a familiar pair of heavy footsteps approach, part of me wishes this were our first meeting instead. Regardless of my monkey ensemble, at least I could start over.

He pulls the door open and my heart sinks a little. He’s dressed for a date.

Gray slacks, green button down, black leather belt, perfectly tousled hair. Sublime.

He looks me up and down, his eyebrows forming a concerned little tent.

“Hey, Neighbor. Great outfit.”

The overwhelming need to run home to the snuggles of my Someday vanquishes my inner dweeb. “You, too,” I say. “The Thai place had the wrong apartment number.”

I hand over the bag and he scans my face as if he’s trying to read my mind. 

“Hey,” he says, the notes in his tone suggesting an unusual lack of confidence, “can you come in for a moment? I wanted to ask your opinion about something.”

So far, my cabin pressure is holding steady. “Aren’t you expecting company?” I ask, noting the smooth tones of slow R&B float down his hallway. “Or … are they already here?”

He see-saws his head side to side the way someone does when they’re weighing two options. “I am, yes. And, they are, yes. But, I really need your opinion.” He flips the bossman switch. “Remember, you owe me.”

I wince and wrinkle my nose. If Ryan Alexander wasn’t Ryan Alexander and he hadn’t made me magically climax while I spied on him having sex, I would have walked in already. We might live in a building with 350 other neighbors, but it’s only the two of us up here at the top. When Sergi was next door, I helped him with whatever he needed, even setting up his annoying disco lighting. 

Still, wandering the scene of my crime seems mortifying. And, to be dressed in my monkey garments in front of Lion Woman, panic-inducing. And …

WAIT.

And, both of those things together are exactly the right amount of humiliation I need to satisfy my shame demon.

“Zoe,” Ryan sings, reaching out and squeezing my shoulder. “You still with me?”

I suck in a deep breath and prepare myself for repentance. “Sure. Yes, I mean. What do you need?”

His eyes twinkle as he steps back to let me in and I move quickly past him, sliding my ridiculous Muppet slippers down his long hallway. He follows close behind. Between Ryan’s luxurious heat propelling me forward and the prospect of meeting his date pushing me back, I start to feel nauseous. I definitely should have consumed more than two liquids and a minuscule amount of junk food today.

“Go left,” he says. I obey, turn toward his kitchen and face my first obstacle. The dining room.

I freeze and Ryan maneuvers around me like a Porsche passing an old Volkswagen Bug on the Autobahn. He steps past the kitchen bar and sets his dinner on the beautiful, hand-carved table where he devoured Lion Woman’s breast.

My resolve falters, and I spin on my Muppets to leave. Shame demon sacrifice be damned.

Busy pulling cardboard boxes out of the bag, he doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he says, moving toward the living room. 

I spin back around to tell him I don’t feel well so I can scamper back to my apartment, but he’s made his request in that irresistible bossy tone I can never seem to refuse. Plus, he’s already halfway toward his bedroom hallway with his back turned. I stare at the food on the table and picture Lion Woman sprawled nude across his bed, reaching out for him with sharp and eager fingertips as he passes by to do whatever mysterious thing he’s left to do. My stomach howls and calls me dirty names. I could run for it but instead, I space out and stare at the rest of his furniture.

Leather couch, side table, coffee table, mostly empty bookcase, barstools, lamp. Sparse.

He returns, and for a moment I think we’ve fallen into a different dimension. Strolling back through his living room, he’s dressed in his gray sweatpants from earlier, a Nirvana t-shirt that’s two sizes too small for his biceps, and a pair of slippers with Darth Vader’s helmet embossed over the toes.

“Um … what’s happening?” I ask.

My brain operator has already caught up. She calls me a moron and flips through a magazine.

Ryan heads toward a tall wine cooler next to the refrigerator. He’s grinning at me like a madman who’s just revived a dead body with lightning. “Red or white?”

I scratch my head. Typical monkey behavior.

“So, wait. Did you …” He nods. “Tell them the wrong apartment … ” He nods. “To get me over here …” He grins wider. “And you dressed up … ?” He nods. “To get my opinion on … what exactly?”

“To get your opinion on red or white.”

“But …”

I’m a monkey, I want to blurt. But I don’t.

A sickening realization occurs to me. Maybe Ryan is a sex addict whose habit seeking behavior has forced him to settle for someone who dresses like a twelve year old headed to a slumberparty. Or, maybe he needs a friends-with-benefits situation when Lion Women are out hunting other lions. Or, maybe he’s just really horny. Either way, I have too many friends who used to be love interests to pretend this is the thing I want it to be.

I don’t say it, but I feel it. So does he apparently. The uber confident madman crumples around the edges.

“Listen, Zoe. I rolled the dice on whether or not this was a good idea.” He reads something in my gaze and recalculates. “It’s absolutely not a date if that makes you feel better.” It actually makes me feel a little worse. “Or, anything else it might be coming across as.” Now, I’m confused. “I just figured it would be nice to get to know my amazing neighbor. Get her to open up a bit.”

My mouth is open. I press two fingertips under my chin to close it. “Amazing?”

He recovers a bit of his glee. “Absolutely. Not to sound like a stalker, but I looked you up. I read all about you and your brilliant ideas – your success. Even watched a few of your interviews. Two software firms built and bought out in ten years? A third on the way? Donating half of your fortune to charity every year? I don’t want to freak you out, but you might be my dream girl.”

The top pops on my overpressurized can of bewildered semi-tranquility.

