Version 1 – May, 2013

Mark had gotten into the habit of leaving his wife little notes online. Just a phrase or two. “Love you.” “Thinking about you.” “Remember when…” Before his parents separated, his father used to write his mother love poems and post them on the bathroom mirror or on the bedroom window or door, but that was when he had to use paper, so if he didn’t fill up all the space, it would look like something was missing.

His wife never responded anymore. He had her password, so sometimes he would reply for her.

At night, when he surfed the web in the back room of their apartment, he would come across messages from her and pictures of them playing giant Jenga at Ed’s, sunbathing in Cabo, or at a Checkers game on dollar beer night. The one of her at the beach in her black polka dot bikini was his favorite. It found its way back to him frequently. If he happened across a shot of their wedding, he would spend an hour going through the whole album. But even small reminders were enough to arouse his sentiment. He’d type out a short note and shoot it somewhere into space, hoping it would make her smile. If nothing else, at least her friends knew he cared.

Mark woke up early on Friday morning to meet an old classmate for coffee before work. He quietly left bed and slinked into the bathroom. He started on the scale but stepped off before it could finish. He was overweight; no point in quantifying it. The mirror wasn’t any kinder. Those extra pounds were on his cheeks, among other places, and his dark brown hair was beginning to thin on top. In a few years no amount of hair gel was going to hide it, and he wasn’t even thirty until next month. He brushed his teeth, got dressed, and left.

Carl Thomas was his sophomore roommate at Georgia Tech, a wiry, bespectacled redhead with delusions of making millions creating mobile apps, but he wasn’t at Starbucks on East at 7:00am. Mark passed ten minutes browsing Reddit on his phone before he ordered his espresso and a croissant, then another ten before he suspected anything was wrong. Carl was an erratic character. Perhaps he had forgotten. Mark checked his email and the forum they both frequented. No messages. Finally, he scrolled through his old emails to confirm the time and saw that the stated time was 7:00am on Friday. Next Friday. Damn. He tweeted a phrase to highlight his stupidity. Carl was a follower.

The office of Health Insight Partners, HIP as everyone called it, was located in the Grant Thornton building in Uptown. The spaces for HIP employees in the parking lot next door were nearly empty, and when he walked into the 12th floor suite, only his project manager, Tim Swarren, was there.

“Anderson,” Tim yelled as Mark walked by his office. Mark leaned against the doorway.

“What’s up?” he said.

“You’re in early for a Friday.”

“Yeah, I just, uh, well…had nothing better to do, I guess.”

“I’ve got better things, just not as necessary. You know when dot-two’s going to hit QA?”

The freshman-in-college Mark would have scoffed at the idea of working on clinical management software for healthcare practices, but it was a comforting monotony at his age. “Probably looking at three to four weeks right now.”

“Ok, thanks. Can you make it three? Schedule says three from today. June 14th.”

“Hmm. Let me talk to the guys when they get in. I’ll email you,” he said and turned to leave.

“Thanks,” Tim said, “Oh, wait! Lunch. Today. 12 noon. Need you to come to a client meeting. They have questions about CMS and want a ‘tech guy.’” Marked turned back and glared for an instant. “That’s what you are.”

“Sorry, man, but you know how it goes. It’s not me. It’s the client. I’ll do the talking. Come on.”

“Fine,” Mark said. Free lunch.

At noon, they walked a few blocks around the corner to King’s Kitchen. The May air was hot, even in the shadows of the skyscrapers, and Mark felt as if his hair gel was melting. Tim, a tall man with a shiny bald head, was wearing a tan suit. They entered the restaurant to a spine-tingling rush of air. Tim wiped his head with a handkerchief so the sweat wouldn’t freeze.

King’s was popular but not crowded yet. A smattering of businessmen, probably bankers, in dark suits huddled over phones and laptops, and a group of a half-dozen ladies exchanged exaggerated laughs in the corner. Tim was scanning the place while checking the time.

“Who schedules meetings on a Friday?” Mark asked after a minute, head buried. No comments on his joke from this morning, no nothing on the note to his wife.

Tim muttered something about working until the hostess came and took them to a table for four. As soon as they hit the chairs Tim spotted the clients wandering through the door and rushed to collect them. Returning with a middle-aged man and a young woman, he said, “This is Mark Anderson, one of our developers.”

The old man thrust out his hand. “Scott Stanley,” he said. The Southpark pediatrician was wearing a cream plaid button up shirt with short sleeves tucked into a pair of khaki slacks and topped off with a brown tie. Had a firm grip for a small man, and as they shook he gave Mark a pleasant, unnerving stare, the kind his father gave him when he knew he’d done something wrong. Mark held on just long enough, dodging his eyes in the direction of the woman.

Sensing this, he waived his hand in her direction. “Leslie Corning, my, uh…office manager.”

Leslie. The word floated in the air and settled at his feet like a fog. Leslie. That was his wife’s name. They didn’t look the same, though. This Leslie was plump, shaped like a raw peanut with a macaroon on top. Wavy curls of muted gold fell to her shoulders and bounced back slightly. She had striking green eyes, or maybe it was only the dark eyeliner, and oversized glossy lips to match her nose. A white blouse and green skirt drew his eyes downward. She must have played soccer at some point in the past.  Mark might have stared for an instant.

“A pleasure,” she said, her plump lips swinging upward. The instant vanished.

“Nice to meet you, Leslie,” he said. The name struck like a match on his tongue. It fell headlong, igniting the cloud at his feet. He was hot again, sweating through a smile. A sudden urge to see his wife consumed him, and he reached for his phone as they sat down but thought better of it. The fog soon burned away completely.

As promised, he didn’t have to talk much during lunch. The two elders discussed features and project plans while the secretary listened and took a few notes. Mark ate his fried chicken, drank his sweet tea, and tried to look interested. By simple inquiry he was able to find out more about the new Leslie. She was from South Carolina and had two sisters. She hadn’t played soccer, but she was in the marching band one semester at USC. Trombone. She missed palm trees. Dogwoods were nicer, he thought.

When the food was finished, Mark leaned back slightly in his chair and crossed his legs. The men were still droning on about work. This gave him an idea for a tweet and he reached for his phone, but then the doctor glanced at him and he thought better of it. He wished he had a pen to write it down on napkin. Leslie was twirling one in her hand, which he eyed longingly, noticing all the empty space on her notebook page. What had she been doing this whole time? Whenever she brushed her hair back behind her ear with her hand, she gave him a quick glance, he thought he saw in the corner of his eye, and her lip would rise just a nanometer. Perhaps he was imagining it.

