Present Day. Present Time.
— Serial Experiments Lain
Are dolphins making self-glorifying edits on Wikipedia?
Cetacean needed, next on #SickSadWorld!
Content note: Realist beginning of an eventual fantasy. Mentions of infidelity, depression, consensual kink. Past Daria/OC; past Jane/OC; offscreen Quinn/OC.
IT WAS the first Saturday of 2013, and Daria Morgendorffer
felt like Hell.
She watched the roadside from the passenger seat. A food-and-fuel plaza appeared in the distance down the turnpike, then grew and slipped past her window. A row of parked semi trucks fanned out in a momentary peacock of parallax, which closed up again as the exit lane of the plaza merged into the highway and vanished behind them.
“You didn’t have to drive me,” Daria told her sister. “I am capable of planting myself on a train for a few hours.”
“Oh, come on,” said Quinn Morgendorffer. “Like I would make you bother with all that. I mean, I know that writers love trains on general principles, but you’d have to schlep all your stuff from South Station to wherever it is Jane is staying, whereas I can provide door-to-door luggage service.” Quinn pointed her thumb over her shoulder, back towards the trunk of the Prius. “Besides, I’d love to spend a night in Boston, and on the way back I can have brunch with my fellow podcasters and make a working trip of it.”
—My little sister Quinn, thought Daria. —Quinn who is Regional Director of Quality Assurance for a sporting-goods company so well-known even I recognized the name. Quinn who cohosts a podcast that teaches young women about mathematics. Quinn, married and trying for a kid.
“And double besides,” Quinn went on, “I like helping people move into new places, you know? All the mundane stuff, like buying salad tongs and figuring out how to do the laundry, it, you know, becomes special again.”
—Quinn, who might not have an absolutely perfect life, but who is on top of things. Who, in fact, got all the able-to-stand-on-two-feet genes. Who is, let’s face it, Mom, but with better work-life balance and bouncier hair.
“Jane says they have on-site laundry,” Daria said.
“And you get to live with Jane again! How awesome is that?”
“And here it turns out I’m riding in a time machine,” Daria deadpanned, “and I didn’t even notice when we hit eighty-eight.”
—Except that since the last time Jane and I shared a place, things have… reversed.
Quinn looked away from the road momentarily, shot a quick smile at Daria, then returned her gaze to the highway.
“Jane said we could meet her at her work, right?” asked Quinn.
“She only gave me the one address,” Daria replied, “and she said she’d be working this afternoon, so I guess that’s what we do. Which means you get to experience the joys of driving, not just through Boston, but Somerville too.”
“Ha,” Quinn said. “Put on the power playlist, would you? We’re going to need a strong sound going into this.”
* * *
“Nicely done in the rotary,” Daria said. “I thought it was very neat, how you got around those two buses.”
“What two buses?”
They were near the address which Jane had given. By all appearances, it was in a light-industrial corner of town. The businesses, in buildings of dingy and sometimes sooty red brick, all had a definite closed-for-the-weekend look, save those which might have been closed since the recession hit.
Daria mused aloud. “So this is where they manufacture used air conditioners.”
“In my town,” Quinn replied, “the used air conditioners are hand-crafted and artisanal.”
Daria looked down at her sleek new phone.
“Your destination will be on the left,” she said.
Quinn’s head swiveled to port. “So it is!” She bopped the turn signal with the heel of her hand, then slowed the car and swung the wheel. They rounded the curb into a parking lot, roughly half full.
The lot fronted two brick buildings, side-by-side. The one on the left was a single storey, judging by the windows, but with a high roof. The building on the right poked above its companion with three extra floors. A narrow walkway between them had been covered over with new metal construction, and a shallow ramp led up to the glass door set into it. A sign on the taller building said, in a typeface which made Daria think of the good ship Enterprise in the original movies: MOONBASE ILLYRIA.
“This is the place,” Quinn said. She parked the car in a spot on the street side of the lot and pushed the power button. “Hope she’s here.”
Daria unfastened her seatbelt and reached to the floor space beside her seat, where she had kept her winter coat. She leaned forward to pull it on, then stepped out of the car and immediately zippered her parka.
They crossed the lot, Quinn at a light jog and Daria more sedately, and approached the door.
“Buzzer, or try her cell phone?” asked Quinn.
Daria heard the running of booted feet behind her. She had turned partway in the direction of the sound when its source met her in a flying hug which carried her into Quinn, who was then caught up in the embrace in turn.
“No need,” said Jane Lane.
—Still tall and lithe and fleet, I see, thought Daria. —Still with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, set in that angular heart of a face which has driven boys and girls to distraction lo these many years.
“Hi Jane,” Daria said, into Jane’s onyx-black asymmetric bob.
Jane gave them both an extra squeeze before disengaging. “I was around by the loading dock when you two came in,” she said. “By Gad, it’s good to see you.”
—Still my best and oldest friend.
“So this is what happened to the movie-prop-making company?” Quinn asked.
