***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Helen Hoang
“I know you hate surprises, Stella. In the interests of communicating our expectations and providing you a reasonable timeline, you should know we’re ready for grandchildren.”
Stella Lane’s gaze jumped from her breakfast up to her mother’s gracefully aging face. A subtle application of makeup drew attention to battle-ready, coffee-colored eyes. That boded ill for Stella. When her mother got something into her mind, she was like a honey badger with a vendetta—pugnacious and tenacious, but without the snarling and fur.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Stella said.
Shock gave way to rapid-fire, panic-scrambled thoughts. Grandchildren meant babies. And diapers. Mountains of diapers. Exploding diapers. And babies cried, soul-grating banshee wails that even the best sound-canceling headphones couldn’t buffer. How did they cry so long and hard when they were so little? Plus, babies meant husbands. Husbands meant boyfriends. Boyfriends meant dating. Dating meant sex. She shuddered.
“You’re thirty, Stella dear. We’re concerned that you’re still single. Have you tried Tinder?”
She grabbed her water and gulped down a mouthful, accidentally swallowing an ice cube. After clearing her throat, she said, “No. I haven’t tried it.”
The very thought of Tinder—and the corresponding dating it aimed to deliver—caused her to break out in a sweat. She hated everything about dating: the departure from her comfortable routine, the conversation that was by turns inane and baffling, and again, the sex . . .
“I’ve been offered a promotion,” she said, hoping it would distract her mother.
“Another one?” her father asked, lowering his copy of the Wall Street Journal so his wire-framed glasses were visible. “You were just promoted two quarters ago. That’s phenomenal.”
Stella perked up and scooted to the edge of her seat. “Our newest client—a large online vendor who shall remain nameless—provided the most amazing datasets, and I get to play with them all day. I designed an algorithm to help with some of their purchase suggestions. Apparently, it’s working better than expected.”
“When is the new promotion effective?” her father asked.
“Well . . .” The hollandaise and egg yolk from her crabcakes Benedict had run together, and she attempted to separate the yellow liquids with the tip of her fork. “I didn’t accept the promotion. It was a principal econometrician position that would have had five direct reports beneath me and require much more client interaction. I just want to work on the data.”
Her mother batted that statement away with a negligent wave of her hand. “You’re getting complacent, Stella. If you stop challenging yourself, you’re not going to make any more improvement with your social skills. That reminds me, are there any coworkers at your company who you’d like to date?”
Her father set his newspaper down and folded his hands over his rounded belly. “Yes, what about that one fellow, Philip James? When we met him at your last company get-together, he seemed nice enough.”
Her mother’s hands fluttered to her mouth like pigeons homing in on bread crumbs. “Oh, why didn’t I think of him? He was so polite. And easy on the eyes, too.”
“He’s okay, I guess.” Stella ran her fingertips over the condensation on her water glass. To be honest, she’d considered Philip. He was conceited and abrasive, but he was a direct speaker. She really liked that in people. “I think he has several personality disorders.”
Her mother patted Stella’s hand. Instead of putting it back in her lap when she was done, she rested it over Stella’s knuckles. “Maybe he’ll be a good match for you, then, dear. With issues of his own to overcome, he might be more understanding of your Asperger’s.”
Though the words were spoken in a matter-of-fact tone, they sounded unnatural and loud to Stella’s ears. A quick glance at the neighboring tables in the restaurant’s canopied outdoor dining area reassured her that no one had heard, and she stared down at the hand on top of hers, consciously refraining from yanking it away. Uninvited touches irritated her, and her mother knew it. She did it to “acclimate” her. Mostly, it drove Stella crazy. Was it possible Philip could understand that?
“I’ll think about him,” Stella said, and meant it. She hated lying and prevaricating even more than she hated sex. And, at the end of the day, she wanted to make her mother proud and happy. No matter what Stella did, she was always a few steps short of being successful in her mother’s eyes and therefore her own, too. A boyfriend would do that, she knew. The problem was she couldn’t keep a man for the life of her.
Her mother beamed. “Excellent. The next benefit dinner I’m arranging is in a couple months, and I want you to bring a date this time. I’d love to see Mr. James attending with you, but if that doesn’t work out, I’ll find someone.”
Stella thinned her lips. Her latest sexual experience had been with one of her mother’s blind dates. He’d been good-looking—she had to give him that—but his sense of humor had confused her. With him being a venture capitalist and her being an economist, they should have had a lot in common, but he hadn’t wanted to talk about his actual work. Instead, he’d preferred to discuss office politics and manipulation tactics, leaving her so lost she’d been certain the date was a failure.
When he’d straight-out asked her if she wanted to have sex with him, she’d been caught completely off guard. Because she hated to say no, she’d said yes. There’d been kissing, which she didn’t enjoy. He’d tasted like the lamb he’d had for dinner. She didn’t like lamb. His cologne had nauseated her, and he’d touched her all over. As it always did in intimate situations, her body had locked down. Before she knew it, he’d finished. He’d discarded his used condom in the trash can next to the hotel room’s desk—that had bothered her; surely he should know things like that went in the bathroom?—told her she needed to loosen up, and left. She could only imagine how disappointed her mother would be if she knew what a disaster her daughter was with men.
And now her mother wanted babies, too.
Stella got to her feet and gathered her purse. “I need to go to work now.” While she was ahead on all her deadlines, need was still the right word for it. Work fascinated her, channeled the furious craving in her brain. It was also therapeutic.
“That’s my girl,” her father said, standing up and brushing off his silk Hawaiian shirt before hugging her. “You’re going to own that place before long.”
As she gave him a quick hug—she didn’t mind touching when she initiated it or had time to mentally prepare for it—she breathed in the familiar scent of his aftershave. Why couldn’t all men be just like her father? He thought she was beautiful and brilliant, and his smell didn’t make her sick.
