Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Editors’ Note: Recommended Reading is moving to Mondays! Long-form fiction with personalized introductions will now arrive on the first day of the workweek. The Commuter is moving to Wednesdays; other than that, everything else will remain the same.
There is no better way to set up “Live Today Always” by Jade Jones than the story’s first line: “The wellness influencer has said the n-word again, but this time there’s evidence.”
There’s so much contained in that sentence, the way it breezily sets up the cultural and political zeitgeist of the story and teases what we’re dealing with: a repeat offender, a person who’s entitled and slippery, the need for “proof.”
The story’s narrator, Lee, is a copywriter for the PR firm that represents the influencer. Lee has been working from home during the pandemic, the only Black person in the grid of faces on her laptop screen. Tianah, Lee’s girlfriend, wants Lee to quit. She believes Lee’s workplace is toxic and exploitative—and she’s right. Lee has been compromising herself to succeed at her job, a trade-off that can no longer be ignored when she’s tasked with writing the influencer’s apology.
A hyper-contemporary style as fluent and natural as Jones’s is rare. So many opt to write about the future or the past—which allows them to lean on history and speculation—rather than the present, which is harder to capture. Life online is at once ephemeral and permanent: there’s a record of what you said, but it can also be deleted. You can know the daily domestic details of a friend you haven’t seen in years, but you can also unfollow them and it’s like they never existed.
More than its subject, social media is the story’s vibrant setting. As the title suggests, “Live Today Always” is about the present moment, and what it takes to live in it. Really live in it. Not in an Instagram influencer way, but in a real way. A way that involves waking up with the same person every day, and trying to be a person you can both be proud of—which is much harder.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
Please Accept This Ghost-Written Apology From My Influencer Client
Live Today Always by Jade Jones
The wellness influencer has said the n-word again, but this time there’s evidence. She was singing in a crowded East Hollywood bar, a disco ball twirling above her head, turning her bleached hair metallic. Her pale skin dotted with splotches of pink and green. She’s not so much dancing as sexy writhing. The camera is trained on her, and at that exact moment in the song when she could’ve so easily stopped, hummed, or done a bird call or whatever, she says it. Laughs and puts her hand to her mouth in an “uh oh” gesture, like a toddler. Then, she keeps dancing.
By the time I wake up at seven, I’m already behind. The video is everywhere. The liberal sites have deemed her “problematic,” which is a single wispy, blonde hair away from being canceled. The East Coast team had a three-hour head start on panicking and slogging through the hate comments. I squint into the light of my phone. The red Slack notification reads 11, but in my blurred vision, they look like tiny exclamation points.
“Go back to sleep.” Tianah flips on her stomach. Slings her arm across my chest so it lands with a hefty thump.
“I gotta get up,” I say as I stare at my phone and scroll through all the messages I’m tagged in. Several of them end with the word “urgent.” Worse, they’re emoji-free.
Tianah sucks her teeth so hard I can hear the spit. When she turns her head to face me, her puff is smashed flat against the side of her skull. All I wanna do is fluff it out a little, make it more planet than pancake. But I know she wouldn’t want that. That her whole body would tense up.
“Okay I really gotta get up now.”
“Do you, though?”
I lift off her arm and slide on a pair of pants decorated with dog hair. Otto is snoring loudly from the mat in the bathroom. When we first adopted him, I said that he liked to sleep in our tiny-ass bathroom because he had a view of our bed. He could watch us through the night and maybe, as a senior dog, that helped him rest easy. Tianah laughed at that, said I was making Otto sound creepy and pathetic. “But in a cute way,” she added. That was back when we cared about sparing each other’s feelings.
“Lee.” Her voice is muffled by a pillow, but she’s speaking twice as loud to make up for it. “Those white folks will still be crazy in an hour. Come back.”
I dig through the clothes basket that I’ve been meaning to put away for a week now. Everything is crumbled and smells a bit musty-sweet because I didn’t have the patience to run the communal basement dryer twice. I pull out Tianah’s Howard sweatshirt, and even though I didn’t go there, it always makes me feel like I’ve leveled up when I wear it. Random black folks on the street give me a double nod. One for being black and another for black black.
“Quit,” she mumbles. When I don’t respond, she says it louder. “Just fucking quit this job already.”
I pat Otto’s head, which makes him groan sleepily. He doesn’t bother following, but his eyes track me as I stumble toward the door.
