No sooner did Tad acquire a girlfriend than did he commence his plans to cheat. He had never done it before, but others had, and they spoke highly of it. Cheating, sneaking around, it was like a spy movie, only with smooches. He had to thank Chelsea for providing this opportunity. Before she bestowed her affections on him, he was in no position to prevaricate about anything. He was a non-actor; now she’d made him an actor. It was like gaining certification.
As Tad was a science-minded person, he began with a spreadsheet. In the leftmost column he plunked the names of girls who he thought might be receptive. To each he assigned a numerical probability of responding to his advances. Another column was devoted to a distance rating — the girl had to be far enough away to prompt an adventure, but not too far to make a more than day of it, and not too close that her social circles would intersect very much with his. He considered adding an attractiveness coefficient, but it just factored straight out of his equation: they were all perfect tens to him; they were girls, after all. Differences between them were exaggerated, generally by the girls themselves. Tad triggered the multiplication function on his spreadsheet, picked the top names, and set about crafting his brazen overtures.
Only they were really not that lascivious. He wasn’t that sort of fellow. Instead they were playful, leading, winking, kinda gross. Tad dipped his finger in the cream to see how warm it was. All the messages had to go out at once — that was important. Control the elements you can control, and leave the rest to contingency. Any quant would agree. He drew back his bow and fired many arrows at once, and waited for whatever happened next.
To occupy himself in the interim, Tad turned to a Bart Samore story. Bart was a collective fiction generated by Julian’s former hallmates. Anyone could compose a Bart Samore story at any time, in any style, though lurid flash fiction was always preferred. Contradictions between stories were meant to be settled by majority vote, but in practice this never came up; Samore was, through force of his suave personality, able to transcend the meagre limits of narrative. Tad considered it all canon, and it didn’t bother him that Bart Samore was, simultaneously, a stock trader, a soldier of fortune, a guardian of secrets, a gamekeeper, an astronaut, the manager of a bordello, a serial killer and a Senator. Offensiveness was the unifying thread between the stories: the tale must be as vulgar and violent and offensive as the composer’s conscience would allow. Once finished, a Bart Samore story was posted to a central server to be enjoyed by all.
Tad was pleased to see a brand new tale by Chad. He found the part where Bart Samore ravaged the girlie on a rock next to a transformer by the lake particularly gripping. All the boaters watched.
No matter how Tad tried, he could never manage to be anywhere near as vile as Chad was on his tamest day. Under Chad’s direction, Bart Samore was a scourge of morality, capable of the most deliciously heartless acts. No woman was safe from his charms or depredations. An encounter with Chad’s Bart Samore always expanded Tad’s horizons — the frame of his sexual understanding — and the newest tale certainly did not disappoint. Tad thrilled to the wreckage left in the wake of Bart Samore. What a magnificent monster they’d made!, well, more Chad than Tad, but Tad had done his part, from time to time.
Periodically he paused his reading to check if he’d gotten any replies. He hadn’t. Two hours passed, and then three, and then four. Tad turned off the sound on his messenger so he wouldn’t become absorbed by thoughts of it — he’d just check in on the quarter hour, or every ten minutes, or every five. Still nothing. Had he worded his solicitation improperly? Perhaps the lede was not as punchy as it needed to be. He felt he had a fine handle on his own sexual market value (SMV) as it pertained to Chelsea; i.e., she seemed to like him. It did not seem plausible that Chelsea was so unrepresentative of female tastes that she’d be the only girl interested. Tad chalked it up to a small sample distribution error, sent Chelsea a nice good-night message, and put himself to sleep.
Next morning brought no answers. At this rate, he’d never get to cheat and would be forever stuck on 1. Todd had been like that: he’d spent all three and a half college years stuck on 1 and never arriving at 2 or beyond. How Chad had teased him. But Todd had deliberately chosen to de-emphasize his social skills in favor of alternate character traits he felt were optimal. His Bart Samore stories were like that, too: no sweet-talk, just blunt, grueling, bloody action. Tad found them vaguely unsatisfying. He was, however, in no position to criticize, for he’d been at zero and everyone knew it but was too polite to say anything. Thank goodness Chelsea had straightened that out. He browsed through an online gift catalog for a trinket representing his appreciation, purchased it, posted it to her place, put a rush on it, which cost extra.
