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Waves and Particles
Twenty-four hours earlier
All throughout middle school, my Halloween costume was the duality of light.
I made it with a marker, drawing a bunch of circles and zigzag lines all over one of Dad's white undershirts I'd rescued from the trash can. In hindsight, the production value was so low, not even the physics teacher managed to guess what it was. I never minded, though. I'd walk around the hallways hearing Bill Nye's voice in my head, his beautiful explanation of the ways light could be two different things at once, depending on what others wanted to see: a particle and a wave.
It seemed like a winning idea. And had me wondering if I, too, could contain two-no, a whole multitude of Elsies. Each one would be crafted, custom tailored, carefully curated with a different person in mind. I'd give everyone the me they wanted, needed, craved, and in exchange they'd care about me.
Easy peasy, photons squeezy.
Funny how my physics career and my people-pleasing career started around the same time. How I can draw a straight line from baby's first quantum mechanics concept to my current job. Actually, to both my current jobs. The day one, in which I earn next to nothing by hatching physical theories that explain why small molecules cluster together like cliques of mean girls during lunch hour. And the other one, in which . . .
Well. The other one, in which I pretend to be someone else, at least pays well.
"Uncle Paul will try to rope us into a threesome, again," Greg tells me, soulful brown eyes full of apologies, and I don't hesitate. I don't act annoyed. I don't shudder in revulsion thinking about Uncle Paul's sewage breath or his oily comb-over, which reminds me of pubic hair.
Okay, maybe I do shudder a little bit. But I cover it up with a smile and a professional "Got it."
"Also," he continues, running a hand through his messy curls, "Dad recently developed severe lactose intolerance but refuses to ease up on the dairy. There might be . . ."
"Gastrointestinal events." Understandable. I'd resist giving up cheese, too.
"And my cousin Izzy-she's known to become physically aggressive when people disagree with her over the literary value of the Twilight Saga."
I perk up. "Is she pro or against?"
"Against," Greg says darkly.
I love Twilight even more than cheese, but I can withhold my TED Talk on why Alice and Bella should have left all those idiots behind and ridden off into the sunset.
Team Bellice 4evah.
"Elsie, I'm sorry. It's Grandma's ninetieth. The whole family will be here." He sighs, breath smoky white in the night air of this icy Boston January. "Mom's going to be at her worst."
"Don't worry." I ring the doorbell of Greg's grandmother's town house and offer my most encouraging smile. He hired me to be his fake girlfriend, and he'll get the Elsie he wants me to be: reassuring, yes, but also gently bossy. A dominatrix who doesn't like to wield a whip-but could if necessary. "Remember our exit strategy?"
"Pinch your elbow twice."
"I'll say I'm feeling poorly, and we'll duck out. And when the threesome offer comes, heavily imply that I have gonorrhea."
"That wouldn't deter Uncle Paul."
"Mmm. Maybe?" He massages his temple. "The only good thing is that my brother's coming."
I tense. "Jack?"
Stupid question. Greg only has the one. "I thought you said he'd be gone?"
"His work dinner got canceled."
I groan inwardly.
Shit, I groaned outwardly. "Nothing." I grin and squeeze his arm through his coat. Greg Smith is my favorite client, and I will see him through this evening unscathed. "Let me handle your family, okay? It's what you pay me for, after all."
It really is. And I'm grateful every day that I've never had to remind him. Many of my clients wonder more or less openly what other services I might offer, even though the terms of service in the Faux app are pretty explicit. They clear their throat, stroke their chin, and ask, "What exactly is included in this . . . fake-girlfriend rate?" I'm often tempted to roll my eyes and knee them in the nuts, but I try to not take offense, to smile kindly, and to say, "Not sex."
I also-to answer the standard follow-up questions-don't kiss, frot, dirty talk, get naked, do butt stuff, give BJs, HJs, TJs, and whatever other Js might exist that I'm not aware of. I don't let them pee on me or fondle my feet, nor do I facilitate and/or allow orgasms in my general vicinity.