“I lowkey miss you,” Tianah says. She’s so quiet that she might have whispered something else into the bed. “You could be working with me at the storehouse. Helping folks like us.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say. “Maybe if I really wanna lose my shit.” The sentence plows out of my mouth before I can stop it. “I mean—” My words cut the room in half, make everything feel tight. But I try to push by them, edge my body past like black Indiana Jones squeezing through a narrow cleft in a rock. “We already see each other a lot,” I add and hope it sounds warm enough. I’ve lost the ability to read my own tone at some point in the last year.
“Yeah,” she says. I know better than to look at her right now. “Sure.”
Tianah props herself up on her elbows and glances at my chest. She stares long at Howard like she’s translating a full paragraph in another language.
“Alright,” I say again. I’m fidgeting under her gaze. “I gotta handle this for them and then I’ll come back to bed. Promise.”
“Yessa, massa. I’ll fix ya problems, massa.” She juts her chin out, bobs her head with every word. Her lips and eyes are overly animated. Then, a sharp look of disdain takes over her face. We stare at each other. Let the room plunge into silence.
“Cool,” I say and leave our room.
Our kitchen doubles as my office, my nap space, and on particularly bad days, my scream cave. I sit down, crack my neck so hard that it sounds like I’ve just stepped on a plastic water bottle. By the time I open my laptop, the messages have doubled.
“All hands needed on deck!! Call asap!” That is my manager’s manager. The word ‘boss’ has been retired for something less unseemly. Under her message, Pembroke (my manager) has put a gif of the black guy from Scrubs screaming. No one has liked it because laughing isn’t conducive to capitalism. I only like her gifs when they don’t contain black people. She hasn’t gotten the message, and to be fair, I’m not really sure what lesson I’m trying to teach her.
The Zoom link in the thread says seven people are already on a video call. When I open it, the preview of my face is ghastly. My hair is in braids, but they’re bunched behind me in a matted tail. I look like I haven’t brushed my teeth. Each call, I look more haggard and dry, like someone has been hiding the lotion in my house for months. My lips have a dusting of ash and are red from gnawing. Bright mouth, large roaming eyes — I’m nearly a minstrelized version of my former self.
“Hi everyone!” I say with a cheerfulness I can’t trace. My smile flicks up like a switch and my teeth are megawatts. It shouldn’t be this easy to pretend.
I mute myself, let my goofy lips slowly droop. Let my mind go on a hiatus for the remainder of the call. Yes, I could always have a running commentary every time someone says something too Woke or incredibly Un-Woke. But, I’ve found that self-inflicted numbness takes less spirit, soul, energy—whatever you want to call the intangible part of me that’s shrinking by the minute.
We wait for my grand-manager to stumble through her daily preamble. Usually it’s weakly feigned interest in the team’s lives or a shockingly unrelatable (to me) story about a boat on the coast of a country that is possibly made up. But because today is “critical” (her words), our introduction is mostly a generous retelling of the influencer’s mistake.
“For now, let’s forget about the rumors swirling everywhere. The story today is: she was singing and she got carried away,” Grand-Manager explains. Her tone is a one-shoulder shrug with a sprinkle of empathy. An adult, white woman version of “boys will be boys.” I expand the grid of faces to see who nods and whose eyes seem to be looking at me with fear or apology. Everyone only looks exhausted.
“We want to make it clear we don’t condone such language.” Grand-Manager sits up straight. She’s wearing a green turtleneck that fades into the ivy plant behind her. She doesn’t usually wear lipstick, but I see she’s got a reddish gloss on. She’s power posing in a way she learned from an overpriced seminar, but if I mute her, she just looks like Piranha Plant interviewing for her next gig. Which, yeah I don’t know. It’s kind of working for her, I guess.
“The issue is,” Grand-Manager begins, and people nod preemptively, “all of the ads she’s featured in. The growth we’ve seen. And I don’t need to remind you of the entire campaign on forgiveness she just did for us.”
“The growth,” someone unmutes themselves to echo, but it’s so fast it’s not clear who.
The forgiveness campaign Grand-Manager mentioned was just unattributed Gandhi quotes and the Wellness Influencer in an assortment of white outfits. I know because I’m the one who Googled ‘inspirational quotes + forgiveness + smart.’
“Team,” Grand-Manager says, “the question is, how do we make it clear that we don’t accept this language, but we also don’t believe people have to be perfect?”
“People can come back from mistakes,” another person types in the chat. It’s Kyle. We don’t fuck with or talk about Kyle.
The meeting lasts another twenty minutes. I pull at my toenails under the table, tell myself I will get around to that pedicure. I haven’t been anywhere besides the grocery store Tianah works at since things shut down, but nail salons look almost intergalactically clean, so that must count for something? And with more people getting vaccinated, maybe that’s somewhere Tianah and I can go that’s not our living room. The call ends with the West Coast team agreeing to meet the wellness influencer in our office this morning. Our task is to come up with strategies for “moving forward.”