A beep from his device: finally, a message. To his amazement it was from Elsie. He didn’t even remember sending her a sexual solicitation. But there was her reply. Given its leading tone and careful, ambiguous syntax, she was, very possibly, receptive to his overtures.
Then Tad considered two drawbacks. Elsie had been Chad’s girlfriend, and he had reason to believe that Ted’s fixation on her had not waned over time. This he knew because Chad had been distraught about it in an instant message chat. Tad hated conversations like that: he never knew what to say. There were proper words earmarked for consolation but he could never seem to find them. The second drawback was not unrelated: Tad had painted an unflattering picture of Elsie. By his description Elsie was cold and vindictive. Well, that would be a departure. Chelsea was warm and welcoming. Tad would try cold and vindictive and color in the rest later.
A ticket: that’s what he needed, round trip from New Haven to Cambridge, where Elsie was finishing school. Roused and ready, Tad stuffed a duffel bag and threw it over his shoulder, grabbed his tablet, and took off for the station.
Girls, many girls, girls, girls everywhere, spilling out of the quads, walking together on Massachusetts Avenue, straightening their glasses, toting books from the stores, lingering by the theaters across from Harvard Yard, probing the smooth screens of their phones with their index fingers, ducking class in comic-book shops, daylight splashing off their long necks and bare shoulders. Spring everywhere, but especially here, that feeling of incipient liberation, the lid popping off, the sudden death of cold weather, the joy of the bell and the turn of the calendar in the excited face of a college girl. Tad wanted to be friends with every one of them. Not to kiss them all, necessarily, but to have that option available. What torture to be here, mouth watering, at the infinite candy counter — to see so many but know so few. No wonder Bart Samore was always so irritable.
It might be different, thought Tad, his bag drooping as he stood at a busy intersection, if his number was high. Like Ted, for instance, Ted who gathered them up like wildflowers, and liked to do them with the door hanging open so Tad and others could hear the girl in the throes. Was that ever Elsie?, he wondered. It seemed altogether possible. Chad was a student of Tripp L., a famous pick-up artist (PUA) whose schedule appearance at their University had been blocked by the feminists. That’s OK, Chad told him, the gist of Tripp L. was simple: you had to use negs. Cute little negative comments, black, skin-pinching barbs on the charm bracelet of conversation, there to let the girl know that she doesn’t meet the standard of attractiveness.
Tad found this absurd. All girls met the standard. They were all equally beautiful. How could they fail to realize this? Best practices notwithstanding, he could never insult a girl.
For instance, here was Elsie, waiting for him at the co-op as she said she would be, wearing a blue dress, legs the color of vanilla cream, her small nose still as exact as he remembered it, flat eyes stitched to her face like a pair of brown buttons and a clip in the shape of a butterfly in her short curly hair. There was no way to improve on it; it was irreducible, like an integer. She’d applied her lipstick crooked — it bunched up at the lower corner of her mouth. A great blot, a mark of distinction. What a gift asymmetry was!, each girl with her own identifying characteristics, different from all the others but still perfect in her way. It was amazing to him that they could keep on spinning out variations on the template. Elsie greeted him with a smile that involved the teeth more than the lips. She consented to an ice cream cone. It was a warm day.
Together they walked to Toscanini’s for a scoop. Tad felt anxious to dive right in but didn’t know where to start. In the stories, Bart Samore was forceful: there would have been grabs and holds, the sort of thing that builds a reputation. But he himself had never made a move on a girl. He’d been matched with Chelsea by a digital relationship aggregator. For fun, they’d both attended a dating conference in the lobby of the extended stay hotel across from the corporate campus; their questionnaires demonstrated ninety-seven per cent sexual compatibility. When they’d compared their results, she’d joked that they ought to kiss. Then she kissed him and it was no longer a joke.
He gave Chelsea credit for that: that leap from the theoretical to the actual. Tad didn’t think he’d ever do it. He was better collecting data points and recognizing patterns than he was at acting on them. Beyond that, no assurance by a girl that she was actually interested in him could ever be enough to convince him that it was true. At the ice cream shop he attempted to read the signs, but mostly he made small talk, about odd flavors of ice cream, and nootropics regimens. Tad swore by pramiracetam (CI-879) — 400 mg daily in a stack with choline and other racetams to increase mental acuity and social fluidity, which was critical now that he was in a fast-paced business environment. Elsie was trying to cut down on the modafinil; nearly impossible now that finals were coming. She rolled her eyes at him when he pointed out that that drug was illegal.
