After finishing picking up all the shit and dropping it in the bedroom, Calisto had vacuumed the rugs and swept the pieces of linoleum that stuck out from under them. They had a keyboard duster, one of those little aerosol cans with a nozzle thinner than a coffee straw, and she had taken this to every surface that had visible edges or corners. They didn't have a mop, and she had to content herself with wetting paper towels and wiping the floors on her hands and knees, along with wiping down the fridge, the doors, even parts of the wall that had been pre-stained prior to their move in.
By the time she gave up and decided it wasn't going to get any cleaner, it was 8:00 and she was still alone. Naomi had texted back that she might need to work late tonight, depending on how long the traffic jam caused by this freeway accident lasted, but congratulations, darling! Monte said he had his kids that night, and needed to get them to bed at his mom's before doing anything else. Eric would arrive when Naomi did. Monte's programmer was going to by communicating with them on Skype when things really got underway. Those were all the participants of their launch party, and she briefly considered rescheduling. She had felt a temptation to invite Dominic, but that would have complicated things, somehow. Anyway, she knew that Monte wouldn't have appreciated it.
She talked about him to Monte sparingly, always in hushed tones, never referring to him as Weird Sexual Chemistry Boy out loud, but letting on enough about the incredibly strained awkwardness of their every interaction that the effect came across.
One time they had seen him walking by. "Shit," said Calisto, and made to hide herself behind a bush.
"What?" Monte said.
"Nothing," she said, still crouching.
"Who do you see? Who is it?" Monte whispered. "Why are you hiding?"
"Just shut up!" she hissed back at him. "Act normal. I'll tell you later." The bush was a foot-and-a-half shorter than her and providing inadequate cover, so she scrambled behind Monte instead. He was wearing a long white lab coat over his scrubs and she was able to thin herself into invisibility behind his girth. Dominic passed by, wearing headphones and not looking in their direction, and as he made his way past them she rotated around Monte's white lab coat. She hadn't been paying attention, but the cigarette still burning in her fingers had been forgotten in her rush to conceal herself, and it had been burning a hole in the back of her coat, where it hung just below the waist.
Dominic was gone and she exhaled, taking a drag and suddenly noticing that she had burned monte's coat. "Oh god, sorry," she said.
"I burned your coat." She pointed to the hem on his left side.
"You burned it? Oh Christ, do you realize this isn't mine? I have to put this back at the end of the day!"
"Now you have to tell me what the hell was that. Were you hiding from those cops over there?"
"No, it was just some guy I work with. I don't want him to know I smoke."
"Because I told him I didn't!" This was true, when they had once gotten into a conversation where Dominic was telling her how he hated smokers, and then stopped himself and added "You don't smoke, do you?" and the question had made her lose her mind or forget who she was or something and she'd answered "Nope."
Monte was never one to let anything go and pressed the issue. "That's it? What's it to him if you want to smoke?" Then he paused for a moment as if giving the matter further consideration and said "Fuck him. He owes me a new lab coat."
"Look, I just didn't feel like explaining it to him later," she said. "I wasn't expecting to see him this time of the day."
"What is he your boss or something? Or your office crush? Does he have a thing for you?"
"Just drop it," she said. "I don't have to go into it, so I won't."
"Which guy was he?" Monte was the kind of person, who, when faced with an impasse, tried to go an alternate but related route. "At least tell me that, so I can look out for him for you."
"It doesn't matter. Just please forget it."
"If it matters enough for you to almost set me on fire, I want to know."
"Fine. He was wearing the purple jacket."
"That fucker with the fake blond hair? Shit, I see that guy around here all the time. That's your big secret crush? I honestly think you can do better."
Calisto had, strangely, agreed with him even at the time. The reason she knew Monte was right is because she already had done better, at least in her mind. James was unquestionably a bigger catch than this guy, and anybody else she dated after that would amount to a lowering of her standard. The trouble was, it wasn't a matter of doing better or not doing better. Something in her wanted this boy in a way that defied notions of goodness or badness. It just simply was. Actually, the very irrationality of this wanton desire was what made her resistant to the idea of ever pursuing it. She had learned not to trust what she thought she wanted. Mentally she added this to her catalogue of reasons not to get with the boy, which ran like this:
1) They worked together. Fucking your co-workers was a bad idea for any number of reasons.
