This excerpt is pulled from Chapters 8 and 9, so at this point, Kelly has created her perfect robotic man, Ethan, and successfully passed him off as her boyfriend. This bit functions almost as a standalone story so I decided to include it here. Enjoy!
It may have been those smug shopgirls at Mara who gave Kelly the idea. They certainly were the first thing that came to mind when Tiffany Galecki popped up on her Facebook timeline, like a poisonous mushroom, or a persistent, itchy, ugly rash. Not that Tiffany was ugly. Back when Kelly was her lab partner at Westridge High, Tiffany had inarguably been the hottest girl in the eleventh grade, and, if the white-smiled, friend-populated pictures she posted so frequently on Facebook were to be believed, she hadn’t gained a wrinkle or a pound in the years since. Her visual presence was a regular reminder to Kelly of some of the most awkward times in her heroically awkward life, and an unspoken standard of prettiness, popularity, and social grace which Kelly, in all those same intervening years, knew that she had come no closer to attaining.
Back in Advanced Biology, Kelly and Tiffany had been a perfect team in that Kelly had possessed the ability, willingness and motivation to do all the work and Tiffany had possessed none of those things. It wasn’t that Tiffany forced Kelly to do everything. No, Tiffany was never overtly mean or rude to Kelly. She was something much worse: uninterested. She wasn’t a bully, and she didn’t need to be. Unpopular, unimportant people like Kelly weren’t worth her golden, miniskirt-and-lip-gloss-filled time. When the two of them were supposed to be completing an experiment together in class, Tiffany would drift from their shared station towards her friends, laughing and chatting with them as if even the suggestion she should pass her lab time in any other manner would have been an affront to her echelon of the species. Meanwhile, Kelly squinted at the minute lines printed on the sides of beakers, or at pink-stained slides under microscopes. Science is mostly about squinting.
To add insult to insult, the following year, Kelly found herself in the same homeroom as Tiffany. Their preceptor, the pervy gym teacher, didn’t even bother to conceal that he chose Tiffany to be the class’s attendance monitor because she was hot. On their first day of senior year, Tiffany stood at the front of the pervy wood-paneled trailer where the gym teacher held his pervy health classes, shifting her weight casually in her flowered wedges, calling the roll. “Kelly Suttle,” she called out when she reached the S’s. “Kelly Suttle?” Her eyes scraped over the room, moving onto Kelly and then right past her, continuing their search. After working side by side (or at least working and gossiping with friends, respectively, within a contained radius) for the entire past year, she didn’t even remember Kelly’s name.
It was this memory in particular that flared in Kelly’s mind now, as it liked to do from time to time, such as when she was struggling to fall asleep, or negotiating for new brake pads on her car – the brain works in strange ways, am I right? – as she saw Tiffany on Facebook, bronzed and beautiful on the beach, surrounded by equally bronzed and not quite as beautiful friends. Kelly had essentially tuned out such Facebook posts for a while now, but this time, she saw the FOMO fodder in a new light. Now, Kelly was not just a nameless, squinting peon. Now she had something that Tiffany didn’t. She had Ethan. And she began to have an idea.
It would be easy enough to show up at Tiffany’s workplace since her handy-dandy Facebook posts mentioned working weekends at the Clinique counter at the nearest Bloomingdale’s. This Saturday would be perfect – Kelly would have to clear her afternoon of drifting into a stupor while reading Buzzfeed, but sometimes, one must sacrifice. She didn’t even think about what she would wear. Nobody cared about her. Ethan was the one onstage here. She pulled up Amazon and quickly placed an order for next-day delivery (well, quickly after she spent the first hour trying to decipher men’s sizes for the first time). Nice jeans, a button-down shirt with pinstripes that would bring out Ethan’s blue eyes, without the whole shirt matching them – it was important to look as if they weren’t trying too hard. Kelly and Ethan must be seen as the sophisticated, successful, utterly unbothered people they were, people who didn’t have time for peons like Tiffany. She pulled up Excel and began to schedule a precise timetable for the operation.
The following day, Kelly jetted home from work at the unnaturally early hour of 5:30 PM, lured by the sweet smell of consumerism. Sure enough, when she reached her apartment, the Amazon box was outside her door.
