Thora meets the last man at Radio.
He isn’t random. He is Cleo’s ex-boyfriend, from South Carolina.
Thora and Cleo work together in the gray buildings, where men in thin shirts and loose pants flirt with Cleo. At the Keurig and at the printer and also at her desk, which is right next to Thora’s.
A thousand years ago when she was with Tommy, Cleo faked a pregnancy test. She signed a doctor’s name to the bottom of a sheet that said she was two months gone.
Tommy tells Thora this, that first night by the window. It’s December and men and women walk by in pairs outside. Everybody is in big coats with their hands tucked into their pockets and they are all laughing.
Why did she do that, Thora asks, as though she doesn’t understand.
Because bitches be crazy, says Tommy. He smiles. He has very white teeth and an overall sunny cast to his face.
They are drinking rum and cokes. This is Tommy’s drink. Thora always drinks what the man drinks, for however long the man lasts.
Cleo is far prettier than Thora. She is also much smaller. Thora is big-boned. Her shoulders never look feminine in sleeveless dresses. But right then she feels she is better than Cleo, who left the bar thirty minutes ago. Thora know Cleo is angry, that she didn’t expect Tommy and Thora to hit it off.
Thora is thirty-four and this has to be the one.
They get drunk. It’s the first night so there’s no food. They go to two more bars after Radio, then they go back to Tommy’s and fuck. He’s more loving than any man recently. He brings out a condom—she notes he keeps just a single one in a drawer—and makes a motion to open it. Then he stops and says, with a smile, Wait. You’re clean, right? His Southern accent is like an animal in a fable. I just got tested, she says. She had been to the doctor two months back, but there had been four men since, two of which had been part of a threesome.
Me too, he says.
His bed is larger than a King. He has a white fitted sheet, no top sheet, and a navy comforter. Great bay windows look out at the brick building across the street. He is a broker but he is currently out of a job. This is okay, because he received a large severance from the last place. He holds her for twenty minutes.
In the morning she doesn’t leave right away. She has a goofy smile on her face and waits until he asks if she wants coffee. Yes, she says, willing time to stop.
Are you hungry, too?
Thora nods. She is always hungry.
He fixes her a bowl of cereal. He has good milk in a glass jug. She asks for sugar and he doesn’t have any. She pouts, though she knows she isn’t pretty enough to do that.
I’ll have sugar for you next time, he says, winking.
That morning Cleo calls and texts several times.
Hello? She writes at eleven.
Thora waits half an hour before replying, Hey! What’s up?
They meet for coffee at a snug place between their apartments. Cleo’s hair is blown out and Thora is coy and sleepy.
You know I wanted to let you know he does a lot of coke.
Yeah, Thora says. We did a few lines, but it was fun.
Also, maybe I should have told you this sooner. He uses escorts.
Like high-priced ones but still. Did you guys use protection?
Thora feels her frozen face nod. She says, We didn’t sleep together. We just kissed. A lot.
The threesome in which Thora partook the previous month was with her old high school friend Evan and his work buddy Martin, whose father is a Supreme Court justice. Martin is sexy and engaged and balding. Thora has been in love with Evan, in addition to others, since high school.
It had been somewhat agreed upon early in the evening, over drinks at a speakeasy. Thora was always having drinks with two or three guys. She was always ready at five or six. Even three and four. She’d been laid off from her job, with a good severance also. Other girls needed hours for their hair and makeup, but Thora felt the early bird gets the worm.
Martin said, It will be all about you. Evan nodded.
It really did feel all about her. Martin kissed her between her legs, like actual kisses, while Evan alternately kissed her mouth and drug his penis across her chapped lips.
By the morning she was almost in love with Martin more than with Evan, which was a relief in a number of ways.
The story about the pregnancy test pumped up Tommy’s legend. He is someone a girl like Cleo was desperate to jar. The cocaine also. He is a joyful kid but deep down he harbors lime gargoyles.
The great thing is that even though he is a catch, he is weak to a woman’s pain. Thora capitalizes. This means she does almost all the asking. They have dinner more than she’s had dinner with any man in years, and he always pays.
Not all of Thora’s friends are married but many are. One has just accepted a proposal in Chicago. Thora could map out the trajectory of most engagements. There would be consecutive dinners across three hand-holding months then a weekend away to somewhere with a fireplace. Four months later came the big trip, to Greece, for example. Pictures on Instagram in primary-colored bathing suits. Two more months and there’s a jaunt to a lively U.S. city, like San Francisco, where it happens at a place like Chez Panisse. There are blurry pictures on Facebook of white tablecloths with velvet ring boxes and deconstructed Caesar salads. In all a man spent about fifteen grand on the road to engagement, including the price of the ring. Thora dreams of being worth so much.
