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First pages

Chapter 1

No time to pull on pants.

Dead phone meant no alarm, and now the kitchen wall clock gave me two and half minutes to shove a half-stirred coffee in the microwave, squirm into a cleanish ivory blouse, and drag a brush through my hair. A peek through the curtain: orange-fringed powder blue sky. Hello, perfect southern California morning, and goodbye. Time for my daily trip around the world.

I gulped coffee while sliding behind my desk in the corner of the living room, tapped the laptop awake, and clicked the video button, catching a pudgy twelve-year-old Chinese boy mid-yawn.

“Good morning, Bieber,” I said. “I mean good evening. Sorry I’m late. What time is it in Shanghai?”

“Good evening, Teacher Serena. Time is”—eyes rolled up while brain computed grammar—“two minute after eleven o’clock, pee em.”

“Two minutes—plural, remember.” I checked my notes from yesterday’s session. Lesson 14: Writing a Letter. As if anyone knew what a letter was anymore. “So. Homework. Did you write—”

“Why two minutes and not eleven o’clocks?”

“That is a very smart question, Bieber.”

He offered a lipless smile, eyes aimed sideways. I loved pronouncing his name: Bieber Bao. Kids in China choose their own English names, lucky things. If only Americans could choose theirs. I’d have picked something more suited to my life, the antonym of serene.

I rolled my eyes in return. “It’s because English is crazy. Homework?”

A document icon flashed in my school inbox.

“Please read it out loud, Bieber.”

Behind him in his cramped little room a blue slipper popped into view, then arced off-screen again, like a woman uncrossing her legs. Poor kid. Bad enough to face tutors five days a week, from the moment he returned from school until me, English, his last lesson. But his mother standing sentry as study cop was humiliating. No life for him. Or her. Or me for that matter, though for other reasons.

Bieber narrowed his eyes and recited, his natural singsong Chinese tones turning every other word into an oral speedbump: “Dear Moth-er. Hello. How are you. Did you eat yet? I want to eat ice creams and candies and beans. I want to less study. I want to motor-cycle.”

A lump filled my throat. I felt like answering, I want to motorcycle too. Right now. Gun it out of this bland apartment and fly.

They didn’t prepare us for this in university. Between all the language acquisition theories, deep syntax and tongue diagrams, suffering through Chomsky and Piaget and impractical eastern European teaching methodologies, the entire pedagogical approach was rooted back in the twentieth century, when English was taught with textbooks and chalk. They never mentioned needing to dress only from the waist up because your entire career would be spent alone in front of a webcam in an empty living room with a cheap blackboard at your back to create the illusion of an actual classroom, contracted to a tightwad online language school hundreds of miles away that was the only option left for English majors. No staff lounge to take breaks in and let off steam, no handsome chemistry teacher to exchange flirty wisecracks with in the hall. Not even one flesh-and-blood student to offer an encouraging pat on the shoulder to—or, in the case of this Algerian I had for two lessons, a deserving slap in the face. Only the electronic image of a tired, bespectacled boy on the other side of the planet with an off-screen mother breathing down his neck.

“That letter is very good,” I said. Then I had an idea. “Hey, Bieber, let’s try reverse translation. I say English, you repeat back in Chinese, okay?”

He cocked his head like a puppy, eyes darting toward his maternal overseer.

“Okay, loud and clear in Chinese: My teacher says...” I waited for him to translate. “...I am her smartest, favorite student...” He took a deep breath and relayed my words. A blue toe blipped in and out of view. “...And teacher says my mother probably is tired and should go to bed.”

His face broke into a grimace and froze.

“Go ahead,” I said. But his image remained stuck, unblinking, unbreathing. “Bieber? Do you hear me?”

I clicked every control on screen until the cursor stopped dead, stabbed ESC and ENTER and the space bar until I worried they’d snap off. I lifted the laptop and shook it, then spanked its bottom. The monitor went black. Now the power button refused to respond.

I dashed to my roommate’s door. To disturb her this early? She worked late shifts and often stayed up until she passed out. “Only time I ever see eight a.m. is when I run into its ass from behind,” she liked to say.

“Zuzie...” I rapped with my knuckles, gentle but insistent.

