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New Short Fiction By Rachel Khong: "If A Tree Falls In A Forest"

"The image was startling. I was an average-looking Asian woman with blunt, neat, healthy-looking hair and carefully applied makeup, save for the mascara that was starting to run." A new short story for our "Dark Times" series.

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At the bar late last Thursday, a person wearing glasses with a built-in video camera filmed me and posted it to YouTube. By the time the video was forwarded to me — by my acquaintance Ronnie, who sent it to me with a “;-)” as the subject line — the video had 2,494 thumbs-up votes and 1,910 thumbs-down. Unfortunately, it was going a little bit viral.

I could see why it attracted viewers: The image was startling. I was an average-looking Asian woman with blunt, neat, healthy-looking hair and carefully applied makeup, save for the mascara that was starting to run. First I was doing tequila shots with the mariachi group, three men in sombreros still strapped to their instruments, and by the time they started playing again, only a moment later, I had peeled off my J.Crew blouse and was waving it over my head like a helicopter. One breast was popping slightly out of my bra, but not so far out that it was inappropriate for YouTube. I didn’t remember any of this, so it was interesting to see that portion of the night handed back to me like a gift.

I didn’t remember any of this, so it was interesting to see that portion of the night handed back to me like a gift.

“What a psycho,” one of the comments said. “*You’re* a psycho,” I responded. A not-great comeback, but I wrote it feverishly, angry. I looked at the comments he’d posted on other videos. He seemed like a career troll. Others commented on how attractive I was; I voted those comments up. There were comments bemoaning glasses with built-in video cameras. In support of those, I replied, “Down with tech!”

It wasn’t something I did often — go to bars alone. That this rare occurrence had been filmed was bad luck. Earlier that night, I’d texted my friends Davy and Rita but received no response, leading me to suspect they were together — and why shouldn’t they be? Davy had been Harry’s friend and Rita had been mine, and I was happy for them, though I hoped they weren’t hanging out with Harry and his new wife. In the Mission District, bodies were crammed into restaurants and bars and everyone seemed screamy and happy. Going to a bar alone was something a man would do, I figured. So I walked into a Latin American–themed dive on 22nd Street, sat at the corner of the bar, and ordered a margarita, a drink known to be particularly strong here.

While I was savoring that first margarita, a wiry man sat down next to me. He wasn’t an attractive man. His crusty-looking left eye was glued shut with eye goop. He sat quietly in the seat right beside me instead of leaving one seat as buffer, even though plenty of seats were available. I tried to talk myself out of my own discomfort; the discomfort was unwarranted — based on his external appearance only and nothing he had done. He drank from a glass filled to the brim with neat well whiskey, decidedly not hitting on me. I wondered if it looked to other people in the bar like we were together. I found myself wishing he wasn’t there, so somebody more attractive would notice me alone and buy me a drink. Then I felt embarrassed at how conventional that desire was. This was what I had wanted, I reminded myself — to have a drink at a bar like a man, unnoticed and unbothered. I felt ashamed that I’d only been considering myself — what was his story? How had he gotten here, and what did he need? Maybe I could buy him a drink. The margarita was beginning to do its work. I turned to him.

“How long have you been in San Francisco?” I asked, with a friendly smile.

The man said nothing. Instead he stood up, picked up his things — a plastic bag that bulged with a big brown coat — and he looked at me with hate roiling in his one open eye.

“Fuck you, bitch,” he muttered.

“Me?” I replied, incredulous. I looked around — no other bitches in the vicinity.

“Yeah,” he said, grabbing his coat and flannel scarf. “Fucking bitch.” He stormed out of the swinging doors.

I didn’t understand what had just happened or why, but I felt guilty about it.

“Want another?” asked the baby-faced bartender, unruffled, collecting my glass. He had the air of a guitarist in a band.

“Sure,” I said.

I blacked out after the fourth margarita. In the morning I found a bucket next to my bed and a little trail of hardened vomit on my pillow. Had I eaten corn? It appeared I had. My roommate left a note on the nightstand that said, “Hope you’re alive.”

Financially, I didn’t need a roommate, but the house was big and I figured this was a way to help with the city’s housing crisis. The rent I charged Mina was modest, and she worked as a waitress — she was hardly ever home. The arrangement worked well for both of us. I wondered what would have happened had I died. I didn’t have a will.

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“Siri,” I said to my phone. “Remind me to write a will.”

“Okay,” Siri replied. “I’ll remind you to write a will.”

