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“Who wants dinner?” I shouted, banging on Roz’s door. My seventy-two-year-old next-door neighbor had been hobbling on the stairs when she went out for her copy of the Trib this morning. Like me, she rarely cooked. Unlike me, she hadn’t quite mastered the variety of Chicago’s food delivery apps. If her bad ankle was acting up again, she was probably scowling into her fridge right now.
But in my hands I held the answer to any hungry woman’s dream. Spicy fried chicken sandwiches, along with sides of mac and cheese and peach cobbler for dessert. All courtesy of the Roost restaurant, conveniently located three blocks from our apartment building. Possibly I did their takeout a little too often; the guys who worked there had taken to yelling my usual order, “Extra pickles,” in unison whenever I walked in.
Roz’s door swung open, and she peered up at me through an enormous pair of cat-eye glasses. She looked down at the bags and up at my face. “Is this a bribe so I don’t mention the revolving door of dick coming out of your apartment?”
My lips quivered, and I barely managed to hold a straight face. Roz’s need to enter every single conversation with some sort of shocking statement or question was a quirk I adored.
“Not at all!” I answered. “I’d love your commentary on the amount of dick around here. And please, don’t limit it to my apartment. I’d love your thoughts on the whole building.”
Her nostrils flared, a sure sign she was amused. She raised an eyebrow and looked at the bags again. “Is there cobbler in there?”
I waved one of them under her nose. “Of course.”
She sniffed. “Then I’ll restrain myself to one more remark.” She waggled the raised eyebrow. “That young guy you brought home the other night looked like a poor man’s version of Channing Tatum.”
I burst out laughing. Scott—I think that was his name—the guy I’d brought home from my favorite neighborhood pub on Friday night, did vaguely resemble Magic Mike. He hadn’t exactly rocked my world in the bedroom, but he was cheerful and friendly and he knew the steps to the dance as well as I did. Drinks, laughs, sex, good-bye. A wonderful Friday night had by all. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy.
Roz snatched one of the bags out of my hands. “As self-control isn’t really one of your strengths, I suppose I should take this before you eat it all yourself.”
“I love you too, Roz.” When I was a senior citizen, I wanted to be just like her: a single, sassy, foul-mouthed, city-living workaholic who did whatever she wanted. Actually, minus forty years, I was basically her already. Well, plus the revolving door of dick.
She grinned at me and gestured inside her apartment. “You want to come in? I was just about to open a Bordeaux and start on season two of Outlander.”
Ooh, tempting. Roz was a wine snob and always had good bottles on hand. Plus, there was nothing more hilarious in the world than listening to her thoughts about kilted Scotsmen drinking whiskey, fighting, and indulging in Starz-channel sex.
But I hung out with Roz all the time, and I knew how easily we could make one bottle turn into two, and two episodes into four. I shook my head. “No thanks. Early night for me.” I had a 9:00 a.m. presentation to a new client in the morning, and my boss had stressed the importance of the meeting multiple times, which wasn’t like him. I wasn’t worried though. I’d done my homework and I was completely prepared. Weekend Tess might revel in unpredictable spontaneity, but Workweek Tess always had her shit together.
Roz’s eyes twinkled. “Early to sleep, eh? I guess that makes sense. You’re definitely dressed for bed.”
I opened my mouth wide and put my hand over my heart in mock offense. As alike as we were in other ways, Roz was old-school in matters of one’s appearance. She’d barely left her apartment today but she was wearing tailored slacks, a perfectly ironed cardigan, and a face full of makeup. Along with my black leggings and thigh-high boots, I was wearing a thin T-shirt I’d slept in the night before. With no bra. It said: “Feelings are boring. Kissing is awesome.” My hair was in an untidy ponytail and my eyes were smudged with last night’s liner.
“I’m surprised Kat let you wear that to brunch,” she said.
“Ha-ha. Good night,” I answered, my smile fading a bit. Unintentionally, Roz had scored a point.
Roz winked. “Thanks for dinner.” She slammed the door without another word.
In my own apartment, I threw the bag of food on the coffee table and unearthed my remote from the pile of books and blankets on my couch. Before I turned on the TV, I pulled out my phone and looked at the text message from my sister I’d received first thing this morning.