“Are you high or something?”

It sounds as rude as it sounded in my head. As usual, he’s unfazed.

“No,” he answers. “Red or white?”

I hear myself mumble white. The box containing my beef salad sends up steam signals forming the letters of my name. My stomach screams that it’s now calling the shots, and it props me up onto a stool at the kitchen bar.

Ryan unhinges two crystal glasses from a rack and uncorks a bottle with a very expensive label. He watches me carefully from under his brow.

“We actually have a lot in common. I’m on the board for two of the charities you donated to last year. And I also love horror movies.”

I glance over at the dining room table. The ghost of Lion Woman is blown away by my starvation. 

“Really?” I ask, my stomach’s protests beginning to reach an embarrassing decibel level. “Which ones?”

He hands me a glass of condensed sunlight. “The charities? Girl Coders and Fur Friends Hospice House. As for the horror movies, the Halloween franchise is my favorite.” We clink glasses and he switches topics. “Tell me about your name.”

As I sip my wine as slowly as possible, my brain operator catches me up on all the things I’ve been missing while I’ve been processing my predicament. Apparently, I’ve been tricked onto a date with a very nice, very successful, very hot guy who has the same interests I do, including wearing pajamas way before bedtime. I reach down and pinch my thigh to make sure I’m not asleep.

“Zoe,” he says, smiling with a look that says I’m Zoe-ing out again, “is the wine okay?”

“Huh? Oh. Yes, it’s wonderful. And my name. Zohreh. Right. Sorry.” I try to pull it together like I said I’d do back when I was crying into my ice cream. “It sort of means star, but it literally translates to Venus.”

“It’s Persian, right?” He turns a little pink. “I’m not a stalker, I swear. I was … intrigued after you delivered my boss’s mail.”

I laugh like a normal person then feel myself turn a little pink, too. I’ve never had a man – especially a man I have a massive crush on – seem so interested in me.

“Are your parents from Iran,” he asks, “or are they wild, culture appropriating hippies?”

His joke makes me giggle again. Feeling begins to return to the rest of my body. Forgetting that Ryan might be a crazed sex addict and that I’m a Peeping Patty, I allow myself to appreciate the sweet surprise party he’s put together for the two of us.

“I’m actually adopted. My mother traveled from Iran with a forged visa when she was already pregnant with me. She died shortly after childbirth so we don’t know much about her or how or why she came here. I only know I have her eyes.”

My heart melts when he frowns like I’ve just told one of the saddest stories he’s ever heard. “She sounds like a courageous woman.”

“Yeah, I’ve always thought the same thing,” I say, adding more points to his Potentially Perfect column. “Anyway, my parents, Bobby and Vanessa Shaw took me home.” I smile thinking of my crazy family. Ryan smiles with me. “They kept the name my mother gave me because they wanted to honor her, and they wanted to be sure I knew where I came from. They are exceptional people.”

He nods. “I’m sure they are.”

Wow. This is going so well. I’m feeling better every second, and I’m proud that I’m somehow communicating without sounding like 1990s dial-up. I resist the urge to pat myself on the back.

My date pours more wine into our glasses. “At least now I know where you got those incredible eyes. Bright aquamarine blue with gold flecks. In the right light, they look like two alien planets. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”

Oh my. 

I resist the urge to fan myself. For a half second, I wonder if this is how he lures the lionesses, then I tell myself to shut up and accept the extraordinary flattery. My neck disappears as my head retreats. Take that, Creepy AF guy.

“Thanks, Ryan. It’s … actually a rare form of inherited heterochromia.” 

God. I am such a nerd.

He makes a sound between a groan and a growl. It reverberates below my belly button.

“And this guy-shy thing you do is so … fucking … charming!”

Goddammit. I really wish Will was here.

I crinkle my nose. “Guy-shy?”

He laughs. “I made it up after watching your interviews. You go toe to toe with the biggest tech brains on the planet and come out a champion every time. But when we talk, you get so flustered and overwhelmed. I suspect you do it with every … hot mover you think, you know, if he were single, and straight, that you would ask for his number.”

I realize he’s mimicking me again by repeating, almost word-for-word, our conversation at the jazz club. I make a little box with my arms on his kitchen bar, then bury my face in it. We laugh together and it feels amazing. I don’t care if he is a psycho-stalker sex-addict.

“Come on, Zohreh. Let’s sit at the table.”

I bounce back up like a diving board after obliging a heavy load. “Actually, can we sit here? You know … the whole … let’s be casual and wear our funny slippers thing … here is better.” I punch the marble countertop with my fingertip as if it’s overdue on a gambling loan.

Ryan glances at the table then cocks his head. I hold my breath. This man has already proven to be some kind of mega genius with a photographic memory and maybe night vision, and by overreacting as usual, I’ve just exposed my dirty little secret.

My seedy strip club owner smokes her cigar and asks me why I’m so boring. Will’s echo slips into my ear.

He either wanted you to watch him, or he was too thirsty to care.

I remind myself to breathe, then I bite my lip and stare at Ryan’s microwave. Meanwhile, his superpowered eyes move over me, one excruciating inch at a time. I want to climb back into my tree and hide behind its biggest branch.

Ryan locks onto the dining room table then side-eyes me with a devious smirk. The man is clearly immune to embarrassment. Confidence with the opposite sex must be better than double chocolate fudge ice cream.

He clears his throat.

“Anything you need to share, Zohreh?”