“Her team has already debriefed her,” Grand-Manager says. “So whoever is there first, feel free to jump in. I’ll probably be running a few minutes behind. Okay?”
I haven’t spoken. I’ve taken a pen and written down a line on my dusty palm every time I catch myself reflexively nodding. Three.
“The biggest question is,” Grand-Manager ends the call saying, “how do we make all parties feel heard?”
Everyone else nods, some people unmute and say, “Yes, feel heard.”
I will my neck to stay stiff. To be stone.
I’m the first one at the office. I take a chair near the back of the conference room and wait. My phone buzzes, but it’s just Travelocity telling me that maybe I don’t have to be trapped in the dregs of the apocalypse. That glamping vacations are pandemic-friendly and cheaper than I think. I mark it unread even though I’ll never see it again. A part of me was hoping it was Tianah. “I’m sorry for the Kizzy voice,” or, “You aren’t the sellout you think you are.” More realistically, she’s sprawled out in the bed, enjoying this freedom. Her hours at the storehouse have been cut back to limit the number of people. Mostly just her boss works there now, but Tianah’s got a good amount saved from her days as a nanny. I rarely go into the actual physical office because no one really does anymore. Instead, for the last year, I’ve crouched at my laptop and listened to Tianah moan that she “can’t keep living like this.”
I haven’t asked any follow up questions, such as, “What the hell else can we do?” or “Who ever called this living?” Certain things, I’ve come to learn, aren’t worth saying aloud. I like to think we’re both trying our best, whatever that’s supposed to mean in a time like this.
I’d nearly forgotten how the office takes you in like a tunnel. Flat concrete that, at least today, feels like a kind of release compared to the tight hell of my kitchen. It’s all gray—the couches, the chairs, the carpet—a uniformity that hasn’t changed in my years working here. A fresh slate everywhere that says, at the end of the day, you too can be wiped clean. Maybe it’s a little threatening if you’re delusional and think you’re an individual or whatever. An unwelcoming palette that says people, much like a stain on this gray velvet, are temporary. I can admit that when I was first starting and a couple years younger, it bothered me. But now, I don’t know what feels good anymore.
“Darrrr-k. That is dark,” I sing to myself in the conference room. I’m alone still, so I take out my laptop, message the rest of the team.
“Here!” I say.
Slack is quiet.
The front door squeaks open and through the glass wall, I watch her approach. Wellness Influencer herself. She’s got a denim baseball cap pulled down low over her eyes. A light blue medical mask twirls around her index finger as she walks. She’s in all black, but her wedge sneakers are a blaring red. She’s nailing the possibly famous, possibly hungover sorority girl look. She pushes into the conference room door with a groan.
“Why the fuck is this so heavy? Is this like bulletproof or something?”
“Hi. Do you want to—” I point at my mask on the table. It’s black with white thread sewn in clumps to look like stars. Tianah’s mom was making them. She opened an Etsy store and sent out a mass email to everyone she’s ever encountered. I bought several (shipping not included). Her mom still calls Tianah and I “friends,” so Tianah refuses to wear the masks until her mother gets that shit together.
“Nah, I’m vax-ed, so we’re all good.”
I close my laptop for some reason. It seems rude to speak to someone for the first time with a screen ajar, a distraction right there in your face, even though she is the reason I am working in the first place.
“No one’s here?”
“Seriously? They made me get up early A-F and they aren’t even here?”
“Yeah, I think they’re running late.”
“Actually they can take their time. I’ve got a whole line of people waiting to see my head roll.”
She plops down in a chair that rolls back a little. But she uses her heels to pull herself forward like a kid in scooter derby. She’s pretty and as apathetic looking as all her videos. I’ve never seen someone sell something so flatly, but her “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Live Today Always” posts are our most liked in years.
“They should be here soon.” I push open my screen. Still no messages. When I glance up, she’s watching me like she’s somehow just discovered I’m here.
“Who are you?” Her voice, despite her twisted lip, is still monotone.
“I’m Lee, the copywriter.”
“For a couple years now. I work with Pembroke.” Technically for Pembroke, but I make a split-second decision that could either demote me to being “the help” or raise me to being nearly an equal.
“Pemmie? She’s great, isn’t she?”
I can see the moment her mistrust settles a bit. She realizes I’m just another one of the nerds cc’ed on all her emails. “So you’re the one putting all these words in my mouth, huh?”
