In the spring Robbie started traveling to job interviews. I was thrilled when he accepted a job with Eventive. I’d never heard of it, but it was based in Boston, not on the west coast. It was becoming increasingly clear that it wasn’t guaranteed that he would take me with him. He might not even notice if I wasn’t there, at least not until he got sick of eating pizza and living in a pigsty. I did all the cooking, and if I didn’t clean the toilets, no one would. But with his new employer so close, he might not mind if I climbed into his Mazda and rode down with him and helped him carry his stuff into wherever he was living. If he moved to California I worried he wouldn’t buy me a plane ticket. He could afford it, but he might not think of it, and he would get mad if I asked. He would feel like I was hemming him in, and he hated being hemmed in.
I tried to bring it up, once, our future. He didn’t want to talk about it.
In June the house emptied as Robbie and his friends graduated and moved away. Robbie signed over the title of the Mazda to me; it would just be in the way in Boston. His parents put the house up for sale. I got a job at a Chipotle and another one at a warehouse and found a studio apartment in a rougher part of town that I could just about afford if I was careful. I signed up for a couple of classes at a community college; they were open-enrollment and willing to overlook my high school record, though they told me I’d need to get a GED if I wanted to get a degree.
Allie messaged me from her dorm room at Southern Maine, but I didn’t respond. I stopped visiting the IRC channels I had grown up with and tried to focus on simply surviving day by day. It didn’t always work, but that’s what box wine was for, and I had a neighbor who would pick it up for me when she made her weekly run to the liquor store, never questioning my age. Basically, I was miserable, but on the upside, I was too exhausted to dwell on what a wreck my life had become.
In early November, Robbie texted to see if I could visit him in Boston over the weekend. I called in sick to my jobs and bought a Concord bus ticket, which was cheaper than driving and paying for parking. I was so excited as I approached his building my hands shook and my stomach was in knots.
Robbie buzzed me in and met me at the door of his condo in his standard t-shirt and jeans, feet bare, hair uncombed. He seemed a little disappointed—he told me he missed his old Mazda—and thought it was hilarious that I walked from the bus station instead of calling an Uber like a normal person. But he was happy to show me into his barely furnished yet somehow incredibly messy apartment. He got us both beers—some craft brew I’d never heard of – and started to tell me all about his new DevOps job, a torrent of words charged with excitement. He dropped the name of his boss, Adam Barton, a lot.
“He’s so freaking smart. Not just about tech, though he knows his shit; he’s incredibly visionary about how to grow the enterprise. He travels all the time to talk to heads of state and billionaires. He’s got a million things going on, but still, he takes the time to talk to me about what I want to do, about where I see potential. He had a party for us at his summer place, which is amazing. Even took us out on his yacht. Well, he says it’s not a yacht, it’s a sailboat, but it was pretty big and had, like, a crew. I wish you could have been there.”
“I’m so glad this is working out for you.”
“It’s perfect. Emily, I’m in heaven. I interviewed for a lot of jobs, but I could tell this place was different. Adam has such a big vision, and he’s assembled some top-notch talent. Plus secured millions in investment. There’s no limit to what we could do. None. I feel like I’m in on the ground floor of the next Google or Facebook.”
“I thought you hated Facebook.”
“I do. But I mean in terms of innovation, growth, even market cap maybe, someday. But right now, the company is new enough, small enough, that I can play a major role in deciding our direction. There’s something incredibly bold about Adam. Nothing’s off the table, nothing is impossible. I’m telling you, Eventive is going to do amazing things. I can’t believe I’m part of it. I’m so lucky.”
“They’re lucky to have you.” I play-punched him, but he answered seriously.
“That’s true. I’m working really hard. I may not have a PhD from Stanford or MIT like some of them, but I do better work than most of the other guys. I mean, they’re talented, but I’m better. I know I am. I’ve got a lot of ideas. Before the year’s out I’ll be moving up to Senior DevOps Engineer to lead a special project. Adam says I could become a VP if I keep it up.” He was staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the city, lights starting to come on as light faded from the sky. “I missed you, Em.” He sounded surprised.
“God, I’ve missed you, too, Robbie. So much.”
