The thin leather clutch bumped against her hip. Rachel pressed it down with her hand to pin it against her side. She had pulled the tiny bag out of the back of her closet that morning, thinking that leaving her usual oversized clutch at home would show she had put in the extra effort to be fancy. Now, a quick scan of the restaurant told her she was underdressed; excepting shoes, she was the only person in the room with a leather anything.
Oh well, too late now. Rachel tipped her chin up and swept through the front doors, smiling kindly at the maître d’ as she passed him on her way to the bar. He smiled back at her, an ugly scornful orange hidden behind splendid orthodontics.
Becca was early. She was nursing a drink and making small talk with a young man whose conversational colors put him as more than casually interested; Becca’s cool jade green core made a nice contrast against his surface colors of lusty red.
(As a color, jade green was something of a misnomer: Rachel’s grandmother had once laid out a dozen pieces of jade stone on an old threadbare piece of cotton to show her how each was unique, ranging from white to pink to blue and nearly black, and had told her to think beyond narrow definitions. Even at the tender age of seven, Rachel had seen what her grandmother had meant, but she was also a child of Crayola and the name on the crayon was forever fixed in her mind. And, two decades later, jade green was how she defined the core of the beautiful Latina waiting for her at the bar.)
Becca had a lovely spill of long brown hair; she was not-so-subtly inspecting this for split ends as the businessman insisting on freshening her drink. She saw Rachel coming and straightened in her seat, her conversational colors brightening.
They kissed in the way of new friends, quick on the cheek; the businessman’s lust pulsed. As Becca ordered Rachel a drink, Rachel hit him with her cyborg stare, that cold, soulless gaze that was only possible when the other person had no idea they were looking into the eyes of a blind woman. Rachel had found it to be especially effective in chasing off lecherous drunks.
The businessman fumbled in his wallet and threw some cash on the bar, then scampered towards the door. She flipped her implant to reading mode and saw he had accidentally dropped a fifty; the bartender was about to have a good night.
“What did you say to him?” Becca asked.
Rachel blinked at her, pure innocence. “Not a word!”
The maître d’ arrived to escort them to their table. There were linen napkins were folded into pointy swans, and more knives than Rachel had expected. Multiple forks and spoons, those were a given, but when a restaurant offered more than one knife she began to get twitchy. They ordered wine, appetizers, and Rachel tried to ignore how Becca kept sneaking peaks at Rachel’s chest over her menu in a curious yellow way.
After a few moments of small talk, Rachel finally had to pretend to notice. “What?”
“I don’t want to be rude, but… Are you okay? You look like you’ve lost fifteen pounds in a week.”
Oh. This was the first time they had met somewhere fancy: Rachel was in a sleeveless dress which had left no room for her usual bulletproof vest.
“Work clothes,” Rachel said. “Not the most flattering, I admit.”
“Ah.” Becca wrapped her hands around her wine glass, her conversational colors going ever so slightly gray.
“We’re still not talking about work?”
“We can. We should.” Becca said. “I just… I just don’t want to.”
“Bet you a dollar my job is worse than yours.”
“My job’s not bad! But…”
Becca was thoroughly gray now, intensely worried. This was probably the point right before her typical date stomped off, appalled. Rachel had to force a straight face; she had never been on this side of the conversation. It was a lovely change of pace.
“Prison?” Rachel asked.
Becca shook her head. “No.”
“Dog fighting, cock fighting, bull fighting?”
Rachel laughed; she couldn’t help herself. “That was my next guess.”
Becca gave her a small but sharp glare, and her conversational colors flared a brief but hot red. Rachel grinned back at her. God, how she loved fire.
“Okay,” Becca took a deep breath. “Remember the subprime mortgage scandal in 2008?”
“The one that tanked the global economy?” Rachel lifted an eyebrow. “Yeah. I remember.”
“Okay,” Becca said. She looked down and toyed with the tablecloth. “Okay, I might have… had something to do with… that.”
“The what? The mortgage scandal? I think a lot of people were involved in that.”
“Yeah, well… Did you hear about Goldman Sachs? How they made a profit from betting on short-selling mortgages?”
Rachel ran a quick search through Wikipedia. “Yeah,” she said slowly, mentally skimming the text as quickly as she could. “They knew the junk mortgages were bad and shorted the market.”
“Yes.” Becca nodded. “That was sort of… my idea.”
Rachel’s jaw dropped.
