***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Courtney Maum
Sloane Jacobsen was living in a world without peanuts. As the Air France hostess busied herself in the first class cockpit tipping prosecco into plastic flutes, Sloane bemoaned the protocol keeping her from her favorite snack. Someone had an allergy—might have an allergy—so it was a no-go on all nut products. Normally, her future-focused mind would have started speculating—how would the normalization of food sensitivities impact consumer habits in the coming years? But instead, she just felt saddened that the current state of geo-politics expected people’s worst. Someone might also use their wineglass to puncture the pilot’s jugular so airlines had banned all drinkware made of glass, too.
The stewardess, not French—Carly, read her nametag—served Sloane a drink along with a single slice of cucumber and a mauve wedge of something masquerading as foie gras. Yes, the world was a simpler, kinder place when Sloane could still eat nuts in public.
She peered into the confines of the egg-shaped bunker where her companion, Roman, was reading an article in the travel section of a newspaper: The Mediterranean: Is there anywhere safe left to go?
“Is there?” Sloane asked, toeing his heel to get his attention.
“Is there what?” he said, looking at her through the eyeglasses he wore more for aesthetic reasons than anything having to do with sight.
“Anywhere safe left to go?”
“Oh,” he said, giving the paper a shake so it stood with better posture. “Portugal, apparently.”
She scoffed. “But that’s not in the Mediterranean.”
“That’s true,” Roman shrugged. “Then I guess not.” He flipped the page over as if to inspect it. “It’s not a very good article,” he said, continuing to read it.
Sloane reclined her seat and stared at the domed ceiling, beyond which was pure, unoxygenated sky. Flying wasn’t easy when you were a trend forecaster. Sloane had a spongy sensitivity to her environment that only deepened when she flew. She felt itchy, ill-at-ease. It annoyed her, that article. Although she was in the business of looking for the next big things, it was nonetheless exhausting, the greed for the undiscovered, the novel, the new new. Lisbon wasn’t “new” of course—it was one of the oldest cities in the world, predating even Paris—but it had been anointed by the Conde Nasters as the new Berlin.
Sloane tried to calm herself, quell the negativity—she could watch a movie too. Given the excessive in-flight entertainment selection, she could watch anything she wanted. But she couldn’t rid herself of a snaking anxiety. Something was wrong. Not wrong like the last time she’d been airborne, when she’d felt such a current of foreboding she wondered if “see something, say something” could include “getting a bad vibe,” and thirty-three minutes into the flight plan, the plane was hit by lightening. It shook, it nosed. People screamed. It righted. No, this offness was nothing like that. This was internal, a mechanical error inside of her. She needed more vitamins, probably. Vitamin D.
Beside her, Roman had given up reading about the travel impacts of the European debt crisis and was scrolling through the airline’s film choices, his finger guiding him to ‘New Releases’. Sloane knew with neon certainty that Roman would pick “Pitch Perfect 3.” His Americaphilism was nondiscriminatory: fleece sportswear, SUVs, sub-zero refrigerators, discount superstores, the viralism of American patriotism: (flags sprouting up in window boxes and front lawn patches after grim events), pop culture, online culture—he was taken by it all. To someone like Roman, trained to look for signs and signifiers in every experience, romantic comedies held the key to understanding the American way of life. Being inordinately excited about a cappella music was apparently step one.
While Roman went starry-eyed at the Universal Studios logo spinning on his screen, Sloane pulled the customs immigrations forms out of her seat pocket, remembering how the stewardess’s eyebrows had arched when she had asked for two. One per family, Carly had repeated, certain that the polished people before her were espoused. Yes, well. In Paris, traditional marriage was about as popular as private healthcare. Roman and Sloane had been together ten years. His name was on her electric bill, but they were never having children; their careers were their children, there you had it. In fact, their careers had been boosted by their joint decision not to breed. The famous American forecaster and the Frenchy intellectual—“The couple who has everything, except kids,” (Le Figaro, July 2013), “The ultimate Anti-Mom” was the headline of a recent profile of Sloane in British Vogue ( “Re-production is akin to eco-terrorism,” she’d been quoted in that particular mag). It had been the interview hour’s fault—3 p.m., her worst time. Low blood sugar, doldrums. She and the bouncy journalist, the chardonnay had been cheap.