The rest of the day at the office Mark couldn’t code much because Leslies kept coming in and knocking over his equations. Every time new Leslie came back to him all he could think of was biting into a bright orange mango, like the ones he used to pick off the tree in his backyard as a child. He looked her up on LinkedIn. She wasn’t very attractive, actually, but he kept clicking back to it anyway. His wife seemed intimately connected to her, somehow, familiar pictures and messages always appearing in his mind and on the screen wherever he went. Maybe she knew her.

Finally, he sent her a connection request just so he could move on to something else. An hour passed and he began to get anxious. He regretted sending it. It was inappropriate. It was a big risk. What would his wife say if she knew? He tried to take it back but he couldn’t.

The phone buzzed on his desk to notify him of a personal email. It buzzed again. He grabbed it quickly. New Leslie had accepted his invitation. And she had sent him a Facebook friend request.

He accepted.

Her profile picture was a beach shot with half of another friend cut off. He poured over the site in small chunks between pretending to write code. She was 25, liked water-skiing, hip-hop, and reading books. Somehow he ended up on his wife’s profile. He quickly deleted the emails, removed the news item that said he had a new friend, and closed the whole thing down.

Twenty minutes later he went back online. He sent new Leslie a little note, privately.

She responded quickly. COFFEE TONIGHT? the message said.

He closed his computer down. It was 5 o’clock. Time to leave. He rushed past Tim’s office with his head down.

“Happy Memorial Day,” the receptionist yelled after him, but the words could not catch him.

Mark didn’t go for coffee, nor for a drink, but sat in the back room of his apartment, face aglow in artificial light. He could not let go of a picture of real Leslie drinking coffee. She looked so happy. He couldn’t remember where they were that night in 2009, but he must have been happy then, too. For an hour he went through their wedding photos, trying to remember what it was actually like on September 20th, 2008.

On Reddit, he went to a section for software developers where he posted regularly. The new post was a simple question: IS IT OK TO F—No, no, that wasn’t right.

IS IT OK TO GO OUT WITH A CLIENT?

Late Saturday morning, when the sun hit that perfect angle where it slipped through the blinds and slapped him on the face, Mark awoke alone. He’d had a good dream but couldn’t remember what it was. A girl he knew once was a psychologist and said to remember dreams you had to write them down immediately. He thought that would make a good phone app. It probably already existed. Maybe he could make one where an electronic astrologer would automatically interpret them for you.

The dream had something to do with pineapples, he thought. What would an electronic astrologer think of that? He reached for his phone and made a quick note: PINEAPPLES. Just in case.

The query from the previous night had gathered a number of responses across the board. Many of his fellow developers thought it was fine in most cases, some said he should do it even though they wouldn’t, a few thought it was too risky, a few thought it was inappropriate no matter what, and one person questioned his sexual orientation for having to ask.

Handling it democratically seemed like the most logical thing to do. He clarified on the post that the woman was only a secretary for the client, not an actual client, and that she had come on to him, and that that never happened. Another commenter responded that he would give up his job for a real woman. There were plenty of jobs, after all, but only so many women. In a previous life, Mark might not have agreed.

On Facebook, he pulled up new Leslie’s message and hit reply. The original message had asked him to coffee the night before, so what should he say now? He thought about it for a long time over two bowls of cereal. He wanted to explain himself, to explain why he couldn’t respond earlier, why he was so nervous, why she intrigued him so much, why he was so conflicted. A paragraph apologizing and explaining and inviting, with a touch of wit, eventually filled the box. But he deleted it.

SURE, he wrote and sent it.

Immediately his thoughts fell to his wife. He wrote her a note, too, and sent it. For the karma.

He was still looking at her when the reply came. She must have been online at the same time. They could have chatted, but he always had chatting turned off. It was too immediate. There was no way to avoid it, and if he didn’t respond soon enough the other person would start to think something was wrong.

He opened the new message: SILLY, I WANTED LAST NIGHT! TONIGHT AT 9PM AT AMELIE’S? 🙂

What the hell was wrong with this girl?

SURE, he replied.

Over the course of several notes, he agreed to pick her up at her apartment in the First Ward. The conversation probably would have taken them up through that time had he not begged off to run an errand. He didn’t leave, though. He just logged out of Facebook so that neither Leslie could distract him so easily.

Carl had convinced him to help with coding an app that would automatically suggest tweets based on location and tweet history. It was a terrible idea, but he did it for the practice. Also, one day Carl might actually have a good app idea and he wanted to be in on it. He didn’t eat lunch but spent the afternoon working on the app. Carl was working on the tweeting algorithm while he handled the API.

On his desk there was a picture of real Leslie and him in New York City that he noticed for the first time in a while. Maybe he should move it out of sight, he thought. Turning it around to face the other direction didn’t help. It looked strange that way and kept drawing his eye back to it. He folded it up and, after a long look, put it in the drawer. There was one on the wall, too. There were 17 photos of her in the apartment. He counted them all. His wife had put them up all over the place. He couldn’t take them all down. He picked his favorite one and moved it to his desk.

All he could find for dinner were two pieces of leftover pizza, so he ate them cold. He put on jeans and an untucked, loose-fitting button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. With enough gel in his hair, the fact that he was balding on top was barely noticeable.

Mark poured cheap whiskey into a small glass, leaned back, drank the whole thing, and left.

The uptown apartment door had a wreath made out of cherry blossoms hanging on it. He knew these blossoms didn’t produce any fruit, but the thought of cherries made him hungry for ice cream. Did Amelie’s have ice cream? The only time he had been there was years ago, when his wife saw a huge crowd standing outside on the way back from a concert and made him stop, but they didn’t eat because the line was too long, and they meant to go back later but had not. His stomach was getting a little warm from the whiskey.

The other Leslie answered his knocking by cracking the door so only her face could be seen with a huge red smile. “Hey, you! Give me just a minute. I’m not dressed yet,” she said, closing the door and leaving him standing in the humid night. When she stepped out onto the landing she was wearing a skirt pulled tight to her wide hips and a mid-cut tank top that fell loosely around her waist. Her arms were big but not in a particularly flabby way. More like she had played softball growing up. “Ready?” she said.