Being single in your middle thirties has never been more commonplace or accepted. Even chic. It has also never been more barren. Dead, dying. Guts pearled with cancer.
Thora hates every girl who finds a man before her. As though they have murdered her family. It is a preternatural loathing. She feels it most in the early morning. A glowing poker that begins in the throat and javelins through her soul. Rendering her heart a bagel. It keeps going, south into her uterine steak, stopping right at the plum bulb of the cervix. When men have sex with her they can feel an extra prickling warmth, like the tips of their penises have been dipped in melted Red Hots. By the next day it is forgotten.
Thank god Cleo remains. Cleo, who is pretty and thin but a broken doll. Who is anorexic. She goes to spin class ten times a week. She is always ordering cheeseburgers and then eating just a fry and a half off her plate because she gorged at lunch. (She says). Destroyed a lobster roll and two bags of Terra chips. She could have been married to some suburban type but she wants an internet entrepreneur. She is seven years too old and threadbare. That she doesn’t realize this makes other girls deplore her.
Three months in, Tommy takes Thora to a fox hunt in Virginia. They get drunk with his friends from college. They stay over just one night but it can be considered a weekend, since they sink around like slugs until two the next day. There is a non-working fireplace in the big, drafty house the friends have rented. He has his arm around her much of the time. She feels like a girlfriend.
One of the friends says something about how his younger brother got his girlfriend pregnant and he threw a football at her stomach and it worked.
Tommy laughs, but uneasily.
Tommy goes home for his brother’s graduation. Thora asks how close Kiawah Island is to his family home which in the past he has referred to as a plantation.
She uses her dad’s car to drive him to the airport. He kisses her passionately and tells her not to do anything he wouldn’t do.
While he’s gone, she sees Cleo socially for the first time in weeks.
Chicks before dicks, I thought, says Cleo.
You’re only saying that because right now you don’t have a dick, says Thora.
No, says Cleo. She wets a cool fry in her mouth.
Thora goes home to the suburbs. Thora’s mother asks her when they are going to meet her man. Thora’s mother is fat and Thora’s father is slim and given to saying funny things in retail stores, loud enough for the girls folding Henleys to hear.
Thora takes a dip in their indoor pool. The moon is full and she thinks if she could just live at home, and exist in ruddy, solitary moments like these. She keeps her phone by the ledge. The sound is off but vibration is on.
Thora has never been raped. Four different men she was sleeping with at various times told her another girl, a mutual friend, was beautiful. As though they were talking to a male friend.
Her dad comes in. He’s carrying a London School of Economics mug of chamomile. She dips her shoulders below the green water.
Is this the one? he says.
There’s a man at the office where she and Cleo work. She means that he is the only man. He’s kind and sexy and stalwart and has a conscience as careful as a metronome. His name is Jack and she, who has obsessed over at least twenty men in her lifetime, has not even thought to be in love with him. She doesn’t dare.
Tommy does not call Thora when he lands. He doesn’t call her until the next night. He yawns on the phone. She is frenzied like an animal. She takes a cab to his apartment. She tips less than fifteen percent, because her severance is running out.
Tommy looks spoiled by other shores. Girls from his town. Townies. Perhaps hookers, the streetwalking kind, with false teeth. Because he deigns to be with her, she can imagine how low he will sink. She can’t ask. There are not many more helpless feelings out there, until you get into actual dying.
I semi-missed you, she says into his shoulder after she initiates sex.
She wonders if Cleo ever had to initiate sex with him.
He goes soft inside her and then stops moving altogether.
She prays it’s because he’s dead.
She makes hard-boiled eggs in his nice kitchen while he sleeps. Earlier they shared a Bob Marley CD of coke but he can always fall asleep. She means to chop them up with mayonnaise. She’s always hungry on Ambien. But Tommy has no mayonnaise. His phone is on the table. She types in the code and opens the messaging icon and there beneath her last text, I’ll be over in fifteen, ok? to which he never responded, are the names of two girls she has never heard. One is Karly K.
One slippery hot egg drops out of her hands as she peels it over the garbage. The Ambien has bested her; she kneels and eats the egg off the floor, unsalted. She passes out there.
In the morning there is black smoke across the upper two thirds of the apartment. She wakes up to Tommy saying, Oh what the fuck! She has left the pot of boiling water on the stove all night. The water boiled off and the flame began to eat the skin of the pot. The ceiling is black, like Heaven and Hell have transposed. He doesn’t ask her to leave but for once she understands she must.
Most of the men Thora works with have done something. For the longest time she and Gary K.—who has gray hair and looks like he could be a friend’s dad or a not-terrible politician—were just good friends until a night a few weeks ago when she was working late and he came into her office, said he didn’t want to go home to Inwood yet. He rubbed the knuckles of his left hand and his high school ring. He looked at her. At a happy hour once Mike P. goosed her so hard she had to throw out her panty hose.