Eco-terrorism. Yeah—it was a good thing that Sloane’s family didn’t read much. Or maybe they’d developed an interest in European fashion glossies since she’d last seen them three years ago—she wasn’t in a position to know. But per her sister’s annual Fourth of July newsletter (yes, she actually did this), Leila was pregnant with her third kid. In the wake of their father’s death when the girls were in their twenties, Leila—not Sloane—had turned out to be the family success story. She’d fought back death with birth.
Sloane had made predictions that had revolutionized the tech industry—she’d presaged the symbolism of roots to the food industry before 9/11, predicted the now ubiquitous touchscreen gesture, the swipe. She’d lectured and consulted and symposium-ed in thirty-seven countries to date, she owned an apartment in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, had the kinds of friends known by their first names only. A lot of people cared about the life that she’d constructed. She used to, too.
Roman tapped the screen to pause the inanity before him. “Did you do this?” he asked too loudly, headphones still on.
Sloane put a finger to her lips before she answered; passengers were sleeping. “Do what?”
“Sing with girls?”
She narrowed her eyes. “No.”
“And the boys sing, too? And they’re popular?”
Despite herself, she laughed. “A Cappella wasn’t cool when I was in college,” she said. “It was made cool by a T.V. show called Glee.”
Roman’s eyebrows arched. “Everyone knows Glee.”
Sloane bristled against this new dismissiveness. Roman knew everything about everything now that he was a cyber star. For a trend forecaster, it was unfortunate that she preferred the old version of her boyfriend to Roman 2.0.
When they’d first met, Roman had been a brainy market researcher for the consumer goods company, Unilever in France. She’d been immediately taken by his inventive wit and a kind of bemused composure that she’d later identify as optimism, unusual for the French. They’d met at a focus group for a new line of male soap. The consumer feedback had been useless (“I want something that smells like charcoal, but also good, like soap,” was one example), but when Roman bid the industry suits goodbye, he did so with a perfectly delivered anatanaclasis: “I don’t know what I’ll wash with, gentlemen, but I wash my hands of this.” He’s a little pompous, Sloane remembered thinking. But he sure seems like fun.
These days, he was mostly pompous. Roman had transitioned out of market research into professional punditism: delivering lectures across Europe on the shifting paradigms of touch. He’d even coined a term for his research: neo-sensualism. Making him a “neo-sensualist”—the term had stuck. Between his op-eds on how physicality was changing in a digitalized world and his increasingly colorful social media presence, Roman had claimed a place for himself among Europe’s intelligentsia. But once he incorporated the Zentai suit into his social media feed and presentations? The match of Internet stardom was lit.
The first time Sloane saw Roman in the seamless body suit that hallmarked the Japanese practice, it had been in their Paris kitchen, and the only word for what came tumbling out of Sloane’s mouth was a guffaw. The body suit was integral—there weren’t any holes for the eyes or the mouth, the whole thing was entered into by a tiny, little slit. When it was put on properly, it looked like the wearer’s body had been dipped in liquid pewter.
“You look like a superhero,” Sloane had said, glancing up from her work at the freaky figure by the fridge. “What’s it for?”
What’s it for? The phrase chagrinned her now, she’d been so sure that the donning of the suit was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Something for a panel. A crowd-pleaser. Click-bait.
“The Zentai suit is fascinating,” Roman had said, gliding his hands down his body. “It’s an invitation—and a refusal, no? It presents the body as an anonymous thing that can be contemplated, but never truly accessed.” He moved his arms behind his weirdo head. “I’ve found my avatar.”
And so it seems he had. At an American university, Roman probably would have been fired for delivering a lecture in fetish ware, but in Paris he was celebrated: the form of it met his new function, which was to speculate about sensuality in the digital age. He presented the suit as a conduit for temptation and refusal. “You can see how far the implications could go,” he was fond of saying. “Birth control, affairs.”
“Affairs?” she remembered asking.
“If it’s non-penetrative, non-tactile, can it be considered cheating?”