Waited, then raised my voice: “Zuzie? I need help.”

My fist poised to knock harder, when the handle clicked. A buzzard’s nest of dark copper dreadlocks fixed me with a droop-eyed, screw-you-for-waking-me-up glare.

“Zuzie, I’m so sorry. Network died, screen went blank, middle of a lesson. Do you know anything about—?

“Fuck I know how to fix that shit. Good day, madam.”

The door slammed. Angry rattle of the lock.

The wall clock’s ticking sent ice down my spine. Two minutes must have passed already, meaning I had thirteen minutes to fix the situation before my pay would be automatically docked. The head office knew by now: the feed was routed through their server, logged, recorded at random for review. I unplugged and replugged the computer, gnawing my thumb as it lazily restarted. At least the screen worked. Another three minutes before it informed me that no network was detected, not even after changing every setting I could find, one of which turned the user interface into Spanish.

Nine minutes. Time to call the school’s tech support. I grabbed my phone from the bedroom before I remembered the battery was dead. Another minute gone while I located the charger, meanwhile composing excuses for my supervisor: Chinese government censors had hacked the lesson, sewer workers accidentally severed the cable, the student’s virtual dog ate his homework. An unfamiliar man’s voice told me to hold. He came back on a full lifetime later—though the clock had advanced only forty seconds. “Guy’ll be there in three, four minutes.”

“Who’ll be here?”

“Tech dude.’s right here...ah...Elias.”

The Biblical miracle worker. A good sign.

I paced, reminded myself to breathe, and considered a splash of vodka. If only I had a better computer, better-paid work, a tech-savvy boyfriend, any boyfriend.

The doorbell chimed. Four minutes, as promised. I flung the door open so fast the tech guy recoiled in fright. He was tall, verging on pudgy, and wore an orange t-shirt that read E-Nerd-gency Services. His gray chinos were so wrinkled they’d pass as igneous rock.

His eyes, through the requisite black-framed nerd glasses, narrowed to a smirk. “Sailor Moon. Not a fan. More into Doraemon myself.”

He was referring to my Japanese cartoon pajama bottoms, an “ironic” gift from an old classmate, since the title character shared my name.

“Just fix my Internet, please.” I pointed to the desk. “You have four and a half minutes.”

He put down a rattling canvas bag, settled into the chair and tapped keys while bobbing his head like a pianist performing a jazz improv. I peeked over his shoulder at dialog windows filled with indecipherable scrolling text.

“Truckloads of junk on this thing. When’s the last time you ran a virus scan?” he said.


“Yeah, what I figured. I have to ask this, so don’t shoot me, ’kay? You frequent any cybersex or porn sites?”

“Jesus Christ!”

He smiled. “A crazy grown-up chick in little girl jammies. Lotta guys’ll pay big money for that. Just sayin’. Trying to rule out some badass malware.”

“No, I do not do porn, damn it.” Was the clock running faster? In movies the bomb’s countdown timer always slows down so the lead actors can trade wisecracks in between ticks and tocks, but in reality the more panicked you get, the more time accelerates.

“Have you found the problem?”

He didn’t respond. I asked again.

“Listen, Sailor Moon, know how you can help? By staying calm, whaddaya think?”

Two minutes.

I couldn’t bear watching the lack of progress. I dashed into my room and changed into a pair of khaki shorts, whose button popped off. Would nothing go right today?

Elias’s voice resounded down the hallway.

“I said, you got a puppy?”

“What the—? No dog here.” Praying the zipper would hold, I stepped into the hallway. At the other end he held up a severed gray modem cable.

“Even worse, then,” he said. “You got rats.”

No. I didn’t have rats.

I had hamsters.

The carpet burned my heels as I spun back into the bedroom. Two cages stood in the corner, linked by a maze of colorful plastic passages. One wire mesh doorway lay wide open. I dropped to my knees, calling: “Laurel! Hardy!” Their wheels, the passages, their little wooden shelves, all empty. A telltale lump in the sawdust revealed one tiny creature cringing behind its food dish. I brushed it off, saw the lighter tan fur, and knew that Hardy was the fugitive.

