Anna Geary-Meyer lives in Berlin. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Litro UK, the Olentangy Review, CHEAP POP Lit, The Pinch, and Virga Magazine. She was a finalist in the 2017 Bath Flash Fiction Award and in The Reader Berlin's Short Fiction Competition. She organizes and hosts the monthly event series Queer Stories at Another Country Bookshop.
I move to LA mostly on the basis of tarot cards: a westward pointing Wheel of Fortune, a woman sitting amongst golden coins on a distinctly Californian looking vineyard, children playing happily under an arched rainbow. I find a room in Van Nuys from a cousin’s friend-of-friend and whisper Craigslist three times into my bathroom mirror and thus appears my first job.
For a Midwesterner, working in a sleek phase one startup is as exciting as a self-milking cow. The office isn’t sleek per se, as Adaro and I still work out of his living room to maximize profits and “ferment team culture,” but sleek is the homepage, blue and gray like a shark in water, sleek is the silver bullet coffee machine, Adaro’s suits, his eight-pack abs tucked in sweetly by his white, ironed button-downs, and sleek is how I feel when I call my mother and tell her don’t cancel the family plan yet, but I’m employed.
Sleek is not, though, an apt description for how I feel most days. It’s four thirty on a Monday, hot, I have a rash between my thighs and the vague feeling that I’m suffering from sub-optimal health from all the cold-pressed juice I can’t afford. Adaro is out for a meeting, so I’m watching TV while I wait for emails. I’ve already fed a handful of brine shrimp to the the betta fish, Sushi and Nori, who are the two best things to look at in the room. I am the office manager, the junior and senior intern, the executive assistant to the executive, and I belong somewhere.
I stand up, close my tabs, bookmarking the Medium article Adaro sent me this morning on “Why influencers can forget the big picture when re-seeding talent farms and cold response streams.” From the open window I can hear the trumpet vines rustling, the summer buzzing. Kayla, my roommate, will hopefully drink a beer from a can with me on our front lawn. I slide my phone out of my pocket to text her.
Behind me, a door opens, and Adaro greets me with unexpected volume. I whip my head around, trip, and knock over the fish bowl where Sushi and Nori have, until now, lived out their dumb, sedate lives in utter equanimity. The bowl is plastic, doesn’t break, but water, plant, and fish now cohabit the wooden floorboards. I freeze, am hot and dumb, then I move.
“Whoops!” I say, scrambling to the wet floor, unusually eloquent in times of stress.
I am on my knees, trying to cup my hands around Nori, who is flopping like popcorn on a hot stove. Adaro, somehow, gets there quicker than I do. I ferry Nori back into her still half-full bowl (she swims, dumb as ever) while I watch Adaro pick Sushi off the floor in an easy swoop. I shuffle to him like a basketball player with the fishbowl, but instead of putting Sushi in the bowl he brings his hand to his mouth, pops her in, and swallows her whole.
It is the first time I truly question my visual perception of the world.
“Did you just eat the fish?” I ask, thinking maybe it’s kind of intimidation stunt he learned at his leadership summit in Hawaii.
Adaro looks at me and smiles, a baby burp floating to the front of his mouth. I turn my head to avoid the stench and see Nori swimming in her tank, her little fins like feathers or curtains or little helicopter propellers. I feel dizzy and heady and back my way slowly to the IKEA sectional, face in hands.
I feel the fabric buckle underneath Adaro as he sits and puts a hand on my shoulder. It is the most affection I’ve experienced since hugging my parents at the airport, and suddenly I am crying.
“You… You ate her,” I say, in between deep, ineffective breaths. Adaro rubs my back.
“There, there, my sea cow.”
He has taken to calling me his sea cow lately, telling me once that he was so taken by my “fat, trustworthy, Midwestern eyes” that he cancelled the remaining interviews and hired me on the spot.
“My sweet, friendly, sea cow,” he says. “Is there anything I can do to improve your emotional performance?”
I sniff and shake my head.
“I guess I just need some time to adjust to all this,” I say, but mid-sentence Adaro checks his oversized watch and stands.
“Mean windswell out there,” he says, grabbing a pre-packed canvas bag. “Oh, and can you refill the fishbowl? Half purified, half tap.”
He leaves for his weekly surf. Adaro is the most exercised person I know. He swims one and a half ocean miles every morning and drinks a smoothie at his desk for breakfast by seven thirty, no coffee. Sometimes in the middle of the day a timer goes off and he does star jumps and burpees, ten and ten for two minutes straight. Last time, he made me join him. “There’s a muscle in there after all, sea cow,” he said, slapping my back. The next day I took the stairs one at a time, walking up them sideways like an old crab on a hot day.
Our first networking trip is to San Francisco. Adaro is meeting the head of business development at a data science company, because he thinks our product could be useful to her. I’m still not one hundred percent sure what our product is, but I am along for the ride to field calls, keep the schedule up-to-date, and maybe learn a thing or two. I have filed away the fish incident to the place reserved for things I don’t understand. On the West Coast, Adaro is the only future I know.
