10036 words (40 minute read)

Frida Deleon

For Carlos

“Knowledge becomes evil if the aim be not virtuous.”

-Plato

Part 1

FRIDA DELEON

Frida awoke in a panic, startled by her five a.m. alarm. Her skin was flush, the sweat settled on her warm flesh like dew. The humid morning was already wreaking havoc on her small apartments ancient climate control system. The sun blistered through the beat-up shades of her windows-another June scorcher. The city sat in the grip of terrible heat wave-unusual for San Francisco. She sat up, stretching her arms up over her head. I’d better get going before the day gets too hot, she thought as she swept the covers from her legs and stood up. Frida stretched her legs out, feeling the sleep tingle and disperse from her muscles as she hyped herself up for her morning jog. Frida dressed in lightweight jogging clothes, put her messy brown hair in a ponytail, and brushed her teeth vigorously. She took care of her mouth, after an infection took a tooth out last year. Luckily for her, it was a molar that wasn’t visible while she was speaking. She couldn’t afford to have the tooth replaced.

Before stepping out the door, Frida strapped her step and fitness tracker on her wrist. She tapped the wristwatch-like device awake. It glitched for a moment- staticky silver spread across the tiny interface, but came to life. The correct time, date, and resting heart rate. She frowned; it had become real glitchy lately. She might have to get a new one soon. Her iFitness was pretty old, one of the newest models four years ago. Now, there were infinitely more advanced ones that her coworkers had. She had only had her job at Onyx Inc. for 10 months, not enough time to save up much, or get the raise that she had been waiting for. Once that 12 month mark hits though, she’ll be set. Health insurance, a raise…she would be able to finish paying off her mother’s bills, student loans, and get herself the newest fitness tracker. Maybe even a better one than her coworkers had now. After all, hers would be newer. Frida grabbed a small towel and her bottle of water before stepping out for her daily run.

Her daily work routine was uneventful in itself. Frida worked as a client advocate at Onyx Inc. A software company that designs, develops and sells it’s own line of electronics, software, and online services. The client advocates (which was just  fancier term for customer service) fielded calls from all over the nation and solved problems that weren’t related to tech. Frida was good at her job, her calm demeanor, easy laugh, and willingness to listen uninterrupted as people called with any number of problems made her a big hit among the clients. Because of the sensitive nature of their dealings, their department was away from others, behind a glass partition that separated them from the rest of the office. She preferred it that way, as the constant moving and loud noises from the others distracted her. Frida typed mundane reports on a computer; spoke on the phone with a few clients.

Most of her coworkers were spread out in the brightly lit, open concept office at stand-up desks, drawing on whiteboards with a couple other coworkers; a Software Department meeting was being held in the glass atrium meeting space of the floor she was on. She could see them gathered around on the Persian style rugs, carpets, sitting cross-legged on the floor or on cushions. Some were taking notes while the department director leaned his tall frame on a stool, speaking and gesturing. Frida watched him for a moment, taking in his sandy blonde hair and soft brown eyes. He was tall, 6 feet at least, Frida guessed. She unconsciously sat up straighter, trying to lengthen her 5’4 in frame.

His chiseled face moved in her direction as he spoke and she quickly swiveled her chair back around. At 12:35, she got up, stretched, and strolled to the cafeteria style lunch room. She met her fellow client advocate desk mate and best friend, Michelle Anderson, there. Michelle had a chicken salad and a bottle of Iced Tear waiting for Frida. Michelle was scarfing down lasagna and on her second Coke. Frida thanked her and sat down.

“Freed, why didn’t you call that guy from your gym back? He was so fucking beautiful.” Michelle asked between mouthfuls of lasagna.

“Yeah, but he was as dumb as a brick.”

“Easier to rob, duh.”

Frida laughed, nearly choking on her chicken salad.

“You’re so dumb, I can’t believe you said that,” Frida managed after finally being able to control her laughter. Michelle smiled and shrugged her shoulders in her usual devil-may-care attitude that Frida loved about her.

Frida chuckled as Michelle talked trash about some of their fellow coworkers- “If this bitch is gonna wear sandals again he could at least get his toes done. His nails are so fucking atrocious!” and “Can you believe how ugly Angela’s boyfriend is? Like, she isn’t the best-looking girl but she could get a better-looking man, at least,”. Michelle said with an eye-roll to end all eye rolls. Michelle leaned in, showing Frida pictures of her latest conquest: A dark haired, handsome guy who worked at Google.

“Super cute.” Frida said approvingly. “I swear Freed, he’s got the biggest dick in the country. Well at Google, maybe.”

“How would you know that?”

“I’ve torn through all the Google dudes already.”

Frida spotted the software department filing into the cafeteria; like most departments, they all stuck together. Except for Frida and Michelle. They didn’t socialize with anyone else in their department. Frida out of shyness; Michelle out of distaste.