At my regular café, the barista seemed to be holding back a smile. Right away, I understood: He’d seen the video. He handed me my latte without looking at me, and went to work on another drink, even though there was no one behind me in line.

“Hey, I know you,” said a lean thirtysomething man, glancing up from his laptop.

“I come here every day,” I said.

“No, no. You’re—” and then he started make a helicopter motion above his head.

When the city starts feeling like too much — too many bodies, too many vehicles, too much pressure — I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to my cabin in the Redwoods, in a town called Guerneville, near the Russian River. I bought the house in 2009, right after the subprime mortgage crisis. It had been foreclosed on. So had my home in San Francisco. Even then, the house in the city was 10 times the amount I had paid for the cabin. It was an absurd figure, but nothing I couldn’t afford. I had been an early investor in a popular social networking site — I dated its founder during my freshman year, when he was at Harvard and I was at Boston College and we met at a bubble tea café — and that had worked out for me. So when I commented “Down with tech!” — which I did often and also sometimes scrawled in pen in dive-bar bathrooms — I did so in a conflicted way.

Occasionally I still see him around the city with his wife. We’re friendly. But his wife — let’s call her Pamela — doesn’t like me, I can tell. Seeing me reminds her that her husband — let’s call him Matt — had an Asian girlfriend before her. I wouldn’t like it, either. Seeing me, I think, reminds her that maybe how we look is just what he’s into — that we might belong to a type. That, if not her, he’d be with someone else like her.

There were many acceptable reasons to flee the city, in my view: running into my ex Harry; having an unsettling encounter; a YouTube video of me going viral. It was high time. I got into my car, a junky little Nissan hatchback that was at home up in West County and stood out against the Minis and Teslas in San Francisco, and opened the garage door by saying, “You little piece of shit.”

There were many acceptable reasons to flee the city, in my view: running into my ex Harry; having an unsettling encounter; a YouTube video of me going viral.

I’d let Mina set all the voice commands in my house. She’s a poet so I figured she would decide on some interesting turns of phrases. She went in a direction I didn’t foresee. We turned the living room lights on with “Go to hell.” If you didn’t know the codes you couldn’t turn on the heat or lights, which made us laugh.

The garage door opened on my command and I carefully backed my car down my steep and narrow driveway. There was a school nearby with kids always running around like chickens and it was my greatest fear to run over a pedestrian, especially a young one. My second greatest fear was to have to kill someone. Even in self-defense, it seemed terrible.

I turned on a podcast and settled in for the drive. Getting out of the city was always a congested ordeal, buses sighing and merging with abandon up and down Van Ness, but once I got across the Golden Gate Bridge I always felt relief. The podcast was about a serial killer who had found love in prison. The podcast’s host had the nasal, nerdy voice of all male podcast hosts. It was a voice that had become commonplace, and it was one I found puzzling — I wondered if years into the future, we would hear these male podcast–host voices and think they sounded as retro as Edward Morrow’s.

Once I exited River Road and the redwood trees came into view, I felt even better. The air here seemed easier to breathe even though I knew it wasn’t — in fact it was probably teeming with mold spores from ancient trees. I passed the vineyards and little inns whose rooms were booked by techies. It had been raining, so the Russian River looked like it was a boiling brown stew. When I pulled the car up to my little house, I felt myself filling with relief.

I extracted the key from its hiding spot beneath a large stone, then let myself in and inhaled. The house smelled woody but fine. The cabin is very rustic and not sealed well, so sometimes mice will find their way inside and not be able to find their way out. A few months ago I’d stepped into the cabin and smelled something afoul: Inside the kitchen trash can was what looked like fur. There were also what looked like strings, until I realized: tails. The wads were dead, decomposing mice. I put on rubber gloves and took the bin outside, and turned it over. Unfortunately the mice seemed to be stuck so I smacked the overturned bin to release their small bodies. They fell out, or seemed to, but when I looked inside their tiny feet were still stuck to the bottom of the trashcan. I turned on the hose, filled the trash can with water, and hoped for the best. It did not work. In the end I’d closed my eyes and had to scrape the feet out with a tree branch.

So now I always checked the trash can first. No mice. I put the groceries away in the fridge, sprawled out on the couch, and read the four New Yorker magazines from last month. Occasionally my mind drifted back to the YouTube video. I would catch myself, turn some music on, and attempt some home improvement, like caulking the baseboards. Harry had helped with the renovation, but now the house was falling again into disrepair. Periodically, for exercise, I erupted in jumping jacks.

