If Professional Rebound was a thing, I’d be Employee of the Month fifty times running.
“Don’t go.” This one gropes for me in the darkness of his mother’s basement. I can’t remember his name. I don’t remember most names. There’s not much point.
The bed is a twin. His shit is still in boxes, stacked against the cinderblock walls. These are the signs of a man fresh from a relationship. And a serious one, at that, since he was living with the girl. He didn’t seem like the clingy type last night, when I singled him out from his friends. They laughed and shot pool; he spun back and forth on his barstool and ordered another cinnamon roll shot.
“These taste like shit,” I told him, topping the glass with a quick burst of whipped cream. Then I made one for myself and toasted him. His smile didn’t look sad. When I grabbed his hand to check his watch—seven minutes left in my shift—he stared at me with his head tilted back, running his teeth over his bottom lip.
“Single?” he asked.
“Always.” I traced his knuckles with my fingertips. “You?”
So, yeah: I assumed he was on the rebound, but far enough out that he wouldn’t get attached. That nebulous zone between “stuck on Girl #1” and “looking for Girl #2.”
Guess that makes me Girl #1.5.
Now, with his fingers locked around my wrist while he tries to pull me back into bed, I shut my eyes. I was wrong about him.
“What time is it?” I jump my way into my skinny jeans, still smelling like fried food and beer from the bar, and dig through the blankets for my bra and shirt.
It works: he lets go long enough to check the clock on his nightstand, which is actually an old water cooler without the bottle. “Little after four.”
Jesus. Been a while since I woke up still drunk instead of hungover. When I hop up and grab my boots, I think my eyeballs vibrate in their sockets.
“Don’t go,” he repeats, and rises to his knees. I turn to tell him goodbye, greeted, instead, by the sight of him pumping his semi like he’s showing me the key to Atlantis. “We could have another round.”
It’s tempting. Last night, from what I can remember, was pretty damn good: this one liked spanking me, knew how to work the nipple, and actually said my name when he shot his load on my back.
But that’s the thing. They’re all pretty good.
I don’t do relationships. Relationships are where things get complicated and people get jealous and individuality dies. Don’t believe me? Just ask any of my engaged and married coworkers. Except you can’t, because you’d have to go spelunking up their significant others’ assholes to find them.
I do casual. And seeking out guys whose hearts still belong to someone else is the easiest way to get it.
Plus, there’s nothing like revenge sex. If you want to get fucked rougher and dirtier than you ever have before, pick a guy who needs to piss off his ex.
“I’ve got a wedding to go to later,” I tell him, bending over to shake out my hair. Big mistake. He cups my ass in his hands and runs his fingers between the clenched valley of my legs.
“Need a date? Because I’m free.”
Oh, sweetie. Of course you are.
I always feel bad for these ones. The ones who want to move on, but just can’t yet. Nine times out of ten, it’s because the relationship ended without closure. There’s nothing worse than not knowing.
“Just stay a little longer.” He yawns and lies back against the pillows, still stroking himself. “I want to see if I can get your legs shaking again.”
He can’t. My legs shook last night because I was starving, running through a double shift on nothing but a Mounds bar.
I look at his dick and think of the bananas I just bought. That’s what I’ll eat when I get home: the biggest banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich I’ve ever made. You know the chemistry’s bad when all you can think about is your next meal.
Still, I feel for him.
He pumps himself harder when I crawl into the bed and kiss him. Then I slip my hand under his, taking over. His whispered “Fuck, yeah” smells like shit. My breath probably does, too. I left my gum at the bar.
“Oh, shit, baby.” His hips rock up from the mattress. “Take those clothes back off, let me—”
I pump faster and kiss him again, shutting him up. It only takes another minute before I feel him twitch; the warmth of his release spills across my fingers, his abdomen.
He just lies there, panting, watching me ascend the stairs like he’s not sure I’m real. Which is probably for the best.
Because in about ten minutes, he’ll be texting whatever girl broke his heart. Whether it’ll be a nice “fuck you” message or a pathetic “miss you,” I don’t know.
It’s not my job to care.
* * *
The streets are still deserted. It’s this version of the city I know best: when the air is cold, no matter what season we’re in, and I can look up and see lights clicking on in almost every window. People waking up to start their days, when I’m usually heading back from mine.