I smile, squeeze out a sound that no one normal or stable would call a laugh. She frowns and folds her arms across her chest. If this is about to be an argument, I’m too tired. Whatever is the human equivalent of a dog rolling over with her stomach up, that is what I want to signal. I want to look as helpless as Otto when I found the trash rifled through and strewn around my office-kitchen. I surrender.
“I guess that’s me—the one putting words in your mouth.”
We sit in silence for over three minutes. If most of my day is my thoughts quietly eating at me, I’ll consider myself blessed. The only interruptions are when she sighs or laughs (some genuine, some not) at her phone. I’m sending direct messages to everyone on the team to figure out what’s going on. Only the East Coast teams reply saying they have no idea. They’ve been in meetings all morning with counsel and concerned corporate partners and maybe, for once, the West Coast team could handle their own shit, lasso and reign in this bucking nightmare of a Zillenial instead of waiting for East to handle it. Is that okay? Is that manageable?
They don’t say that explicitly. They all individually say versions of, “I’m currently in meetings and don’t fully have the bandwidth right now but if I can track someone down, I’ll let you know.” Which you know, all shakes out to be the same corporate speak for “lose my number.”
Wellness Influencer smacks her phone against the table and it snaps my brain awake. I’m sitting up straight for the first time this morning. She smiles. I wish people would stop doing that to me. Smiling now has more range than I’d like. It’s no longer exclusively happiness. It can be deceit, cruelty, anger, joy, confusion, suppression—
“It’s me and you,” she says.
“We gotta handle this.”
“Who told you that?”
“So . . . ” She continues speaking like I’m a ghost unsuccessfully trying to connect with the living.
I open my laptop and there’s a direct message from Grand-Manager. It says, “I’m so sorry I can’t make it. You got this!”
Because of course she can’t make it. What else would it say? Who else would they toss to the digital wolves than me? I fight the knee jerk reaction to feel ridiculous because things are only as significant as you let them be. After all, getting words right and correcting the wrong ones is my job.
Wellness Influencer has been talking this entire time. She hasn’t been dissuaded by my lack of eye contact or dull expression. “We need to come up with a strategy. Which is like perfect because that’s what I do. Since you know words, it shouldn’t be an issue. Let’s do a working breakfast? There’s a cafe across the street. It looks like shit, but maybe it’ll win us over.”
I’m stuck thirty seconds in the past at the part where I’m supposed to work alone with her. But when she starts to leave, I move behind her like I’m her anxious chihuahua on a pink, bedazzled leash. It would be easy to hate myself in this moment, to dwell on Tianah’s massa voice this morning as I nearly trip on a white girl’s heels. But instead I try to focus on this therapist I had once who told me, “It’s so much easier to hate than to love. Love takes courage.” At the time, in my head, I had mimicked vomiting. I dumped her for a mean, British therapist who I ultimately dumped, too. But as I trail Wellness Influencer in her bright sneakers across the street, I’d do anything for this magical therapy courage. Or at least, to be a person who knows how to treat herself with nauseating kindness. A blend of Tianah’s “fuck this” attitude, Wellness Influncer’s confidence, and a therapist’s optimism. Someone who wouldn’t find any blame in turning around, going back to sleep, and letting this problem and this world fester. But I don’t. I am overly obedient.
The cafe doesn’t win us over, even though the waiter is attentive and somehow expressive despite his mask. I pull out my laptop and I still have a weak signal from the office across the street.
“Should we start?” I say. I’ve only ordered coffee, which made Wellness scoff. She ordered a proper meal, side salad and everything.
“I don’t know why I’m here.”
I’m able to catch my words before they bust through my teeth this time. I type, “Dear fans, I am selfish” in a clean doc. We’re facing each other and she can’t see my screen.
“Okay,” I say, trying a new direction. “What are the formulas you’ve used for other apologies?”
She grimaces and shakes her head, confused.
“I’m sure you’ve worked with a firm before. For . . . other . . . scandals?”
“Christ. Are you serious? Who do you think I am?”
I don’t know how to respond. There are several possible answers to her question:
A) An opportunist with above average branding skills and little regard for anyone else
B) An apparition sent by my ancestors to haunt me for that time I clicked “no” to donating 10% of my Walgreens purchase to the United Negro College Fund
C) Every white girl who escaped from her coastal suburb and never quite got the concept of accountability
D) A fucking joke
I tilt my coffee straight into my mouth. The “outside seating” is a single table under a distressed awning with so many holes that the sun is starting to fry my scalp.
“I’ve never apologized for shit before,” she says. “Not publicly at least.”
I take more mouthfuls of coffee so I have an excuse not to say anything. Or mention the rumors online that she’s been caught using “politically incorrect” language before. I type something vapid but heartfelt enough in my doc, then read it aloud.