I brushed my teeth in the kitchen sink, sat naked by the woodstove, danced to some records, tried to drink just enough wine — but not too much — so that I wouldn’t feel scared at night, alone. I often wondered what would happen if somebody broke into my cabin with the intent of killing me. I decided I would probably die. I knew I was more scared to kill someone in self-defense than to just get stabbed or shot. Giving up seemed easier, I sometimes thought.

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Outside, it started to pour. As the rain came down, it hit the roof like a truckful of candy corn being unloaded. Through the window I could see thin branches snapping cleanly off tree trunks. I no longer felt relaxed. I drank more wine. A hulking redwood next to the cabin worried me particularly, and I suspected that one day during a storm, it would fall on the house with me in it.

In the morning, I called Kate, who cut my trees for me. When she arrived, she was wearing a bandana around her neck and sunglasses so reflective they showed my own face in them. I couldn’t look for long.

“Can’t you just cut this one down?” I asked. I gestured at the towering redwood a few feet from my house.

“That tree is almost a thousand years old,” she said, aghast.

“What if I pay you $2,000 to do it?” I asked. I knew she needed the money.

“Fine,” she said. “I don’t like it, but I’ll do it.” She shook her head, pained.

“Are people always asking you if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

“Yes,” she said, curtly.

“You wouldn’t want me to be crushed, would you?”

“You have home insurance and you’re hardly ever here,” she said.

Grudgingly, she climbed up the tree. She did this with a strap around the tree and her body, making her way up monkeylike; though I wondered how many monkeys had ever climbed redwoods, which only grew, as far as I knew, in California and Japan. With a chainsaw, Kate cut the tree down in pieces. The giant discs of tree trunk came down one at a time. Slice, slice, slice. Each disc was big enough to crush a toddler. It was sad, I had to agree. Still, I wanted her to keep going.

Back in San Francisco, the house felt as though it had changed, subtly. I wondered if Mina had had a party. In fact, I often wondered what she did while I was gone. I’d considered installing a surveillance camera to satisfy my curiosity but decided it was unethical — I imagined someone watching what I did alone at the cabin and shuddered at the thought.

There was no internet at the cabin and my inbox had filled up over the weekend. People were coming out of the woodwork to email or message me because of the YouTube video. I was surprised at who was sending the messages: Many of them were people I had met only once or never in real life. A college acquaintance named Tim Facebook-messaged me and asked if I wanted to meet up sometime. He lived not far from me, in Palo Alto. He wouldn’t mind coming up to the city — he sometimes came here for meetings. I’d always found him pleasant to talk to, and attractive, so I messaged him back. We decided to get drinks in the city.

“Not too many,” he added. “Haha.”

“Fuck you, Tim,” I muttered, but typed, “Haha.”

The bar in SoMa where we met was wholly unlike the bar where the video had been filmed. Here, the ceilings were high and the walls were white, without art, and the drinks cost triple what they had at the Latin-themed bar. Regrettably, the drinks also contained far less alcohol.

We discussed the 10 years that had passed since college. He was a lawyer; now he was “in tech, like everyone else” — doing tech law. He’d taken a year off after undergrad to travel; he landed in Nepal and hung out with goat farmers. This experience was “life-changing.” After that was law school in New Haven, then Denver with his girlfriend — it was where her family was from — then marriage. Had I seen their Vows column in the Times? he wanted to know. I had not.

A long silence passed between us. I sipped my too-expensive drink and waited for Tim to tell me more. This was 10 years we were catching up on, after all. But he appeared to have nothing further to say and looked at me expectantly.

I told him that these days I was doing a little bit of freelance consulting. My clients were people who wanted to open bakeries. I had, for a few years, run my own extremely trendy bakery, the kind that people lined up for, even though I couldn’t comprehend it personally. In fact, I found it absurd. Sometimes I wanted to shake those people, with their extraordinary patience, and say to them, “What the hell are you thinking? It’s just food.” Eventually I came to terms with it: If these strangers chose to stand in my bakery line and grow older here, right before my and one another’s eyes, waiting for cupcakes, so be it. I could not let that be my problem.