The tangy taste of tequila was on her breath, but they made it to the car without any wobbles. The little French bakery was not far. It had an eclectic mix of furnishings and decorations, borrowed from a thousand normal applications and scattered throughout the rooms as if a bomb had gone off in a thrift store and the rubble was left where it fell. Atop each piece sat a college student working on a laptop or some hipster sipping a specialty drink, probably composing poetry or something.

“I love this place!” new Leslie said, looking like she was trying to absorb it. “It’s so cozy and delicious.” She bent over and admired each pasty in the glass counter on-by-one while Mark stood behind. He took a picture of a strange chandelier made out of old kitchen utensils and tweeted it with a sarcastic comment but didn’t say what he was doing there.

Ice cream wasn’t on the menu, so he went with the salted caramel brownie, which the server recommended. She got two coconut macaroons and a latte. They wandered through each room in a circle, looking for an open seat, eventually grabbing a table in the side hallway vacated by two apparent thespians.

“I really didn’t think I would see you again, you know?” she said when she was seated, legs crossed, and had taken an opening nibble.

“Why not” he said. “These days you can see almost anyone instantly.”

“Oh, that’s true.”

“I saw you again pretty much right after I got back to my desk,” he said, and then regretted it. “Wow, that sounds kinda creepy.”

“I know!” she laughed. A touch of warmth was building in her face, turning it a little pink, maybe from the tequila, maybe from the coffee. “It’s not the same, though.”

“Sure, but in some ways it’s better. For some people now, there’s more about them online than you could ever know by meeting them in person. And you can still see people when they aren’t around, even when they are very far aw—“ He broke off and suddenly felt as if he himself were very far away from that little table in the little bakery.

“I looked you up, too, you know, right when I got to the office,” she said, her voice bringing him back. “My boss isn’t very tough. If we don’t have any patients ready or paperwork to do, I can go online as much as I want. And Fridays usually aren’t very busy.”

“Damn, this brownie is good,” he said, the first bite still on his tongue.

“I told you!” she said, those big red lips spread wide. “This place is my favorite!”

“This is incredible,” he said, taking another bite. “So good.” He whipped out his phone and took a picture of it, then tweeted the photo telling everyone to try it.

“Are you putting that on Instagram?” she asked.

“No, that’s for women,” he said. “Twitter.”

She gave him a sideways look and pulled out her own phone, took a picture of the brownie—her macaroons were gone—and posted it. “Instagram, bitch.”

Mark rolled his eyes and ate the last bite.

“I never would have friended you if you hadn’t sent me the invite first,” she said. “I guess I’m just an old fashioned girl like that. I was hoping you would, but I didn’t think you would do it. I was so excited when you did!”

“I didn’t think I would either,” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t have, not usually. There was just…something about you at lunch I couldn’t get out of my head.”

The pinkness in her face darkened a shade. They talked there for an hour, long past the bottom of their coffee cups, until the place became so crowded that a kid in skinny jeans started sitting on their table.

When they pulled up to her apartment, he unbuckled his seatbelt, but she turned to him, green eyes gazing softly. “It’s still so early,” she said. “You’re not going to invite me over for a drink?”

The question went straight to his stomach, tied it in a knot, and plucked it like a guitar string. He tried to suppress taking a noticeable gulp and force a smile just to keep his teeth from chattering. “Well, I, uh…yeah, well, I mean, what about, uh…what about your…place?”

“My roommates…” she started.

“No, no, I have, uh, I’ve got some drinks,” he said. The earthquake had subsided slightly but his mind was still breaking apart in a thousand different directions. “Would you like one?”

“I’d love that,” she said, lips ticking upward as she brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Where do you live?”

“Not far,” he said and sped off.

The only alcohol in his cabinets was whiskey and a 3-year old bottle of mango vodka he’d forgotten he had. Mark’s apartment was sparse in everything. Most of his time and stuff was put into the back room, where his computer lived, and that door was shut.

He poured a glass of whisky for himself and vodka for new Leslie. She raised it up to the light and looked at him through the clear liquid. Something about her image, looking back, refracted in that strange looking glass, seemed to clarify his thoughts until only one remained.

“To chance encounters,” she said.

Mark lifted his glass to meet hers. “To chance,” he said, and they both drank.

An old instinct overtook him. He stepped closer and put his hand around her waist. She twisted into it. His body pushed him forward, until their belly buttons touched, but he stopped an inch shy of her face.

“Leslie, I—“

She thrust forward and kissed him, and he sank into it. The bite could still be tasted on her lips, not at all like he imagined it. His fingers slid through her golden hair, thick with hairspray, as he grasped the back of her head and pushed them closer.

“Leslie…” he whispered in between breaths, but they only went deeper. She reached up and started undoing his buttons.

“Leslie…”

“I’m right here,” she said, throwing his shirt to the floor. “Shut up.”

Mark rolled over in bed suddenly when Sunday morning hit him. The bed was empty but still warm. A skirt was still on the floor beside him. He heard footsteps in the other room. It must be Leslie, he thought. New Leslie.

He peeled back the sheet and quickly got dressed. She was waiting for him at the kitchen bar, reading something on her phone. She had on a pair of short athletic shorts and a white t-shirt through which her black underwear was almost visible. Was it so obvious?

“Good morning,” she said with a smile. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, making her face seem even more round than he remembered.

“Morning,” he said as he rubbed his face. He had a headache, one he knew well. He must have looked worried.

“Do I need to go?” she said.

Mark shook his head slightly. “I’ve got some cereal if you want.”

She pulled a bowl out of the cabinet and poured some Lucky Charms into it, then reached for the milk.

“Where’s your wife?” she asked. That last word almost knocked him over. He braced himself on a chair then sat down in it.

Leslie? “She’s…gone.”

She sat down across from him at the kitchen table and took a bite of her cereal. “Is she coming back?”

Who the hell was this girl? He looked up at her. The bright morning light was not kind to her skin. “You know she’s not,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have…”

He had always expected he would cry in this situation, but no tears came. Real Leslie would be proud of him. She always laughed when he cried. “It’s fine. I’m over it.”

No number of seconds could quite bridge the now vast expanse of that table between them.