“You know her work is an unhealthy obsession, Edward. Don’t encourage her,” her mother said before she switched her attention to Stella and heaved a maternal sigh. “You should be out with people on the weekend. If you met more men, I know you’d find the right one.”
Her father pressed a cool kiss to her temple and whispered, “I wish I were working, too.”
Stella shook her head at him as her mother embraced her. The ropes of her mother’s ever-present pearls pressed into Stella’s sternum, and Chanel No. 5 swirled around her. She tolerated the cloying scent for three long seconds before stepping back.
“I’ll see you both next weekend. I love you. Bye.”
She waved at her parents before exiting the ritzy downtown Palo Alto restaurant and walked down sidewalks lined with trees and upscale shops. After three sunny blocks, she reached a low-rise office building that housed her favorite place in the world: her office. The left corner window on the third floor belonged to her.
The lock on the front door clicked open when she held her purse up to the sensor, and she strode into the empty building, enjoying the solitary echo of her high heels on the marble as she passed the vacant reception desk and stepped into the elevator.
Inside her office, she initiated her most beloved routine. First, she powered on her computer and entered her password into the prompt screen. As all the software booted up, she plopped her purse in her desk drawer and went to fill her cup with water from the kitchen. Her shoes came off, and she placed them in their regular spot under her desk. She sat.
Power, password, purse, water, shoes, sit. Always this order.
Statistics Analysis System, otherwise known as SAS, automatically loaded, and the three monitors on her desk filled with streams of data. Purchases, clicks, log-in times, payment types—simple things, really. But they told her more about people than people themselves ever did. She stretched out her fingers and set them on the black ergonomic keyboard, eager to lose herself in her work.
“Oh hi, Stella, I thought it might be you.”
She looked over her shoulder and was jarred by the unwelcome view of Philip James peering around the door frame. The severe cut of his tawny hair emphasized his square jaw, and his polo shirt was tight across his chest. He looked fresh, sophisticated, and smart—precisely the kind of man her parents wanted for her. And he’d caught her working for pleasure on the weekend.
Her face heated, and she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “What are you doing here?”
“I had to pick up something that I forgot yesterday.” He extracted a box from a shopping bag and waved it at her. Stella caught sight of the word TROJAN in giant capital letters. “Have a nice weekend. I know I will.”
Breakfast with her parents raced through her mind. Grandchildren, Philip, the prospect of more blind dates, being successful. She licked her lips and hurried to say something, anything. “Did you really need an economy-sized box of those?”
As soon as the words left her mouth, she winced.
He smirked his assholest smirk, but its annoyingness was softened by a show of strong white teeth. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to need half of these tonight since the boss’s new intern asked me out.”
Stella was impressed despite herself. The new girl looked so shy. Who would have thought she was so gutsy? “For dinner?”
“And more, I think,” he said with a twinkle in his hazel eyes.
“Why did you wait for her to ask you out? Why didn’t you ask her first?” She’d gotten the impression men liked to be initiators in matters like these. Was she wrong?
With impatient motions, Philip stuffed an entire militia of Trojans back in his shopping bag. “She’s fresh out of undergrad. I didn’t want to get accused of cradle robbing. Besides, I like girls who know what they want and go for it . . . especially in bed.” He swept an appraising gaze from her feet to her face, smiling like he could see through her clothes, and she stiffened with self-consciousness. “Tell me, are you still a virgin, Stella?”
She turned back to her computer screens, but the data refused to make sense. The cursor on the programming screen blinked. “It’s none of your business, but no, I’m not a virgin.”
He walked into her office, leaned a hip against her desk, and considered her in a skeptical manner. She adjusted her glasses even though they didn’t need it. “So our star econometrician has ‘done it’ before. How many times? Three?”
No way was she going to tell him he’d guessed correctly. “None of your business, Philip.”
“I bet you just lie there and run linear recursions in your head while a man does his business. Am I right, Ms. Lane?”
Stella would totally do that if she could figure out how to input gigabytes of data into her brain, but she’d rather die than admit it.
“A word of advice from a man who’s been around the block a few times: Get some practice. When you’re good at it, you like it better, and when you like it better, men like you better.” He pushed away from the desk and headed for the door, his bag of condoms swinging jauntily at his side. “Enjoy your endless week.”
As soon as he left, Stella stood up and shoved her door shut, using more force than was necessary. The door slammed with a hard, vibrating bang, and her heart stuttered. She smoothed damp hands over her pencil skirt as she brought her breathing back under control. When she sat down at her desk, she was too jittery to do more than stare at the blinking cursor.
Was Philip right? Did she dislike sex because she was bad at it? Would practice really make perfect? What a beguiling concept. Maybe sex was just another interpersonal thing she needed to exert extra efforts on—like casual conversation, eye contact, and etiquette.
But how exactly did you practice sex? It wasn’t like men were throwing themselves at her like women apparently did to Philip. When she did manage to sleep with a man, he was so put off by the lackluster experience that once was more than enough for both of them.
Also, this was Silicon Valley, the kingdom of tech geniuses and scientists. The single men available were probably as hopeless in bed as she was. With her luck, she’d sleep with a statistically significant population of them and have nothing to show for it but crotch burn and STDs.
No, what Stella needed was a professional.
Not only were they certified disease-free, but they had proven track records. At least, she assumed so. That was how she’d run things if she were in that business. Regular men were incentivized by things like personality, humor, and hot sex—things she didn’t have. Professionals were incentivized by money. Stella happened to have a lot of money.
Instead of working on her shiny new dataset, Stella opened up her browser and Googled “California Bay Area male escort service.”