The bakery belonged to me and Harry, who was my husband at the time. Harry was the baker, but I’d had some good ideas too. One morning in bed, I came up with the idea for the thing that everybody would eventually come to photograph and put on social media: a cupcake that was swirled with green food coloring and had a soft-boiled egg baked inside. We called it the Dragon’s Eye. When you cut into the cupcake, and the two halves came apart, the yolk would flow out of the soft-boiled egg and ooze onto the plate. That was the money shot. Our bakery had big windows and a lot of natural light flowing in — no filter was ever necessary. When we split, Harry got the bakery. He’d gone on to do well for himself: He opened two other branches.

But that chapter of my life was over, I found myself saying to Tim. I cringed, then wondered if he’d noticed. I couldn’t believe I had said that out loud — “chapter of my life.” That would mean I believed that life had chapters, which could be wrapped up neatly, like a book. My discomfort was causing me to say things I didn’t mean. There was nothing to do now but ramble onward, I supposed. I told him about my cabin. He said it sounded cute. I asked if he had been up to that area, and he said, no, only Napa. We sipped our drinks.

“Another round?” Tim asked. Did he not know how boring this was?

“Why not,” I agreed.

Tim ordered us another round.

“Do you think you want kids?” Tim asked, out of nowhere. This was a terrible question to ask a woman, but I forgave him, because he was hot. I pretended he had asked, “Do you want me to put a baby in you?”

“Sure,” I said. “Someday.”

He used that as an opportunity to talk about the baby that he and his wife were having soon. They were planning to give birth at home. They weren’t hippies or anything like that — they were a far cry from that, he said and laughed — but it seemed to them the best option.

“What do you think?” he asked. “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

I couldn’t believe he was asking me this. What was the purpose of asking me, a totally uneducated person on the subject, this?

“I’d like being at home,” I responded, stupidly.

We continued to sip our drinks. He asked more inane questions that I fielded by pretending they were more interesting questions. “What do you like to do for fun?” became “What do you like to do for fun while naked?” and “Do you ever still talk to Harry?” — they’d known each other in college — became “Do you ever fantasize about breaking into Harry’s house in Sausalito and cutting a toe off his new wife, and getting away with it?” The answers were yoga and cleaning and yes, absolutely.

The drinks were now finished. I kept pouring ice into my mouth to suck any clinging alcohol off of it. He started to stand up, to reach for his coat. I was still sitting.

“Do you want to have an affair?” I blurted out.

He laughed, uncomfortably, with a gentleness that was generous. He put his coat on and avoided my gaze. He had a black beard that I wanted, very badly, to touch. Horrified, I realized my error.

“Not really,” he said. “I’m flattered, though,” he added. He had a pregnant wife at home, like he’d said. She seemed nice; she was an art curator. Their baby was due any day now, and he was probably at peak happiness with their relationship: I had barked up the wrong proverbial tree. If an incorrectly barked-up tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? I was always doing this. I followed him out the door.

Of course it couldn’t have been that simple. People are so complicated. In the end that was one of the many reasons Harry and I could not work it out. Something I always think about is how in theory your romantic interest’s friends should get along with you, because they get along with him, but that’s not necessarily true all the time, because there are so many invisible factors at work. None of his friends liked me, or understood what he saw in me. And I didn’t, really, either. Understood what he saw in me — I mean.

Tim raised one arm to hail a rare San Francisco cab — he couldn’t even bear to wait a minute with me for an Uber. When he did I got a peek of his belly, upon which there was a thin trail of black hair. This glimpse flooded me with desire. I knew to look because he’d posted some shirtless photos of himself in college on Instagram, on “Throwback Thursday.”

“This was fun,” he said. He gave me a light pity kiss on my temple, kicked into the cab, and was gone.

I pondered what to do next. I summoned a Lyft car and punched in my pickup location and destination. Instead of home, I wanted to be taken to the Mission.

In the morning there was another bucket by my bed, this one full to the brim with vomit. I hadn’t even eaten! I was impressed with myself — the sheer volume. Another note, this time pinned to me, said, “Hope you’re not dead.” I realized it was actually the same note, because there was a little piece of old corn stuck to it. I drank some water, brushed my teeth, and opened my laptop.

The video was up on YouTube already. The moniker they’d given me was “Drunk Asian girl.” If only they knew how old I was, I thought. Thirty-one! A goddamn woman. This video was brief, far less exuberant. I was leaned against a mariachi musician; I was wearing his black, bedazzled hat. He’d taken his coat off and draped it around me; he was wearing only a white undershirt. I was strumming his guitar, which I barely knew how to play, but somehow could play pretty well while drunk. I was singing, “Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me, oohhhhh?” I handed the guitar back to the defrocked musician, leaned my head back against his shoulder, and cried in an ugly way. This video had 1,510 thumbs-up and only 11 thumbs-down.