“Absolutely not,” she says when I’m finished. “It sounds like I’m saying nothing. It’s all blah blah blah blah blah.”
I want to go home for the first time in a while. To get away from this. Right now, listening to Tianah decry capitalism while sipping a Coke doesn’t sound like the worst way to spend an afternoon. Every second we fuck around at this cafe with Wellness’s non-apology is another I’m stuck here.
“Did you know it was wrong? To say that word?”
She signals to the waiter and points at her empty glass. A large SUV goes by and makes the table shake as the server struggles to keep his pour steady. There’s barely anyone else around. Wellness looks at her reflection and readjusts her cap in the restaurant window. She stares long at the couple talking loudly outside their parked car on the other side of the street. Anything instead of answering me.
Finally she says, “Does it matter if I knew?”
“You don’t want this to sound like drivel, so, yeah. It does.”
“I hate this country.”
I hum a rhythm that sounds like a hymn, trying to restrain myself. Tianah once told me I don’t have a personality around white people. And it’s true—I’m always thinking so hard about what I can and can’t say. Should or shouldn’t do. God forbid I shake my head by accident and Beth from marketing is suddenly doing a Sheneneh impression and snapping her hands in a Z formation. I’d rather be quiet. I’m trying my best to keep my mouth shut for my own sanity. I rummage through my pockets for loose cash. I’ve already drafted the message I’ll send to the team in my head. I’ll explain we have to drop Wellness, that we can easily find an over-privileged white girl to eventually offend someone else. They’re plentiful and hungry and everywhere. But really, I’ll probably say, “Let’s regroup on this in the morning,” which everyone will read as Lee’s failed.
She’s holding back a laugh, but watching me. All I want to do is push my foot onto the seat of her chair. Apply pressure and watch her slowly tip to the ground. Instead, I slam on my keyboard and all the words are a giant blob with one red, squiggly line under them.
“What’s it like to write all the time?”
“I’m almost done.”
“I’m serious.” She leans in. “I wanna know.”
I scoot my seat further back from the table. It’s dramatic to put that kind of distance between us, but people like Wellness have survived on their charm. I’m well aware that smarter folks than me have been fooled by her.
“Please. What’s it like?”
“Fine.” I take a beat, expecting her to lose focus. She doesn’t look away from me. “You know when you eat something really really fast?”
“Uh huh. I get bad gas when I do that.”
“And then someone’s like, how was it? And you realize you never actually tasted it?”
“It’s like that. I never really know what the hell I just wrote.”
“That sucks,” is all she says, and it sounds mostly sincere. She’s quiet. Thinking. She lifts her head and the sun catches her jawline like it’s been waiting for her. Pretty white girls can have whatever they want. Even if that’s not true, it feels like a given in this life, and that’s disappointing enough. Who would say no to her when she’s got so much of this world, including my job, in her hands?
“In my job, I’m always wrong and I’m always right,” she says, answering a question nobody asked. “Sometimes, I’m both. And sometimes it’s hard to know which. It can be tiring.”
I feel my phone buzz in my pocket, but I ignore it.
“Pandemic bae calling?” she says. “I’ve had plenty of those, and they were all awful in the same kind of way.”
“No, it’s not like that.”
“I tried to cut my hair once and my manager called me butch. He made me sign a contract that I wouldn’t get a haircut for a year.”
I pretend to type as she talks, but the words are fuzzy in front of me. It’s not that I want to be here with her, but I suddenly remember what surprise feels like. How much I used to like sitting across from someone I didn’t know. Someone who, even problematic, can be learned and puzzled out. I didn’t realize I lowkey missed the company of total strangers.
She keeps going.
“I’m not from Texas. I’m from Cave, Arkansas.
“I used to watch Legally Blonde a thousand times to learn how to laugh like Elle Woods.
“I’m in love with my roommate who doesn’t see me, like ever, and I’m in a situationship with Bon Jovi’s godson’s best friend.
“I sell skinny pills so I don’t have to fuck my landlord for rent anymore.”
The confessions are matter-of-fact. They trickle out robotically like she’s trying to recall her grocery list. Everything is a performance, but maybe that’s what makes her entertaining for certain people. She is the epitome of unbothered, and as much as I want to hate her for it, even I can recognize an ounce of jealousy when I feel it. She barely bats her eyes with the world raging around her. She speaks at a normal volume. I’m almost certain the waiter is hovering inside at the door, eavesdropping.
“I’m uncreative and lazy. I know how many likes I get because it can mean the difference between new hair or washing my nasty extensions again. Oh—this is good. You wanna know what my mom called me to say the moment that video came out?”