“Yup,” Jane replied. “Farrell Multinational set up a trust endowment thing in some patron-of-the-arts shenanigans, and we moved up here from Providence to expand.” She rubbed her hands, which Daria now saw were bare and starting to turn red. “How’s about we carry on inside, then? Let’s go get your stuff!”
“Wouldn’t it be a wasted effort,” Daria asked, “to carry the bags in and then carry them out again when we go to your apartment?”
Jane canted her head sideways. “I guess I didn’t get everything across by e-mail after all,” she said. “Come on inside. You’ll love it!” From an inside coat pocket she pulled out a prox card, which she slapped against a sensor panel beside the door. The entrance unlatched with a solenoid thump. Jane swung it open and ushered them inside.
* * *
The rubberized mat on the linoleum floor, the bulletin board tacked up with Title IX notices and instructions on phoning cab companies, the vending machines at the far end of the hall: everything conjoined to remind Daria of a place where one waited for an auto dealer to complete warranty repairs. The squeal of a saw munching through something heavy streamed out through the door to their left.
“Set construction job,” Jane explained, “kind of came down to the wire. Got to make furniture for the baddies to destroy when the federales bust the joint.” She waved them down the hall and through another door, one leading to their right.
Daria’s first impression was that a bicycle shop had run away with a mannequin warehouse and raised a child who aspired to become a bank robber. “We’re kind of overbooked at the moment,” Jane said, leading them past an unoccupied reception desk, around a beaverboard partition and onto the shop floor. She grabbed a burlap sack from a nearby workbench, reached inside and tossed something from inside at Daria. It slipped past her hands and bounced into her chest, where she trapped it in her arms.
“Money?” she asked.
Quinn peeked into the bag. “At least fifty large.” She flipped through one of the rubber-banded stacks. The inside bills were blank.
“All to be destroyed in the third act,” Jane said. “Come on, elevator’s this way.”
Daria inquired, “You guys do a bit of everything, I guess?”
“Along with some other stuff. Custom mechanical design and prototyping, sometimes, but that’s not really my job. Some of our specialized tooling, we rent out to local makerspaces. Sweet Jesus, this town is crawling with makerspaces. Oh, this is kinda neat—” From another table they passed, she snagged a small metal item.
“Cigarette lighter?” Quinn guessed.
Jane nodded. “Some people Farrell knows are throwing an unironical Great Gatsby party. He made sure we got the deal to provide tchotchkes at properly immodest fees.”
“If that’s the case,” Daria said, “I hope that’s just your prototype, because it’s not nearly tacky enough.”
Jane grinned and beckoned them onwards.
“Over in the short wing is where we keep the heavy machining stuff, for sawing and milling and welding and lathe-ing. This side is more geared for soldering, 3D printing, painting. And now—into the big metal box, Morgendorffers!”
The steel doors closed, and the freight elevator rumbled upwards. A bell chimed outside.
“Second floor: camera testing, where the movie magic happens! No, we don’t film porn here. But we’re not above providing the set decorations.”
“The third floor is still under development. We’re, you know, conceptualizing the possibilities. Mostly right now it’s where we store the molds for replica food.”
“A-and the top of the heap! Directly ahead, the Moonbase gallery.”
The first thing Daria saw was the hardwood floor. It was a nice floor: new, even, polished. Her attention worked its way upwards, and she took in the walls, spotless and soothingly eggshell. Paintings, not too closely crowded together, each illuminated by mild track lighting. Sculptures in wood and metal and glass, on pedestals or hanging from the I-beams which ran just under the ceiling.
“Oh my gosh,” Quinn said. “This place is amazing!”
“Be a shame if something happened to it,” Jane said, in her best gangster voice. “We use this space for showcasing what our people can do. Also for a Girls Who Code event and an antique pen swap meet and so forth. Now, we make our way around the central exhibit walls and turn this corner—” She jogged backwards, beckoning them on.
They came to a painting in the style of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji, done on several floor-to-ceiling panels. Jane went to the side and grasped a handle which Daria had not noticed.
“And all will become clear,” Jane announced. She pulled the handle sideways, and the painted panels revealed themselves to be segments of a folding door.
“You don’t have to open it all the way just to go through,” Jane said, “but it’s ever so much more dramatic this way.”
Beyond the accordion door, there was now revealed a lounge. Two sofas, two coffee tables, chairs of the papasan and bean-bag species. Against the walls were shelves, some in wood, several built from repurposed milk crates. Daria saw, in the corner, a pinball machine, themed on the movie Clue.
“OK, we’re still giving it the old college try in some respects,” Jane said. “The projector is over there if you want to watch movies or cat videos or what-have-you. Now, you’ll need keys…” She darted through the dining room and into the kitchen.
“Oh, there’s a kitchen too,” Daria noted.
“Question?” Jane was rummaging through a drawer.
“I’m not exactly clear on the situation here,” Daria admitted.
“Aha!” Jane sprinted back to Daria bearing keys and a prox card. Holding up the card: “Front door.” Next, she flourished a key, with a bright orange plastic sheath on its untoothed end. “For the elevator. You’ll need it to get onto this floor outside of regular business hours.” Another key, tagged in black. “For the door from the gallery. And the one in green is for your room.”