“Thank you so much for these garments, Kelly,” Ethan was saying as Kelly pulled the shirt onto him, tugging it to see how the shoulders sat. He was fully capable of dressing himself, but she somehow felt it was her responsibility.
“Perfect,” Kelly murmured, eyeing how crisply the shirt laid on his structured frame. Men’s sizes were a lot easier to figure out when you were fitting a man who had the body of a mannequin. Even the jeans were the perfect length, or rather, his legs were the perfect length. She turned him around with a gentle nudge, checking out the back view. And what a view it was.
“All right, we have to save these for tomorrow,” she said, turning him back around and unceremoniously tugging his pants off. He automatically folded them into a neat square when she handed them back to him.
“What’s taking place tomorrow?”
“Should I procure you an instrument for this beating?”
Kelly stopped, frowning at Ethan. Yes, he looked amazing, but he sounded… weird. His voice itself was great, but his speech patterns and vocabulary were too formal. He understood colloquial phrases only in an academic way. If she was going to parade him around and introduce him to people, she had to get this right. She had to make him sound like every other twenty-first-century American.
“We’ve got to dumb you down,” she proclaimed.
It should be easy enough, she reasoned to herself as she brought Ethan back into the living room. After all, he had the whole internet in his brain. And what greater vessel of profound dumbness is there than the internet? “Sit here,” she instructed, directing him to the couch. “And don’t move. I need you to spend all night going online and brushing up on how normal people talk. Common slang and expressions, all of that. I want you to talk like people on the internet do.”
“To talk like people on the internet?” Ethan repeated dubiously.
“Yes. Just look at websites that Americans use every day – Instagram, Twitter, CNN, whatever. Read articles, comments, all of it.”
“Right away, Kelly.” Ethan nodded crisply, then his eyes glazed over as he began pulling up sites in his brain. He really was remarkable, Kelly thought. He was literally the perfect boyfriend.
She smiled at him before heading to the kitchen. Tiffany was going to eat her frigid little heart out.
“Tiffany Galecki? Is that you?” Kelly called in an unnaturally loud voice that also seemed to have suddenly acquired an unplaceable and improbable accent. Where the heck did that come from? She had circled the makeup counters in Bloomingdale’s for fifteen minutes, trying to think of an opening line, and this was the best she could muster?
“Yeah, it’s me. Hi!” Tiffany may have avoided saying that she had no clue who this woman speaking to her was, but her expression said it pretty clearly. That was fine, though. It was no less than Kelly would expect. And, just as she had expected, her personal Regina George looked almost exactly like she had in high school. Her chestnut hair was still long and bouncy, her nose a perfect little upturned mound. But she wore too much makeup on her smooth face, and she seemed somehow shrunken in stature from their teenage years. Kelly briefly hoped she had stumbled upon an Incredible Shrinking Woman situation before realizing it was probably something more mundane – a shift in her own perception, whether from height or from something else. Her arrival interrupted Tiffany from restacking a pyramid of lip glosses with a dull expression.
“Tiffany, it’s Kel!” Kelly gushed. Why on earth was she calling herself “Kel?” There was a first time for everything. “Kelly Suttle, from high school!”
“Kelly! It’s so good to see you. How are you?” Yep. Tiffany definitely still had no idea who she was. Kelly didn’t stop to think of the fact that her triumphant “look how far I’ve come since high school” narrative wouldn’t be quite so impressive if the before picture was completely out of focus.
“I’ve been marvelous, how are you?” Kelly never used the word “marvelous,” but when in Bloomingdale’s…
“Oh, you know, I’m moving along. You’re just out doing some shopping with your – brother?”
Tiffany’s eyes had flickered to the masculine shape standing a little behind Kelly. Ah yes. Here was the moment. Kelly smoothly wound her arm down Ethan’s and slid her hand into his, bringing him forward. “This is my boyfriend, Ethan.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Ethan said.