“Seen Chad?” she asked.
“Oh, oh yes, all the time. I mean, on the Internet.”
“He’s a bit underemployed at the moment.” It was true. Unlike the rest of the hall, Ted had failed to secure employment at a firm. Instead he worked retail. He claimed not to mind, but Tad didn’t believe him.
“Guess he was too deep.”
It was true: Chad often bragged about his depth. He contained multitudes; even when the surface of the water appeared placid, currents roiled in the riverbed. Deep emotions, deep passions, deep, ungovernable impulses, like the day he’d hurled a lacrosse ball through the glass-paneled window that divided their dormitory wing from the cafeteria. They’d all been assessed $87.50 for dorm damage; no one had turned him in. Even now he was loath to betray a good friend by laughing at him.
Elsie, however, felt no such compunction. Depth!, she sneered, what an awful quality. Unmapped regions of the brain — who would even boast about that? She wanted the unconscious raised and drained like a polder. Personality ought to be as legible as any other data set. Straightforward and simple, repeatable, a signature on a blank piece of paper, to be filed.
Conversation stalled. The line was long and the kids at the front of the queue asked for flavor samples. Rude, said Elsie, under her breath. Without even intending to, Tad scanned the line for girls with better demeanors. And there was one, right in front of him, an Asian girl, pert with a perfect posture and a loose cotton t-shirt, straight hair combed, sandals on but no toenail polish, no cosmetics at all, actually, just plain contentment with her natural appearance. Perhaps she’d make a better match for him. Perhaps any of these girls on the line might. It grieved him all over again — that he was only entitled to talk to this one girl, the one that fate had put in his way, because of a prior association with her and a shared interest in cognitive science, classes in common, friends in common.
The time to order had arrived. Tad chose soft-serve miso honey in a waffle cone. It drizzled out of the machine in a continuous ribbon. Elsie opted for chocolate chocolate chip with tile-sized chunks of chocolate. They sat together on the sofa by the window. With a plastic fork Elsie stabbed at the chunks.
“Hear you got a g.f. now.”
“Yes, yes I do.”
“Wheredja get her from.” Flat, no affect. He slurped his soft-serve.
“She’s part of the reception pool actually. Though she’s looking to cultivate new skills.”
“Not enough for ya, huh?”
“Cut the crap, Tad. With your overnight bag.”
She knew why he was here!, she wanted to get right to it. Well of course she did, he’d made his designs apparent. This card-playing aspect of the cheater lifestyle — he’d have to accustom himself to that over time. I’ve got something you want, Elsie purred, and you’ve got something I want. Maybe we could make a deal. It would be no great hardship for her, she said, you’re cute enough. Stupid as that haircut is. But you need to give me the password. To that hateful site you boys do.
Tad’s wide brow furrowed: she could only be talking about Bart Samore. But how could she know about that?, they’d all sworn each other to secrecy. Above all no girls were allowed. Bart Samore did things that ladies ought never to be privy to — filthy, disgusting things often involving violence to sensitive parts. Coercion, manipulation, forced penetration with bizarre objects: this was coin of the realm to Bart Samore. He’d torn through flesh like a sword; he’d committed unspeakable acts on pool tables. She couldn’t be privy to that, could she? But yes, she had been; Chad, she told him, had read the pages aloud to her. Who do you think Chad was writing about in those damn stories? Me. Those stories are directed at me.
This seemed a smidgen self-absorbed. Bart Samore had had many consorts of many nations. Moreover, while Chad had composed most of the entries — the good ones, anyway — the rest of the gang had also contributed to the development of the character. It was rude of Elsie to insert herself into the ongoing narrative like this.
Don’t worry, she said, I’m not going to disfigure any of your precious rapey stories. I just want to crack open that archive and add a Bart Samore story of my own.
He couldn’t. He couldn’t just turn over the keys to the site to anyone. Authorization to post to the Bart Samore site was not his to give or take away, he explained, it could only be granted by the unanimous consent of the hall. Over her cone Elsie stared at him. Well then. I suppose our business here is concluded, Tad.