Sloane rested her head against the airplane window, ice cold to the touch. If anything, Roman was being unfaithful with his telephone. Right before they’d left for America, the popular French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur had done a profile on him: “Touché: a day in the life of the Neo-Sensualist, Roman Bellard,” and his cell phone had been ringing and pinging and whirring ever since. A six-page photo spread accompanied the write-up, Roman doing the daily things of any working Parisian: reading the news at a kiosque, sniffing melons at the outdoor market, eating a baguette sandwich on a wooden bench. Difference here was that Roman was doing these things in a skin-tight Zentai suit.
Traipsing about town in his metallic gold one, riding the metro, contemplating the Seine. The alleged elegance and nonchalance with which Roman appropriated fetish custom thrilled the bougie masses. Overnight, his Instagram account became supercharged. Two hundred thousand, four hundred thousand: Sloane had stopped checking before she saw it reach a five.
Back in Paris, they’d often consulted together (the local media referred to them as a duo de choc! which always struck her as a charmingly juvenile way of saying “Power Couple”), but she’d been covetous—and secretive—about her assignment at the tech giant Mammoth that had summoned her back to the United States for half a year. Discretion was tantamount in the trends industry, that was part of her reticence, but there was something else. The hot flush of her instincts told her not to bring Roman into Mammoth’s fold.
Sloane knew the key clause to her work contract by heart; she was proud of the things she’d done to be the person who could accept such an assignment, and for the first time, she found that she didn’t want to share:
With your global expertise in trends across the fashion, beauty, tech and entertainment industries, you’ll help our creative teams sculpt their visions for our ReProduction summit in June.
Every year, the electronics juggernaut ran a three-day summit about consumer trends that brought in the world’s visionaries and tastemakers together to consult on a different theme. They’d gone big with this one, polemic. What will we make when we stop making kids? Daxter Stevens, Mammoth’s CEO, needed someone with global name recognition. Someone with vision. Someone empathetic. Someone without kids.
Enter Sloane Jacobsen: progenitor of ideas, soothsayer of the swipe. Instincts, accounted for, maternal instincts, nil.
It takes a while to figure out your specialty when you work in trends. Although she’d started out in beauty (quickly going from an American-in-Paris entry leveler to the non-official creative director at the French cosmetics giant, Aurora), what Sloane excelled at was mapping out what the wired rich wanted next.
And it currently wasn’t children. Over the last two decades, the upper middle class American ego had wanted global positioning systems and wearables; it hadn’t wanted kids. For the various companies she consulted with, Sloane sketched out a world viewpoint that had become increasingly self-centered, forecasting a rise in personal electronics, in personal improvement, and a downtick in the birthrate because it’s selfless to have kids. Did she regret the articles she’d published in which she’d called breeding short-sighted? Listen, there were nuances. She probably could have used a kinder word. But she’d never retracted her opinions or apologized. To the world outside of her, she was successful, influential, unapologetic: the uber anti-mom.
So be it. If Sloane had to judge from her emotional incompatibility with her own mother (an obsessive nurturer), she would have been terrible at parenthood. She just didn’t have it in her to be giving. Also, she wasn’t a fan of being scared, and it had to be petrifying to love someone more than yourself.
Beside her, Roman laughed at something in the movie. She craned her neck to see at what, but his screen was titled in a way that all she saw was darkness.
Back in the 1950s, personal electronics were aspirational possessions: a reflection of middle class desires. By the time Daxter Stevens was brought over from Greylight Advertising to be Mammoth’s youngest ever CEO, he scaled the consumer electronics around a new axiom: it was the devices telling us how we should live.
To the televisions, gaming systems, telephones and computers that had bolstered Mammoth in the eighties, Dax added telecommunications, Internet services, lifestyle products, social media, security, and human machine integration technology. Accordingly, the Mammoth gig came with a lot of solar-powered perks, one of which was a driverless car for Sloane’s personal use. The car was a prototype, currently called (rather uninspiredly) the M-Car, poised to offer a more personalized experience than the competing models, most of which still couldn’t differentiate a “road” from a “sidewalk.”
The problem with having a driverless car was that it came without a driver: no one to meet you at the arrivals gate. Sloane hadn’t asked one of her family members to come for her, and they hadn’t offered. They probably thought she had a flying saucer at her beck and call.
“The car’s not here?” Roman asked, brow furrowed, his eyes trained to the street where the hastily cleaned sedans of the shared driving economy waited for their riders.