After the meeting, we eat dinner on a wooden pier restaurant. I sip my lemon water and use a tiny fork to rake the bones from my sole while Adaro checks his email. When the waiter comes to check on us, I order a beer. Adaro laughs to himself.
“What?” I ask. The waiter hovers with his pen in hand.
“Carboloading?” he asks. My stomach sinks, face burns. I order a lemon water instead.
The waiter’s eyes meet mine. Bad person, they tell me. I play with my fork.
“Did you know cows eat dehydrated lemon peels?” I ask Adaro later.
“Fascinating,” he says, without looking up. I suggested an Italian restaurant, earlier, but Adaro wanted fish.
We can only afford one hotel room with two twin beds. From the moment we hold up our key card and the black box flashes a green light and unlocks our door, I practice the art of having eyes only in an ornamental sense. I do not see, for example, when Adaro unbuttons his shirt and pulls a wifebeater top over his head. I don’t see his toothbrush resting wet by the sink. I don’t see him sitting on the edge of his bed, facing mine. I lay down with my fists clenched, building a metal shield out of the words don’t touch me don’t touch me don’t touch me, though part of me thinks it would be easier if he did.
We go to sleep at quarter past nine, accommodating Adaro’s pre-dawn workout plan. I stare at the ceiling for a unit of indeterminable time and surprise myself by eventually drifting off to images of dead betta fish, floating face-up in their tank.
In the middle of the night I find myself unable to open my eyes, unable to move a muscle, a cold terror pinning me to the mattress. I try wiggling my toes, can’t, and am one hundred percent sure this is death. After many eternities I wake up again, sticky with sweat and sheets tangled around me like a fishnet, Adaro snoring the barely perceptible snore of a chronically healthy person.
I reach for the glass of water on my night table and hold the cool liquid in my mouth until the dry sponge in my mouth is once again my tongue. The clock says not midnight yet. I tiptoe into the bathroom, turn on the lights, and lock the door behind me. I slide the deck of tarot cards out from their mangy cardboard box. My hands shake. I am 2,100 miles from Wisconsin and I feel every one of them.
I shuffle the cards and think of aunt Dot, teaching me to read them when I was sixteen. “We all need a little help sometimes,” she said. “Except your father. He needs a lot of help.”
I lay my cards: swords, Death himself, once again the rainbow children. I pack my things and leave.
I enter a deep, one hour long depression. It is the most melodramatic I have ever felt. I’m walking and crying, crying and walking, taking rights and lefts as I see fit, turning to follow a row of Chinese lamps down a back alley because they are pretty and leave wet streaks of light across my retina. I was someone’s sea cow, warm and safe in bed but from my own dreams. Now I’m cold in my thin sweater, genuinely expecting all of California to be palm trees, even in the middle of the night.
Up ahead, I see two women laughing, leaning up against a wall with bottles in their hands and cigarettes dangling from their mouths, twirls of blue smoke unwrapping around them like octopus hands. It’s so beautiful I want to eat it.
The women notice me, their conversation slowing and eyes flicking in my direction once, twice, three times. I’m stopped in front of them, young, crying, cowish. They are beautiful, with short hair, dangling earrings, and fabric like candy wrappers. I sport wet khaki.
“Are you alright, honey?” the one with the shorter, buzzed hair asks.
The other stubs her cigarette on the concrete windowsill, and years of lung cancer scare videos go out the window, that is how cool she looks to me. She tells me to come with them. I am, if nothing else, a cow seeking her shepherd, and so I do.
It’s dark inside. There’s a bar, a stage, a few rows of chairs and enough candles lit that I find myself automatically scanning the room for the emergency exit. The one with the buzzy hair leads me to the bar and asks me if I want something to drink. I nod, say yes, a beer please.
“What is this?” I ask.
“It’s an open mic,” she answers.
We sit and wait. Buzz’s friend is gone now, and the beer has gone straight to my head. Her body is warm and breathing next to mine. A man with a guitar finds the stage and sings to us about love. I can feel Buzz looking at me, waiting for a response.
“He was good,” I say, after the audience claps. Buzz laughs.
“No he wasn’t,” she says.
Buzz puts a hand on the inside of my knee and squeezes gently. It feels good, I think, or not bad. Somehow I’m surprised when she brings her thumb to my chin and her lips to my face.
“Do you want to get out of here?” she asks.
I try to calculate our age difference but keep losing track of the numbers. “Okay,” I say.
She pays for a taxi ten minutes to her apartment, a fourth-floor walkup.It’s late, says the never ending flight of stairs.