“What?” I say.
“She called me ‘a dumb bitch.’ And that’s so basic, isn’t it? It’s what some girls called me in middle school, but for some reason, coming from your mom, it’s way harsher.”
“It sounds harsh coming from anybody, I think.”
“And it’s not like she cares about black people. Where’d you think I first heard it? I know it’s fucked up. I do—I’m not an idiot. And she just kept saying, ‘This can end your career, this could end your career.’ And know what I’m thinking that whole time? And this is how I know I’m going to hell.”
She doesn’t sound particularly penitent.
“All I’m thinking, after saying this fucked up word on camera when I’m not even drunk is, ‘Maybe I can finally go to cosmetology school now. Maybe I’m the hick Mom never wanted me to be and I can go and do hair like I’ve always wanted.’ How fucked up is that?”
“I won’t lie,” I say. My pocket is vibrating again. It feels like it won’t stop. “That’s brutal.”
“I know. So.” She collapses into her chair, like this whole time she’s wanted to slouch but was trying to stay strong. “That’s the kind of person you’re doing all this for.”
The fourth time my phone vibrates, I have to answer it. It’s Tianah and I take the call right at the table. She never really calls, either, so this was especially weird.
“I’m still working.”
“It’s Otto. He fucking ate—I don’t know, but we’re at the vet on Monroe. You got to come now.” She hasn’t had this much need in her voice in months. I picture her arms swaddled around Otto. Both of them are in a bright white room like they’ve already made the trip to the afterlife together.
“I’ll be there in ten.”
I throw dollar bills on the table, way more than the coffee probably costs but I don’t want to give myself a moment to hesitate. This momentum I’m feeling is rare for me, recently.
“It’s my dog.”
“We haven’t finished my statement.”
“I know, but I’ll be back in like under an hour.”
“I’ll come, too.”
An image flashes in my head. Tianah in this unnatural, ethereal world with Otto by her side. Tianah’s brown hands looped around Wellness’s white neck. A group of angels cheering on the fight, whooping in a circle like a rap battle.
“No.” But it’s as if she doesn’t hear me.
“I’m coming.” She throws down a twenty and gestures for me to lead.
I scramble into the vet office and a technician takes me to the exam room where Otto and Tianah are already being seen. Wellness follows me in. I knock and push inside before there’s an answer. The vet is a tall black man that Otto has never seen before. Tianah’s eyes get huge and then squint. She’s wearing a mask, but I can tell she mouths, “What the fuck?” the moment the two of us enter.
“Hello and you are . . . ?” The vet nods toward me. Otto is lying down on the shiny metal table. He doesn’t react to me at all.
“I’m his owner. Co-owner,” I correct before Tianah can.
“What’s she doing here, Lee?” Tianah’s got her hair slicked back and both hands stroking Otto’s head at the same time. She looks tender and ready to kick ass in the way that makes me love her. But also, kinda fear her, too. Wellness waves lightly and I try to pretend my heart isn’t crashing into my bones—with Tianah looking at me and Otto not looking at me, it’s all off-balanced. And why the fuck did I bring the white girl who sung the n-word to a black vet with my black girlfriend and my culturally (I have to assume) black dog?
I hold my open palm to Otto’s nose like I see detectives do on television to people, but only they use a mirror. He’s breathing.
“We gave him something to help him vomit. It should happen soon,” the vet says. He sounds like a newscaster, familiar and self-serious. An assurance that makes me trust everything he says.
“He got in the trash again and then he started howling,” Tianah says, pushing away tears with her sleeve. She hasn’t stopped massaging his skull, but she’s still looking at me. “I want her to go.”
To my surprise, Wellness doesn’t start anything. She mumbles something about waiting outside and leaves.
When she’s gone, Tianah points at the empty space where Wellness stood next to me. “You brought that white girl and you’re wearing my mother’s mask? Are you kidding me? Are you trying to kill me?”
The vet glances at my face and my mask. I can tell he’s trying to connect those two offenses logically in his mind. He flips open a chart and scratches something on the paper. The room is so small that we’re close. His pen is barely working, but he keeps writing anyway because he’s a good person who learned to mind his business.
“Maybe not now?” I say.
Tianah kneels, brushes Otto’s nose with hers. He sighs and to me, it sounds happy. A thank you sigh.
“If something happens to him, I’ll die. You know I will,” Tianah says.
Against my better judgment, I reach out and squeeze her shoulder. I nearly melt away from my bones when Tianah leans her head against my arm. Nuzzles like a sweet cat. Grief makes people more pliant, I think. And in the anticipation of grief, we’re all so destructible. It’s how I’ve been for months, for over a year. This pandemic, this life, this job has made me frail.