He wasn’t in the bathroom or kitchen. I searched under the couch, lifted the coffee table, spilling Zuzie’s Cosmo collection, and ducked beneath my desk, where Elias was propped on his elbows, doing something with wires.

“We have to stop meeting like this,” he said.

He flicked a switch on the modem. Green lights flashed.

“Aaaaand...we have contact.”

I crawled backward from under the table, craning my head toward the clock. Four or five minutes too late. Maybe they wouldn’t notice. I restarted the school interface; everything appeared normal. All except Bieber’s student icon—a photo of the Canadian pop star whose name he’d borrowed—grayed out as offline. He’d given up waiting. A cheerful tinkle; a message popped up in the Admin panel:

Lesson terminated early. Please contact Administration.

My forehead struck the desktop and stayed there.

“Um...” Elias’s tools clanked into his bag. “I mean, it’s not my business, but if you want my advice—of course you don’t, but, ah...your laptop is running kinda slow. I mean, this model is, what, seven, eight years old, and anyway the wifi adapter seems wonky, as you obviously know. I mean, you might want to consider a new computer.”

“You’re right about it being none of your business.” I clawed the back of my head. “How am I supposed to afford a new computer? I can barely feed myself, and now maybe I can’t even do that this week.”

I knew I should shut up. It wasn’t this guy’s fault. He was just some poor tech-head, more used to burned-out motherboards than hysterical young women. But my mouth had a mind of its own. “I’ve got this piss-paid job, hardly step outside my front door or see real people, not that I can even spare three bucks to sit in a coffee shop. If things go on, I’ll have to move back home with my mother the drunk—”

“Whoa. TMI. Hold them horses.”

“And now my sweet baby hamster ran away! Maybe when you came in.” My throat squeezed out sobs like an antique bicycle horn.

“Hey, I’ll help you find it. But you gotta chill first, okay?” I sensed him hovering behind me. “I mean, you’re really, truly stressed right now and I’m guessing you got a student in ten, twelve minutes? So, like, um...” He cleared his throat. “Not sure if I’m overstepping boundaries here, but, like, I know some shiatsu—well, my Mom taught me—and there are these meridian points. Is it cool if I show you?”

I shrugged, then felt a light touch on my shoulders.

“Right here and here,” he said. “Sure you’re okay with this? Because—”

I nodded hard. Strong, fat thumbs sank into matching spots on my shoulders, which was painful yet abruptly soothing. Air spilled from my lungs.

“Cool,” he said. Surprisingly powerful fingers manipulated muscles through the fabric of my blouse.

“How did you get here so fast?” I said.

“Me?” He kneaded inward toward my neck. “My house is literally around the corner. Two-minute walk.”

I’d never seen him before. No surprise, though, considering how seldom I left this apartment complex except to drive to the supermarket. “If it’s a two-minute walk, how come it took you four minutes to get here?”

“Timed it, huh?” He kneaded a knot at the base of my neck, and it was as though a spring lock popped open. A deep, fuzzy tingle spread across my upper back and wrapped around my chest. I must have moaned with pleasure, because at first he chuckled. Then his fingers froze. Then they let go. I heard him suck in his breath in a panicked sort of way.

A slash of color in the corner of my eye. I stretched out the shoulder fabric for a better view.

There, where his fingers had been, my ivory blouse was scored with day-glo orange streaks.

“Were you eating, like, cheese puffs before you came?”

“Um...” He shuffled sideways around my desk.

“Cheese puffs? For breakfast?? All over my fucking blouse!”

He held up his canvas bag to shield himself in case of attack. “Look, I’m sorry.”

“Thank you for fixing my computer, but I think you’d better leave now.”

“There’s a paper you need to sign.”

I stood up and felt my shorts threaten to drop. “Get out. Now!”

The front door clattered shut after him. One hand supporting my pants, the other tearing open the buttons of my soiled blouse, I took one step toward my bedroom, when the computer began chirping its perky ringtone: my next student calling. A door opened and Zuzie shuffled into the living room in a terry bathrobe, supporting a hamster on her open palm.

“Found this sewer rat in my room. Whoa, look at you! No wonder I heard some dude’s voice, and you moaning like a horse. Shoulda sent him in to me when you’re done.”