“The other live-in supervisor got married and moved out to Stoneham, so she’s now a live-out supervisor. Her room’s all ready for you.”
Quinn was delighted. “You’ll get to live in a place with its own art gallery! How cool is that? Daria, this’ll be fantastic!”
Daria said, “I was expecting a… a couple rooms in a subdivided house somewhere in, I dunno, Camberville. This is… This is amazing, Jane.”
Jane pushed the card and the keys into Daria’s hands. “This is my home,” she said. “And it’s yours, too, for however long you need it.”
—My best and oldest friend, Daria thought again.
“Right, then!” exclaimed Jane. “Half bath in the gallery, full bath just over there, we should work out a shower schedule I suppose, but it was fine with two or three people living here before. Your bedroom is the last down that little hall—and, Quinn, there’s a guest room for you tonight. Umm, what else… If you could chip in, let’s say, one hundred fifty a month for food and household sundries, does that sound reasonable?”
“That’s it? For living in Boston?” inquired Daria, incredulously. “I can make that much from my blog.”
Quinn said, “Or even from teaching.”
Jane said, “Hey, the company owns the building, and I’m on the board. One of our original plans for this whole place was to make, you know, an artist colony. That’s why we’re all above the table, dual-zoned and everything. We might still carve up the third floor into apartments, but it turns out planning that kind of thing takes time. Who would have thunk? But, your place to stay, that’s sorted!” She was off again, pointing at things in the kitchen. “We’re pretty well equipped, helps when we have staff meetings at lunchtime. Feel free to use the technology at hand. Mi Zojirushi es su Zojirushi. Let’s see…” She looked out a nearby window. “This part of town is kinda dead as far as places to go,” she said, “but if you head up Washington towards Union Square, them’s some good eats. Bars and so forth. Go through Sullivan to Broadway and there are some legit taco places. And go far enough up Broadway, you get back to your old stomping grounds, of course.” Jane glanced down at Daria’s feet, then blinked. “Speaking of stomping… new boots? Of the après-ski variety?”
“Um, yeah,” Daria said.
“What?” asked Daria.
Jane puffed air from the side of her mouth. “You left him with only the clothes on your back, didn’t you?”
Daria deflated. —So this is where we get into it all. “More or less. How could you tell?”
“Daria, Daria… You match. New parka, new boots, even a new scarf—all from the same company. Employee discount, I’ll wager—you’ve got the hook-up.” She looked over to Quinn. “And one with an infallible color sense.”
Smiling wryly, Quinn bowed her head.
“It’s true,” Daria said. “Right now, most of my worldly possessions were retail therapy.”
“And Christmas gifts,” Quinn added. “Show her the new phone that Aunt Amy got you!”
“Ooooh,” went Jane, turning the device over in her hands. “Posh. I need me an aunt at Encom. Well. Let’s go unload the car, then, shall we? And Daria here can tell me all about what it feels like to be stylish for once in her life.”
Daria aimed a questioning look at Quinn. “You’re leaving me with her tender mercies?”
* * *
Luggage in hand, Jane and Daria executed an awkward little no-you-go-first dance at the door of Daria’s new bedroom. Quinn was migrating shirts into the closet. “To-o-old you,” she called over her shoulder, “bringing hangars would be a good idea. You can at least start off with your possessions in some semblance of decency.”
The bed itself was on a wooden loft which spanned most of the room. Jane stepped around the pine-wood ladder which gave access to the loft and added the duffel bags she carried to the collection of Daria’s earthly goods in the middle of the room. Apart from the luggage, the floor space was empty. Setting down her suitcase, Daria noticed a few dents in the carpet which suggested that a desk had been moved out. She saw that Jane had to duck to avoid the chains of chili-pepper lights which had been strung under the loft, and she wondered if Aisha and Giulio were both short like her.
“We’ll have to see about shelves,” Daria noted.
“We live above a machine shop,” Jane crowed. “We can build—”
Daria tipped her suitcase flat onto the floor. The contact was surprisingly loud.
“Those the kruggerrands?” Jane asked.
Kneeling, Daria unzipped the case and flipped it open.
Jane exclaimed, “You brought me bubble wrap!”
“So now you can never say I did nothing for you.”
Quinn stood beside Jane and peered over Daria’s shoulder. “I’m amazed you fit them all into one bag.”
“These are just the ones I took with me because they’d be the hardest to replace.” Daria reached into the case and withdrew one of the bubble-wrapped hardbacks from the top layer. She offered the book to Jane. “You might find this one amusing.”
Jane undid the wrapping and scrunched the sheet of bubbly under her arm. “The first six books of the Elements of Euclid,” she read, “in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners. Damn. People were serious about titles in those days. Oliver Byrne, 18—Jesus, 1847?” The pages were only faintly yellowed. Jane turned them carefully. “Wow. The graphics do have a certain voom to them. Kind of a Mondrian vibe, a bit of Bauhaus before its time.”
“Quinn would have killed me if I had forgotten that one.”