Just as Tiffany couldn’t disguise not remembering Kelly, she definitely couldn’t disguise being impressed by Ethan. She took him in, from his dark hair to his neat, perfectly shined shoes. “So nice to meet you,” she said, holding out a hand and shaking his for just an instant too long. The tilt of her head, the curl of her lips – the queen bee was back out and ready to sting. Kelly felt as if she’d stepped back into eleventh grade. “What do you do around here?” she asked.
“I teach,” Ethan said. “Astronomy.”
“Oh wow,” Tiffany breathed. Kelly had never before taken her as someone who would be so magnificently impressed by astronomy. “Kel, where did you find this guy?” she giggled, grabbing Kelly’s arm familiarly across the glass counter. So now they were best friends. It was just as Kelly had thought – Ethan would impress Tiffany, would suddenly make Kelly a person of consequence by the transitive property. But somehow, the achievement felt anticlimactic.
“She found me in a lab,” Ethan said. Kelly tensed – he knew not to share his origin story. “You’ll never guess what happens next.”
“What?” Tiffany asked coyly. “You fall in love and live happily ever after?”
“You have to see Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio’s Malibu nip slip to believe it.”
“Wha-at?” Tiffany laughed politely. Kelly blanched. Did he really just say that, or were the fumes from the fragrance department addling her brain?
“Seventeen struggles all curly-haired girls know. Me af.”
“Wow, you’re, uh, funny.” But Tiffany sounded more confused than amused. And “confused” was a mild term for what Kelly was feeling.
“Well, we’ve got some shopping to do –” Kelly began.
“These Asian babes are sick of being alone,” Ethan continued, entirely straight-faced. And then Kelly got it.
Dear heaven. He was talking like people on the internet.
By now, Tiffany’s face had melded from amusement to bewilderment to soft pity. She clearly thought that Ethan was one hundred and ten percent insane. “You two make just the cutest couple,” she said, laying it on just a bit thick, in Kelly’s opinion. I mean, so what if Ethan was insane? He was still insanely hot. “You’ll have to come back here sometime. I want to hear all about your little science projects, Ethan.”
“You should hear about Kelly’s science projects,” Ethan said, lighting up. “She’s a genius.”
“I’m sure she is,” Tiffany continued in the same, talking-to-a-two-year-old voice.
“She works at Automated Human Industries.”
“You do? The robot company?” Tiffany turned to Kelly with a new inflection.
“Yeah,” Kelly said, starting to pull Ethan away.
“That’s so cool!” Kelly paused – Tiffany no longer sounded like she was trying to be charitable to a special ed kid. Her admiration sounded genuine. “Oh my gosh, wait – you were my lab partner! The one who was so good at science!”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“I had the hardest time with that stuff,” Tiffany sighed. “Well, I guess it’s gotten you pretty far. Congratulations.”
Kelly felt a flush creeping into her face at the sincere praise. Suddenly she wasn’t sure she wanted to be here at all. “Thanks. I mean, you look like you’re doing well too.”
“Sure, you know. Hit me up if you ever want some makeup. I’ll give you the family and friends discount.”
So they were friends now. It was just that easy. “Talk to you later,” Kelly said, moving away with Ethan.
“Bye bye, Ethan!” Tiffany fluttered her fingers at him.
“Is this the most satisfying pimple popping video yet?”
Kelly could not walk him fast enough out of that store.
On the way home, Kelly railed at Ethan for a solid twenty minutes. “Am I going to have to put parental controls on your brain?” she asked sternly. “Is that what I need to do? I’m such an idiot. This whole thing was such a massive failure.”
“I’m so sorry, Kelly,” Ethan said. “I guess I just didn’t understand our objective. I thought that you succeeded quite brilliantly.”
“At what, telling the whole mall about Alessandra What’s-Her-Face’s nipples?”
“I thought the goal was to make Tiffany jealous. To prove to her how far you’ve come.”
“Well, yeah.” Kelly honked when the car in front of her hesitated for a fraction of a second at the light. This was L.A.; her road rage was the same as everyone else’s everyday driving.
“But you did that,” Ethan persisted. “She’s working at a makeup counter, and you’re a robotics engineer. I believe she was duly impressed.”
“She was duly freaked out,” Kelly grumbled, swerving right after barely pausing at a stop sign. She was not in the mood to admit that Ethan was right. But now that she thought about it… maybe he was.