The world preferred me sad.

I felt too hung over to operate a motor vehicle, so I just sat in front of my TV turned to the Food Network and watched it half-heartedly. At one point Harry’s face flicked on — he appeared on TV often. This time he was competing on a bake-off. They gave him unconventional ingredients to work with, like rhubarb and mustard seeds. Little did they know strange ingredients were his forte. There was an interlude where each contestant told the audience a little bit about him- or herself, so the audience could decide who they liked best and who they wanted to root for. Harry was asked briefly about his successful bakery in San Francisco. “I was young,” he said. “I hadn’t really found my voice, at that point.” But the Dragon’s Eye? Now that was genius. That was something he’d be remembered for, the interviewer remarked. I watched Harry shift, with discomfort. It was barely perceptible. No one else would notice this, I knew, except maybe his new wife. Who wasn’t that new anymore — they’d been married for four years and had a child. I met her once. She seemed polite. I was willing to bet she never beckoned him into the bathroom to show him a particularly impressive shit she’d taken, as I sometimes had. I was willing to bet she never burst into tears, for no reason, counting on Harry for a happiness that was my responsibility alone. I never blamed Harry for divorcing me. I was surprised we lasted so long, that I had been so happy.

I waited to see how Harry would respond to the interviewer’s question, if he would give me credit for the idea. There was never a question between us — it had been my idea. But he only laughed, and said, “Thank you.” In that silence, he took all the credit I was due.

The rest of the day passed painfully. I tried to clean the house but I had a cleaner who came every Tuesday, and it was Wednesday — the house was fairly clean already. I made things worse with my efforts: The mirror now had streaks that weren’t there before.

I tried to read, but my brain wasn’t letting me. I decided I would walk up Bernal Hill — it was steep, and the strenuous walk would help clear my head. It was raining lightly outside; I put on my raincoat and boots. At the top, I looked around. The view of the city was obscured completely — fog and clouds all around me. I could be standing anywhere, so I pretended I was elsewhere. I was in Tibet. I was in Peru. I was in the Genting Highlands of Malaysia. I was still catching my breath when my phone rang. I picked it up without seeing who it was.

“Tess?” the voice said.

“Hi, Matt,” I said.

I knew he had me in his contacts under a code name, so Pamela wouldn’t know. From time to time we still talked. I never told anyone I knew him; it was a secret I liked to keep. He was the most famous person I knew, and knew intimately. I don’t think I ever even told Harry. We had been a good couple, and Harry would have been jealous.

It was usually Matt who called me, because I could never predict when he’d be free, and these days I was rarely busy. If I were in the woods without reception, Matt would just leave a voicemail, saying he’d try me another time. Usually it was nights when we talked: Matt would stroll through his neighborhood and I would stroll through mine, and we would have a conversation, just like in the old days. And I would feel transported in time, like I hadn’t yet fucked things up irrevocably, at least not yet.

“Tess,” he said. “Where are you right now?”

“Bernal Hill,” I said. “Why?”

“Look up,” he said. “Your 12 o’clock.”

I looked in that direction, up the hill, and a man in a bright blue poncho waved. He had a dog with him. He tossed the ball down in my direction and the dog flailed down the hill, to retrieve the ball at my feet — my rain boots.

“His name is Jasper,” Matt said into the phone.

“Hi, Jasper,” I patted the dog on the head.

Matt started making his way down to me.

“Hey,” he said, when we were standing in front of each other. Visible little puffs came out of his mouth when he exhaled; it was cold. Up close, he looked older, but still boyish with his curly, red hair — still handsome. We made our way to a bench, sat next to each other, looked out at what was supposedly the city, but was blanketed in fog that was cottony white.

“Did you get a place in New Zealand?” I asked. “I read that all the tech billionaires are buying bunkers there for the apocalypse.”

He shook his head. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read, Tess.”

He was, from time to time, throwing the ball for his dog to catch, and Jasper was unflaggingly enthusiastic. I threw the ball a few times too, but Jasper would fetch the ball and return it to Matt instead of me. I respected this dog’s loyalty.

“How are you?” he asked me, too gently. He had seen the video. Of course he had.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Can’t complain. It’s nice to have the cabin to escape to. And you?”

“Pretty good. Pamela’s good too,” he said, though I hadn’t asked.