It’s silent. As silent as the city gets, at least. Cars scuttle down the road, but none honk. It probably feels too weird, blasting your horn at strangers before the sun’s even up.
My reflection looks back at me from a toy store window. Messy hair, black jeans, black jacket. Black eyeliner, smudged on one side. I bet I left it on his pillowcase. I bet his mom won’t be happy to see it, when she does her precious boy’s laundry.
Past my reflection, I see a doll display in the empty store.
Pageant Girls. Right away, I recognize Olive, Cora, and Kiki. They’ve been the brand’s bread and butter since the nineties, their clothes and accessories the only thing to ever change. Cora now sports floral leggings, and Kiki comes with a smartphone.
The ones I owned wore Limited Edition outfits. Kiki, my favorite, had denim overalls you could draw on with marker, then wash back to a blank start. I still remember the smell of the markers, my fingertips saturated in pink and purple.
When he came home from a trip, Dad would turn my hands in his and make fun of the ink there, as though his skin didn’t look ten times worse: black and yellowed blooms down the veins, red swells like spider bites. Every single time, I wanted to mock him back. But I never did.
“Excuse me.” A guy in a suit pushes past me; the pedestrian light flashes. I look back at the dolls before I cross.
“A World for Girls,” the display reads. Pageant Girls hasn’t changed their slogan in twenty years, which says a lot to cynics like me: girls still need to pretend. We find our own worlds and burrow inside, and then we teach the next generation to do the same. God knows it’s easier to dream in a coordinated plastic world than it is out here.
Case in point: when I was little, I wanted to be an artist. I drew all over Kiki’s overalls and begged my mom for the official Pageant Girls Paint Set. Even applied to the art center in the next county, when middle school came. Even got in—until Mom confessed she couldn’t afford it. Still, I held onto that dream for a long, long time. All because of a doll.
In my loft, I fall into bed face-first and cocoon my body in the comforter. I’m still not used to the emptiness. Ever since my first roommate moved out, I’ve left the partition to her bedroom in place. Two replacement roomies have come and gone since, each staying less than six months, neither filling the silence the way I want.
I smell like that guy’s basement: dryer sheets and old, wet cinderblocks. The liquor makes my heart race. Across the hall, I can hear my neighbors arguing over which one should walk their giant dog, who has a habit of barking nonstop when he needs to go out. Like now.
But, somehow, I fall asleep.
Damn those dolls. My dreams are choppy commercials of Pageant Girls on their to-scale vintage bikes and cooking in their elaborate kitchen sets. After a while, I can’t even see the kids in the background playing with them. The dolls move on their own.
My alarm sounds at three in the afternoon. Ah. There’s the hangover.
I start my Matsui playlist and shower the basement smell out of my pores. My back stings; the guy left scratches. Not that I blame him. I did tell him to be rough.
Guess my backless black dress is out.
I choose the most conservative thing I own in its place: bright red, strapless, long slit up the side. Juliet always called it my Jessica Rabbit dress, mostly because it highlights a couple assets very well.
Evening makeup, earrings, hair in loose curls—the look’s coming together. All that’s left is some perfume.
Besides makeup and skinny jeans, I think it’s the one thing I can’t stop buying. I’ve got twenty bottles on my bureau right now, clinking every time I open a drawer or bump the thing with my hip.
I choose Prom. It sounds like it’d be too girly and sweet, something you’d find in a Claire’s store; its bright pink bottle doesn’t help. But the scent is actually pretty subtle, a classic vanilla on top of something like roses, which is perfect for a wedding with a stunning venue, brass band…and, if I’m lucky, cute groomsmen.
Before I leave, I do one last mirror check. The black clutch looks bulky, so I dump my stuff into the silver one. Smooth the cowlick in my hairline. Breathe.
Finally, I’m ready.
I make sure to lock the door. Chances are, I won’t be back tonight.
Weddings are depressing as shit when you’re divorced.
I knew today would be tough. Any wedding would be, but the fact it’s my little brother’s is a dash of salt in the wound. Happy as I am for him, being involved with the wedding instead of just attending means I’ve had at least a hundred reminders today that I’m single.