There was a party that weekend. I didn’t have anything to wear, so Robbie withdrew a wad of cash from an ATM and I went shopping while he went in to the office to work on an idea that occurred to him that morning. I got a dress and shoes and got my hair cut and the blue tint touched up with streaks of purple, and a manicure—my first ever. I even got up the nerve to buy some lipstick at a cosmetics counter, but chickened out when it came to the complicated makeup the girl was trying to talk me into. There was still a lot of money left over and I thought about getting Robbie a present. He lived a monkish lifestyle, not interested in owning things, which made it hard. I finally stopped at a used bookstore and asked if they had Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming. They didn’t, but the staffer suggested I go to Cambridge and try the stores around Harvard. I did, and found what I was looking for, the three original volumes in a first edition.
Yeah, it was kind of weird to buy him a present with his money, but it felt right.
I got back to Robbie’s place in plenty of time to shower and get dressed. I looked at myself in the mirror: Who are you? The dress fit perfectly and cost more than anything I’d ever owned. The shoes made clackity noises on the tiled floor and made me feel both taller and unsteady. I wasn’t used to wearing heels, even the low-rise ones I chose. I had to practice walking until I was sure I wouldn’t fall over and embarrass Robbie with my klutziness. By the time he got back, I was ready to go, and he was pleased with my gift, even though a previous owner had used a highlighter and jotted notes in the margins. “Cool. This is, like, a classic.”
“I was afraid you might have a copy, but…”
“Not in print.” He caressed the spine. “Also, did you see who owned it?” He pointed to a signature inside the front cover. “Brilliant guy. Did some of the early work on natural language processing. These are probably his notes.” He paged through, tilting his head to read the scribbles. He flipped the page, and read some more, totally absorbed.
“Maybe we should get ready?” I said five minutes later. He looked up from where he had slumped on the couch. “For the party?”
He looked at the complicated watch he had taken to wearing since moving to Boston, one with multiple dials that looked like equipment you’d find on a submarine. “It’s real close, it won’t take long to get there.”
“I thought you might want to shower and change.” His eyebrows came together in that puzzled look I knew so well. I wanted to kiss that spot at the top of his nose where the skin folded into a little knot of confusion. “Not that you have to. I just thought… It’s fine. We can just go. Whenever.”
He lifted an arm and sniffed. “You’re right, I should probably clean up.” He headed for the bathroom. “You look nice, by the way,” he tossed over his shoulder.
He noticed! I nearly swooned.
I was not myself.
It was loud. There was a DJ and people were shouting at each other to be heard. The decibels may have been juiced up by the open bar. Servers were circulating with expensive hors d’oeuvres featuring things like caviar and lobster. Everyone had a beer bottle or a glass of something stronger in their hands, and there was something jittery, electric in the air. Robbie steered me around as he introduced me to people, some of whom politely tried to include me in the conversation. What do you do? Where did you two meet? What do you think? Gesturing at the gathering.
I thought it was intoxicating, and not because of the glass of wine Robbie had given me. It was the collage of conversational fragments I snatched out of the din, hints of technical projects and bugs that had been stomped out. Scraps of fuzzy linguistic modeling, sentiment analysis, gesture recognition, and quantum computing tumbled past me, mixed in with cars and football and planned vacations to places that sounded mythical. It was like one of my long-time IRC channels brought to life, but glitzier.
There weren’t many women there. Those who I caught glimpses of looked like models, slim, blonde, with perfect teeth and makeup. One of them tried to strike up a conversation with me. Maine? She loved Maine, her parents had a little place in Rockport right on the harbor. So rustic, so authentic. They used to spend six weeks there every summer when she was little. Must be awful in the off-season, though. What do you do for fun? Her eyes wandered as I tried to play my part in the conversation, feeling out of place. She brightened when she saw another model across the room. Emitting a little squeak of delight, she pointed and waved before she murmured something polite and sashayed away.
Robbie kept tabs on me and every now and then took my arm to steer me through the crowd to introduce me to work colleagues who weren’t quite sure what to say to me. In the middle of one of those awkward conversations, his grip tightened as he stared across the room, toward the plate glass windows overlooking the harbor. “That’s Adam,” he said in a tense whisper. “Adam Barton.”