Eventually, she stood. “Why did she leave?” A few seconds later, she added, “If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Cancer,” he said at last.

“Oh…” She looked as though she might cry. “Mark, I’m so sorry.” She sat down beside him but left him some space. “I had no idea.”

“It’s fine,” he said.

At length, she said, “Maybe I should go for now.”

He heard her voice but the words didn’t reach him. “The funny thing is,” he said, staring out the distant window across the room, “I didn’t love her.”

She leaned in a little closer. “What?”

“I didn’t lover her. I mean, back then. I don’t think I did, anyway. I don’t know. We had fun at times. I don’t think she loved me. She just…I don’t know, we just didn’t work. I was going to leave her. If she didn’t leave me first. Then we found out she was sick.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But you were able to make up because she was sick, right? That’s a silver lining.”

He shook his head and laughed softly. “Not really. I resented it, at first, because I was stuck with her because of it. It was hard. She went through the treatments, but…there was nothing they could do. It was too late. It had already spread too much. Part of me was kinda glad. That sounds terrible. I didn’t want it to end like that…but I wanted it to end.”

“It’s ok. I understand.”

“We’re better now, though. I can love her now. I hope…I hope she loves me, too.” He turned to her. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually so sentimental. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

She leaned back into the chair. “It’s ok. You think she’s still alive out there somewhere?”

Mark shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe one day we’ll all exist only on Facebook.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said.

“It probably won’t be called ‘Facebook’, of course. Even now, more of us is stored on there than out here. Why not everything?”

“I’ve never thought about that,” she said. “But I know one thing you can’t do on Facebook.” She slid her hand down his inner thigh and leaned in to kiss him. Down the collar of her shirt he could see her breasts hanging beautifully. Was she trying to cheer him up? Or distract him? Everything must have been so physical to her. She didn’t understand at all.

“Not yet,” he said.

 

Carl had seen his tweet on Friday and wanted to meet for lunch instead, so Mark cautiously headed for Five Guys. The hot air hitting his face through the window eased the pain in his head. If he had so much as smelled another mango he would have thrown up right in the car. Burgers sounded good.

To his astonishment, Carl was already there when Mark walked in the door, typing furiously on a laptop surrounded by empty peanut shells. He checked the time on this phone to make sure he wasn’t late and noticed he had a message from Facebook. Before he could check it, a big forehead, crowned in red, and a pair of filtered eyes spotted him over top a computer screen. The man jumped to his feet.

“Hey, hey, there you are,” Carl said. “How’s it going?”

“What’s up?” Mark said, shaking his hand.

“Oh, not much, not much. You hungry?”

They each ordered double-stacked cheeseburgers and a huge bag of fries. Mark still felt guilty eating there, though he loved it. His wife never let them come and always wanted to go to Nothing But Noodles next door. One time he went by himself, but then she saw it on the credit card statement and they almost had a fight, though he couldn’t remember exactly why. The food settled his queasy stomach.

When Carl finished he started typing on the laptop again. That was normal for Carl. He was perpetually in the middle of something.

“I’ve been working on that auto-twitter app,” Mark said. He had assumed that was the purpose of the meeting.

“Oh, awesome, thanks,” Carl said. He looked up only briefly before burying his head again and never stopped typing. “Which one was that?”

“The drunk-twitter one, or whatever you are calling it. Where it writes tweets for you.”

“Right, right, right. Awesome. No, no, don’t, uh, don’t worry about that one anymore. I’ve got another app I need your help with, that I am just typing up right now. This is awesome. It’s for—wait, did you go to a French place last night?” He abruptly stopped typing and looked straight across the table.

Mark shrugged and looked away. His eye fixed on a peanut shell lying on the table. He picked it up and turned it in his hand.

“Amadeus or something, right?” Carl said. “What was that about?”

“They have damn good brownies, alright?”

“Were you on a date?”

Mark twisted his face in every direction. “Kinda.”

Carl slapped the table hard enough to catch the eye of half the restaurant. “My boy!” he said. “That’s awesome! I thought you looked like you’d had a good time last night. How’d it go?”

“Fine,” he said. He cracked another peanut between his fingers, picked out the nuts, and ate them. His wife was mildly allergic to peanuts, he remembered. That was why they never went.

“You’re a dirty liar, and you know it,” Carl said. “I can see you right in front of me.”

“Whatever, man. It was fine. What do you want me to say?”

Carl nodded and adjusted his glasses. “I’m proud of you, very proud. And it’s about time. How long has it been since Leslie died?”

Leslie? “Two years.”

“Whoa, that long ago? How long did it take to sink in?”

“What?”

“You know, when did you realize it actually happened? When did it become real to you?”

Wrinkles popped up on Mark’s forehead as he considered it. “Nothing’s real to me,” he said. “Not like that. What does it matter how long ago it was? Yesterday isn’t any more real than today.”

“You’re an idiot,” Carl said.

“Just shut up,” Mark said. “Didn’t you have an app you wanted to talk about?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Carl said. He turned back to the laptop and started typing rapidly. “You’re going to love this.”

That night, Mark sat in front of his computer in that back room of his apartment, where the blinds were closed and only a pale light cast a large silhouette of him on the wall. For an hour he didn’t move, staring at the same page.

Earlier he had logged in to his wife’s Facebook account. In a rush of fancy he had brought up a simple page with some text and two buttons. DELETE MY ACCOUNT, one of them read, white text on a blue background, but he hadn’t clicked it.

His phone buzzed, to tell him he had a new text message. When it popped up, the name on it stole his breath and beat his heart like a symbol. Leslie. But it was other Leslie.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING TONIGHT?

His head jerked back to the computer. He closed it down.

The phone sat silently on his desk, only a few stray glimmers of moonlight disturbing the darkness. He stared into it, thinking, from a place very far away inside of himself. At some point, he reached for it and saw in its dark glass a very faint image. For a while he could not make it out, until he realized it was upside down.  He recognized it as a photo of Leslie and him at the beach.

Mark opened up his computer. He logged on to his account and pulled her up. She was still there, just as he remembered.

He typed out a short note and shot it off into space. Just a phrase or two. Just to let her know he cared.