2) He was out of her league (which may seemed to contradict her belief that she could do "better" but really, anybody who caused the kinds of stirrings he did within her was ipso facto "out of her league")
3) It would go against her devotion to be Not Looking For Anything Right Now, to Learn How To Be Happy Alone, etc.
4) Maybe he has a girlfriend/will laugh in my face/thinks I'm gross, etc.
Calisto reviewed all of this information in much less time than it takes to actually explain it and revisited her anxiety about the party they were supposed to be having that night. With the place fixed up, she decided to actually spend some time on her appearance. She didn't know whether there was any direct relationship between looking decent and feeling decent, but decided not to take a chance. After a quick, lukewarm shower she sat around in a bathrobe trying to figure out what to wear that would match the sense of occasion she was still feeling.
Anything she wore to work was immediately out of the question. It had been a casual Friday, so she wanted to put on something a bit nicer than her standard issue skinny jeans and cartoon character t-shirt. Unfortunately, her wardrobe seemed to divide neatly into just that sort of dichotomy. Her two costumes consisted of Severe Professional Lady on one hand and Teenage Wallflower on the other, with very little in between. She eyed a green sundress which was intended to be worn to the beach (which she hadn't done since she bought it), and a glittery pair of dark stretch pants meant to be worn when she went clubbing (ditto). Her scan of her side of the closet lingered on a bright white maiden-style dress which she had worn exactly once, months ago, when she had refused to wear black for an occasion where that color choice was generally expected. Even as a tribute, that was also out of the question.
With a sigh, she gave up and decided it was another night for raiding Naomi's wardrobe. Naomi was much taller and noticeably slimmer than Calisto, but her side of the closet had the advantage of being stuffed to the gills. Because she wore a lot of pantsuits and skirt suits for her job, Naomi had all kinds of things she never wore, and Calisto laid out a pile of possibilities on the foot of her bed.
She felt jumpy all at once, and the apartment seemed silent, at least compared to the world outside. So she walked over to their clock radio and flipped it on, scanning for a song she could abide. She recalled a music video from her youth by some forgotten young pop starlet, where the singer's head stood still as an endless array of different fashions and styles superimposed and rearranged themselves on her body. The song was crap and she thought so even then, but the idea of reinventing oneself at the rate of 24 frames per second had stayed with her, and she looked for something to suit the mood, finally settling on the classic rock station, playing an 80s ballad she always recognized but didn't know who made it.
She cranked it up and sang along as she held things up on her in front of the mirror. "Forever young, I want to be forever young. Do you really want to live forever..."
She ultimately settled on a long floral print skirt and a navy blue camisole that fit her like a dream and had been an old standby going back to their college days. Something was missing, still. She rummaged among the pile of things she had created in their bedroom while cleaning up, and put on the scawlf. It added a sense of something offbeat, an ineffable quality, not-quite-hidden but not on full display either. Then she pulled her damp hair back in front of the mirror, and kept it that way, examining the reflection.
Something about what she saw there was weird. Then she had a heart-freezing moment, and ran to go looking for Naomi's glasses. Black horn rims, where the hell did she keep them? And why did Naomi bother keeping glasses around when she wore contacts 364 days of the year? They finally turned up on the bathroom sink. She put them on and stared at the mirror. Maybe it was the slight out-of-focus effect the prescription lenses had on her vision or just the unconventional (for her) fashion choices, but the thought landed on her as if from out of the sky and stuck in an uncomfortably close part of her mind:
Jesus. I look just like Her.
Marisa used to always call her a "dead ringer" for Maile, but Calisto had never seen it or considered it a flattering comparison. Her mother's looks were unbearably arch, to put it kindly, befitting a woman who would name her clothing line "Haughty", but not representative of the type of personality Calisto felt she exuded. She went looking for a photo of her mother to prove she was not going crazy but while going through her bedside drawer she stopped at a picture of James instead, the only one of him she had in her possession.
She was still staring at it when the sound of her phone ringing, plugged into the charger on the kitchen counter, broke her out of this reverie. She flicked off the clock radio and walked into the other room to answer it, an action that felt decidedly retro.
It was Eric's number, but in keeping with the throwback vibe that was suddenly pervading, she answered the phone as if she hadn't seen. "Hello?"
