Emma Clarkson had the worst luck with dating. She faced far weirder than the men that had tricked the visi-grids and showed up older and plumper than their pictures. She had experienced a man who, not half a drink in, stood up to use the rest room only to turn around and puke in her fettucine alfredo. Then there was the man that she met for a romantic walk through the park, only five minutes in for him to be stung by a bee and need to be rushed to the hospital. Her last glimpse of him he weakly waved goodbye to her as the doors of the ambulance closed.
Most of her friends were already paired up, having the good fortune to have met their significant others before the Model Murders and the drastic shift to virtual, verified dating. They would listen to her stories in a sort of bemused amusement and shake their heads at her misadventures.
Love did not just seem to be hard to find; it seemed to actively run away from her. She had begun to swipe on CupidConnect with a sort of curious masochism as to what calamity would befall her next.
This Friday she found herself at a low-lit bar in SoHo. Teal velvet couches were tucked into softly curved alcoves, strewn with jeweled tone cushions. Peacocks in various stages of flight adorned the walls.
Emma perched on a bar stool. The bar itself was carved from a dozen gold rods that twinkled in the warm light. Tonight it was to be Peter, a veterinarian from Hoboken. With her luck he would walk into the bar after just being sprayed by a skunk.
She turned and saw Peter. He was beautiful, more beautiful than his photos in fact. He had light red hair and deep blue eyes, a strong jaw covered in golden shadow. She could see well-defined muscles that moved below his white shirt, and as he hugged her he smelled heavenly.
He ordered a whiskey neat, she an elderflower martini. She learned he was the youngest of three brothers, always the odd sibling out that did not like sports. He was more transfixed by the lizards that scurried across the soccer field than the gameplay. She found him passionate and introspective, and as the lights of the bar sunk lower she was filled with the mounting feeling that all of her bad dates were simply a prelude for her to be able to fully appreciate this one.
Peter’s phone went off in his pocket. He smiled at her and took it out.
“It’s my office,” his forehead furrowed.
“You should take it,” she said even as she hoped he would not.
“No, no,” Peter shook his head, “I’m sure it can wait until morning,” he smiled at her, “How about another drink? Or how about we grab a bite? I know a good ramen place around here.”
His phone went off again.
“It sounds like it might be important.”
He mouthed sorry at her and picked up the phone. She could not hear the words on the other end but she could tell the tone was rushed and frightened. Peter turned pale. He snapped his phone shut.
Behind him, shaded by an alcove, she could see another man had snapped his phone shut at the same time.
“A fire started in the office. I need to go, now.” Peter stood up, “I’ll pay the check on the way out.”
He looked for a moment like he might kiss her but instead turned and left.
Emma had no time to feel dejected by Peter’s sudden departure because the man in the alcove moved. He had on a black leather jacket and black pants; she could not see his face, only that he had a closely shaved head.
When the man turned towards her and she saw he had two silver bars that pierced his left eyebrow. She quickly turned to the bar before he made eye contact. She recognized him. She was sure of it. He had been smoking outside of the restaurant on her last disastrous date.
The man got up and left. She grabbed her purse and followed him.
He headed south, away from the warm light the bars poured out to their wayfaring patrons to guide them safely from the sidewalk, beckoned on by the soothing lilt of conversation and glass that tinkled together.
She followed as quietly as she could, but it was hard to do so when his pace far outmatched her own. The tap of her heels struck heavy on the pavement.
She lost the man as he rounded a corner. She stopped on the street. All the shops along this stretch were long closed, their shop keepers and their shoppers long retreated to their far off nests. Far ahead a homeless man dragged a bag of cans that jingled against the cobblestones. She suddenly felt very silly and alone.
As she turned to head back home a neon sign caught her eye. It was a broken heart, hung over a black door. The door was barely visible from the street, recessed at basement level below a flight of steep stairs.
She took the stairs down and gingerly opened the door. She was met with the smell of piss and cigarette smoke. The walls were adorned with a handful of 1920’s pin-up girl posters whose bodies had faded to grey, shadowy outlines. Emma could see it was almost all men here, most clad in black and clustered close together over tall wooden tables. Their heads swiveled towards her like birds of prey. Clad as she was in a burgundy silk dress, gold earrings and kitten heels, Emma felt exposed. The men’s stares grazed her back and chest.