Version 2 – March, 2015

Mark had gotten into the habit of leaving his wife little notes online. Just a phrase or two. The shorter the better. Before his parents separated, his father used to write his mother long love poems and post them on the bathroom mirror or on the bedroom window or door, but that was when you had to use paper, so if you didn’t fill up all the space it would look like something was missing. As a young boy, Mark had often read the poems on the mirror when he went to the bathroom or took them out of the drawer where his mother thought she kept them in secret or, later, after picking them out of the trash can. Although he did not inherit his father’s way with language and did not recognize all of the words, he understood the sentiment. It made him feel close to her—closer, perhaps, than he actually was—that his words were always visible, always public, always with her. But now that his sticky notes were limitless, his bathroom mirror infinite, he could afford to write only what he really wanted to say.

I love you, Leslie, he posted.

In the back room of his apartment, dark except for the blue aura that stuck to his pale face and blocked out a shadow of his hunched figure on the back wall, he was clicking through the images he and his wife had accumulated. Thousands of them, all meticulously categorized and tagged. Some he remembered vividly. The salty, Aruban air of their honeymoon, the coolness of the rain splattering around the covered patio during the week-long parade of storms, the sly look on her face before she dove into the pool anyway. The heat and the hurt in his head when the giant Jenga two-by-fours at Ed’s collapsed on him, the sticky stench coating the tavern floor, the laughter as she took pictures instead of helping him up. Most he remembered only as pictures of familiar people in familiar settings.

He stopped on one that he couldn’t quite place. She was standing alone. He must have taken the photo. The lights were bright inside, but it was dark behind the windows, decorated with destice drapings. She looked as beautiful as he could ever imagine her. Her cheeks were faintly flushed, dimpled by a smile and damp with a thin film of sweat, like she had been having fun. She wore a strapless dress in a deep green that looked even darker in contrast to the delicate skin of her chest and arms. It squeezed her figure, accented her breasts, and tied with a thick band at the waist, from which the rest of the dress fell in folds to her knees. Hem to hem the dress was overlaid in a green, floral lace with the same glimmer as her cheeks. It was her favorite dress, he remembered. It was the dress she was wearing when, two years ago, she walked out the front door, went to the grocery store, bought two tubs of chocolate ice cream, texted her best friend, was hit by a bright red pickup truck, and died.

Mark was supposed to meet his old roommate, Carl, before work on Friday, but when he walked into Starbucks there was no there. No one except the regulars, men and women in suits or sport coats, girls in yoga pants, that one sweaty guy who still wore his gym clothes, who probably wore them all day, so everyone would know where he’d been, where he’d gotten his biceps and too-skinny calves. Carl would have been instantly apparent among these people, a head taller than any of them, still donning his thick-framed glasses from High School that were just now coming back into style, and wearing cargo shorts year round with short-sleeved button-ups. Carl was also a software developer and always trying to get Mark to help with his crazy app ideas. All of them had been terrible, two had actually been released, neither had sold. Still, Mark never turned him down. The coding was good practice, and you never really knew what ideas would succeed. People bought a lot of stupid shit.

More and more people came, swelling the line and filling half the tables. He sat a leather couch in the corner but wasn’t worried. Carl could be erratic. Perhaps he had forgotten. Or overslept. Or thought today was Thursday. That was not unusual. He expected it, having lived with Carl from his freshman year at Georgia Tech until he’d gotten married at the age of 27.

His wife loved Starbucks. For a time, they came every Saturday morning—not to this one, to the one a few blocks closer to their apartment—walking when it was warm enough. She ordered lattes, plain in the summer, pumpkin spice in the fall, peppermint in the winter. He ordered black coffee and a cinnamon roll, of which she inevitably ate more than half. He pulled up her profile while he waited. There were a hundred photos of them at Starbucks, of the brown and white swirls in her glass, of the first, very exciting arrival of orange flecks atop a mound of whipped cream, of the somewhat bittersweet transition to candy canes hanging from the rim, of the three-quarters gone pastry, of the short, dark-skinned barista with double braids, who must have been significant but whom Mark did not remember, of Leslie in a halter top and pony tail or bundled up with her scarf and furry ear muffs, cupping both hands around the mug, of the two of them together, smiling. They looked young.

The line had cleared out, and since it seemed hopeless that Carl would show up and since he wasn’t answering any texts, Mark ordered his black coffee and cinnamon roll, took a picture, ate the whole thing, posted the picture with a little message to wife’s account, and left.

When he arrived at the 14th floor office of Heath Insight Partners, thirty minutes early thanks to Carl only his project manager, Tim Swarringer, was working. Heavy set and completely bald, mid-forties, with drooping eyes and sagging cheeks, Tim was an uncomfortable sight for Mark, an image of himself in ten years. That was reason enough to avoid him. And then he was always asking when the current project would be done, which, when it came to fixing bugs in archaic healthcare billing software, was impossible to predict. Mark rubbed his head, checking whether the spot on the back of his scalp was still concealed by the patch of precisely combed hairs. It was, but it felt especially thin. A few more years and no amount of hair gel was going to compensate. He tried to duck past Tim’s office.

“Anderson,” Time yelled after him.

Mark stopped. He’d made it exactly one step past the door. He poked his head into the office but refused to commit his whole body. “What’s up?”

“You know when dot-two’s going to hit QA?”

Mark had no idea. “Probably in the next two to six weeks or so,” he said.

“Ok, let’s call it four, then. So, June 21st?” Tim said. Mark shrugged and started leave. Putting a date on it wouldn’t make finish any faster, but it made the customers feel better. “Oh, and today. Lunch. Noon. Need you for a client meeting. They want to see a ‘tech guy’ there.”

“Take Raj.”

“You’re prettier.”

“Cheryl?”

“Come on, man. I’ll do the talking.”

“Fine,” Mark said. Free lunch.

***

He met her in a bar. A friend set them up for drinks after work. When came up beside him at the bar, he didn’t recognize her. She didn’t look to him anything like the photo the friend had texted or the ones he had looked up online. This girl had short, brown hair with a slight curl at the tips, just at the start of her neck, lips colored a deep shade of pink, a plain white blouse, and a form-fitting dress skirt he tried not to look at as she leaned against the bar to order her beer. The place was crowded, and though he wanted to object when she took the stool beside him, perhaps to start a conversation, he did not want to be seen talking to another woman.