"Hey, so I came up with the dirtiest word ever. Wanna hear it?" His phone calls, or his interactions in general, often started with this kind of in media res non sequitur, if indeed a conversation can begin with one. Calisto didn't happen to be in the mood to play along, so she continued pretending to be old-fashioned instead.
"Hello, who is this?" she asked.
"So the way I see it, short "u" is the dirtiest vowel sound, so we start with that. All the best curse words have it. Then along the same lines there's the hard "c" sound. Put those two together and you're already halfway there. Are you following?"
"I think so?" Calisto said. "Who are you again?"
"It's cute that you keep doing that," he said. "So to balance out the other sounds, we put in the letter n and a "sh", which is an underused phoneme, especially in profanity, so it might still have some power to shock. Put them together and what have you got?"
"I don't know," Calisto said. "Cushion?"
"You've got... shunck. Sounds dirty, right? Now it just needs a definition."
Calisto gave up on her resistance to playing along. "Hmmm, I don't think it sounds dirty enough. Shunck just sounds like a bow-and-arrow sound effect, like in a cartoon. You know, shunck."
"Whatever," Eric said, not swayed. "Just expect to hear it come up in conversation from now on, while I try to wrangle some meaning out of it. Anyway, we're gonna be late and I'm bored, that's why this call."
"That's okay," Calisto said. "We never set a strict time, so really you can't be late."
There was a pause, the kind that either preceded closing things out and hanging up, or an oncoming topic which one party was hesitant to bring up. It turned out to be the latter. "So, have you seen Monte lately?" Eric asked finally.
"He's doing something with his kids tonight. No idea when he'll be here."
"Well, I gotta tell you, he's been acting weird at work lately. Like he's got something he needs to get off his chest, all the time. Have you noticed this? Is he being smug or weirdly cruel around everybody or just us?"
"What, you mean more than his usual smugness?"
"That's what I mean. You know what he said to me the other day? He saw that I shaved my head, and he came right up to me and said, 'Nice haircut, I'm glad to see you gave in. It's gonna happen anyway, so why wait for Father Time to finish the job? Nip that thing in the bud.'"
"Ouch," Calisto said, suppressing laughter, not least of all because Eric could hit the pitch and cadences of Monte's oddball voice dead on. Not that Eric was ever insecure about his receding hairline, but this did sound like an exaggerated version of Monte.
"Yeah, he was all snotty about it, though. Like he was only halfway kidding. You haven't noticed anything like this?"
"No, he's always been a perfect gentleman around me," Calisto said.
"Well, that's probably because he's always had the major-league hots for you."
"Why do you guys keep saying that?" She meant him and Naomi, who seemed to attribute everything the guy did for her to some imaginary schoolboy crush she swore he had.
"But anyway, it's not just me either. I took a walk to the break room once and there was a receptionist in there on the fucking verge of tears, being consoled by a friend. I overheard her saying that Monte had called her kid ugly."
"Her kid was there. She'd had to bring her to work that day, and your boy had walked right up to her and said 'Eww, you're ugly.' In front of her mother. Then he laughed and walked away!'"
"Okay," Calisto said, "I get it, he's a dick. But what is your point, telling me all this?"
"Callus, this is a guy who had said maybe 8 words total since the time he started working there, four months ago, and now he can't shut up or let someone say anything ever, without retorting with his own little brand of wit, which comes off more like bile. That tells me he either thinks he's got nothing to lose or he's just stopped caring what anybody thinks."
She hated when he called her that. "Didn't you used to hang out when he first started there?"
"We went to Squarehead's once, and I never repeated that mistake with him. But at least back then he acted like he had some consideration for others. My point is, and I'm sorry to do this on the night that you launch, but this business of yours? I think he might be pinning a little too much hope on it, and I think you should tell him that just because he has a side thing now doesn't give him license to shit on everybody else."
A knock rang out on the door. Calisto had listened to all she was going to anyway. "I have to go," she said. "I think he's here."
"Tell him," Eric told her. "Tell him that giving your money to other people doesn't make him Zuckerberg!"
"Okay, good-bye," she said, annoyingly, and put the phone down. She drew a deep breath, banished the sound of Eric's voice from her mind, wished she had done her makeup, and opened the door.