Worse than single. I remember a joke about how once you’ve been married, you’ll never really be single again: that’s why so many forms have a box for “Divorced.” Can confirm.
“You okay?” Cohen asks, when we’re gathered in front of the Acre for photos. “You look...I don’t know. Distracted.”
I fix his tie when he does it wrong. “Just exhausted. I didn’t sleep much last night.” Or the night before that, or any night since I moved back into my house and Lindsay moved out. My “Roommates Wanted” ad hasn’t gotten any serious bites yet, and I’m not sure what makes me more nervous: running out of money for the mortgage, or enduring another month in that giant place, all by myself.
“Same.” Cohen wilts dramatically as he looks to Juliet’s sisters, co-matrons of honor who, I’m pretty sure, orchestrated about ninety-eight percent of this wedding. “Are we done yet?”
“We haven’t gotten any photos in the courtyard,” Viola protests, but Juliet gathers her dress and starts for the doors.
“The entire ceremony was in the courtyard, Vi. I think we’ve gotten plenty of photos.” She and Cohen grab their daughter’s hands and swing her between them as they head inside. Since Viola also coordinated some big, showy entrance for them, she has no choice but to follow.
Abigail, the middle sister, elbows me on our way inside. “What’s up with you, today? You’ve been staring off into space ever since the vows.”
Yeah, I’m fine. Just wallowing in self-pity because my own vows didn’t even outlast our dishwasher warranty.
“I’m not drunk yet,” I tell her. “That’s what’s up.”
Her laugh echoes through the lobby, alerting her husband and kids to her return. “Couldn’t agree more,” she tells me, before her family swarms her.
The bar in the ballroom is packed, so I sneak over to Maison and get a free whiskey from Seth. It’s a huge perk of being a Fairfield: roaming this hotel like I own the place.
I drink it fast, then order a double to carry back to the ballroom. When I slip into the crowd, Juliet and Cohen are finishing their first dance. As hard as this day has been at times, I can’t be even a little bitter, seeing the way they look at each other.
The song changes; Juliet dances with her father, and Cohen dances with our mom. You’d never know she drove straight through the night and two states to be here, she looks so happy.
For once, my brother’s party-it-up attitude pays off: he and Juliet scheduled the reception so that all the big stuff happens early in the night, with the rest devoted solely to dancing. As soon as the parent dances end, I’m called up to give my best man speech. Good thing I go first: Juliet’s sisters’ speeches would be tough to follow. Viola’s makes everyone cry, and Abigail’s makes everyone laugh. Mine gets sniffles and polite laughter through a few noses. Not great, but adequate. I’ll take it.
I sneak out right after the cake cutting. Cohen swipes frosting on Juliet’s nose. She shoves a piece across his face, both of them doubling over with laughter.
The elevator dings. I hide the rocks glass behind my back as I step inside past a fawning couple stepping out.
When I was a kid running around this place with Cohen, it felt like we’d never find every hiding spot. Each visit, we’d stumble onto something new: free food in unattended event rooms, supply closets with boxes of pillow mints—once we even ran into a bunch of girls having a bachelorette on the fourth floor. They cooed over us like we were babies, which I hated, but sent us off with pizza.
It took us years to figure out how to access the roof.
The stairwell’s tucked into its own hallway. I’m not sure having it so hidden adheres to the state’s current fire code, but at least I know no one will find me up here.
Twenty stories in the air feels so much better than the ground. Everyone’s down there dancing, most of them the same people who danced at my reception, and I’m up here overlooking the entire city with nothing but a glass of whiskey. Who needs weddings.
Scratch that: I’m now officially out of whiskey.
In my younger, dumber days, I spent a lot of time on rooftops, and even more sneaking into buildings. Empty offices in parks, the old auxiliary gym of the middle school, the duplex where my first girlfriend lived: anywhere without security alarms was fair game.
I never took anything. No graffiti, no busted glass—just in and out, to see if I could. But it was this feeling, towering over the rest of the world, that I liked best.
The wind picks up. I sit against a vent bin and shut my eyes. The city lights suddenly sting, they’re so bright.
Cigarettes would be heaven right now. Lindsay convinced me to quit, back when we were dating. I was twenty-one. Since the age of fourteen, I hadn’t gone a day without smoking. Threats from my mom didn’t work. The rotting smell of my own fingers didn’t work. But one word from her....