The realization took a few minutes to bubble up through the two drinks in his system and into his head. He looked at the photo again, at her ears, her nose, her jawline. She was sitting quietly, sipping her beer, checking her phone, waiting, throwing him a glance every so often. When it struck, he was too embarrassed to say anything. He wondered how long he would have to wait before she took some action. He half hoped she would say something. He half hoped she would leave so they could start over on another night. She was probably hoping the same thing.

When she turned to him, slight quizzical look in her eye, and it seemed she was about to say something, he said quickly, “Excuse me, are you Leslie?”

Her expression was somewhere between excited and relieved. “Yes! Mark?”

He nodded.

“I thought so,” she said, and never mentioned it again. If she felt any bit of awkwardness about the encounter, she didn’t show it. And he thought he could love her.

***

“Who schedules a meeting on a Friday, anyway?” Mark said. He and Tim were sitting at a square table in a restaurant on the ground floor of skyscraper filled, like the restaurant, with swarms of bankers and lawyers in casual Friday suits with slightly loosened ties. Most of them, like Mark, were staring down into their phones, tapping and swiping with both thumbs, pretending to be busy. Most of those, like Mark, were probably browsing the web instead.

“It’s just lunch,” Tim said. He was scanning the crowd for their clients, watching the waves of businessmen and women roll through the door, carrying with them each time a rush of warm air that brought tiny beads of sweat to bald head, which he continually wiped with a handkerchief. Mark brushed his own hair down with his fingers. He never wanted to own a handkerchief. He didn’t even know where to buy one.

The client was a pediatrician from a small, private clinic near Southpark, in a striped golf shirt and khaki slacks, older, with a sun-wrinkled face and slicked back white hair, accompanied by a woman young enough to be his daughter. Time waved them over. The doctor had a firm grip for a small man, and as they shook he gave Mark a pleasant, unnerving stare, the kind his father gave him when he knew Mark had done something wrong. Mark held on just long enough, dodging his eyes in the direction of the woman.

Sensing this, the doctor said, “Leslie Corning, my Office manager.”

Leslie. The word floated in the air and settled at his feet like a fog. Leslie. His wife’s name. They didn’t look the same, though. This Leslie was broad-shouldered and thick throughout, like an athlete. Wavy curls of muted blond dropped past her shoulders and bounced back slightly. She had bright green eyes, or maybe it was only the dark eyeliner, and oversized glossy lips to match her nose. A white blouse and green skirt drew his eyes downward. Her legs were big and solid. She must have played soccer.  Mark might have stared for an instant.

A pleasure,” she said. The instant vanished.

“Nice to meet you, Leslie,” he said. The name struck like a match on his tongue. It fell headlong, igniting the cloud at his feet. He was hot again, sweating through a smile. A sudden urge to see his wife consumed him, and he reached for his phone as they sat down but didn’t bring it up to the table. The fog soon burned away.

Through lunch, the other men discussed features and project plans while this new Leslie listened and took a few notes. Mark ate his fried chicken, drank his sweet tea, and tried to appear interested. He was able to find out more about her. She was from South Carolina and had two sisters. She hadn’t played soccer, but she was in the marching band one semester at USC. Trombone. She missed palm trees. “Dogwoods are nicer,” he said, and she shrugged.

The men were droning on about work, hardly asking him anything, leaving Mark to wonder why he had been forced to come to the meeting at all. This gave him an idea for a tweet. He reached for his phone, but then the doctor glanced at him, and he stopped. He wished he had a pen to write it down on a napkin. New Leslie was twirling one in her hand, which he eyed longingly. There was a lot of empty space on her notebook page. What had she been doing this whole time? Whenever she brushed her hair back behind her ear with her hand she gave him a quick look, he thought he saw in the corner of his eye, and her lip would rise a nanometer. Or perhaps he was imagining it.

The rest of the day at the office Mark couldn’t code much because Leslies kept coming in and knocking over his equations. Every time New Leslie came to his mind all he could think of was biting into a bright green apple, crisp and sour, like the ones he used to pick from the Appalachian orchards as a child. He had a picture of his wife under those same trees, smiling, holding a half-empty basket, on a trip they took to the mountains, many years after he had first been there. He looked New Leslie up on LinkedIn. His wife seemed intimately connected to her somehow, with familiar pictures and messages always appearing in his mind and on the screen wherever he went. Maybe she knew her. But they weren’t Facebook friends, so that was impossible.

He sent her a connection request just so he could move on to something else. An hour passed and he began to get anxious. He regretted sending it. It was inappropriate. It was a big risk. What would his wife say? He wished he could take it back, but of course he couldn’t.

The phone buzzed on his desk. He decided not to check. It buzzed again. Of course, he had plenty of female work associates. Nothing wrong with that. He picked up the phone. New Leslie had accepted his invitation. And she had sent him a Facebook friend request. He had female Facebook friends, too. That’s how the world worked. It didn’t mean anything.

He accepted.

Her picture was a beach shot with half of another friend cut off. He sifted through her profile in small chunks between pretending to write code. She was 28, liked water-skiing, hip-hop, and reading books. He ended up, through a friend of her friend’s friend, on his wife’s profile. He quickly deleted the email notifications, removed the news feed item that said he had a new friend, and closed the site down.

Twenty minutes later he went back online. He sent new Leslie a little note, privately.

She responded quickly.

Coffee 2nite? the message said.

He closed his computer down. Five o’clock. Time to leave. He rushed past Tim’s office with his head down.

***

Mark sat in the back room of his apartment, face aglow in artificial light. He could not stop looking at a picture of his wife, the real Leslie, the only Leslie, drinking coffee in a wool sweater on a black couch. She looked so happy. He couldn’t remember where they were that night, but he must have been happy then, too. For an hour he went through their wedding photos, trying to put himself in the scene, to recreate what he had seen and heard and smelled and felt. But the pictures remained still in his mind, trapped in the moment they were taken.

He went to a forum for software developers that he frequented. His new post was a simple question without any explanation:

Is it OK to go out a client?