I can’t make brunch today.
I frowned down at the screen, just like I’d done when it first popped up. It was an unusually short message for Kat, and it was pretty weird for her to cancel on our standing tradition without explaining why. Year-round, rain or shine, we met at the same diner at noon every Sunday.
Dinner could wait another minute. Biting my lip, I tapped the Facebook app on my phone.
Technically, I’m not even on Facebook. I took a mouthy stand against it more than a dozen years ago to everyone who’d listen. “Why do I want to see people I secretly hate posting filtered photos of how fake-great their lives are?” That kind of thing.
But then I kind of wanted to see those stupid photos. And when Kat got old enough to have her own page, I figured it was only responsible that I be able to monitor her online activity. So I did what any intelligent, semi-sneaky person would do in such a situation. I created a fake profile using a stock photo I found of a generically cute girl jogging. Then I sent out friend requests to everyone I knew. People are more careful now, but for a while it was all about how many friends you had, so no one turned me down.
I navigated to Kat’s page…and inhaled so sharply the sound bounced off the walls in my quiet living room.
Well, at least I knew why Kat canceled on me. She’d had other brunch plans.
The photo was shocking enough. But her comment underneath broke my heart.
I stood and started to pace. My beloved small apartment suddenly felt claustrophobic, like it was going to collapse and smother me. I needed air; I needed a drink; I needed a distraction from the memories that now threatened to ruin my night.
“You can’t eat that in here, Tess.” My friend Micki, the bartender and owner of Fizz, glared at me as I perched on my regular stool and spread my enviable supper in front of me on the bar. “We have a kitchen, you know.”
I took a huge bite of the sandwich and rolled my eyes back in my head. So, so good. I chewed slowly, enjoying Micki’s scowl. “Yeah, but your food sucks.”
The other regulars hollered in agreement and raised their beers at me. “Cheers to that.” I smiled at them and kept eating. Micki wouldn’t do anything other than glower. In addition to being friends, I was also one of her most valuable customers.
As the calories hit my bloodstream, I blew out a long breath. I was feeling incrementally better after the short walk to the bar and hearing the crunching sound the dried leaves on the sidewalk made as I stomped on them with my boots. It was a good move, to get out of the apartment and into the company of others. As my therapist liked to say, “Nothing positive comes from stewing in guilt about old mistakes.”
Micki huffed. “Give me a damn biscuit, at least.” I generously handed her half of my extra. She popped it in her mouth, wiped a few crumbs from her coat of bright red lipstick. As always, her classic makeup was the perfect contrast to her edgy black faux hawk. “You want a bourbon?”
Normally, yes. All Friday or Saturday night long. But I had that presentation in the morning. “Since it’s a school night,” I said. “Just one.”
“I saw you in here on Friday,” Joe called over, waggling his eyebrows at me. No surprise there. Joe practically lived at Fizz. I didn’t think I’d ever been there when his ass wasn’t parked in the stool closest to the waitress stand. “Made a new friend, eh?”
The other guys laughed, and I flicked my eyes to the ceiling. They loved giving me flack about the Magic Mikes in my life. “You finally gonna keep this one?” Joe yelled.
I swallowed some bourbon and cocked an eyebrow. Joe knew I couldn’t stand the double standard about men and women and casual sex. “You gonna keep that girl with the nose ring you took home last week?”
Joe snorted. “No,” he admitted. He looked up at me again, eyes twinkling. “You didn’t get locked out again, did you?”
The rest of the guys at the bar hooted. The Lockout Incident was one of their favorite Tess stories. I’d been a little overserved one night last winter and hooked up with a guy just as drunk as I was. When we got back to my apartment, I couldn’t find my keys in my purse. Never one to give up, I concocted a brilliant plan to climb on the roof of the building’s entryway and lower myself through a skylight. My inebriated new friend agreed to let me climb on his shoulders to try to reach the roof. I’d grasped the snowy gutter for a glorious twenty seconds before the guy lost his balance, sending us both into the bushes. We’d reappeared at Fizz twenty minutes after we left, covered in snow, leaves, and bruises. At which point, we ordered a round for the entire bar. The Fizz guys’ favorite part was that I’d had my keys in my coat pocket all along.