“Got a light?”
My gasp can’t be healthy at this altitude. The girl appears out of nowhere, suddenly beside me from the shadowed half of the roof. When I look up, splayed back from the vent like she shoved me over, she laughs.
“Scared you good.”
“Uh...yeah,” I pant, fighting the heart attack as she sits beside me and digs through her purse. “You did.”
“Light?” she asks again. Her hand comes up with a bowl. I watch in silence while she packs it. “Everyone at work steals my Bics.”
“Can’t help you. But it’s funny, I was just thinking about how I used to smoke cigarettes, and....” I let my thought trail. Why would she care what I was just thinking about, or that I used to have more lighters in my pocket than coins?
“Cigarettes!” She pulls a pack from her purse and crosses her fingers before opening it. “Thank God,” she sighs, and taps a lighter out of it. “I forgot I put this in here. Nice thinking.”
“Oh.” I feel weirdly proud of her compliment, even though I didn’t do anything. “Good.”
She takes a hit and looks around, soaking in the view, before speaking through her exhale: “Levi, right?”
It’s hard to see her face. She’s still sitting in the shadow of the vent, while I’m staring down the glint of the buildings around us, twice as tall as the Acre. Something about her feels familiar, though. Not so much her voice as just...her. This weird tightness in my limbs and a tongue-tied feeling, just being near her.
“Have we met?”
She tilts her head into the light. “Mara Fulbright,” she prompts. “Juliet’s old roommate. We met when she was having the baby.”
The memory rushes back to me all at once, like the next hit she takes and blows straight into my face. “Right, right. How, uh...how are you?”
“Can’t complain.” She scoots closer. The shadows slink back like yanking a cloth off a table. It’s been well over a year since we met, but I’m not sure I’d recognize her anyway, the way she’s dressed now. First: the fact she’s wearing any color but black. Second: the distraction of her breasts when she crosses her arm over her ribs, shivering and offering me the bowl.
“I haven’t....” I’m about to tell her I haven’t gotten high in years. When my business started to gain traction, I curated my life to nothing but essential habits: showering, eating, and sleeping. Everything else felt like a waste of time. I gave up weed, rarely drank after work, and almost never took a real day off in four years.
I became a robot. My sole directive: work. Forget everything else. And everyone.
It’s almost a wonder Lindsay didn’t cheat on me sooner.
“Thanks,” I say instead. The motions come back easily. Like riding a bike—then promptly falling right off. She laughs when my first attempt comes sputtering out in a cough.
“No,” I wheeze, “just been a while.” I try again. My lungs adjust faster this time. Her eyes trail the smoke I let out, snatched up by the wind as soon as it rises high enough.
“You can stop sneaking glances.” She raises her eyebrows. “If you want to stare at my tits, just do it.”
My neck gets hot. I pass the bowl back to her. “I wasn’t staring.”
“Don’t lie. That’s why I picked this dress—it shows them off.” Her wink knots my stomach. “They look good, right?”
“Wow.” I cough again and force a laugh. “This feels like a trick question.”
“No tricks.” Her eyes look a little heavier now. I wonder if mine do, too.
“They, uh.... Yeah. They look really good. I mean, you do.” I shrug off my jacket and hand it to her when she shivers. “You should cover up, though. It’s cold out here.”
Mara looks impressed. “Chivalrous of you. Thanks.” I’m suddenly aware of her legs getting closer to mine, and the scent of her perfume on the wind. My jacket will smell like her all night.
“Got the details on you from Juliet’s sisters,” she adds, suddenly. This is what I found familiar: the way I can’t tell if she’s teasing because she likes me, or because she’s judging me. The night my niece was born, I spent at least an hour of our fragmented conversation in the waiting room trying to figure it out.
“They said you got back together with your ex. Maybe I’m imagining it, but you’ve had that ‘fuck weddings’ look on your face ever since the ceremony, so I’m guessing it didn’t work out.”
“Oh. Yeah, that’s been over for a while.” I look out at the lights again. “You, uh...you were right about her.”
Mara smiles, but it’s wrought with pity. “Wish I hadn’t been.”