***

The morning after they were married, getaway car still boldly declaring their love from every window, they drove down to the airport, gradually losing streamers to the interstate draft. They flew down the cities and sand hills of the East Coast, stopped over in Miami, and crossed into the blue infinity of the Caribbean, cloudless and pristine. Each island they passed over seemed like a significant event, a little signpost in the wilderness, and all the people on the plane leaned over to look out the windows and take pictures, except for the islanders going home and the men in suits doing god-knows-what and the people in the aisles not wanting to appear undignified. Mark clicked a few pictures for the record, but he was more interested in the water and the way it looked still when in fact it was brimming with energy that traversed continents, energy that would push you, if you weren’t afraid of seeming to be lost, from one island to the next. Leslie sat beside him, in the middle seat, reading to him from the Sky Mall and, when that was exhausted, People. The deep blue eventually gave way to turquoise and then to tarmac as they descended into Oranjestad under the shadow of a towering thunderhead as limitless in front of them as the sea was behind them.

It started raining as soon as they got into the shuttle that was to ferry them the fifteen minutes to their resort. Two other couples rode with them. The van was quiet, dampened by the rain, except for the driver, a native with a heavy accent Mark couldn’t fully understand from the back seat, who talked constantly, pointing out the sights as they drove up the northwestern shore. He seemed to be excited by the rain, as if his guests should be honored by the rare occurrence. It never rained in Aruba, everyone had said. They hadn’t even brought jackets. They were passing cactuses on the side of the road.

“It’s okay,” Leslie said when they finally made it to their room, a suite with a sofa and a kitchenette on the fifth floor.

Mark parted the curtains covering the glass doors to the patio. Outside, a wall of water trickled off the edge of the overhang. The umbrellas were lashed tightly around their posts, the tables were anchored to the pool deck, the palm trees were bent and flailing. And beyond all that, the rain dove and burst upon the surface of the sea, roiled by the wind. It was, in a sense, very beautiful.

“It’ll pass soon, I’m sure,” she said, testing the bed by flinging herself on it. She didn’t bounce, but stuck to it and sank into it, which was a good sign.

“Yes,” Mark said. He opened his bag and started filling up each drawer on the left side of the dresser with its appropriate category of clothing.

“Besides,” she said. “It’s our honeymoon. You weren’t really planning on leaving the room, were you?” She rolled off the bed and picked up the complimentary bottle of rum from the kitchenette.

“Well, I thought we might try it in the pool at least once.” Mark pulled out his computer to check the weather report. Leslie was facing away from him, on her tiptoes, searching the cabinets for glasses. He glanced out the window again, at the ceaseless rain. Rare and beautiful, and yet still disappointing.

“Why did you even bring that thing?” his wife said without having to look.

***

The query from the previous night had gathered a number of responses across the board. Many of his fellow developers thought it was fine in most cases, some said he should do it even though they wouldn’t, a few thought it was too risky, a few thought it was inappropriate no matter what, and one person questioned his sexual orientation for having to ask.

Handling it democratically seemed like the most logical thing to do. On Facebook, he pulled up New Leslie’s message. The original message had asked him to coffee the night before, so what should he say now? He thought about it for a long time over two bowls of cereal. He wanted to explain himself, to explain why he couldn’t respond earlier, why he was so nervous, why she intrigued him so much, why he was so conflicted. A paragraph apologizing and explaining and inviting eventually filled the box. He deleted it.

Sure, he sent.

Immediately his thoughts fell to his wife. He wrote her a note, too. For the karma.

He was still looking at his wife when the reply came. New Leslie must have been online at the same time. They could have chatted, but he always had chatting turned off. It was too immediate. There was no way to avoid it, and if he didn’t respond soon enough the other person would start to think something was wrong.

2 late now. Amelie’s 2nite @9 🙂, the message said.

Sure, he wrote and logged out so that neither Leslie could distract him.

Carl had convinced him to help with coding an app that would automatically suggest tweets based on location and tweet history. It was another terrible idea (“the opposite of the purpose of tweeting,” he had told Carl. “The future of tweeting,” Carl answered), but he did it for the practice. He didn’t eat lunch but spent the afternoon working on the app. Carl was working on the tweeting algorithm while he handled the user interface and API.

On his desk was a picture of Real Leslie and him in New York City that he noticed for the first time in a while. Maybe he should move it out of sight, he thought. Turning it around to face the other direction didn’t help. It looked strange that way and kept drawing his eye back to it. He picked it up and, after a long look, put it in the drawer. There was one on the wall, too. She was in 17 photos throughout the apartment. He counted them all. She had put them up. He couldn’t take them down. He picked his favorite one and moved it to his desk.

***

Mark tapped the corner of his phone against the plastic sheet of the bar menu. Since it was their last day in New York, his wife was out with her friend, Sarah, reliving their college days. That had been the plan all along. It was the only reason, Mark suspected, that she wanted to take the trip. And that was fine with him. He read about this place online and wanted to try it. A Mexican/Italian fusion bar a few blocks from the hotel. While he didn’t mind eating alone—if that’s what you would call sitting elbows-touching between a very attractive women who never looked anywhere but into her phone and a middle-aged man in a sport coat who constantly looked across him at her, in a restaurant twelve feet wide, with the weight of a skyscraper bearing down on top of you—he half expected her to show up at some point and try to take him dancing again. But given that she started drinking before she even got in the cab, he doubted whether she would even be able to find him. She didn’t drink often, but when she did, she fully committed. He was trying to decide between the shrimp tacos and the pork sausage rigatoni.

“Why not try a little of both?” the bartender said.

“Why not?” Mark said.

Leslie knocked on the hotel door at 2 in the morning and fell into bed, smelling of the night.

***

Amelie’s looked like an antique thrift store that had been converted into a French bakery by putting all of the knickknacks on the walls. Strange photos in old frames, eclectic artwork, random pieces of metal, crazy lamps, mismatched chairs and sofas, and anything else filled the series of rooms encircling the central kitchen. And people. There were people everywhere, waiting in a jumbled mass around the glass counter showcasing the racks of pastries. Mark ordered two brownies and wandered around until he found a seat a small table underneath a chandelier made of kitchen utensils and a tile mosaic of Mona Lisa wearing sunglasses. He took a picture of the place and posted it along with a little note. His wife would like the place, he thought, but they’d never been.

“Is that for me?” someone said, and New Leslie was suddenly standing next to him, cupping a latte in both hands.

“Oh,” Mark said. “Hi.”

“Hey,” she said, hanging on the last syllable, eyeing the other brownie on the table.

Mark stared at the thick rectangle, the layers of chocolate and the caramel covering, perched atop the round, ceramic plate and resting on a square, white napkin. No, of course not, he thought. It was for… ”Sure,” he said. “Good to see you again. Leslie.”