“Truer words,” Quinn said, “have only seldom been spoken.”
Jane closed the book, gently, and stared at its cover.
“Is something the matter?” asked Daria.
For a moment, Jane was silent. Then, “Would you two sophisticates like some tea now that we’ve lugged all this up here?”
The kitchen had a stretch of counter dedicated to beverage preparation, including a milk steamer and a row of spigots for different flavors of chocolate syrup.
Daria asked, “What, no samovar?”
“Should we get one?” Jane set about spooning leaves from a tin.
Soon, all three repaired to the lounge, equipped with steaming mugs of tea. Jane planted herself in a papasan chair and folded her knees up to her chest. “All right, give.”
Daria had a sense of what would have to come next, but she pushed it off. “Huh?”
“You told me you’d give me the details when you got here. You’re here.”
“C’mon,” Jane said. “You’re the storyteller and I’m the audience. Story time!”
Daria looked from Jane to Quinn and back again. “All right.” She took a deep breath. “You remember my Melody Powers stories from high school?”
“Oooh, this is a tale with a prequel. Yes, I remember.”
“OK. Fast-forward from high school to the year Two Thousand Eleven. It’s summertime, and I’ve been an adjunct professor for two semesters. I haul myself back and forth between job and boyfriend twice a week, and I spend my time on the bus blogging for SickSadWorld. One day, on my way out of Chicago, I realize, these things called e-readers exist, and I have enough old fiction saved up that some of it is bound to be decent. I pull out my old files, fix up the worst of the problems, and release to the world Operation Obsidian: A Melody Glass Adventure.”
Quinn said, “And it was a hit beyond your wildest dreams!”
“Turns out,” Daria said, “I had a fan base all ready to go. Melody was just the right combination of ’80s nostalgia, ’90s nostalgia and `hey look a chick kicking ass’ to appeal to SickSadWorld readers.”
Jane exclaimed, one fist in the air, “Hit all the buttons!”
Daria continued, “I got some walking-around money and some fanart… And I got an introduction to a writers’ circle for
self-published authors. Brett and I both started going to their meetings pretty regularly. They weren’t all instant soulmates, but, you know…” Daria shrugged. “I was meeting new people.”
Quinn shifted in her seat.
“Life was looking up. Brett and I stopped arguing about whether I was treading water in my job. I took the fall off from adjuncting to start my second academic book. And it was at least interesting,” Daria said, “to meet people who’d made it much bigger than I had. Some of them had even gotten picked up by traditional publishers for dead-tree editions. Tell me, Jane: did you ever read Furnace, Hammer, Chain?”
“Tried to,” Jane said. Then, a little defensively: “Hey, this was back when you could reach into the lint trap at the laundromat and pull out a copy. I got, I dunno, a few chapters in before it was `hurled aside with great force,’ as you writers like to put it.”
“And why, pray tell?”
“First, for starters, the sex. It was too badly written to get off on. Second, everything else. All the other stuff around the sex was creepy stalking-is-love bullshit, which then cashes in its bonus miles and upgrades to outright abuse. The heroine hates all other women. Which is fun when it plays together with the homophobia. Asking if the `hero’ is gay is the worst insult ever, because if a man catches The Gay, that makes him like a woman. Lesbians are sort of okay, though, because you can’t get worse than being a woman already. That’s the kind of fractally wrong that I think I’m entitled to take personally. There’s a being-kinky-is-a-sickness theme running through the whole thing, which is rich coming from an author who clearly has some race issues and a disturbing fascination with anorexia and an attitude about women looking childlike which one normally hears from Reddit guys coming out of the bloody ether to insist that, well, actually, it’s technically ephebophilia. Seriously! Any brain that could invent that book must need professional help, and—oh. Oh my.”
Daria stared at her, face blank, gaze level.
Jane braced her fingers against her forehead. “Your. He. With. Her. He. They.”
Daria said, tonelessly, “That they did.”
Quinn sighed. Jane’s hands made grasping and pulling motions in her bangs.
“That is just,” Jane began. “I mean, that is just so completely…”
Daria told her, “I saw pictures.”
“That’s how I found out. The fan in my jalopy-top died, so I went to use Brett’s computer to buy plane tickets for my Christmas visit to Lawndale. You know how web browsers autocomplete for you when you start to type in a website?”
“The short version is that I happened to notice that certain, uh, instructional videos had been downloaded. I looked to see where they had been downloaded to, and… yeah.”
Jane shook her head, slowly. “What in the name of…”
“There were timestamps, too,” Daria said. “It was a recurring recreational event. Pretty much the whole time I was going out of town half of every week. And with some regularity during the past fall, too.”
“Shit, Daria. I’m so sorry. I guess you, you gave him what for?”
“And then I left, with, as you inferred, the clothes on my back. Plus a bag of my hard-to-replace books, the hard drive from my dead computer and a phone with a cracked screen.”
“And your engagement ring,” Quinn added.
“Oh, Daria,” Jane said, “you can never get much for those when you pawn them.”
“Which is why I left it along with my tip in the diner where Quinn found me on Thanksgiving morning.”