A door swung shut and Tad squirmed on the sofa. At once he felt the incalculable distance between 1 and 2. 2 was the pads of the scale, the seats on the teeter-totter, the pots of gold at the end of a rainbow of sensations and experiences. 1, by comparison, was hardly anything at all. He had to be honest: none of his other targets had responded. Insofar as Tad had a little black book, he had exhausted its possibilities. He couldn’t squander this chance. She’d post a story; it probably wouldn’t be any good or draw much attenton. She didn’t have much practice mobilizing the character and it was not as easy as it looked. Cautiously he leaned in toward Elsie. Her eyelids fluttered, and he noticed that slight forward motion of her lower jaw, perhaps a millimeter (1 mm) advance toward him to accept a kiss. Tad knew what it would taste like: lipstick and chocolate chunks and a slight whiff of decay, and the numeral 2. But he didn’t kiss her. He whispered a password into her ear.
She did not trust him. Elsie required verification. Not just the sort she could get on her phone’s operating system — she wanted to familiarize herself with the site’s back end. Tad followed her to a computer lab in one of the great concrete buildings on the edge of campus. A cognitive science building, he recalled from the facilities map he’d committed to memory in his first week. A first class building, he thought, with nice revolving doors and a marble desk in the receiving area, scrubby looking trees in the square holes in the cement; everything was state-of-the art, as it was in his own home corporate atrium. Elsie switched on the LEDs, slunk into a chair by a silver terminal, and waved her hand. Shoo, she told him. Wait outside. I’ll meet you in five.
Out in the hall, Tad enjoyed the ghostlike feeling common to those who return to their schools in the year after graduation: there but not there like a Heisenberg particle, welcome but not really, transient, slipping from a communal existence to the more spectral state of adulthood and the long slow march. Students yo-yoed back for all kinds of reasons, most unknown even to them, many embarrassing. But he had nothing to be ashamed about. He was, unlike some of his classmates, fully employed at a reputable firm.
Tad fished in his bag for his wallet, found it, and extracted his student identification card from the back flap. The college had probably demagnetized it. But perhaps they hadn’t? It might grant him access to any of these adjacent rooms. Yet if he tried it, and discovered that it had been demagnetized, then there was really no use hanging on to it. Impracticality would force him to discard it, and he didn’t want to do that. It was so crisply laminated. He’d taken care never to blunt the corners. Across the hall was an identical lab with green standby lights glowing on the towers under lines of monitors. He could slip in, log into the site, spy on Elsie, find out what she was up to. That’s what Bart Samore would do, that exactly. Well, it’s what his own Bart Samore would do; if Todd were writing the story, Bart Samore would perhaps be more trigger-happy. Just as Tad was about to press his card against the black rectangle of plastic beneath the handle, his phone rang.
It was Chelsea. He took the call.
“Tad, I just got your present. Oh my God, it is so sweet of you. You are so nice. You are really the nicest.”
This did not seem inaccurate, although Tad had never really considered it before. He was indeed a very nice fellow: balanced and all, never thoughtless. Didn’t raise his voice. Others always acted so rude and often rash. What are you doing right now, she asked him, her voice lively. Why don’t you come on over pumpkin pie.
“Oh no, no I couldn’t.”
Tad gulped and then whistled. In his eagerness to get to Cambridge he had failed to craft a cover story. He didn’t expect Chelsea to ask inconvenient questions in the midst of his excursion. If he didn’t learn to improvise, he hadn’t a chance to make it to 3.
“Never mind. I know where you are. I know all about you. You should be ashamed.”
“You should. I can tell. You’re in the office, aren’t you?”
In a noncommittal fashion he chuckled. I knew it, said Chelsea, and on a Saturday, a beautiful spring day. You’re such a workaholic, you and the rest of the new guys. She was no fool, she said, she could hear the bing bong of the elevator door in the background. Well she had half a mind to bake some cookies and bring them round. How would you like that?