As he spoke, the man himself turned and looked right at us, as if he’d somehow overheard. He curled two fingers to beckon us over. Robbie’s grip become painful as we moved through the crowd, as if he were holding onto me while drowning.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Adam Barton was strikingly handsome, tall and broad-shouldered but fit, wearing snug jeans and a well-cut jacket. He was holding a glass of something dark, a chunky ring on his finger. He looked like a congressman or a mafioso, though maybe movie star was a better fit. There was something immersive about his charisma. It enveloped us, emitted like an animal musk drifting in clouds around him.
“This is Emily. My friend.”
He cocked an eyebrow and held out a hand to shake. “Hello, Emily. I’m Adam.”
“Hi. Robbie has told me all about you.”
“Good things, I hope.”
“Very good things. He’s really excited to work at Eventive.”
“Good to hear. I’d sure hate to lose him to the competition. He’s turning into my right-hand man.” He reached out an arm slung it over Robbie’s shoulder. Robbie’s cheeks flooded with patches of red. “As many hours as he’s putting in, you probably don’t get to see him much.” He squeezed Robbie’s shoulder and released him. “Maybe you should use some of that vacation time, kiddo. You got to have a life.”
“I’m good. I’m making headway. Just this morning, I patched that problem with the—”
“It’s the weekend, Rob. Smell the roses. Enjoy yourself. Have you known each other long?” he asked me, the full force of his charm turned in my direction.
“About a year.”
He glanced at Robbie and back. “Where’s he been hiding you all this time?”
“I live in Maine. I just came down for the weekend.”
“Ah.” He gestured between us with his glass. “You must have met at school.”
“At Bates, yeah. In a computer lab, actually. He helped me find a bug in a program I was running.”
He raised his eyebrows, his attention zeroed in on my face. “So you code.”
“Tell me something you’ve made.”
It felt like a pop quiz. I sensed Robbie tensing beside me. “Uh, well, I built an environment for querying Twitter trends with a web-based front end. Also a tool for scraping Instagram to visualize words in titles. Just playing around with APIs, basically.”
He nodded as I spoke, appearing deeply interested. “She codes,” he murmured to Robbie, impressed—or at least doing a crack impression of being impressed. “I’d love to learn more,” he told me, something intimate and exclusive in his direct gaze, making my knees feel weak. He touched my elbow. “We should talk someday soon.”
It was a signal; the audience was over. Someone else approached and he turned to open his arms to them, as if they were exactly the people he was hoping to see. With his tractor beam of attention directed elsewhere, I was left floating in a cloud of excitement and happiness and a weird sense of craving. Like that charismatic musk of his, that warmth, was a hit of a drug that made me want more.
Robbie breathed out hard, as if he’d been holding his breath. Maybe he had.
“My god,” I whispered to him. “He’s amazing.”
“I know, right? He’s why I joined Eventive instead of Alphabet or Cisco. He’s the smartest person I’ve ever met.”
“I hope I didn’t sound too dorky.”
“You were fine. I mean, that Twitter thing wasn’t anything special, but he didn’t ask to see it, so… what’s wrong with your arm?”
“Nothing.” I had been rubbing it unconsciously. He’d been holding it so hard earlier, it ached. I glanced at it; there weren’t any bruises. Still, I made sure my sleeve covered the spot if it started to show. “There’s a guy over there waving at you.”
“That’s a client. I’d better go talk to him.”
“Do you mind if I go out to the balcony? I need to sit down for a bit. Catch my breath.”
He scoped it out through glass doors. A jutting platform over the harbor, some benches and potted evergreens. Vacant, apart from a couple who were headed inside to refill their empty glasses. “Fine. I’ll be a few minutes.” I reached out to give his hand a squeeze, but he had already turned to join his client, his mind occupied.
I stepped out onto the balcony and slid the door closed behind me, feeling relief. A salty breeze whipped my hair into my face and tried to flip my skirt up over my head. I pushed it down hastily; I hadn’t bought new underwear to go with the fancy dress, and I didn’t want my worn cotton bikinis displayed before Boston’s tech glitterati.
After taking a deep breath, I realized my feet were screaming for mercy. I saw a bench placed at the far end, blessedly beyond the plate glass that made me feel on display. It was warm for November. The air outdoors was brisk but refreshing. The noise had fallen off as soon as I closed the door, as if a volume dial had been turned down. I only heard the city’s bass line of traffic, with grace notes of sirens and occasional car horns, muted and calming compared to the din inside. I hobbled to the bench and sat, kicking the attractive torture devices off my feet.