“Remember to write a will,” came a voice from my purse. Siri, I remembered. I shut the phone off. I had no clue who I’d leave anything to.

“Can’t you take those videos down?” I asked.

“That’s Google,” he said. “Google owns YouTube. Not Facebook.”

“You don’t know somebody there?”

He shook his head, ignoring my question. “What are you so sad about, Tess?”

I was disappointed. I expected a guy like Tim to ask such stupid questions, not Matt, who knew better — who had made a shit ton of money on knowing better. I was sad, I was happy, I was never happy, I was defeated, I was unflappable, I was everything, always, at all times. I missed everyone and I missed no one; my life was fucked up but it was also, from time to time, completely fine.

I was sad, I was happy, I was never happy, I was defeated, I was unflappable, I was everything, always, at all times.

Jasper sat down by our bench and I stroked his rain-wet head. Matt started to root around in his pocket. He pulled out a little yellow pill in a single tiny baggy.

“It’s crazy that I have this,” he said. “But people give me things. Here.” He handed me the pill. “It only works on people who get black-out drunk,” he said. “Which, for obvious reasons, I know you do.”

“What is it?”

“Well,” he said, “it gives you back your memories, from when you’re drunk.”

“All of them?”

“All of them. In vivid detail, like a recording.”

“It’s weird that you have this,” I said. “You’ve never even blacked out.”

“Actually,” he laughed. “I have. Once. Last New Year’s Eve.”

I laughed in return. It was uncharacteristic of him. “Did you find out what happened?”

He shook his head. “I have a pretty good idea.”

He took out his water bottle, unscrewed the cap. “You’ll get them all as soon as you take it, in one go. And then you’ll just have them, obviously, to access — they’ll be there like regular memories, fading in time.”

Vivid drunken memories, returned to me? This would be like unpleasant LSD. But what the hell, I thought. Why not? I dug the pill out of its baggy, put it on my tongue, and swallowed it. I closed my eyes, and felt it working, almost instantly.

There I was, in college, with Matt, who was drunk too, though not as far gone. We were dancing at a house party, and we were kissing; it was sloppy. And we went back to my dorm room, where I pretended to be asleep before I actually was asleep, and Matt said “I love you.” He’d never said it again, in all our time together, in all the time I hadn’t been blacked out. There I was, with Lisa and Kayla, girlfriends I hadn’t seen in ages now. We were smoking a joint and watching Showgirls and it was a short episode that was replaying for me because I’d fallen asleep in the middle of the movie. There I was with Harry, picking a cruel fight with him for no reason. He was so calm and I was so monstrous. I tried to close my eyes, but they were already closed — there was no escaping. There I was, alone in the woods, drunk because I had heard sounds and was terrified of being alone. There I was, putting a knife under my bed, just in case. And finally, there I was, in the Latin American–themed bar, and the YouTube videos I had already seen were being replayed for me. Where the videos ended, though, I now saw the rest of the night. I’d put my blouse back on after dancing, and walked up to the man who was videotaping me with his stupid glasses. When he noticed me noticing him, he tried to act nonchalant, casual.

“I know you’re recording me,” I’d said, articulating clearly. My fierceness surprised me. “I don’t appreciate it,” I went on. “I don’t think you’d appreciate it either. I don’t think you’d like what you see.”

I pulled the video-recording glasses off his face, broke them cleanly in half. Other patrons in the bar, watching this exchange, cheered and whooped in solidarity. Then, feeling bad, I dug a few hundred dollars out of my wallet and handed the money to him.

Matt was still sitting quietly beside me, gently tossing the ball to Jasper, who never tired of fetching it. It felt nice to have him here, next to me. Like tripping on psychedelics with a trusted friend.

The second time, it was the same man, wearing normal glasses this time and videotaping me with his phone. I approached him again, this time with my tear-streaked face, sad about everything, sad about nothing. He stopped recording, put his phone away, pretended he hadn’t noticed me at all.

“Don’t turn away from me,” I bellowed. I swiveled his bar stool toward me and this man looked like he was going to shit his pants in fear. I was a terrible mess, covered in snot and tears. Two rivers of mascara ran down my sweaty cheeks. But blacked-out me was delighted to be scaring him so thoroughly. Blacked-out me, I was pleased to see now, was not backing down.

“Look at me,” I said, inches away from his petrified face. “Go ahead,” I insisted. “Look.” ●


Rachel Khong is the author of Goodbye, Vitamin. Find her on Twitter @rachelkhong.


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