Thora applies for a job filing extensions for expiring rape kits. She sits in on the introductory video in a morbid room on the outskirts of the city. She is told that murder evidence lies around forever, little vials of burgundy, but rape kits have a shelf life of six months. There are men who want to destroy them, like they are aged cats.
Suddenly she understands her whole past as not simply selfish, but borderline evil. It’s an airport sort of day, the splendor of sunshine coming through skylights as you motionlessly catwalk on the AirTrain. She sees the difference between the women to whom men have done terrible things, and the women like her, who have let men do terrible things to them. Who have, in fact, waited around, showered, to undergo a different sort of rape.
There is a black teenager, beautiful with purplish eyes, who comes on the video at the end, and talks about how the justice system failed her in the wake of a violent rape. Thora wants to be the girl’s mother. Never has she felt this. She touches both palms to her belly. She weeps for someone who is not herself.
She calls Cleo to tell her. She calls three other women she thinks might benefit. They act as though she is trying to recount the misty segments of a dream.
In the afternoon, she goes to get tested.
In the week she has lain low, Evan and Martin and two other men from her recent past text her. She knows they cannot believe she hasn’t been in touch. Drybar writes to tell her it misses her. The poker inside expands to be not phallic but flat and thick, the heft of a large and ruby tuna.
She deletes her Tinder app, and thinks about where the black teen is now. She pictures her in a loose romper, walking to class along a suburban road of buttery sunshine and single moms squeezing oranges into pitchers.
Tommy has not written. She writes to him. She asks about his home, the ceiling. I don’t understand, he replied. You were making eggs?
She types, Can I come over? There is something she needs to say.
He tells her he has to take a disco nap, and will call her when he wakes up.
The following morning, there are three voicemails.
One is from the rape organization. They regret to inform her that, though her passion was ideal and appreciated and necessary in times like these, there were many qualified applicants, and she is unfortunately no longer being considered for the position. However, there are a number of volunteer opportunities listed on our website.
The second is from Tommy. He took a Vicodin and slept straight through the night. He says he is sorry, but Thora knows the tone very well, even buffeted by a charming Southern accent, she knows the tone of a man who is lying and doesn’t care that you know. There is a companion text from Cleo, Hey girl, where were you last night? Thora knows. She knows. She knows. She knows. And then she knows some more.
The third voicemail is from her doctor. The virus.
It takes a considerable amount of time and planning. But like all large projects, suddenly one fragrant morning everything is accomplished. All that’s left is to make the presentation.
Thora walks to work. It’s summer now and outside is a juicy hot yet the bodega men are still selling the buttered rolls and the butter has bled into a matter thinner than liquid and infected the pores of the bread in a hot, sleazy way.
She and fifteen men will walk into their office today, for the last time. Some of them have families. She knows. There are baby mobiles, felt airplanes and apples and cherries with Kelly green felt leaves. But there is the black teen, too. All the dolls nobody writes about even on the fourteenth page of the Tuesday edition.
It wasn’t Cleo’s fault, what she did. Sleeping with Tommy the night he came home, while Thora waited and cried. She had to survive the way it is now, in the Sahara. It’s worse than wartime. It’s the depression after, when nobody cares about anything but salt. The zombies are dating zombies, the zombies are marrying zombies. There isn’t even the true knifing despair of a zombie snatching a human person.
She imagines a legion behind her. A band of women. Green and blue and purple women, blasting Ani DiFranco from shouldered stereos, wearing armbands. She imagines them glowing in solidarity for once and forever. The beautiful black girl, they wouldn’t tell Thora her name. They wouldn’t even pass Thora’s information onto the girl. They never explicitly said no. They just never replied to her email. But now she is in Thora’s army. It’s the black girl’s army, but whatever, Thora has been tasked to lead the charge.
They are chanting, like army men in formation. No, not like men. They are chanting and moving up the boulevard like an unlimited reptile, a wide flat snake that does not pierce but covers, and they are covering so much area now, like a child’s swaddle they are girdling the streets, and they are eschewing expectation and eating in avidity, wolves and racehorses and golden dogs, who are warm, and happy, and free.
Lisa Taddeo is a 2017 recipient of The Pushcart Prize and a Saul Bellow Fellow in fiction at Boston University. Her fiction has been published in The New England Review, The Sun Magazine and Esquire. Her nonfiction has been published in Esquire, New York Magazine, Elle Magazine, The New York Observer, Glamour Magazine and The Sun Magazine. Lisa’s work has been included in Best American Sports Writing and Best American Political Writing. She is currently at work on her debut nonfiction for Simon and Schuster.