He said, truthfully, that he would like it very much. Chelsea was a sure hand with sugar cookies. She adorned her batches with multicolored sprinkles. I’m gonna let you get back to your drudgery, she teased. Then she released him from the call and mixed the dry ingredients. They were indeed very well matched, thought Tad: he was again impressed with their compatibility. Chelsea didn’t get angry when he had work to do. That was important. Computer assisted matchmaking had it roots right here on this campus, thought Tad, with pride in the old alma mater: Contact, Inc. and Data-Mate, in the 1960s, first fed questionnaires from prospective lovers into mainframes. Inevitably genetic analysis would supersede all the guesswork and human error: removing the indeterminacy from sexual coupling would be quite a relief. It would soon be less of a hunt and more a selection from a vast catalog of options. Tad delighted in the direction of things.
As if thrown upon a projection screen, Elsie appeared in the hall. Quite a site you all have put together, she said. Quite an array of violent fantasies. Bet you think I’m going to welch on you now. Bet you don’t believe I have any intention of honoring our agreement.
“It crossed my mind,” admitted Tad.
“I got you wrong. I knew you were tight with Chad but I thought you were different. I didn’t think of you as a sex maniac.”
“Oh, no, no. I’m a maniac.”
“I see. You didn’t advertise it. You never had a girlfriend at school though. Always hanging with the boys.”
Why rub it in?
“Odd kind of sex maniac you are. You didn’t party, didn’t drink, didn’t go out. What the fuck did you do for sex?”
“Frequently I masturbated.”
Bart Samore stories, he conceded to himself.
“Well, congratulations, Tad. You fit right in after all. Turns out you’re back on campus for the same reason all your buddies come back.”
“Why is that?”
“To pick up the spare.”
C’mon, said Elsie. We got a way to go. She motioned to the front door with a quick sideways tilt to her head. Her little green drop earrings jangled. Leave your bag here. Nobody will bother with your silly boxer briefs. She led Tad into the sunshine and the Hubway station and its rack of share bicycles. Minutes later they sped together on the path by the Charles, sunshine white on the water and the bushy trees and tall brick buildings of Back Bay Boston straight across the basin. Then she turned right, away from the river and up toward Observatory Hill. Flowers bloomed everywhere Tad looked: from strips of dedicated earth in front yards, wild on rough patches in the verge between the curbs and the lawns, in cauldron-sized planters on street corners, punching their tiny petals at the sky, jostling for attention. If Tad pedaled fast enough and allowed his eyes to unfocus slightly, the flower blurred together into streaks of red and orange and rhododendron pink. Finger-painting directly on the celluloid of the afternoon, hot trails from a crude Photoshop paintbrush, May botanical delight.
Elsie traveled fast. Tad huffed to keep up. He hadn’t been on a bicycle very much since graduation. He watched Elsie, spokes whirring, now ten yards ahead of him, now twenty, impatiently waving him on when she thought he might have fallen away. The long muscles in her calves stretched and compressed in rhythm. Her flat shoes peeled off the bottom of her feet with each push, exposing a delicate sole and round heel before slipping back into place as the pedal rose up. Tad marveled at the gentle perfection of that arch. Tripp L. was wrong, maybe Chad was wrong, too; there’s nothing bad that could ever be said about a girl’s looks. Tad felt incapable of such strategic dishonesty.
They stopped at the edge of a park Tad had never visited. In one motion, Elsie hopped off of the seat and began pushing her bicycle along a dirt trail that led into dense underbrush. Tad followed. Leaves and branches closed in around them. The trail was used: empty glass bottles and loose cardboard boxes were partially covered by twigs and mulch. The light dimmed as they advanced, the air grew humid, and Tad’s nostrils were jammed with organic odors: dirt, his own sweat, vegetation, rot. It resolved to background noise — sensation subsumed by mounting excitement. They made a pin turn in the path and a clearing opened before them. Tad stopped short and smiled.
A rock, next to an electrical transformer, overlooking a lake. Tad had seen it just yesterday, but only in his imagination. Did it look exactly as he’d pictured it, or did seeing the scene pull his recollection it into conformity with the facts on the ground? Bart Samore had humiliated the girlie on the rock for the voyeuristic pleasure of the sailor boys. That was not precisely to his taste, but he did like the idea of an audience. If a boat came by, that would ratify the experience for him in a manner that few other things could: they would have seen him engaged in a sexual act, and to them he would be registered as a sexually active person (SAP).