“I was just a summer intern! I didn’t think they’d take me seriously!” Becca was insistent. “They held a cheap throwaway meeting with a Board member, one of those introductory seminars that’s supposed to convince the kids they’re a valued part of the organization. They told us to write up any proposals we had to advance the company. I… I might have suggested a bundling process involving high-risk mortgages.”
“Oh my God,” Rachel said. “You tanked the planet!”
“Not alone, but I definitely helped,” Becca said, then sighed. “Honestly, I did make a shitload of money.”
“Did you keep it?”
“Ah… Not all of it,” Becca said as she reached for her wine. “I donated most of it. And I do a lot of pro bono work for a legal firm who helps recover bad mortgages for lower-income families. I’m trying to put it right, but I’ve got a lot of bad karma.”
Rachel shook her head, chuckling. “This is hilarious.”
“No!” Becca was indignant. “No, it’s not! It’s terrible! Do you realize how many people lost their jobs, their homes! I ruined families! People killed themselves over what I did!”
The other woman fell silent, her colors sad and damp, with a trace of fierce red that was aimed directly at Rachel. Rachel put on her most sympathetic face, and the red faded.
“No, you’re right,” Rachel said. “The banking scandal? Not funny at all. I’m laughing because I’m usually the one giving the ‘This is what I do for a living and hey where are you going?’ speech.”
In response, Rachel reached into the tiny clutch and took out her badge. The bright green and gold of the OACET seal was picked out against the black Nylon webbing as she flipped its protective folio open.
“You’re a cop?” Becca smiled. “That’s not so bad.”
Rachel pushed the badge towards her. “Read the fine print.”
Becca leaned forward for a cursory look, then snapped the badge off of the table for a closer look. Her colors bleached white in shock as she stared at the badge, then at Rachel, her mouth forming a small and perfect o.
“And this,” Rachel said, “is usually when my dates end.”
“Cyborg,” she sighed. “Or, in the language of past dates: freak, machine, creature, and the all-encompassing one of those… and they add a long pause for emphasis… things.”
“Oh.” Becca said quietly, then asked: “That’s what happens? They call you names?”
“Well, one time I got a glass full of wine thrown in my face,” Rachel amended. “She stormed out without saying a word.
“Stuck me with the bill, too,” she added.
Becca snorted, hard. It was an odd sound, completely out of place coming from a beautiful woman perfectly at home in an expensive restaurant, and Rachel found herself laughing.
It took a few tense seconds, but Becca joined her.
“Heh,” Rachel said, after the moment had passed. “Okay, that’s the best full disclosure has ever gone.”
“For me, too,” Becca nodded. She was an uncertain yellow. “But… um…”
“You get one trick,” Rachel said.
“To prove I really am OACET.”
“I believe you.”
“No, you don’t,” Rachel said, shaking her head. “You won’t believe until you get proof. That’s just how this works. The easiest trick is you hold up some object, and I send that image straight to your phone. It’ll be from my perspective, so you’ll know it’s from me. But there’s a bunch of other ways, if you think I’m wearing a hidden camera or something.”
“Oh.” The wine red bloomed through Becca’s surface colors, swirling through the yellow. “You get a lot of shit, don’t you?”
The waiter glided up to their table, tiny salads swimming in dressing on his tray. There was an unwelcome pause in the conversation as he pushed ground pepper; Rachel sent him running to the kitchen for bread to sop up the vinaigrette.
“So,” Rachel said, “let’s do this, let’s get the image out of the way. Unless you want a text message instead? Or, you can pick another person in here at random and I’ll make their phone ring…”
Becca shook out the cloth swan and draped the napkin across her lap. “Do you believe I’m a banker?”
“Hm?” Rachel blinked; Becca had deviated from the usual script.
“Do you think I’m lying to you about what I do? Or about… what I did, back when I was just starting out?”
“No,” Rachel said, catching on. Smiling.
“All right, then,” Becca said, pushing the inedible salad aside. “Let me bore you with my fantasy football team.”
They pointedly ignored all talk of work. It was slightly awkward between them, at first, but they soon settled into a pattern of jokes and complaining about family. By the time they had finished the main course, they were happily comparing overbearing Old Country grandmothers.
“Dessert?” Rachel asked.
Becca shook her head. “Not here, but do you have a few minutes? There’s a bakery nearby that does some of the best ethnic pastries I’ve found. We can show each other what Grandma used to make.”