“Otto’s gonna pull through,” I say. “He’s strong.”
“He was already old when we got him. Why did we think we could handle this?”
The vet has been so quiet, that I’ve almost forgotten about him pressed against the cabinets. He raises a hand like he’s waiting to get called on. When we look at him, he speaks.
“I don’t mean this as an exaggeration.” He’s cautious with his words in the way over-educated people can sometimes be. “But taking care of Otto here is probably one of the most generous things you could’ve done. I see a lot of dogs, but he’s a very, very happy one.”
And at that, Tianah is sobbing into Otto’s fur. I’m swallowing for gulps of air this room can’t provide, my fingers gripping her shoulders to keep us both upright. The vet returns to his cabinet corner, hoping this display of whatever emotion he’s seeing will pass. And Otto jolts up, stiff as wood, and heaves.
When I go outside, she’s still there, leaning against the building. Wellness doesn’t have her phone out. She’s contemplating the head of the parking meter in front of her.
“How is he?”
“Good. He ate some brownies apparently but after throwing up everywhere, he’s happy as can be.”
“Oh thank god.”
“The vet says that much chocolate would’ve killed a smaller breed.”
“Jesus Christ.” She takes out a pack of gum and pushes some into her mouth. “Gotta love dogs.”
“I’m gonna hang back with Tianah,” I say. “She’s having a hard time.”
“She hates me. She doesn’t know me, but she wants me dead.”
“Well . . . yeah. She has the Internet, too.” I almost say, And Black Twitter is gutting you like a fish right now, but it seems unnecessarily mean for the moment.
Wellness nods and gives me that same indecipherable smile she had when we first met. I don’t blame her. “You know,” she says, “you’re smarter than this job.”
“Yeah, well, the one at NASA fell through, so. Tough luck.”
She laughs. “That’s funny.”
We stand outside for a couple more minutes. She tells me about her family dog and how he looks like her dad, but has the mannerisms of her sister. How she wants to go back home and thinks she’s got a good chance of going to cosmetology school for real. For better or worse, she jokes, back home they don’t really care if you’ve let the n-word slip. It’s kind of a rite of passage, she laughs weakly, and we both know she means it.
“Whatever you write, I’ll post it,” she says. “Even if you fuck me over and call me a shithead, I’ll post it because I’ll know it’s true.”
She waves and leaves. Crosses the street where a car is waiting and I wonder if it’s been following us this whole time or if she just called it.
I go back inside and hug Tianah, Otto’s mess making us cling together and slip against each other at the same time. The vet is scrubbing Otto’s paws and hands us wet paper towels soaked with blue dish soap.
“We’ve been going through it, haven’t we?” Tianah says, dipping the paper towel between Otto’s toes. “It’s like we haven’t ever had an escape from each other. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I have no clue what I want.”
“You wanna know what’s been scaring me, Lee?”
I know I’m not ready for whatever’s on her mind, but still, I say, “Sure.”
“What scares me is how un-mad you’ve been about everything. Us. Your job. The world. You don’t fight for things anymore. You’re on this sad autopilot. You know?”
I’m cleaning the grooves of fur around Otto’s eyes. He shuts them and breathes quietly like he’s exhausted. I’d press my face into his if he didn’t reek. Tianah is watching me. Waiting for me.
“If it’s alright,” I start. Then I can’t think of what I should ask her. What I should say to make this moment okay for us. “I’m not sure what’s wrong with me.” My fingers move in circles on Otto’s head. There’s nothing else I can say that doesn’t feel empty or insufficient. I don’t know what I expect from her or what she expects from me. But then, she pulls me close.
“I get that,” she says. And the vet scoots a little toward the corner. He scribbles with his dying pen again, pretending he’s not there, that Tianah and I are truly together, alone.
I make sure Tianah gets an Uber and we pay him extra to let Otto ride, too, even though they both stink like hot garbage. I order takeout for us but it’s pick-up only, so I go back to the office to kill some time.
There’s a Slack from Grand-Manger who tells me she wants to hop on the phone.
“She called me and raved about you,” Grand-Manager says. There’s not even a greeting. As common and uninteresting as “hello” can be, I find myself missing it still.
“She said she was impressed and that she’d do anything you said. She said she wanted to make sure you got a raise and a promotion. Don’t worry, I clarified the annual review process with her and told her it didn’t work that way but—”
“Why’d you do that?”
Quiet. Then, “What do you mean?”
“Why did you leave me to handle this by myself?”
There’s such a long pause that I can hear whoever else is in the room with her yawn. She’s got a couple children, and it could be any of them. It sounds small and comfortable.