Elsie placed both arms at the top of the rock and hoisted herself to its top. She let her legs dangle over the edge. They did not quite touch the earth. She kicked off both flats, unbuttoned the top two buttons on her dress, looked at Tad and turned her dirty palms outward. Well, she asked. Get on with it. Heart thrumming, he walked to the rock and touched Elsie, gently as the swipe of an insect’s wing, right where her neck met her clavicle. Her skin was moist and sticky. Like a waffle cone, Tad thought. He proceeded. No boats came by.
Later, riding the train back to New Haven, he reflected on the experience and decided it was satisfactory. There was none of tenderness he associated with Chelsea, none of that cooing business or pillow smooching or exchange of unearned complements that he enjoyed so much. But that was, he thought as he looked out the window into the Connecticut blackness, characteristic of Chelsea herself: she had that sort of a disposition. Elsie possessed a blunt, mercenary edge that had been a thrill to encounter. She had been quick and vigorous, savage even. Her dismissal of him after they’d concluded had not been without its own delicious charge. And now that he had Elsie and Chelsea as points of comparison, poles, so to speak, he could slot in future experiences on a continuum. Yes, cheating was greatly advisable and he could not wait to do it again. He would have to draw up a sound list of prospectives and fine-tune his solicitation letter.
One thing bothered Tad though. As he had bumbled the conversation on the phone with Chelsea, he hadn’t foreclosed the possibility that she would bake sugar cookies and rush them to the corporate campus. That had been a mistake. She may have arrived with a container of cookies with the dusting of finishing sugar and had no one to give them to. The cookies may have gone to waste. Or Chelsea might have searched for him, failed to find him, and taken the cookies to his place. There they might be on his doormat, broken in half, flung at the door in a rage, the colored sprinkles ground together into a paste. It was a terrible possibility. Tad had never seen Chelsea angry or even impatient. The closer his train got to New Haven, the more he worried. For the last two hours of his trip, he was so afraid of his phone that he buried it in his duffel bag and wrapped it up in a pair of tube socks so there was no chance he’d feel it vibrate.
But when he got home, there was no dented tin of cookies by the door. Nor were there any messages from Chelsea on his phone. When he rang her, he discovered that she’d found the sunshine so wonderfully narcotic that she’d fallen into a deep sleep. She’d been dozing on and off ever since; she hadn’t finished the cookies, but all the ingredients were still good for tomorrow. She hoped Tad had not worked himself to pieces. He assured her he had in a way.
Tad fixed himself a tall glass of milk. He drank it down with his nootropic regimen, as many of the pills in the stack were fat soluble and required a lipid to pass the blood-brain barrier efficiently. Then he sat at the computer, logged in, and read the strangest and most alarming Bart Samore story he’d ever encountered in the corpus: one written in short little brutal sentences, Elsie abusing the copula, subjects clinging to predicates with a death grip.
In the tale, an abused woman journeys by train from New Haven to Cambridge, Massachusetts to meet the notorious Bart Samore. Over ice cream cones at Toscanini’s (she has the honey miso), they bond. Bart Samore acquiesces to her demands for sexual favors in exchange for the password to the database of Bart Samore stories. She follows Bart Samore to a rock next to an electrical transformer overlooking a lake. Once she arrives at the rock, she disrobes and waits for Bart Samore to ravage her. Instead, to the cheers of a group of strapping sailor boys observing from the lake, Bart Samore takes the flat end of a garden shovel and bashes the girlie’s face in with it. Blood and cartilage splatters all over the rock. Afterward Bart Samore proceeds to the university computer lab, where he composes the story of a woman who traded her body to a boy from New Haven in exchange for the password to the database of Bart Samore stories. Once finished, Bart Samore blows his brains out.
Tad rested his chin on the back of his knuckles and thought hard. That sure was confusing. What perplexed him most about the story: he didn’t know whether he was meant to identify with Bart Samore or with the girlie. But that was Elsie’s talent, he decided, she was able to inscribe that ambiguity into the narrative. She did have a way with words. Sure, this was not the freewheeling Bart Samore that he’d come to expect, but it was an alternate interpretation of Bart Samore that took the character in fresh directions. Yes, he felt certain that he had done the right thing by giving Elsie the password to the site, and he continued to feel that way, even as he looked down at his phone and noticed that Chad was calling.
– Tris McCall