Chapter 2

Here’s what I love about my job: a student like Yasmin Okay. Yes, her real name; Turks don’t make up their surnames. She was seventeen and looked like a sweet little mouse, appearing every lesson in a different colored headscarf framing enormous, earnest eyes. She claimed she was working on her English to help her family’s immigration application to Australia, but she had other motives, which she made no secret of in her homework, including today’s assignment from Lesson 24: write examples of future perfect tense.

“I boyfriend, because Father and Mother will...have...met me husband.”

I nodded. “The first verb is correct use of future perfect, but the second verb, met—”

“Shit! I knew,” she said. “Father and Mother will have...ah...met me to husband.”

“Will have introduced me to a husband.”

“I will have had no boyfriend because Father and Mother will have...introduced me to...hus—aiee!—to a husband. Fat, ugly husband, I think also lazy.”

“I think you will have met a boyfriend—see how I use ‘met’? You can meet someone, but you can’t meet to someone—you will have met a boyfriend before next year.”

I watched her process this information, quickly type something into her notes, then fix me with an inquisitive stare. I’ve trained myself to point my eyes at the little lens above the screen when speaking, so the student gets the impression I’m looking directly at them, but like most students, Yasmin looked straight at my face on her monitor, so from my viewpoint she seemed to be gazing downward.

“Have you a boyfriend yet?” she said.

She asked me this about once a month, as if I were the elder sister who must find a match before the younger sisters were allowed. Sometimes I did feel that way toward her. I shook my head. “Next month I won’t have had—hear that? I am using the negative. Next month I will…not…have…had…a boyfriend for one year.” Of course, I wasn’t telling the truth. It had been closer to three years, unless you counted an incoherent one-nighter after a drunken house party in Huntington Beach last fall.

Yasmin blinked dark eyelashes while my syntax sunk in, then broke out smiling. “You come my home. We go to Europe, speak English to handsome foreign boys. Together find boyfriends.”

When she said “go to Europe,” I knew she meant cross the waterway dividing Istanbul over to its European side, where tourists and foreign businessmen congregated. Yasmin’s family lived in an apartment somewhere on the Asian side, visible now through the window behind her.

That was another thing I loved. Every day I traveled the world. I know that sounds like a hokey recruitment pitch for what was essentially a cheapskate, exploitative language factory. Yet it was true. Sometimes I lost myself in the lesson, peripheral vision faded, and it was as though I were sitting face-to-face in an office or living room or across a dining table in Slovakia or Uruguay or China or Egypt. Or, right then, in the ancient city of Istanbul, where the sun was beginning to set over a rolling hillside crammed with tiled roofs, like a red carpet pinned down every few blocks with spiky minaret towers. Far off in the distance, between a forest of construction cranes and a white dome that must have been a mosque, I saw a silvery glint, which I assumed to be the waters of the Bosporus, where Jason and the Argonauts once passed in search of the Golden Fleece. I imagined going for an after-work stroll through the bazaar, stopping in a crumbly-walled cafe to hang out with my circle of witty, sophisticated local and expatriate friends over backgammon and a cup of sweet, thick coffee. All dreamlike and so very real, until the ten-minute warning icon reminded me that it would soon be time to move to Vilnius or Seoul for an hour.

“Have time for special words?” Yasmin asked. This was part of her lesson plan that she’d made up herself. I waited for the red signal, indicating the five-minute interval when I was supposed to prepare for the next lesson: the only time when there was no danger of being caught in one of the company’s random recordings, their Orwellian means of keeping teachers on our toes.

“Go ahead,” I said.

Yasmin’s face darkened, whether from the setting sun or her blushing I couldn’t tell. “What is difference between ‘give a shit’ and ’take a shit’?”

This, too, is what I love about my job.


Here’s what I hate about my job. The moment I signed off from my eleven o’clock student, in time for my lunch break, a pop-up notice from the office: from Marisa, my supervisor at

Message received this morning in what appears to be Chinese. Ran through translate program. Hope you can offer a spectacularly good explanation...