But she had caught sight of the man she sought.
“Excuse me, sorry,” she said as she gingerly squeezed past a group, sidled her body through.
There he was in front of her.
“You followed me,” she said.
He seemed surprised to see her. But there in his gaze was recognition.
He glanced at her with a raised brow, “I think it is more appropriate to say you followed me.”
“I mean now, yes, but before. You were there at my date, and at my previous date too. I…just don’t know why.”
The bar tender put a pint down on the bar. “Bringing bait into the bar now Arrow?”
“She won’t be staying long.”
The bartender shrugged.
“You should go. No one as pretty as you wants to see how the sausage is made.”
She did not know what to make of his statement. But near her she could overhear another group.
“Poison ivy resin. Put it into his shirt. The kid couldn’t last fifteen minutes. He was all,” the man hunched over and swung his arms like a monkey, scratching himself all over.
She turned back to the man referred to as Arrow. “You….destroy dates? But why? Are you all,” she looked around at the other men at the bar, “sadists? trying to destroy others’ love because you can’t find love of your own?”
Arrow laughed, which came out more a harsh bark, and moved closer to her. She could see now that his cheeks were pockmarked and his teeth browned at the edges. “No, we’re simply capitalists.”
He pulled out his phone and brought up her dating profile. But instead of her bio below her photo she saw dollar amounts and a graph.
“You make CupidConnect over two thousand dollars a week with the number of men, and a few women, trying to connect with you. You alone make up half my paycheck.”
He passed her his beer, “You can have this. That koala, no, kangaroo picture you took recently? Sent your graph over the twenty five hundred dollar mark. Paid for my new bike. Thanks for that.”
“What?” she stammered as she stared at his phone.
She grabbed onto the bar for she felt weak. Everything in her wanted to reject what she saw.
Emma had been cat-called on the street by men who purred out through thick lips what they would want to do to her, and she had to leave her memory for them to turn over and over in their heads like a dead mouse in a cat’s paws. She had a man grab her wrist and not let go when she turned down a drink from him at the club. Around her the other club goers had ignored her, so eager to catch the bartender’s eye. She had to slap him to get released, which promptly got her and her friends evicted from the club.
Nothing compared to this in terms of the violation she felt now. She had gone to that a nature preserve with her sister and there had held a baby kangaroo that had been abandoned by its mother and was now taken care of by the animal sanctuary. It had been a beautiful, joyful moment that now felt robbed of its color.
“So you make sure we can’t find love to keep us on the platform.”
She could not grasp how there was this entire hidden section of her profile where every facet of her being was scored. And that there was someone actively making sure she did not find love and happiness to keep her on a subscription service.
She looked around at the other men in the room and thought about at the dozens, perhaps hundreds of people these men were actively blocking from love.
“I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars to let me go. I…just want to find my person.” At the age of thirty-two, Emma had experienced over fifteen years of dates, hook-ups, and failed relationships. She was tired. The fantasies of a man that lit a spark inside of her had dimmed, replaced by a sort of endless perpetual motion, repeated over and over like some shamanistic ritual to ward away the fear of weddings where she was on the outskirts, goodbyes to friends as they left for the suburbs with their broken promises that they would visit often. The hope of a prince charming had long been replaced by the smaller aim for companionship to fend off the silence that crept sludge-like through her apartment each night and threatened to smother her.
“And give up a decade, if not more, of job security?” Arrow snorted, “Good one, girlie. Besides, if it’s not me it’ll be someone else. No way with your graph would you be let go until you’re in your forties,” Arrow looked her up and down, “With your legs, and you went to that fancy school, right? Might have to wait til your fifties.”
“Or,” Arrow leaned closer to her, so she could smell the beer on his breath and the stench of cigarette smoke that oozed out of his pores, “you could go the unverified route. Take you chances off-app. Bill, who was the last girl that tried her luck at dating someone unverified? Tanya was it?”
“Tanya Menendes. Pre-school teacher from Brooklyn.”
“Going unverified didn’t work out so well for her, did it now?”
“I believe she was found floating under the Williamsburg Bridge.”
“And that’s why you should…”
Bill chimed in, “Go with the connection you can trust. Go with CupidConnect.”
“That’s right Bill. We wouldn’t want to have another pretty girl end up saying her last words to the fishes.”