Not that there would be anything wrong: sex work is legitimate work, and people who engage in it are just as deserving of respect as ballerinas, or firefighters, or hedge fund managers. But ten months ago, when I graduated with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Northeastern, I figured that by now I'd have a reasonably remunerated academic position. I did not imagine that at twenty-seven I'd be paying my water bill by helping adult men pretend that they have dating lives. And yet here I am, fake-girlfriending my way through my student loans.
Not to kill anyone's buzz, but I'm starting to suspect that life might not always turn out the way you want. An unavoidable loss of faith: there are only so many times one can be hired to project the idea that a client is a charming, well-adjusted, emotionally available human being capable of holding on to a medium-term relationship with an equally high-functioning adult, in order to . . . Well, it varies. I've never asked Greg why Caroline Smith is so obsessed with the idea of her thirty-year-old son having a significant other. Based on snippets of overheard conversations within the Smith Cinematic Universe, I suspect it has to do with the massive estate that will come into play once the matriarch dies, and with the belief that if he provided the first great-grandchild, he'd be more likely to inherit . . . a diamond-studded water hose, I assume?
Rich people. They're just like us.
But Greg's nosy mom is still much better than his brother, who's bad news for a whole bunch of reasons that do not bear contemplating. Frankly, it's a relief that she is my target. It means that when the front door of Smith Manor opens, I can focus solely on her: the withholding, PVC-hearted woman who manages to air-kiss us, fuss with Greg's hair, and push two full glasses of wine into our hands all at once.
"How's life in finance, Gregory?" Caroline asks her son. He downs half of his drink in a single gulp-I suspect because I've heard him explain that he does not, in fact, work in finance. At least four times. "And you, Elsie?" she adds without waiting for a reply. "How are things at the library?"
Following Faux's guidelines, I tell my clients nothing about myself-not my full name, not my day job, not my true opinions on cilantro (excellent, if you enjoy eating soap). And that, in a nutshell, is what fake-girlfriending is about. It initially seemed sketchy that people would pay for a fake date in the age of Tinder and Pornhub, and that they'd pay me-unremarkable Elsie Hannaway of the medium everything. Medium height. Medium-brown hair and eyes. Medium nose, butt, feet, legs, breasts. Pretty, yeah, sure, but in a medium, nondescript way. And yet, my medium mediumness is the perfect blank slate to fill. An empty canvas to paint on. A mirror, reflecting only what others care to project. A bolt of fabric that can be custom tailored to-well. I'm sure everyone's tracking the metaphor.
The Elsie that Caroline Smith wants is someone able to fit in with people who use summer as a verb, not flashy enough to attract a better catch than Greg, and with the nurturing instincts to take care of the son she might love but cannot be bothered to know. Children's librarian seemed like a great fake profession. It's been fun scouring online forums in search of charming anecdotes.
"Today I found three Goldfish crackers in our best copy of Matilda," I say with a smile. Or at least, Reddit user iluvbigbooks did.
"That is hilarious," Caroline says without laughing, smiling, or otherwise displaying amusement. Then she leans closer, whispering as though her son, who's a foot away, cannot hear us. "We are so glad that you're here, Elsie." We, I believe, includes Greg's dad, who stands silently next to her, popping three cubes of colby jack into his mouth with the vacant smile of someone who's been dissociating since 1999. "We were so worried about Gregory. But now he's with you, and he's never been happier." Has he, though? "Gregory, make sure to spend lots of quality time with your grandmother tonight. Izzy is taking pics with her Polaroid to give her at the end of the night-make sure you're in all of them."
"I'll make sure he is, Mrs. Smith," I promise, weaving my arm through Greg's. I break that promise fifteen seconds later, at the end of the glitzy hallway. He downs what's left of his wine, steals two large gulps of mine, and then stage-whispers "See you in ten minutes" before locking himself inside the bathroom.
I laugh and let him be. I feel protective of him-enough to break Faux standard protocol and agree to repeat fake dates, enough to want to defend him from muggers and pirates and his extended family. Maybe it's that his first sentence to me was a panicky "My mother won't stop asking why I don't date," followed by a hesitant, frazzled explanation of why that wasn't going to happen anytime soon-an explanation that hit too close to home. Maybe it's that he always looks like how I feel: tired and overwhelmed. In another timeline we'd be best friends, bonding over the unavoidable stress ulcers that will soon ravage the linings of our stomachs.