“Because I knew you could handle it. You always do.”
I don’t speak. I let my eyes rest on the concrete wall in front of me.
“There’s no one I trust more,” she says. “You know that, right?”
We hang up with her promising to debrief the whole situation tomorrow morning. She says she wants me to feel seen/heard/touched/smelled/tasted or whatever verb will get her out of having to take in another word from me.
The food is still being prepared, according to my app. I pull off my mask which I’ve had on since the vet, even during my call with Grand-Manager.
I text Tianah asking how Otto is, and she sends back a photo of him sleeping on the bathroom mat, belly up and at peace. He’s got no recollection of spewing his guts out less than an hour ago. I ask Tianah if I can send her Wellness’s apology and she says, “Okay, sure.” I don’t know how to read that, but it’s better than a crisp and clear, “Fuck off.”
“Dear fans,” I type to Tianah. I usually do my drafts in Notes like any well-respected shameful celebrity, but not this time.
I’ve lost my way. And I can’t think of anything worse to admit right now because there are trailers of dead bodies, and I wish being as empty as I am was the worst hurt in the world. But here I am, a total bum, and as badly as I don’t want to be shit for you, right now, I don’t know how else to be. I’m mean because I think about dying too much. Because I don’t apologize enough or say I’m scared enough. I don’t love with courage because I’m flawed and even nice things like ‘love with courage’ sound super stupid to me. And as much as I post it, not all of my flaws are beautiful. Some of them are more dangerous, more deep than any of us know. I know better. I keep telling myself I’ll figure it out later. That I’m a good person, just not this week. This month. This year. I am not the person I want to be, but maybe one day I’ll be her. All I know is I’m leaving this shallow shit behind—that I’ll only use my words to love. And that if I fuck up again, I’ll still want to blame someone else. I’ll still be feeling lonely and neglected and angry. Because the truth is, I have no idea what I’m doing or why. But if I fuck up again, make me work for you. Make me earn you all over again.
Because I know I don’t get you easily. That I’ve won your trust and your belief temporarily. And I can’t think of anything I’d hate to lose more while I still have the time.
Love Today Always,
I send it to Tianah. It’s a giant blue chunk. Her three dots appear and then disappear. She waits several minutes. Our food dings that it’s ready, but I don’t move. My phone rings, and I almost drop it from trying to answer too quickly.
“Okay,” Tianah says on the other end. Her voice echoes like she’s in the bathroom. It’s only a phone call, but I can see her on the linoleum next to Otto. Picture her petting his head until he snores.
“What do you think?”
“I’ve got some notes.”
I laugh before it occurs to me that she isn’t joking.
“I think you could be meaner.”
“I’ll fix it later. And also, white girls don’t say ‘bum.’”
She is light, a smile—however small—coming through the speaker.
“No, I guess they don’t.”
“This is just a start. We’ve been—I don’t know how to even describe it.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. We’re both silent. I lean my neck back onto the chair. I can hear Otto shake out his fur and then plop down again.
“I don’t know how to put it, Lee,” she says. “But god. I just want to wake up from it all. Do you know what I mean?”
I let my fingers dig into my hair. It’s thick and dry against my palms because I haven’t used any oils in days. Still, I tug with one hand. The other gripped tightly around my phone.
“I just want this to end,” she says.
I pull until I feel a raw pain in my scalp. Until I hear the crack of strands being tested to their limits. Until my eyes are blurry and almost useless to me. I can feel my scalp resisting, but it’s either this or scream or die or another option no one really knows. I’ve never wanted to be held more.
“I want you to come home,” she says.
I close my eyes to see her again. Her hair is out but the scrunchie’s made a deep bend. Otto has his chin on her lap.
“If I come home,” I say. “Will you make me tea?”
Another laugh. This one’s loud.
“Maybe we put Otto to bed early. And then, just me and you watch a movie,” she says. It’s boring, sweet, and safe in a way we haven’t been in months.
“Fuck yes.” I let my phone rest between my shoulder and my ear. Press it closer to me and we both let the quiet talk. Our gentle breath. The soft shifting of our clothes.
“What are you going to do about all this?” she says.
I don’t know how to answer. All I got is, “I’m gonna start with the tea.”
I feel her nod on the other end of the line. “Okay,” she says. And I’m grateful that she lets that sit. That there aren’t any follow-up questions. We’re both so good at analysis when the world is ending, close reading the wreckage like that can put anything back together. But for the first time, we choose to say nothing. Acknowledge that maybe all we have is what’s in front of our eyes. Her. Otto. My shaking hands. And then after us, who knows.