“I pay big USA money to English one day one hour but this day five minutes! If son’s TOEFL score affect even one little, so he can not enter Harvard or Oxford, follow-up working inside big-five investment bank with millions annual bonus dollars, I sue you so-called school every $4000 million.”

Marisa’s head formed on my screen before the first ringtone faded. “So? Got a better translation for me, sweetie?”

Her plump brown face and pillowy bosoms fooled you into thinking she was a sweet-tempered Hispanic madre, until you realized she had a heart of gold only in the pure mineral sense of the word. If you were making money for the company she was your best friend on earth, but if your student numbers were down, your free lesson conversions dropped below thirty percent, or, God forbid, you messed up a session like I did, you might as well have been one of those hoopball players that her Mayan ancestors tossed into volcanoes after losing a game.

“My Internet broke down. I got it fixed,” I said. “Won’t happen again.”

“Oh, really? You can guarantee that? Because I can understand three minutes for a reboot, five maybe for a call to your ISP. But forty-five minutes??”

“I was down eighteen minutes. But by then the student—”

“Eighteen is past the limit. We had to offer that crazed woman two weeks extension so she doesn’t pull her son. You know I have the authority to dock your full day’s pay.”

“Please, Marisa!” I didn’t want her to see me cry, but maybe it would help. “I made sure it can’t happen again, I swear.”

How was I supposed to tell her that I fixed the source of the problem with a paperclip through a hamster cage door? Just then a blonde head appeared over Marisa’s shoulder and waved her fingers.

“Hey. Serena, right?” Victoria, gorgeous in a Teutonic ice queen sort of way, was iEnglishU’s star teacher. Her snubnosed face featured on the homepage, just above a little video overlay of her walking across the screen, pausing to flip her luscious vanilla hair and purr to the viewer, “I English you.” Total whore tease. What was she doing in the office, instead of preening in front of a webcam being the shampoo model of online English tutors?

“So how many students you got these days, Ser?”

My name’s not ‘Ser.’ I couldn’t lie about my numbers in front of Marisa, and she knew it.

“Eight,” I said.

She raised a plucked blonde eyebrow. “Single digits. Cute. Hope you reach puberty someday.”

Marisa turned to her. “Oh, Vicky, that wasn’t nice.”

“Sorry. Guess I’m just sugar and spice, then.”

Marisa laughed at the wretched joke. “Have you told Serena your good news?”

Of course she hadn’t. It wasn’t as if one ran into other teachers in the hallway, when the office was 370 miles away in San Jose.

“Vicky will be starring in—”

 Victoria interrupted, “Not starring, dear. Educating.”

“Vicky will be the face of our first series of subscription video lessons. DVDs too. Hope to launch by September. We have to, that is. Already booked this year’s Geolingua in Milan.”

“Lucky this year it isn’t in Shanghai,” Victoria said with a rub-it-in tone. So she knew all about the Bieber Incident.

“But that’s not the only good news, is it, Vick? Come on, tell her. All right, I’ll tell. Vicky is engaged! To a Swedish prince!”

“Not a prince,” Victoria said, fake-annoyed. “He’s a count.”

“One of her former students. Isn’t that grand?”

Grand? Were we speaking like Brits now? “Vicky” spun around and wagged her butt at me on the way out. My middle finger rose off-camera in salute to the incipient countess.

“How nice for her.” My words oozed between gritted teeth. “Victoria’s so busy, maybe you can send some more students my way?”

Marisa resumed her familiar business countenance. “Serena, look. You know you just don’t get the requests she gets. It wouldn’t kill you to do something with your hair. And I’m afraid this little, ah, network failure will cost you points.”

“Come on, Marisa. My schedule looks like Swiss cheese! You’ve got to give me more students. This month I’m dying from rent and car payments and student loans, much less having a penny for a goddamn hairdresser. Please. And while you’re at it, I call dibs on the next Scandinavian prince.”

“Count. And kindly watch your tongue.”

“Sorry, Marisa. Today’s been... The modem thing really shook me up. You’re not going to dock the whole day?”

She clicked her tongue and sighed. “What kind of person do you think I am? I wouldn’t pull such a thing on my dear, dear teachers. You’re my family.” She gave me that bee-sting pout which meant as far as she was concerned the discussion was over. I tried one last tactic.