Buzz jingles her keys and the door is open.We are standing in the middle of the living room. Somewhere, Adaro is still sleeping. Buzz holds me by the hips and kisses me again. I kiss back. She brings a hand to my crotch and squeezes. The gesture feels blunt, like something a baseball team might do to each other before games. When Buzz pulls my shirt over my head I am cold and overexposed.
“Stop,” I tell her.
She looks at me with weasel eyes, her pupils huge in the dark.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I just really want to go to sleep.”
She smiles. “Let’s just cuddle,” she says. “We can just cuddle.”
I shake my head. “No,” I say. “There.”
I am pointing to the sofa, a worn leather thing of miracles. There’s even a baby pink crocheted blanket folded across the arm.
“Whatever you want,” she says. Her eyes roll.
“Will you hate me?” I ask. I’m still naked from the waist up, my breasts asleep on my chest like two soft pets.
“Hate you? I don’t even know you.”
In the morning, Buzz offers me not even a little bit of coffee and drives me to the bus station. “You have enough money, right?” she asks, once I’m standing outside her car with my backpack over my shoulder. I nod. She leaves. I call my aunt Dot from a payphone. Her number is one of the few I still know by heart. I shiver and smell salt ocean as the phone rings.
“Aunt Dot? It’s me.”
“I mean, nothing big happened. I was in San Francisco for work but then I quit my job and I’m here at the bus station and the tickets to get back to LA are like, forty bucks, and maybe I should just live here instead? Maybe it’s a sign?”
Aunt Dot sighs.
“Sweetie, do you know how much rent you’d pay there? I’d say the bus ticket is the lesser of two evils.”
My Greyhound emerges from the fog like a steed home from war, and I get on.
Back home, my head is thick with embarrassment and California busses. Buzz had big, sunny windows, and I liked the way she touched my chin. When I plug my phone in on the kitchen counter, it springs to life with five messages from Adaro.
“Where are you?”
“Meet you back at the hotel at 11?”
“Walking away isn’t part of our team culture, you know.”
I splash cold water on my face and on my pulse points, anointing the insides of my wrists in the bathroom sink, letting the water mix with the baby hairs on the back of my neck and leave a chill like a footprint on my skin. I have no job, am needed nowhere.
“I’m sorry about the fish incident. Our culture may be lacking sensitivity and I am willing to foster that with you. Let’s meet tomorrow for coffee.”
“Aren’t you thinking about your future?”
I traipse barefoot into the backyard and find our lemon tree. It is Mediterranean and ineffective, nothing like the sturdy oaks of my parents’ backyard. My throat is tight, face is swollen. The only future I can imagine is as someone’s pet. I think of my mother, bringing home wind chimes from the discount store, and I cry the pathetic cry of someone who knows no one is watching, but wishes someone were. I don’t know how to make a home, only how to live in someone else’s. I bury my face in leaves and inhale the smell of unripe lemon. I want to be the gentle manatee living in a wealthy woman’s swimming pool. I want never to know why influencers can forget the big picture when re-seeding talent farms and cold response streams. The only future I can imagine is as someone’s pet, but some people eat their pets.
I have hot, obscene sex dreams about Adaro every night for a week. In the mornings I wake up, make coffee, cast my resume into the depths of the internet, and check my bank account balance.
After a babysitting gig I take a bus to Runyon Canyon Park and hike blindly with one water bottle and raw blisters opening like sinkholes on both heels. I pass Mark Ruffalo, hobbling downhill in a gray t-shirt, and I don’t even say hi or tell him I’m from Wisconsin, too. When I get to the top I wipe my eyes, stinging, and look down. Los Angeles is an oozing blister and a pretty sunset. I throw my arms out straight, close my eyes, and twirl until I can’t tell motion from standing still, until I am a dervish in ecstasy, until I am not a pet but something rabid and feral. I wait for my internal compass to pull me one way or the other, and when it doesn’t, I stop spinning and hike back down a random path. I end up in a neighborhood I don’t know, buy a green juice, and call Kayla for a ride home. In our kitchen, I rub a mixture of olive oil and yogurt on my sunburn, and then I fall asleep to the sound of the fan.
The next morning I am incurably lonely, so I buy a guitar at a yard sale. It turns out to be a bass, but I practice anyways, cradling its long neck like a tropical bird, plucking its strings with my chipped purple fingernails. After a week I’m writing my very own songs.
“Who is Mark Ruffalo?
Is he a buffalo?
I peed in the backyard
And tripped on a log”
I download Tinder then delete it again. I walk three miles to PetCo and browse aisles of guppies, goldfish, neons, and cherry shrimp. I drink beer from a can with Kayla and listen about her job and her boyfriend. I send out my resume, again and again and again.
“Movie star story time
Please meet a friend of mine
Mark enjoys grazing
And sitting on grass”
These things I know: The future is a wild animal. Year-round sun makes people weird. Juice is just vegetables under pressure, and cows know how to trust. I once knew a fish eater. I’m still looking for something to rhyme with that. I’m also, dear reader, still looking for a job.