Rachel shuddered. “You’ve obviously never had a Chinese pastry. Most of them are a scary breed of jelly doughnuts.”
“I love jelly doughnuts.”
“Sugar is a new phenomenon for some parts of China,” Rachel said. “Think Fig Newton without the flavor.”
The check came and went, Becca’s platinum card eating the sum. The two women gathered up their coats and left, walking west towards the old warehouse district.
“Tell me something,” Becca said.
Yellow, but not questioning. Curious? “Tell you what?” Rachel asked.
“Anything. But it has to be something you wouldn’t tell me until the tenth date.”
“Huh?” Rachel laughed. “Shouldn’t we save that for the tenth date?”
“Nothing’s guaranteed,” Becca said, and shrugged. “This question is my personality litmus test. Lets me know if the other person thinks we’re compatible.”
“Ah. I have one of those.”
“When do I get to take it?”
“Right now. Professional wrestling: sport or entertainment?”
“Good,” Becca said. She grinned and looped her hand through Rachel’s. “Your turn.”
“Hmm,” Rachel murmured. Becca’s colors fluttered when her fingers brushed against Rachel’s stitches, and she loosened her grip. “This doesn’t seem fair. I asked a question; you want a story.”
“Should have picked a different litmus test, then.”
Rachel chuckled. She flipped off the emotional spectrum to keep herself honest, and ran through her Big List of Dangerous Topics until she found one that had nothing to do with OACET or her eyesight. “My dad took my mother’s name.”
“I think I figured that out already. Unless your dad was Chinese but born in Texas?”
“Nope. I think he’s mostly Scottish.
“You think? You don’t know?”
Rachel shook her head. “Mom got a visa to Texas A&M to study architecture. This was the early ‘80s, when Chinese students didn’t leave the country, and Chinese women basically never went to college(1), period, so something else was going on there. They still won’t tell me how my mom got to America, or why they got married, or why I’ve never met any family members on my dad’s side.”
“And you haven’t tried to find out?”
“Of course I have,” Rachel said. “They said I’d find out when they’re dead.”
“That’s a terrible story. That’s not even a story. That’s…” Becca jabbed Rachel in the side with her thumb. “That’s the promise of a story! That’s even worse than not telling a story at all!”
Rachel held up her free hand, surrendering. “That’s what we’d talk about on the tenth date.”
Becca glared at her. “The implicit threat that I’d have to know you after your parents died to get the entire story?”
“Well,” Rachel offered in a lilting sing-song, “maybe if you tell me something tenth date-y, then I’ll give you a better one.”
“Fine.” Becca was quiet for a few moments.
Rachel flipped on the emotional spectrum for a quick peek; Becca’s colors were a blend of Rachel’s southwestern turquoise and an almost anxious orange. Uh-oh.
“I’ve never dated someone for more than five months.”
“What?” Rachel was honestly shocked. “How old are you? Twenty-eight?”
“Twenty-seven, thank you. And my relationships tend to… They start strong and then fade out.”
“Well,” Rachel said. “I’ve heard you’re never supposed to date someone who’s more than thirty and who’s never been in a long-term relationship. Twenty-seven is safe.”
“Yeah,” Becca said. She was grinning, but there was anxiety behind it. The yellows and oranges grew and began to bubble over into Rachel’s turquoise. “Just so you know, though, I’m done with rushing into relationships. Move too fast, and it’s over before it starts.”
“You’re right,” Rachel said. “You’re absolutely right. And this is an excellent tenth-date conversation, so I think we should wait until the tenth date to have it.”
“Fair enough,” the other woman said. Her grin lost its pinched edges and the soft pops of yellow-orange slowly began to fade. “Just so you know, I’m a bit of a control freak. It tends to put people off.”
“Becca? My roommate has turned my entire house into an arboretum. I think I can cope.”
The other woman laughed. She smelled of jasmine, and the sleeve of her blazer was soft raw silk against Rachel’s forearm. Rachel cast around for a good tenth date story… Jade green. “I think my maternal grandmother is gay.”
“No! Really? The same grandmother you were telling me about over dinner? Your… um… Low-low?”
“Close. Lăo lao.”
“Why do you think she’s gay? Did she tell you?”