“If it isn’t Marilyn.”
I hadn’t seen the tall woman who had her elbows on the railing. She was in shadow, blended into the night apart from the red ember of a cigarette as she drew on it. “Your dress. It looked like that famous photo of Marilyn. Marilyn Monroe?”
“Oh. Yeah. Windy out here.”
“Not too bad in this corner, and it’s quiet. I can’t take all that commotion.” She pointed her cigarette at the party. From here it looked like an aquarium filled with phosphorescent fish swirling around in frantic schools. She turned to lean over the railing, peering down at the cars crawling below, ribbons of light stretching across bridges. “When I was a kid, whenever I was in a place like this, I would go right up to the edge and think ‘I ought to jump.’ You ever have that feeling?”
“I guess so,” I said. “Like, I would picture it. I never wanted to really do it.”
“Me neither. It was just a… feeling. An impulse.” She tapped her cigarette, making a tiny firefly of glowing tobacco rise up and dart into the wind before vanishing in the darkness, then turned around to look at me and gave a wry grin. “New kicks?”
“They’re killing me.”
“What is it with women’s shoes? What sadist designs these things?” She pointed to her own, discarded under the bench. She padded in stocking feet over to my bench. “I’ll put this out.”
“No, it’s okay.”
She stubbed her cigarette out anyway and flicked the butt into a nearby potted plant. “Such a stupid habit. My mom got on my case, used to send me clippings of articles about how bad it was for my health, how crooked Big Tobacco is. I finally told her I quit just to get her to stop. I’m trying, but it’s hard. I keep slipping back.” She held out her hand. “Aurora.”
We shook. Her hand was strong and surprisingly warm. “I work at Eventive.”
“So does my boyfriend. Robbie.”
“Robbie Martens?” she squealed, then cupped her palm over her mouth, embarrassed. “Sorry. It’s just… I didn’t know. Never guessed. He works all hours of the day, married to his keyboard. I think he sleeps in the office half the time. Smart guy, though. You can almost hear him thinking, his brain going clickety-clack as he stares at the wall, still as a statue.”
“I know that look.”
“He’s young and inexperienced, but he’s a diamond in the rough. I’ll say one thing about Adam—he’s the CEO—he colors outside the lines when it comes to hiring. Forget all those legends about starting in a garage. A lot of tech firms think you have to graduate from Stanford or MIT, maybe Cal Tech, Harvard in a pinch. They skip right over talent that doesn’t come with a fancy degree. Not Adam.”
“That’s great. Though I didn’t see many women in there.”
“True. I keep getting on him about that. He just looks at me, like ‘Why? I hired you.’ And I’m a trifecta—a woman, Black and Asian. My mom’s people are from India, my dad’s Nigerian. So I tick a lot of boxes, but that’s no excuse. He has a blind spot when it comes to female talent.”
“I just met him. Adam Barton. He’s… impressive.”
“He turned on the charm? Got that ‘semper fi’ thing going. He was in the Marines, doing some cryptology stuff. Then he went to work for the NSA and got a top clearance. From there, contracting, because that’s where the money is. While he was doing that, he volunteered to handle social for a friend of his who was running for congress—and the guy won, of course, because that’s what Adam does. He wins. He attacked it like a data science challenge, which it is if you’re serious about it. Handling social meant finding out what the capabilities were, scraping data from everywhere, and running some high-level analysis. He brought in a couple of anthropologists, a young marketing firm, and some four-channers. They helped fine-tune Facebook messages for the olds, tested an Insta campaign for suburban women, and created viral memes for the Reddit crowd, then Adam used data to deploy them. That’s the origin story for all this.” She flicked a finger toward the party. “And the rest is history,” she intoned in a deep voice like a narrator for a documentary. As she spoke, her hand groped in her bag and pulled out a crumpled cigarette package. She looked at it and pushed it back with a groan. “Dammit. I hate this habit.”
“How long have you worked at Eventive?”
“I was one of his early hires. He heard about my dissertation project and said he’d fund my research for as long as I liked. Didn’t have to do the D part of R and D, people in DevOps would handle implementation. People like Robbie. He’s a builder. He’ll hear me throw out an idea and two weeks later—boom. It’s integrated into one of the products. He’s smart and hard-working. And he worships at the altar of Adam. That doesn’t hurt. Has Robbie told you much about the firm?”