Emma looked back and forth between Arrow and Bill. The men around them had grown silent, their ears cocked towards their conversation. She could see their eyes in the mirror behind the bar; they were fixated on her.
“I’ll… I’ll become fat. I’ll delete all the photos on my profile.”
Arrow lurched forward and grabbed her by the throat. His movements were so sudden and so forceful she had no time to react. She clawed her nails against his hand. His thumb pushed into her throat so she could not breathe.
Foggy outlines clustered around them.
“No, I don’t think you will.”
“Got a problem you need help with?” a shadowed form spoke.
“I don’t think so,” Arrow turned back to look at her, softening his grip slightly so she could just barely gasp, “You could have walked right back out of that door without asking any questions. But you came in, and now you threatened my money. So,” Arrow pulled out his phone and pulled up a profile, “You’re gonna give this guy Charlie a chance. He looks like a fat pig, and he is, but he has paid over twelve thousand dollars to be at the top of your messages every evening for the last two years, but recently, he’s been giving up hope. You’re going to give the poor sap a chance, and make the date so good he’s fucking pining for a second one.”
He loosened his grip on her neck and she stumbled back into a stool that tottered and fell.
The whole bar grew silent. She realized they did not look at her. No, they looked to Arrow. Waited for a signal.
“The bait gonna be a problem?” Bill asked.
“No,” Arrow looked at her, “I don’t think she will. The white women, they cry and complain. But they get back in line.”
Emma grabbed her purse from the ground. She could barely see, her eyes were so clouded with tears. Her fingers were so numb she could barely lift her purse from the floor.
Emma stood unsteady but adrenaline took hold. She careened through the groups of men up the stairs and out into the night.
She ran. Each block seemed a step, so strong was the fear that coursed through her body. Fear that felt like cold river water, fear that lapped at her heels, each step a push not to drown in it.
She ran until each step became a stumble, until her bruised throat was raw and ragged and the world around her had faded to the space below her feet.
She looked around. The city around her was now the quiet of deep night; even the late night party-goers had departed, the streets left to the rats that could now enjoy their dinners unfettered by car or pedestrian.
It appeared no one had followed her. She made her way slower now back to her apartment. Every few steps she looked over her shoulder to make sure there was still no one behind her. The men’s stares seemed to loom from every shadow, each gust of wind felt like ethereal fingers that traced along her spine.
When Emma reached her apartment she did not have the strength to make it to her bed. She sprawled out on her living room floor, dug her nails into the carpet to feel something real and secure. She cried, tears of exhaustion and fear and powerlessness. The words of Arrow pierced her memory, “The white women, they cry and complain. But they get back in line” and this made each cry hurt more as she tried to hold them back. She did not want to give him the power that what he said was true.
The pale weak light of the early morn crept through her window, still hesitant to displace the moonlight. She curled up into a ball, clasped her knees into herself. She should not have followed that man, should never have stepped foot into that bar. She felt stupid beyond belief, and far in over her head.
But as her cries slowed another emotion came to the fore. It was relief. Many nights Emma had come back from a date and had wondered if there was something deeply, fundamentally wrong with her that she could not find someone that she felt a deep connection with. All of the batshit crazy occurrences on her dates had felt like the universe telling her she had no right to be loved. But this was not true. Her years of loneliness were not her fault.
The light turned warmer, bolder. With neck and knees sore, Emma turned onto her back. She looked around at her apartment, the books lined neatly on their bookcases, the low wooden coffee table, the gently waking plants, the comfortable couch with its embroidered throw pillows. She wondered if she could just be comfortable here, for the next ten, perhaps twenty years until she was worth so little that no one would bother to ruin her love life.
“They get back in line.”
The words rang in her head again, but this time was different. She saw two paths of her life in her minds eye. In one she could spend the next twenty years going on dates that would not lead anywhere. She would be able to come back to this apartment with its safety and its comfort.
The other path might be brutal and short. The many men in the bar pointed to a larger operation, and the data about her on the man’s phone suggested this was an operation that was sanctioned by CupidConnect themselves. This was a path she did not know the steps of, and was unsure that she was strong enough to walk.
“They get back in line.”
But it would be a path that she chose. For years, the path of her life had not been her own.
She said, to the plants and the bookcase and the light that poured in through the window, “No, they don’t.”
End of Chapter 1.