Sloane scrolled through the messages in her phone, the very act of looking down at it regrettable. She’d developed something of an allergy to her smartphone this past year. Migraines, vision problems, an increase in blood temperature. Her therapist said that these were symptoms of anxiety—but she’d gone a step further and dubbed it enviro-xiety. If it were up to her, she’d chuck the gadgets in the garbage, throw away the constant availability, the heightened stress of being always in the know. But Sloane couldn’t earn the kind of money she was earning if she was offline. It was the catchword of this millennium. Celebrities, black voters, ayahuasca-induced clarity: everything and everybody needed to be reached.
“Daxter’s assistant said the car is parked,” Sloane said, pulling up the email. “Aisle 37. Level B.”
Roman’s eyes went wide. “It’s just parked?”
Sloane shrugged. Yes, the prototype of one of the first self-driving vehicles was parked in a commuter lot—in between a rusted Ford Explorer and a Honda Civic, as it turned out.
Sloane had been inside autonomous vehicles before, but only ones whose comfort level had been modeled on a golf-cart’s. In focus groups, Mammoth found that target consumers of self driving cars still wanted to feel like they were being driven, which meant: invisible driver up front, passengers in the back. There were spotlights in the car’s ceiling on individual dimmers, an onyx tinted privacy divider, and massaging leather seats. Best of all, the car had a name. After sitting for an instructional video that outlined both the benefits and limitations of the car’s lidar technology, the ceiling lights brightened and the car powered to life.
“Good morning Ms. Jacobsen, good day, Monsieur Bellard,” the car said in a crisp voice, “I am Anastasia, and I will be your driver. Please, you will notice the location of the ‘emergency’ buttons and also your seatbelts?”
Anastasia, Sloane thought, smiling to herself. They’d be transported not through the Midtown Tunnel, but across the Russian steppes.
“Do we talk back?” Roman whispered urgently, interrupting her daydream of horses and white fur.
Sloane leaned forward, her voice aimed at the dash.
“It’s nice to meet you, too.”
“But the pleasure is all mine!” Anastasia answered with pronounced enthusiasm. “Was your Air France Flight 9773 from Charles de Gaulle to airport La Guardia comfortable?” she continued.
“Errgh, yes,” Sloane noted that Mammoth had some conversational aberrations to sort out, “It was.”
“I’m so pleased to hear that. And we will still be heading to East Ninth Street and Avenue C in Manhattan?”
Beside her, Roman did the cluck-cluck tongue thing that French people used to communicate exasperation. When Mammoth said they’d rent Sloane an apartment anywhere she wanted, Roman had been gunning for the Upper West side, but his comprehension of New York real estate was mostly informed by early Woody Allen films—he didn’t realize that the area had changed since “Annie Hall.”
Sloane relied on signs and cues to do her trend work: she observed the way people behaved, shifted likes and dislikes, the way they talked and dressed. It was possible to monitor the undercurrents of new behaviors in big box stores, but it wasn’t preferable. There was only so much she could discern about humanity by noting that Costco was running a big sale on smoked trout.
Which is why Sloane wanted to live in the Alphabet City neighborhood of the East Village, a place that was, for the most part, chain store and fro-yo free. As an affluent white person, Sloane knew it was sanctimonious to think of Alphabet City as the “real” New York. “Real” New York didn’t exist any more. It certainly wasn’t in Brooklyn—recently deemed “the least affordable place in America”. Brooklyn wasn’t so much a borough as a category now, like imported cheese.
But still—with its riot of smells, treasured community gardens, the trashcans overloaded with paper plates stained by ninety-nine cent pizza slices and six-dollar ristrettos, there was a confluence that moved her. Alphabet City wasn’t perfect—their place was only two blocks from the site of the Tompkins Square Park Riot where hundreds beseeched the yuppy scum to die—but at least it wasn’t torpid. Because it was bloodlessness that frightened Sloane more than community tension: the insipidness of luxury apartment buildings with gyms and dry cleaning services and in-building convenient stores with chia seed green smoothies that encouraged—even celebrated—that everyone be one thing, strive to be one thing.
The last time Sloane had lived in the East Village, she’d been in a fetid one-room walk-up with a women’s studies concentrator named Ramona and their de-facto third roommate, her sister, Leila, a senior in high school then who visited a lot. How she’d loved those crowded, easy times when too much of someone else’s hair in the tub drain qualified as a problem. Aside from globalization fatigue, nostalgia, too, was pulling Sloane back to Alphabet City. It necessitated constant masking, her sentimental side.