“Oh God no! She’s practically a caricature of the Chinese matriarch. Everything has to be just! so!” Rachel said, and jabbed at the air with her free hand. “My parents tell me she was furious when my mother immigrated to America, and nearly disowned her when she married my dad. And she loved me—I mean, she had to love me, she practically raised me once she moved in with us—but if I had suddenly turned into a full-blooded Chinese boy, she would have been totally okay with that.
“It was only after I came out to the family that she finally started to like me. After that, we used to stay up all night, talking.”
“Girls, boys, women, men, movies, music, religion, politics, China, America… It’s weird to have known someone for almost your entire lifetime, but never, you know, have known them.”
“Small reason to think she’s gay.”
Rachel nodded. “Yeah, but there’s also some winking and nudging in the family. Her husband died awfully young, and she never remarried.”
“That could be cultural. Or maybe she isn’t the remarrying type.”
“Could be,” Rachel said. The other woman’s hand was warm in her own. “I’ll probably never know for sure. We’re close, but there’s family-close and then there’s close-close. ”
They stopped talking long enough to run across a four-lane road. Rachel got her bearings and retrieved her stored copy of MPD’s map of the city from the OACET database. Great. They were beginning to wander into an unsavory part of town, and the usual weight of her gun was conspicuously absent from her hip. Becca was oblivious in the way of the rich; this neighborhood might be tame enough in the day, but she didn’t realize that most predators were nocturnal. It was a relief when they turned that last corner and arrived at the pastry shop.
Which was out of business, of course. The store was shuttered up, a handwritten note on a sheet of copy paper thanking customers for their loyal, but obviously insufficient, support.
“Damn,” Becca swore. “Do you know how hard it is to find a good ensaïmada around here?”
“There’s a…” Rachel said, then paused as she ran a quick search. “There’s a bakery that does brioches a few blocks from here.” The bakery was nearby, but was also located on (by sheer coincidence, surely) a casually gentrified street with more than a few afterhours clubs and pricey restaurants. The two of them would fit right in.
“Did she defend you when you came out?”
“Hm? No! I mean, she didn’t need to,” Rachel said, steering them towards safety. “Coming out as being part of OACET was way harder on my family than coming out as a lesbian. I sort of vanished from their lives for five years, and then, hey guys! It’s your daughter, the cyborg! I’m back, and… And I see you’ve remodeled the kitchen into my bedroom. Yay, ranch house layout.”
Becca laughed. “OACET wouldn’t let you contact your own family? Why not?”
“Sorry, can’t tell you.” Rachel grinned at her. “That’s an eleventh-date conversation.”
“Give you time to make something up, you mean.”
Rachel sighed and dropped Becca’s hand. “Pick a streetlight.”
“Pick a streetlight. Actually,” Rachel corrected herself, “pick three of them, and point them out in order.”
Becca gave her a wry smirk.
“Just do it,” Rachel sighed.
The other woman pointed at the lamp directly above them.
Rachel glanced up, and the light popped off.
“Oh,” Becca said.
“They’ve got solar sensors,” Rachel explained. “I told this one the sun had come up.”
The loss of one lamp made no difference to how Rachel saw the street, and shouldn’t have affected the temperature one iota, but there was a chill in the night air that hadn’t been there before. She released the lamp and the small dark pool they had been standing in vanished, but the chill hung around.
“Okay. Pick two more,” Rachel said.
“I believe you,” Becca said. “Why do you think I don’t believe you?”
“Because…” Rachel flailed. “Because they don’t believe me until they do, and that’s when the date is over.”
Becca found Rachel’s hand again, and started walking. There was an awkward moment when Rachel’s feet didn’t realize they were supposed to follow, and then they tripped and fell back into step with Becca’s.
They walked without speaking for the better part of a block, and then Becca said, “I’m sorry you’ve had problems, but those other women? They aren’t me.”
“Yeah,” Rachel said. “I’m starting to get that. Why doesn’t this bother you, by the way?”
“I don’t know,” Becca replied. “It’s like watching someone freak out about their cell phone. It’s sort of… overly dramatic.
“Certain people might…” Becca added, “… even think it was boring.”
Rachel chuckled. “Okay,” she said. “Point taken. I’m done.”
“No, no, I’m sure it’s very interesting how you can turn lights on and off. It’s just that I’ve been doing it my entire life, so…”
“Shut up,” Rachel said, bumping Becca’s hip with her own.
(1) I research the crap out of what might seem to be throwaway statements. This article, Inequality in Chinese Education, is fascinating reading.