“Thank you. But please think about sending me more students. You know how much I love working with iEnglishU and I’d hate to have to take employment elsewhere.”

“Sure, sweetie. I understand.” Her smile was warm for once. “I hear the pizza place in the mini-mall across is hiring dishwashers.” The screen went gray.

This, and a little bit more, was what I hate about my job.

Chapter 3

My final lesson of the day went better than expected. Not my favorite student: a forty-ish Belgian petroleum engineer working in North Dakota, who claimed to speak six languages, all, it seemed, with a French accent as gooey as béchamel sauce. He’d been badgered by his American supervisors into studying remedial English pronunciation, and made no secret of his reluctance, nor of his disregard for any word that ended in a consonant. There were times when I wished I could reach into his throat with a wrench. But today I tried something different—we reenacted the scene every English teacher loves to hate, from “My Fair Lady”:

“In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen.”

It was a breakthrough. His R’s thinned, vowels flattened, didn’t drop a single H…after around the twenty-fifth try. He met my whoop of delight with a grin. “Perhaps I am ready for to graduate, yes?”

No. No no no no NO! I wanted to say. Don’t even think about depriving me of your weekly tuition. I flipped my hair, Victoria-style, to which he raised an eyebrow. “Next week we’ll work on the rest of ‘The Rain in Spain’,” I said. “Very important out there on the Great Plain.”

He whistled the tune as he signed off.

A last check for messages, then I staggered to the sofa. The light outside was fading. I considered escaping for a short walk, but I was exhausted. Besides, I was in no mood to be reminded of the homogenized suburban monotony that characterized my neighborhood, and indeed my life. I could drive someplace in my clunky Toyota, but that meant spending money on gas, and where to? A shopping mall? Drive ten miles to the beach? A solo night stroll along the pier among groping couples was not the mood-enhancer I needed. I considered switching on the television, but I’d stared at screens long enough today.

I forced myself off the couch, sliced a carrot, and went to inspect the troops. Laurel was jogging on his wheel. Hardy lurked in a corner, poor little thing, as if guilty for his earlier crime. At the sight of carrot slivers pushed through the mesh, both came running. Happy hamsters receiving orange manna from heaven. I wished someone would do the same for me.

I switched my phone off airplane mode. Immediately it chirped about a voice mail. It was my mother’s number. No need to listen; I’d phone later, when she’d be too bourboned-out to offer her usual monologue of well-meaning advice about my life.

There was also a text from Zuzie:

Girl we gonna play tonite? G&C!

Where my roommate found the money to go out drinking on a barista’s salary, especially at a hipster joint like the Grove & Chicken, I never quite understood. We’d lived together for eight months now, ever since I graduated from university and responded to her Rooms Shared posting for a “lady non-smoker, clean, neat, employed, fun-loving, repeat: clean.” Technically I met the requirements: never smoked tobacco, showered daily, and I loved fun; I just didn’t have much of it. I’d offered to pay more than half the rent, since my movie-set “classroom” occupied a corner of the living room, but Zuzie told me to save my money for nights on the town. She’d somehow latched onto me as her project, her bland suburban white girl Pygmalion.

My bed beckoned. I was too exhausted to not give in. Silvery light melted through the window and when I closed my eyelids it was no longer the plain, dry Orange County moon, but a million sparkling diamonds on the Marmara Sea, against the silhouetted backdrop of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. I was sailing on the ancient waters joining Occident and Orient on a brilliant white yacht packed with international lawyers and investment bankers, all single and under thirty. An olive-skinned, athletic Greek led me to the railing and confessed that his English needed so much work that he hoped I might offer private training in where to place his lips and tongue. Muscular arms encircled me while Istanbul’s city lights reflected in the adoring eyes of my lover from Mount Olympus.

A hand clamped my shoulder and the glare from a naked ceiling bulb stung my face.

“Where you been? I been texting and messaging, and—and even tried phoning you for God’s sake, for like the past hour.” A dark blur coalesced into a vision of Zuzie towering over me in a skimpy leatherette skirt and sheer colorburst silk blouse. I sat up, rubbing my eyes, and wiped spittle from the corner of my mouth.