“If you’ll allow me,” sung Anastasia, snapping Sloane back to their commute, “the thermal radar seat backs have detected an elevated temperature in Monsieur Bellard that suggests moderate dehydration. We have a variety of refreshments in the temperature regulated cooler underneath the seat divider, as well as a single-serve coffee maker which I don’t recommend activating at this time for the reasons of dehydration cited.”
Sloane popped open the mini fridge and retrieved two bottled waters.
“Bottled tap water,” she said, handing one to Roman, whose lips rarely encountered anything other than caffeine and red wine. “Welcome to the States.”
When Sloane was a little girl, her closest friend besides her sister (who’d been just a toddler then) was a peppy Argentinean named Marti Fernandez. Almost every Friday of their seventh year, Marti slept over at her house, and, like most girls that age, they would spend the night talking long after Sloane’s mother had told them to go to bed.
On one of these sleepovers, Sloane woke from a dream. She had seen the man whom Marti would spend her life with, clear as day. Marti was back in Argentina, in the kitchen of her adult home. The man was wide-faced, with an easy smile, a boyish fop of hair, a sharp nose, big hands. He looked funny, kind. Sloane woke with her heart racing as if exiting a nightmare, certain that she’d seen someone who existed, except she’d seen him twenty years in the future.
When Marti woke, Sloane told her that she’d seen the man she was going to marry. That she’d seen their kitchen. (She disliked its granite countertop, but she didn’t tell her that.) That she was living in Buenos Aires again with her children.
Marti giggled uncontrollably, wanting all the details about this grown-up, future life. After Sloane had shared everything she could remember, Marti collapsed against the pillow, looking dreamily at the ceiling. “Too bad I’m never moving back!”
But she did move back. Their old high school sent out frequent newsletters, and an adult Sloane had sucked in her breath when she saw the recent updates from the class of ’95. Marti had gotten married, and she had married him: the man Sloane had seen in her dream all those years ago. It was the same man, the same age he’d been in her vision, the same helpless smile and gigantic hair, much larger than little Marti; generous and kind.
Standing now in the apartment that would be hers and Roman’s, Sloane felt the same disturbing frequency growing inside her: the disconcerting feeling that she already knew how all this would turn out. She tried to shake the presentiment—told herself, instead, that everything would be great.
“Then it’s true about the kitchens!” Roman cried, setting his bags down. “New Yorkers never cook?”
Rusted fire escapes, surfaces bleached to mask the pre-existing odors of old beer and floral youth: they had arrived at their new home. Sloane watched Roman investigate the tiny, sunlit kitchen set up on black and white linoleum, the paneled glass affording a view of the stately Christodora tower up the street. He opened cupboards and peered into the refrigerator while Sloane took in the hissing and popping and creaking and cracking of an apartment in New York. She’d forgotten the sheer cacophony that the plumbing systems made, the slushing rush of water shooting around the building, the clip clop of high heeled publicists blow drying their hair, entire floors of renters who refused to put in carpets. Even though it was bigger, a top floor, and significantly more expensive, the energy wasn’t that different from the place she’d shared in college: architecturally inhospitable, impossible to keep clean.
“Does this oven even work?” Roman called out from the kitchen she’d just left.
“Probably not!” Sloane shouted back, peering into the room that she’d hoped would be her home-office, but she knew how things worked in Manhattan: she’d never be at home. She’d keep spare changes of clothing and an extra toothbrush under her desk and this sunny, perfect room would end up being Roman’s to work in on the book that he would only say was about “neo-sensualism!” every time she asked.
Her friends in Paris thought it was weird that she hadn’t pushed to find out more about the project, hadn’t read any of his pages yet. But Sloane was a protector of the creative process. She respected Roman’s rhythm and his privacy. Also, if his urban Zentai pics were anything to go on, she was pretty sure she was going to hate the entire thing.
She’d arrived at the bathroom, a crowded, grouty conglomeration of more black and white linoleum and a beautiful pink sink retrofitted to look antique. Despite the obvious renovations, there was still that humid mozzarella smell that Sloane remembered from her college place, an apartment so cramped and airless, they had to store their makeup in the refrigerator so it wouldn’t melt. Sloane had even kept a mug in there for her sister’s visits—top right shelf—stocked with the Wet n Wild eyeliners Leila was too nervous to wear around their mom.