I find the empty kitchen, duck inside, and watch the red swirl down the drain as I pour what's left of my glass into the sink. A waste. I should have just refused it, but that would lead to questions, and I don't want to explain that alcohol is a dangerous, glycemic terrorist and that my struggling pancreas does not negotiate with-
"Not to your taste?"
I jump. And yelp. And almost drop the glass, which probably costs more than my graduate education.
I thought I was alone. Wasn't I alone? I was alone. But Greg's older brother is in the room, leaning against the marble counter, arms crossed over his chest. Those unique multicolored eyes of his are staring at me with the usual inscrutable expression. I'm standing between him and the only entrance-either I overlooked him, or he bent the space-time continuum.
Or I mixed him up with the refrigerator. They are similarly sized, after all.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
"I-yes. Yes, sorry. I just . . ." I force a smile. "Hi, Jack."
"Hi, Elsie." He says my name like it's familiar to him. The first word he ever learned. Second nature, and not just a bunch of vowels and consonants he's barely had reason to use before.
He doesn't smile, of course. Well, he does smile, but never at me. Whenever we're in the same room, he's an imposing, sky-soaring, stern presence whose main pastime appears to be judging me unworthy of Greg.
"Don't like the wine?"
"That's not it." I blink, flustered. There's a tattoo on his forearm, just peeking out of the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt. Because of course he's wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, even though the Evite specifically asked for semiformal.
But he's Jack Smith. He can do whatever he wants. He probably has a permit carved in those ridiculous biceps of his. Stamped on the blue quarter of his right eye, the one that sticks out like a sore thumb in the chestnut of his irises.
"The wine was great," I say, collecting myself. "But there was a fly in it."
He doesn't believe me. I don't know how I know, but I know. And he knows that I know. I can see it, no-I can feel it. There's a tingle at the base of my spine, liquid and sparkly and warm. Careful, Elsie, it says. He'll have you arrested for crimes against grapes. You'll spend the rest of your life in federal prison. He'll visit once a week to stare through the plexiglass and make you uncomfortable.
"Izzy must be looking for you," I say, hoping to get rid of him. "She's upstairs."
"I know," he replies, not heading upstairs. He just studies me-attentive, calm, like he knows something secret about me. That I floss once a week, tops. That I can't figure out what the Dow Jones is, even after reading the Wikipedia entry. Other, scarier, darker things.
"Is your girlfriend here?" I ask to fill the silence. He once brought someone to a family thing. A geologist. The most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Nice. Funny, too. I wish I could say she was out of his league.
Silence, again. More staring. I smile to hide how aggressively I'm grinding my teeth. "It's been a while."
"Since Labor Day."
"Oh, right. I forgot."
I did not forget. Before today, I've met Jack twice, as in two times, one and then another, and they're both stubbornly wedged in my brain, as pleasant as spinach leaves stuck between molars.
The first was Greg's birthday dinner, when Jack and I shook hands and he nodded back at me tightly, when he spent the night giving me long, searching glances, when I overheard him ask Greg, "Where did you meet her?" and "How long has it been?" and "How serious is this?" with an inquisitive, deceptively casual tone that sent an odd shiver down my spine.
So Jack Smith wasn't a fan. Okay. Fine. Whatever.
And then there was the second. Late in the summer, at the Smiths' Labor Day pool party, where I didn't swim. Because there's no way to hide my pod in a bikini.
I'm not embarrassed to be diabetic. I've had nearly two decades to make peace with my overactive immune system, which has way too much fun destroying necessary cells. But people's reactions to the knowledge that I must pump insulin into my body on the reg can be unpredictable. When I was diagnosed (at ten, after a seizure in the school gym that earned me the cruel but uncreative nickname of Shaky Elsie), I overheard my parents chat, low whispers behind the hospital room's divider curtains.