“Guess I fell asleep.”

“You mean to say your ass been parked here this whole time? Shit!”

“I’ve been cruising the Mediterranean with a Greek billionaire,” I said.

She dashed into the bathroom. Drawers slammed. “Well, I hope you did him a quickie, because right now, Miss Harlequin Romance, you and me going to cruise down exotic Irvine Boulevard to hook up with some plain old American meat.”

“Sounds romantic.” I shuffled into the kitchen, feeling a slight headache coming on, and grabbed orange juice from the fridge. “I had a tough day. You know they docked me for that missed lesson?”

Zuzie came out of the bathroom aiming a hairbrush at me like a pistol. “Hey, you know how much you piss me off? I had a tough day, so I’m gonna make sure it stays shitty, that’s you. Now park your ass on that stool and I’m gonna fix your hair, then you’re gonna put on that cute turquoise satiny thing—yeah, the one you never, ever wear, gives your boobs a nice lift—then you are going out and have a few laughs if it kills me! Mindy’ll be there, says she invited some university guys, just your type. Now, sit!”

In her car, Zuzie’s head, strobed by passing street lights, bounced to something that blended Gypsy dances with hip hop. Just as I was starting to like it, she turned down the volume. “You’re strung tight as a mousetrap. Smoke a joint before we’re there?”

“No, thanks.”

“Suit yourself. You got about three more miles to come out of that pout.”

We passed a sad 1960s strip mall, half its shops boarded up; only a chain drug store and a nondescript Thai restaurant were open. Across the boulevard stood a big box store, its half-full parking lot jaundiced by tungsten lamps. I covered my face with my hands. Istanbul beckoned. Anywhere but here.

“Look, Serena, I know where you’re coming from. I do,” Zuzie said. “How many times I can’t sleep ’cause I feel like I’m standing on a cliff—always on the verge of being broke, nothing on my horizon except serving overpriced coffee to jerks who make fun of how I spell their names, forever and ever—and all I wish is that Spiderman will swoop down and spring me away from all this. I mean, am I off base here?”

This was something new. Zuzie had never spoken so seriously with me. “Not sure about Spidey. But, yeah. I mean, no, not off base.”

“So I look at it this way. You can look for Mister Right all you want, but in the meantime maybe Mister Hunk will do for a laugh. It’s called multi-tasking, honey. Keep open many different channels and happiness eventually finds its own conduit. My solemn philosophy, if you want to call it that.”

“I know. But tonight, I mean, I’m not in much mood to spend money.”

She slowed and turned across the dark street into a driveway between towering avocado trees, and found a parking space by the side of the building. “If you’re spending any money, you ain’t doing it right,” Zuzie said. “Anyway, to misquote one of those dead white poets: ’Tis better to have been laid and lost money than never to have been laid at all.”

The Grove & Chicken was a British-themed pub in a restored plantation manor which once oversaw an empire of citrus and avocados, now long buried beneath tract home developments and shopping plazas. Inside, among the Union Jacks, London Tube signs, and the requisite dartboard, hung framed old photos of this area: sepia Mexican cowboys and treeless cattle ranches that predated citrus planting, and faded color images of groves and packing houses. The place was only half-full, but the air buzzed with voices and cheerful clinks of glassware. Suddenly I was glad I came.


About me

J.R. Laurence has written for television, online and print media, including Disney and Time Magazine, among others. While flitting between home bases in Portland and Portugal, J.R.'s passions include cycling, saxophones, and daydreaming in foreign cafés.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
I was studying online with a sweet young language teacher, who confided in me: "Every day I travel the world, visiting people's homes and offices. But at the end of a day when the computer is off, I'm all alone back in my dark little flat." Her words stuck in my head. This book is my dream for her.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
The world is big and sometimes love and happiness can seem like they're just out of reach or perhaps waiting right over the horizon. But it turns out that love and happiness can be a choice, when, and where, you least expect it.
Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
Mom wanted me to be a doctor. She got me books about great medical heroes: Albert Schweitzer, Florence Nightingale, you name it. I fell in love, not with the doctors and nurses, but the stories. I was hungry to write my own. I started writing at age 8 and never stopped. Mom still wishes I was an MD!