“At least the hash browns never lied to me.”
Jane unfolded herself to the floor and walked to Daria. For a moment, Daria thought that she was in for a hug, but Jane crouched down before her and took her hands. Then Jane brought Daria’s hands upwards and, leaning to meet them halfway, kissed each one in turn.
“I’m so, so sorry,” Jane said, and for a moment Daria thought her friend was apologizing for the gush of affection. And then Jane looked up at her. “We’ll make… We’ll make this better,” Jane said, almost in a whisper.
—And she is the one, thought Daria, who is on the edge of tears right now?
Carefully, Daria withdrew her right hand from Jane’s hold and patted the hair atop Jane’s head.
“Um,” said Daria. “There there.”
Jane broke into a smile. With the back of her free hand, she wiped her eyes. Then she stood and let Daria’s other hand fall out of her grasp. “Wine,” Jane said. “I think at this point all three of us need wine.”
* * *
Jane deemed the wine selection at home insufficient for the purposes of a welcoming party, so she insisted that they go out to the “boozeohol store.” This in turn required piling into the pickup truck which Jane and her colleagues used for Moonbase business. Daria squeezed into the middle seat. After a few turns, her sense of direction recognized she was in terra incognita and shut down.
As she climbed out, her boot caught in the detritus which had been more or less shoved under the seat. She bent down and came up with a hat, now slightly squished.
“So that’s where that went,” Jane said. “First the glasses, now the hat,” she added in a voice that was a little more absent and to-herself.
Daria descended to the pavement, steadying herself against the doorframe with one hand while carrying the hat in the other. “A fedora? Why, Jane, I didn’t know you were in the habit of bringing home Pick-Up Artists.”
Quinn interposed: “Sheesh, Daria! You of all people should be more discerning.” She reached out a hand. Daria tried to toss the hat with a bit of spin. It veered to the left, but Quinn caught it and momentarily scrutinized it. “First of all, going by the brand, this is a woman’s hat.” She sniffed, carefully, twice. “A woman who has a fondness for lavender shampoo. Second, the narrow brim with the upturn at the back and the snap-down at the front means this is a trilby, not a fedora. Both of which, incidentally, are named for famous woman characters in the theatre.” Quinn continued as they entered the liquor store. “Fédora was the name of the princess in Sardou’s play, a rôle written for and made iconic by Sarah Bernhardt. It was the suffragette’s hat, the hat of adopted and subverted masculinity. Even setting aside the incorrect terminology for the hat itself, using fedora to stand for jerkhole guys is beyond ironic—and irony is so two years ago. It says, `I, Daria Morgendorffer, know nothing of sartorial expression beyond the mating habits of arrogant cishet white guys aged 18-to-30 with terribly unflattering OKCupid profiles.'”
Jane cackled. “Game, set and match to the spiffy redhead!”
Quinn popped the hat back into shape and indicated the tag on the inside band. “If I recall correctly, this logo changed to a new design three autumns ago, so the item is at least that old, and it’s far too upscale to have been a ten-dollar purchase at the stand next to the food court. Appropriate brim width almost always scales with shoulder breadth, so this would look terrible on your average dudebro, but quite fair upon—” And she gently seated the trilby upon Daria’s head.
“‘You have to understand the way I am, mein Herr,‘” Jane sang, not exactly in any particular key.
Daria took the hat off again and tried giving it a good going-over. There was a noticeable patch of wear on a seam, about where it might get rubbed if she carried the thing by its front end using her left hand. She noticed a couple streaks of what could have been violet nail polish, slightly darker than the hatband.
—Index finger on the outside, thumbnail making contact on the inside. Worn for some time. An expensive item, not replaced.
—Owned by a left-handed woman of only moderate means?
—Whatever—now you’re being silly.
* * *
The trip to get wine became an as-long-as-we-have-the-truck expedition to find Daria an office chair, and then a venture to pick up an early dinner in boxes and cartons from Good Time Fusion. They parked the chair in Daria’s bedroom and unloaded the food onto the dining table.
The early night had gathered in by the time Jane was nibbling on the last of the scallion pancakes. “I remember, the first December I spent in this town. That evening when I dragged your ass to a holiday party at some halfway house for alumni that Cendrine knew about?”
“You dragged me to so many parties, they all blur together.”
“But you do remember, you came down to Davis Square and we had Thai food before we caught the bus to wherever the shindig was?”
“Vaguely, I guess.”
“We were standing at the bus stop, the one right by the theater, and it started to snow. Just flurries, no big deal. And I thought, I’m waiting for public transit here in the snow, in a city square full of pedestrians and people actually doing stuff and enjoying themselves, next to an indie cinema, with my belly full of Thai food. And I realized, this simple little experience was the perfect I’ve-gotten-out-of-Lawndale moment.”
“Aww,” Quinn said. “And you got to share it with the best part of Lawndale, too. I think my moment like that was seeing my first palm tree.”
“What about you?” Jane scooped sriracha sauce onto the last piece of scallion pancake and shoveled it into her mouth.