God, it seemed indulgent, the fun that they had had. The three of them crowded into that tight bathroom, Ramona seated on the tub’s edge, calmly crimping her hair while Leila tried out vampy makeup looks on a pretending-to-be-cross Sloane, music blaring out of cassette player, the treble far too high.
Sloane probably would have spent all of her college evenings at bookstore readings if it hadn’t been for Leila. Her sister lightened up Sloane’s grimness, alleviated her self-seriousness, tried to show her that not everything needed to be analyzed, some things just were fun. Like sharing margaritas the size of bathtubs at Tortilla Flats, or dancing with a stranger on the makeshift dance floor of a bar. Dancing, God, that too seemed like something that belonged to another era, like pagers and roller skates. The last time Sloane had been touched by a stranger—much less danced with one—was during a TSA pat down. Her carry-on had signaled an alarm (the four ounce facial mist she’d hoped to get away with promptly taken from her bag), but as she stood there with her arms out, palms facing up, a uniformed woman announcing where she was going to touch her and why, when she had felt the woman’s palm cup her shoulder and slide down with a comforting firmness to her hand—it was ridiculous, really. More ridiculous than giant margaritas. Sloane had wanted to cry.
“Darling!” Roman called out from what was probably the bedroom. “There’s something wrong with the bed!”
Sloane walked in to find her partner face-down on the mattress, his palms spread and fingers arched. “It has Botox in it!” he said, lifting up one hand.
She studied the material slowly rising up around his handprint.
“Memory Foam,” she said, sitting down beside him. “It molds to your body.”
She knit her brow and tried not to worry. It wasn’t a chemical imbalance that was making her emotional, it was just jet lag. Normally, they would have really gotten into it—why was memory foam such an aspirational mattress filling for the American consumer?—but she was too tired.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, her voice weary and flat. “It’s just one of those things that everyone’s told they’re supposed to want and so they start to want it.”
“Well, I don’t want this bed,” Roman said, sticking his thumb into the dense cake of polyurethane foam.
“I don’t like it, either.”
They both stayed silent. It was the first time they had agreed on anything in bed in a long time. What had started to feel like disinterest in sex on Roman’s part was beginning to look like an aversion; or at least he had an aversion to the kind of sex Sloane wanted. Sloane worked incredibly hard. She was mere months away from forty. At the end of the day, she just didn’t have it in her to get into a fetish suit with no eyes.
Roman lay back and sighed with deep contentment: he’d soon fall asleep. As for Sloane, she stared around her new bedroom and realized how useless sentimentality could be. Taking an apartment near her old college haunts wasn’t going to make Ramona magically appear in her pineapple kimono, hair toweled from her bubble bath; wasn’t going to transport Leila to her bedside where she’d turn a new box of Manic Panic hair dye over in her hands, intoxicated with freedom.
Sloane needed a place to live during her time at Mammoth, and this apartment was it. That she happened to be within a car drive’s distance of her family for the first time in nearly two decades, that wasn’t going to change anything, and it was naïve to think it could. So, no. Sloane couldn’t just invite her sister over for a too-much-cheese-and-wine night, couldn’t tell her to get a sitter so they could see back-to-back matinees, couldn’t pull her into the bathroom while Roman was opening a second bottle to confess that she and Roman hadn’t had sex in over eighteen months.
Contrary to her professional life where she was pro-confrontation, in her personal one, Sloane had a tendency to sweep things under the rug. Internally, as she went about her business back in Paris, watching people linger in front of flower stalls, sniffing hopefully at roses, she would think of what was happening with her and Roman as a phase. It was essential that it only be a phase, or at least that it distend into something that didn’t hurt her the way that it did now. The New York interlude would be good for them. A chance for re-alignment. At best, it would prove to be a high-paying distraction. At worst, another rug.
Sloane looked around again, felt the pull towards dreams. It would be detrimental to her jet lag—she should force herself to stay up later, but Roman was already breathing peacefully, and she didn’t really have all that much to unpack. Given the alternatives, Mediterranean or otherwise, sleep seemed like the safest place left to go.