“You too,” she said, sitting down across from him and pulling the plated brownie across the table. “I honestly didn’t think I would see you again.”

“Why not?” he said. “These days you can see anyone instantly no matter where they are.”

“Oh, I guess that’s true.”

“I saw you again pretty much right after I got back to my desk,” he said and then regretted it. Sounded too creepy, even though it was perfectly normal.

“I know, right?” She laughed. If she thought anything was odd about the comment, she didn’t show it. “It’s not the same, though.”

“In some ways it’s better. For some people, there’s more about them online than you could ever know by meeting them in person. It’s the only way you could ever meet or see or talk to some people.” His arm twitched reflexively, reaching for the phone in his pocket, where everything he was could be contained. He hoped. He could browse through it as proof for both of them. “They might as well only exist online,” he said.

“I guess that’s true,” she said, “for people in, like, China or something.” She seemed to linger on the thought. Mark fingered his phone, pulling it out of his pocket. But she was looking right at him, probing him with questioning eyes, like she was trying to see if he existed. He forced himself to put the phone down on the table, inert, and diverted him hand to the untouched brownie. “Does that mean that we only exist online for them, too?”

“I wonder.”

“I don’t know.” She reached across the table and poked him in the arm. “You seem—“

Wow, this brownie is good,” he said, as all the layers melted and mixed and somehow multiplied in his mouth. By far the best brownie—maybe the best anything—he’d ever tasted.

“Yeah, I love this place,” she said, her big red lips spread wide as she took a bite of her own.

“This is incredible,” he said, taking another bite, a small one, so that there would be more of them. He picked up the phone and took a picture of it, then tweeted the photo with a little note.

“Are you putting that on Instagram?” she asked. “I should follow you.”

Instagram’s for women,” he said. “Twitter.”

She gave him a sideways look and pulled out her own phone, took a picture of the table, and posted it. “Instagram, bitch.”

“Maybe you should pin it, too.”

“Oh, I will,” she said. “As soon as I find the recipe. I have a whole board just for deserts. ‘Just Deserts.’”

Mark rolled his eyes. His wife always made terrible jokes. Except he would laugh, of course. He could picture her laughing, the flush of her cheeks, the dimples, the glint of the flash off her teeth. But no, Mark wasn’t laughing. In the pictures he was never laughing.

I wouldn’t have friended you,” she said, if you hadn’t sent me the invite first. I guess I’m just an old fashioned girl like that. I was hoping you would, but I didn’t really think you would do it. I was so excited when you did! Then I was so curious I just had to meet you again.

“I didn’t think I would either,” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t have. Not usually.

“Right,” she said, staring at him so intently Mark had to look down. “Because, you know…you’re married.”

Mark felt an old pain, the kind that contracted everything inside of him until he felt hollow. And he heard Leslie’s voice scolding him, but he couldn’t answer her. He didn’t know what to say after all this time, and his lungs were so small, possibly completely gone, that he couldn’t speak. He didn’t deserve to.

“I don’t normally date married guys,” she said. “Because you have to think about what the other person must be thinking. They probably feel the same way I do, you know? ”

When he looked up, he saw her face, bright and sad, questioning, searching for him, her hair tossing and bouncing off her shoulders as she talked, her lips pressing together and coming apart in the shape of the words she had to tell him, alive and beautiful and terrifying.

But the thing I don’t understand is, why are you doing this? You really love her, don’t you? I read some of your notes. They’re so sweet. So genuine. But you get nothing in return. You deserve better than that. I feel sorry for you.”

He remembered. He remembered vividly. He could see Leslie in her eyes, hear her in her voice, feel her on her fingertips. The space in him longed to be filled with this incarnation. But something was wrong. Something about her tone, her look, her skin. What he remembered wasn’t Leslie. She was something else entirely. He didn’t know exactly what. He couldn’t imagine it. That’s how he knew she was real.

Does she not love you back?

***

Leslie flung open the bathroom door in the back of their apartment and hurried down the hallway, high heels rapping in double-time on hardwood floors. Marked glanced up to see her come around the corner, looking first into the kitchen, then turning to find him sitting on the couch in his sweatpants and a t-shirt.

“What the hell, Mark?” She was angry. He expected it. She wanted him to go to her office party, a swanky event for the whole firm at the uptown Westin, which was supposedly important but in fact was the same boring affair every year, sure to be filled with lawyer-types giving looks to his wife and making him feel uncomfortable and his wife probably returning some. She was wearing that green dress she always wore when she was trying to impress someone that wasn’t him. Her face was perfectly soft with her makeup on, the emotion just showing through in the shifting creases of her grinding jaw, which she always did when she was mad. She looked beautiful, in a sense, but he couldn’t take it anymore, no matter how beautiful or upset she was.

“I’m not going,” he said, pretending to read something on the computer in his lap.

“Oh, you’re going,” she said. “We talked about this already, remember? You said you were going. I already RSVP’d. Get ready. Now.”

“I changed my mind,” he said. “Tell them I’m sick or something. I don’t care.”

“Mark, please. This is my career. It’s important to me. I need you to go.”

“Why? It’s basically like the prom but for adults and with better liquor,” he said. When she kept staring at him he added, though he knew he shouldn’t, “I’m sure your boyfriends will be there. Daniel and Jesse and what’s-his-face with the frosted tips.”

“You think that’s what this is about?” she said, throwing up her hands and spinning around like she was looking for help. “You’re an idiot.”

Better that than a fool,” Mark said.

How about being a husband? Suck is up one time a year and go to a nice dinner with your wife. Maybe say something nice to her every once in a while, if you want to keep her.”

Mark stared at his computer. Matching her intensity was impossible, even if he wanted to make an argument of it.

“I’m leaving, with or without you,” she threatened, but even she must have known it was empty, because her breath was slowing, her jaw slackening, her glare fading. Her passion was crashing against the wall of his indifference, and soon it would wash away completely.

“Do whatever you want,” Mark said. He had drawn his line and would not cross it. Leslie wouldn’t either. She turned and ran the other direction. And he didn’t wonder where she was going, what she might do, but only thought about everything they had been through, how it all led to this point. And that was the moment he lost her. Long before she slammed the door and started up the car, she was no longer his wife. She had already become a memory.

 

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