Daria pondered. “I guess I felt like I was in a different place as soon as I got here. The whole environment was big-city stuff for me at the time, and I was pretty unnerved. Until the first time I felt comfortable—and Quinn is going to laugh at me for this.”
“Never! Let’s see, it couldn’t have been at a bar, and it wasn’t a sports event, I’m sure.”
Jane offered, “Sorority party.”
“Shopping mall,” Daria confessed. “I was with some kids from my froshling orientation group—this was a few days before classes started—and we ended up wandering about the Copley mall. We were crossing the skyway that connects the Copley part with the Prudential part, and it struck me. This was a place built for the purpose of making people feel comfortable while they spent money. The very artificiality of it was soothing. It was simple, and it was purely itself, and it made sense. Even though it was too upscale to sell anything I could use. And that’s where I mellowed out a bit.”
Quinn said, “We’ll have to make a pilgrimage to this most transformative place. And who knows? Maybe what you can get a use out of has changed.”
* * *
Daria voted for assembling furniture before starting to drink. This met with a chorus of “well, you’re no fun,” and the night was well advanced by the time they uncorked the first bottle. Among them, they emptied that bottle over the course of three Adventure Time episodes on Jane’s projector TV.
Quinn, who had risen the earliest, was starting to slump into the sofa cushions. She jostled awake when Jane declared, “Bathroom break! I nominate Dariatron to pick what we watch next.”
Jane wobbled as she stood.
—Uh oh. Tell me that she is not…
Daria was waiting for her when she emerged from the bathroom. “Two glasses of wine,” Daria said softly, “and you can barely walk. The last time you couldn’t drink me under the table was when…”
Jane said nothing.
Daria whispered, “Did things get bad again?”
“Come with me a sec,” Jane told her. Daria followed her friend around the corner and stood at the door of Jane’s bedroom.
The bed was lofted, like the one in Daria’s room. Under it were a dresser, a stack of plastic storage bins and a treadmill, all of them a bit dinged and dented.
“I take these,” Jane said, “to keep things from getting bad.” She grabbed a pill bottle from the top of her dresser and tossed it to Daria.
“Mirtazapine,” Daria read. “As I recall… this hit you pretty hard.”
“It’s not so rough this time,” Jane replied. “I just…” She took a step and wobbled into the treadmill. “Shit. I just need to stop, at, like, half a glass of shiraz, I guess.”
Daria stood beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“It didn’t get Dark Age bad,” Jane insisted. “You think I could do all I do running this place if it had?” She smiled wanly.
“I’m… I’m here for you,” Daria said.
Jane pushed herself away from the treadmill and stood upright. Her arm went around Daria’s shoulders, and her voice was close and quiet in Daria’s ear. “That was supposed to be my line this time around,” Jane whispered, a little ruefully.
“C’mon,” Daria told her friend. “Before Quinn gets the wrong idea.”
—The wind down Huntington Avenue is cold.
—It is the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 2001.
“Psssh. Hey, Dariatron—” Jane leaned over and took another brown plastic pill bottle from atop the dresser. “This is—this is a leftover from an old prescription combination. An old treatment combo. Should still be good, though.”
Daria took the bottle, which rattled in her hand. “Clonazepam,” she said.
“‘n case you have trouble sleeping. Here, have a couple.” Jane handed her another bottle, this one empty. “I’ve got plenty of spares to carry them in.”
Daria opened the clonazepam vial and tipped its contents into her palm, where the pills formed a perfect quincunx, like dots on a die.
—It is the summer after freshman year. I am standing in a smoke-beseiged dorm room on the freak side of Longfellow Tech. Cendrine is sorting capsules on her desk, a battered paperback of Shulgin open for easy reference.
“I have had some insomiac nights lately,” Daria admitted.
“One of these ought to be plenty to mellow you out,” Jane advised.
Daria transferred two pills into the spare container and returned the others to their home vial.
“Rationing yourself, eh?”
“Just being prudent. C’mon.”
Quinn stirred on the couch when they returned. “Hmmm. Hi again,” she said, mostly asleep.
Jane sat on the other sofa. “You know, we do have an actual bed you could use.”
“Oh, Jane,” Quinn said. “Such an offer to make to a respectable married woman…” And she was asleep again.
Daria let herself fall backward into the bean-bag chair. “That reminds me,” she said. “Any girlfriends or boyfriends running about that I should be aware of?”
“None of mine,” said Jane. “Mm. Next episode?”
—It is spring semester, senior year at Raft. I am reading course requirements, trying to decide if I want to stay on for my master’s. Jane knocks on my door. She is crying. Cendrine has been in Cali-grad-school-fornia for months now and wrote to say she met someone new, that she met another woman, and Jane is crying…
Daria leaned forward to pick up the keyboard from the floor. Tapping the arrow keys to skip through the list of shows which the computer could provide, she said, “Tonight, on How It’s Made: Babby.”
Jane snorted and chuckled.
“Hey,” Jane said, “have you seen The Secret Life of Machines? It’s kind of the same, but quirky and English, very English.”
“You know how to find it?”