Now, as they made fun of me, I just shrugged and took another bite of the spicy chicken sandwich. I never minded their good-natured, big-brother-like ribbing. And hell, I had plenty of silly stories to keep them entertained. Per usual, Joe immediately teed up another one. “At least you weren’t in a dancing mood on Friday. Remember when you climbed up on the bar to do the Whip/Nae Nae and kicked Micki in the face?” He mimed wiping a tear. “That one gets me every time.” Behind the bar, Micki shook her head, less amused. She’d sported a nasty-looking shiner for weeks.
“Let her eat in peace.” Not surprisingly, the request came from Toby, the youngest and most recent addition to Fizz’s ragtag team of regulars. When he’d started coming to the bar last year, he’d watched every move I made. Hung on every word that came out of my mouth. It was extremely flattering, especially because he had a dimpled chin and was built like Thor. But I stayed far, far away. He practically had “I want a girlfriend” written in neon on his forehead. Toby was a total sweetheart, and despite whatever his hormones were telling him, the last thing he needed was a romp with me. I would have trampled the poor guy.
I took my time finishing my dinner, occasionally forcing a laugh to one of Micki’s jokes or an eye-roll to one of Joe’s pronouncements or a smile to one of Toby’s earnest remarks. But I couldn’t get Kat’s Facebook post out of my mind.
I wasn’t the only one staring at my phone. Usually the guys were more focused on their beers or the Sunday Night Football game showing on the flat-screen TVs, but tonight they were huddled over their phones while gossiping in low voices like a bunch of gangsters at a racetrack.
“What are you looking at?” I finally demanded, my curiosity getting the better of me.
Joe gave me a semi-sheepish look, while Toby flushed downright crimson. Clearly, it was something dirty. They’d show me anyway. I’d established my “one of the guys” cred a long time ago.
Joe shrugged. “There’s this dude. Calls himself the FSG. About six months ago, he started an amateur sex tape site. He releases new ones every month. It’s kind of a clearinghouse. He buys sex tapes from anyone who sends them in, and he releases at least one of his own every month too. You can sign up for his newsletter and he sends you teasers and announcements.”
“Pervert,” I said without heat, already losing interest.
Micki brought Joe another pint. “So guys are into porn. What else is new?”
Joe held up his phone and gave it a little shake. “Actually, this is a little different. From a marketing standpoint, the way he’s released the videos has been kind of brilliant.”
Micki and I both let out a long-suffering sigh. Joe was doing a marketing degree program at one of the city colleges, and he loved to talk about it.
Undeterred, he went on. “He’s done a regional rollout. Six months ago, he released his California girls videos. Five months ago, his New York City files. Four months ago, the ladies of Texas. So there’s all this localized interest; his site gets a brand-new boost every month. It’s all over social media.”
Toby put his elbows on the bar and leaned forward. “Don’t sound impressed! He’s a total creep! The videos are disgusting. I haven’t watched them, of course—”
“Of course!” Joe and Micki said sarcastically in unison.
Toby glared at them. “He says on the site that all of the videos were created consensually, but even if that’s true, I’ll bet you a million bucks that the women aren’t cool with him putting the videos on the internet.”
I frowned. “That is really shitty. What’s the FSG stand for?”
The guys groaned. Joe shook his head. “On his site, he says it can stand for ‘Fucking Sex Ghost’ because no one knows his real identity. But he personally prefers Fucking Sex God.”
I gagged and lurched forward, like I was throwing up in my mouth. “It’s truly hard to comprehend that level of douchebaggery.”
“He’s releasing a set of Chicago videos in less than a month. Right at midnight on Halloween,” Joe said. “In the past, he’s dropped ten or twelve per city.” He wiggled his phone in the air again. “We were just wondering if we’d recognize any of the Chicago girls.”
“Don’t support him!” Toby protested. “Don’t pay to watch stuff on his site. He’s a criminal.”
“I’m not going to pay for anything,” Joe assured him. “But I did sign up for the free newsletter. I guess he puts stills from the videos in it, enough so you can see who’ll feature in the upcoming release. Those pics are being sent out any minute now!” He rubbed his hands together maniacally.