“Not really. I know he’s happy, but he hasn’t told me what he’s working on. We don’t see each other much these days. I live in Lewiston. In Maine.”
“So you’re still in college?” Aurora didn’t have the powerful charisma of her boss, but she had a quiet intensity of focus that invited real conversation.
“Sort of. I mean, I’m taking a couple of classes at the community college, but I don’t know if there’s much point.”
“What do you want to do?”
I sighed. I wanted things to go back to the way they had been. To sit across the table from Robbie with our laptops open, bashing away at some code until three in the morning. Make dinner for a handful of geeks who stuffed themselves on food I cooked, talking with their mouths full about some program they forked from GitHub, or a game that just came out, or Star Wars trivia. “Write code. That’s what I really want to do, but I don’t have any qualifications. They have some kind of network security certificate program at this college, but…”
“That ain’t it. I get you. What languages?”
“Python, Java, some C++. I was fooling around with Go, but I haven’t had time to do much with it.”
“Good start. Why don’t you move down here? With that skillset you could find work, or you go to school. You can’t move around this city without tripping over a college.”
“I know. My grandfather taught at Harvard.” She made an impressed face. “They still live in Cambridge. They’re one of the reasons I’m not too keen on moving down here.”
She laughed, a warm, full-throated sound. “Like that, huh?”
“I had to live with them sometimes when I was little. It didn’t go well. They don’t like kids.”
“Including their own kin?”
“Especially their own kin.”
“What about the rest of your family?”
“My mother lives in Maine these days, though she’s talking about moving down here. We don’t get along. That’s kind of a family tradition.”
“Dad? Brothers, sisters?”
“None of the above.”
“Damn. I’m an only child, but I get along fine with my parents and have extended family on three continents. Uncles, aunties, cousins by the dozen. My folks live in Queens, and so do my mother’s brother and my dad’s three sisters. We’re real close. I take the train down to spend a weekend whenever I can, but I can’t make it too often, too much going on at work. Have you met Robbie’s family?”
“No.” What a terrifying thought.
“Adam told me they’re old-time New England wealth. They’d be Boston Brahmins, except they live in Connecticut. Robbie doesn’t have any of that attitude, though, that landed gentry entitlement. Speak of the devil.”
“There you are.” Robbie stepped out onto the balcony. “I couldn’t see you there in the corner. So you met Aurora.”
“Yup. We have the same taste in footwear.” I showed him my bare feet, and Aurora did the same.
He looked puzzled. “Cool. I think I talked to everyone I have to. Are you ready to go? I had a better idea for that patch that I want to work on.”
“Sure, we can leave. Great meeting you, Aurora.”
“Same. Hey Robbie, we should talk to Adam about hiring more women, don’t you think?” She pointed at me. “Hint, hint.”
He didn’t connect the dots. “Sure. Did you want to schedule a meeting, or can we do it by email?” She just laughed and waved us away.
As we left the building, a man who was smoking a sweet-smelling cheroot nodded at us. “Who’s this, then?” he asked before blowing three perfect smoke rings into the cool night air.
“My girlfriend,” Robbie said, sounding some combination of defensive and proud. “Emily Callander.”
“Aren’t you a dark horse.” He was tall and wiry, his face weathered like an old tree trunk. He looked me up and down, and nodded his approval before he dropped his butt and ground it out with the toe of his boot. “G’night,” he said before pushing inside.
“Who was that?” I asked Robbie.
“Connie. Connie Uys. He heads up another division. I don’t know much about it. It’s mostly HUMINT.”
He said it dismissively, but that didn’t help me out. “What’s that?”
“Human intelligence. Meatspace operations to supplement digital analysis. It’s tailored to specific clients, mostly international. He came out of the intelligence community, but he’s an old-school field operator. Not like Adam. I’m not sure what he contributes to the company, but they go back, so I guess Adam decided to do him a favor and give him a job.”
“He sounds English.”
“South African. Why are you walking funny?”
“New shoes. I’m getting blisters.”
“I can call an Uber, but—”
“It’s fine. Only a few blocks.”
We walked on in silence. Robbie had that intense-but-spaced-out look he got when he was working out a problem in his head.