Jane reached out her arms and wiggled her fingers. “Gimme gimme.” Daria passed her the keyboard.
—She knows me plenty well enough to realize that I have enough surplus brain to be upset on two or three levels beneath what I have already said—
—moving into a room at Raft and finding eye-hooks driven into the drywall above the bed—”What are these for?”
Jane moved to sit beside Daria and snuggled around her.
—the flash of curiosity all through me—
—realizing I can’t trust anyone that much—
—tagging along with friends going to that shop in Central because they needed Manic Panic—
Jane’s head was drooping onto Daria’s shoulder. “Could get to like this,” Jane mumbled.
—nineteen years old and erasing my browser history with needless guilt—
—And now I am remembering how it felt to remember then how the pain of being pierced didn’t matter, didn’t matter at all because I was holding the hand of the boy I was crushing on—
“Am I the only one still awake?”
Neither Jane nor Quinn made a reply.
And now Daria’s memory at its most eidetic played back for her images of rope corsets and clover clamps and spider gags and cages, always cages; recollections of JPEGs furtively saved and then deleted; memories of trying to construct the perfect sentence to express her desires, at times out of instinct and, on other nights, to seek some kind of sense in them.
—I see those women—
—”I see those women,” I wrote myself, “and all I can think is, I wish I were that beautiful, so I could be exploited like that. Now and then. Consensually. By someone I love.”
The light from the projector screen played over the room.
—That one moment of elation when it looked like the man who shared my life had an interest in the same—
—That one moment when all the curiosity came back so strong I could taste it and was on the cusp of being satisfied—
Jane’s weight was sinking Daria further into the chair. Getting up without waking her was beginning to seem a dubious proposition.
* * *
Daria stood in the morning air, her fists clenched in the lined pockets of her parka.
“You know, sometimes the hardest scenes to write are when a character is just putting her overnight bag in her car for her trip back home.”
Quinn lowered the trunk hatch. “Oh? Why is that?”
“Because if it’s just about the overnight bag, then the scene shouldn’t exist at all. Unless it’s a spy thriller or something, I guess, and you need to establish that the papers are in the car. Otherwise, the scene has to have something else going on. Emotions. Under the surface. And emotions are scary.”
Quinn embraced Daria.
“Does that help any?” she asked, squeezing Daria tight.
Daria returned the hug. “A bit.”
Then, they parted.
“Drive safe,” Daria admonished.
“I’ll text you when I get there. And I’ll visit the next chance I get. And I’ll give Aunt Amy your best.”
“I need to call Mom and Dad and let them know I’ve settled in.”
“I’ll back up whatever story you give them.”
“Thanks. Go on, you’ve got a brunch to catch.”
Quinn climbed into her car. “Don’t be a stranger, sister mine.”
“Strange, me? Never.”
Quinn smiled, closed the door, buckled herself in and thumbed the ignition button.
“Finding route to home,” Daria said. “Recalculating.” She watched her sister drive away, and then she let herself back into the Moonbase Illyria facility with her new entry card.
Muttering, she began to compose narration. “Another city, another residence, thought Melody. There was no reason to think this one would last, that this domicile could become a home in any emotional sense, in any meaning other than the logistical. But the idea still had appeal, or perhaps only the feeling that it should be attractive, that it would please another woman, the woman she had stopped trying to be a long time ago…”
She stepped into the elevator and turned the gallery key.
“As the elevator carried her upward, Melody gauged the situation as though she were compiling a mission profile, as she had done for so many operations in the past. Those were her talents: planning, patience, execution. Those were the habits by which she had lived, for which she had earned praise from the only quarters that mattered to her.
“Now, they were rote exercises, with no satisfaction about them, only the bleak promise that if she kept them up, she could live long enough to continue carrying them out.”
Daria stepped into the gallery and slid out of her parka.
“It had been her choice. Melody Glass… would wait.”
* * *
On Monday, Daria woke late and found an e-mail from Jane waiting on her newly-handed-down Encom tablet. “G’mornin’ sleepyhead,” it said, “help yourself to whatever in the kitchen. I’ve got to get in the zone to review designs and finalize approvals and bitch out a couple deadbeat bar-stock suppliers, but I’ll be up for dinner. Wuvnhugs, J.”
Daria showered and changed into day clothes. She padded from her bedroom to the kitchen, did a quick scan of the fridge and tried the door to what looked like it might be a pantry. It stuck slightly but yielded to her pull, and she flicked the light switch she noticed just inside.
“Well, you’re set for the winter, Mrs. Torrance,” she said aloud.
Liter cans of mango pulp and boxes of ribbon pakoda and bags of chana dal must have come from an Indian grocery, as did the stacked boxes of samosas in the deep freeze. Baking staples and flats of canned goods looked like they hailed from the nearest Payday. But the number-ten cans in overbearing quantities on the lower shelves, and the frozen packaged goods marked not for individual sale, and the shaft of gouda in the fridge which looked like it could club a baby mammoth—where did those come from? Unfamiliar brands, logos which had last been redesigned circa 1978—ah, there, on a ten-kilo brick of Belgian dark chocolate: US Restaurant Supplies — Quincy, MA — Quantity Cookery since 1919.