My stomach started to hurt in sympathy for those poor girls. “Don’t be such an asshole,” I snapped. “That kind of thing can be a life-ruiner for women.”
Joe lifted a shoulder. “Then they shouldn’t have been so stupid to make a sex tape in the first place.”
What?! I aimed my patented death stare at him and pointed a fingernail in his smug face. “You’re seriously victim-blaming here? You’re saying that if a woman chooses to be sexually adventurous and makes a recording, then all bets are off? That she shouldn’t be allowed to decide what happens with that recording?”
“Don’t get in a snit, Tessie. Christ.” Joe sniffed.
My eyes flared. He knew I hated it when he called me Tessie. Although it was better than “Hair, Boobs, and Boots,” his old nickname for me. “But it’s perfect!” he’d protested slyly when I’d told him to knock it off. “It’s your signature look.” He wasn’t exactly wrong, but I’d dumped a pint of Guinness over his head the last time he’d said it. Which meant I was kind of stuck with Tessie.
Now, he held up a mollifying hand, a physical gesture that said “calm down.” Which, as everyone knows, was a surefire way to transform irritation into full anger. “I’m not sayin’ it’s right for this dickwad to put the videos on the internet without the girls’ permission. I’m just sayin’ that it’s not smart to make one in the first place. I’d never do anything so dumb.”
“Reeallly,” I drawled, throwing back the rest of my bourbon. As if I’d rung a bell, Micki appeared with the bottle of Knob Creek and a questioning eyebrow.
I ignored her because I was about to go on a roll. “Really, Joe? So if the hottest woman you’d ever seen, a Selena Gomez lookalike, took you home and said that her number-one turn-on would be to make a sex tape with you…you wouldn’t do it?”
A minute of silence passed as Toby, Micki, and I stared him down. Joe’s stubborn face eventually melted into a conciliatory smile. “Well, maybe in that one very particular scenario.”
Toby and Micki laughed, but I wasn’t quite ready to let him off the hook. “Women are allowed to define any scenario they want,” I announced.
“Yeah, yeah,” Joe conceded. “They—you—can do what you want, I know that. Get off your feminist high horse. I guess what I really mean, then, is that they just shoulda been more careful about what happened to the videos.”
The TV above the bar returned from commercial to Sunday Night Football. Joe, Toby, and the rest of the guys erupted in cheers as the Bears’ defense intercepted a Viking pass. Micki left us to serve a bunch of meatheads howling for Bud Light.
I tapped my empty bourbon glass against the bar, listening to the ice clink. I argued with Joe about something just about every time I came to Fizz, but it was usually just for fun. We both enjoyed sparring.
Tonight I was truly vexed.
“Try to be more deliberate with your emotions,” my therapist always suggested. “When you’re feeling upset, really try to understand why.”
Maybe I was just transferring my hurt about Kat into anger at Joe’s comments about the internet’s latest sleazy celebrity. Anger was so much easier to deal with than hurt.
Kat wouldn’t mention her special little brunch to me. I’d pretend I didn’t know about it…and we’d move on. And the hurt would fade.
Sighing, I dug in my purse for my credit card, put it on the bar, and went over my Sunday night checklist: my Monday morning alarm—ringtone assigned to the fabulous ’90s song “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks—was set and ready. I’d picked up my dry cleaning yesterday, so I had all my favorite pencil skirts to choose from. There’d be plenty of time to review my presentation notes on the “L” ride downtown in the morning.
Yep, I was good to go for the week. If Micki would get her butt back over here to take my card so I could pay for my drink and leave. I raised my head to call for her—
Wait, why was everyone looking at me?
Still partially hunched over their phones, Joe and Toby were doing a comical sort of down-and-up move with their heads. Their eyes flicked down to the screen of Joe’s phone and then back up at me. Down, up. Down, up. Down, up.
Behind the bar, Micki was twisting a rag around her hands and staring at me with brows drawn together over stricken eyes.
“What?” I snapped. This wasn’t a prank or a group sympathy card reaction. This was a “You’ll never hold your head up in Fizz again” full-blown stare of horror.
End of Excerpt