She brushed her fingers over the labels on a row of restaurant-sized spice jugs. “I haven’t seen this much curry powder in one place since—”
—Digamma House. Dying days of August, 2000. Standing in the basement kitchen, suddenly very far from home, facing my first afternoon on cooking team. One of my newly acquired frasority siblings pulling a cling-wrapped metal bowl from the middle fridge. “We were going to use this lobster for a Rush event, but we made tacos instead. I guess we can cook it like chicken?”
—The others are sophomores and juniors, all experienced in cooking for twenty-five or thirty, all having their dish of choice already in mind. So the lobster falls to me.
—I am standing over a titanic wok of lobster curry bisque. It is, terrifyingly, a thing like my father would make. A sophomore tests the yellow liquid. I expect her to turn ashen. But she smiles at me. “It’s good!”
—I fail to believe her. I mentally add up the costs of ordering pizza for everyone instead. I keep doing this until we carry the three courses upstairs and call our siblings down from their rooms and suddenly people are going to the wok for seconds.
Daria counted out eight small frozen samosas and set the oven to warming. “This’ll do for my lunch, but dinner should be…”
—Deep-frying a turkey that fall for my first Boston Thanksgiving, serving it up with cornbread stuffing and sweet-potato casserole.
Yes, there was a number-ten can of sweet potatoes in the pantry. Duly noted.
—Back in Lawndale for Christmas. The familiar buildings on the drive to Morgendorfferhaus look like faithful depictions of a story I feel I have written. My sister collides with and squeezes me at the door. “Migod, Daria, you look fantastic!”
—I murmur a reply.
—”No, really! The freshman ten for you was, like, the freshman minus five.”
—I ponder this and realize that I’ve trudged to and from and around campus five or six days a week, and that I’ve been eating better—if I want sugar tarts, I have to buy them myself.
Daria returned to the deep freeze and began to rummage.
—My father, wanting to cook something special to celebrate my return. My mother, just out of his eyeshot, slumping her shoulders.
—”Sure, Dad. How about we go to the store for some food parts? Just you and me.”
—”You mean it, kiddo?”
She carried an armful of frozen chicken thighs, plastic-sealed into icy bricks, to the kitchen counter and set them in a bowl of warm water. The oven beeped its readiness, and she slid in a baking tray with the samosas. She returned to the pantry, to check more closely what vegetables might be available. And there, just inside the door: “Is that… Diet Ultra Cola… in blue flavor?!”
Daria had not seen the blue Diet Ultra Cola since she had moved away from New England. Was it only a hit with people who had killed taste buds with coffee milk? “Antifreeze for my heart,” she said, and carried the 3-liter bottle into the kitchen.
—My father and I have returned from the supermarket. I am rolling out a long sheet of aluminium foil. I delegate to my father the tasks of chopping, stirring, putting water on to boil—but not spicing, never spicing. My mother and my sister watch with puzzlement and ill-concealed concern. I call Jane and tell her and Trent to be over in forty minutes.
—We dine on lemon-pepper baked salmon, steamed broccoli and asparagus, fettucine bechamel with a sauce I learned one week on cooking team and improved the next.
—Quinn gobbles the food in between expressions of incredulity. My mother looks at me as if I have performed a Christmas miracle.
—My father: “I was thinking, tomorrow we do a good old hearty tomato sauce!”
—”I’d be down with that,” I say.
—Jane is talking around her pasta. “You must have learned how to do tomato sauce up there—you gotta know how to feed twenty guys.”
—”Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” I reply.
—My father makes pistols with his fingers. “Pchyew! Pchyew!”
* * *
Jane came up the stairs and through the gallery a little after eight that evening. “Well, that was a totalllhey what smells delicious?”
Daria waited diffidently beside the dining table. She held her hands behind her back. “It didn’t seem right to start without you,” she said.
Between them, upon a round metal tray centered neatly on the table, a deep, newly crafted, fragrant pizza.
Daria displayed the pizza cutter she had been keeping behind her back and offered it to Jane, handle first.
Jane took it without a word and carved three radial divisions through the pie. Daria had set two places at the table. Jane pulled the nearest slice onto the waiting plate and sat before it. She rotated the plate a half turn, then lifted the slice, its apex curling down under its own weight.
She brought the point into her mouth with her tongue and took a bite. Her eyes, which had been very wide, closed, and a long, low noise of satisfaction came from deep within her.
“Marinated chicken,” Daria said, “and olives and artichokes and spinach, stuffed in the crust. Topped with jalapeños and roasted garlic.”
Jane swallowed and leaned back in her chair, loose and lanky. “The spinach is so we don’t die?”
“You got it.”
Daria popped the tab on a can of seltzer water and poured half of it into each of two glasses, which she filled the rest of the way with chocolate almond milk. She pulled a slice of pizza onto her own plate and sat down across the table from Jane. They each took a glass.
“I’ve missed having you around,” Jane said.
They clinked their glasses together.
“Till we come to bad ends,” Daria said.