The Software Director, Jeff Turner, was one of the last to enter, going over a report with a pretty blonde from his department. Frida could feel her eyes following him again, taking in his chiseled face, the way his broad shoulders moved beneath the white button up as he gestured to the paperwork in his hands. Michelle watched Frida for a moment before commenting.

“Bitch, hurry up and talk to him so you can tell me what his dick looks like.”

Frida coughed so loudly the people around them turned to stare.

Frida waved them away.

“Oh my god, you’re impossible to be around.”

“And yet you’re still here.” Michelle retorted with a laugh.

“I can’t talk to him. Isn’t that girl his girlfriend?”

“She’s white; if they’re white it’s like he’s single.”

“Michelle, you’re white.”

“Yeah, but like, cool white.”

“I can’t just talk to him. He’s off limits. Isn’t he like on the board and stuff?”

Michelle rolled her eyes. “He’s the CEO, technically. But he doesn’t like using titles, or so Kevin told me. He spends most of his time in the software lab with the other guys, anyway. He’s like an Einstein or some shit. He’s the reason our company is doing as well as it is. He invented the software in the phone- well, the whole thing really. Onyx, all of this, was his idea.” She said, motioning an arm around the entire building.

“He came from a super-rich family. His dad started a tech company in the 70s that was like, crazy successful until he blew his head off in ’98 or ‘99. His mom is some gorgeous socialite from New York, but I think she’s like sick or something. I don’t remember. Anyway, I heard he doesn’t really want much to do with the board unless things aren’t going his way. Or he’s got something he wants to unveil. Typical tech genius bullshit.” Michelle shrugged, before taking another huge bite of lasagna and rolling her eyes into the back of her head in pleasure.

“Mm, Freed.” She said through her bite. “You have to try this.”

“I don’t know.” Frida responded. She hadn’t even realized that Michelle was offering her food. Frida was looking down at her food, feeling deflated. A man like that usually didn’t even hold the door open for her if they were walking out at the same time. Frida was used to being invisible to insanely gorgeous men, especially if they were white. Or worse, they would call her “spicy” and fetishize her looks or accent. Frida shrugged to herself. She didn’t even have an accent. Not that she had ever detected, anyway. Michelle rolled her eyes, again. Her favorite pastime, it seemed.

Why don’t you try and date him, Michelle?” Frida tried moving the subject from her to Michelle. Talking about herself made Frida feel like the biggest loser that ever lived.

“I don’t shit where I eat.”

“You fucked like three guys from here, slut.” Frida said with a laugh.

“It doesn’t count when they’re hot, duh. Anyway, Jeff has never so once as sneezed in my direction. But I’ve seen him looking at you.”

“You’re such a lying whore.”

“Look up, bitch. He’s looking right now.” Michelle whispered frantically. Frida glanced up to see that Michelle was telling the truth. Jeff was looking straight at her, his honey colored eyes locking onto hers. A flicker of lust shivered down her ribs. Frida’s cheeks burned bright red before she looked back down at her unappetizing salad.

“See, bitch? I told you. He totally wants you.”

“Shut up.” Frida replied with a nervous laugh.

Frida and Michelle continued their work day, dropping the subject of super hot Jeff- which eased Frida’s mind considerably. Frida typed absently on her computer, daydreamed a bit, her mind wandering from random thoughts until it settled on Jeff. His sandy hair, honey colored eyes, strong hands, ooo I bet he smells good-

“Hey, Frida! Hello? Did you hear me?” Michelle’s voice cut into her improper thoughts.

“What? Sorry, no. My mind was wandering.” Frida mumbled apologetically. Michelle rolled her eyes.

“Martha from Accounting just text me. She said she and a bunch of nerds from Software are going to get dinner and drinks after work. Are you in?”

“I don’t know…”, Frida began. She was afraid to spend money. The city was expensive and she couldn’t justify spending so much money on food and alcohol that she didn’t need.

“Bitch!” Michelle started loudly before remembering she was in the office. “C’mon! You never go out with us!” She whispered loudly. Frida had gone out with them once before, to an Indian cuisine restaurant complete with belly dancers and fire breathers, followed by pricey cocktails in an exclusive rooftop bar that featured gorgeous views of the bay. She had had a good time, but was conscious of every dollar that was depleted from her bank account.

“I know, but you know. Everyone likes to show off and I’m just not at level that yet.”

“Jeff is gonna be there.” Michelle wiggled her eyebrows at Frida. Frida sighed, feeling depressed.

“I just can’t.”

“Ugh! Look, since you’re my best friend and I want you to get that white boys dick I’m gonna pay for your dinner.”

Frida gasped.

“Michelle, no! Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Okay so I’m texting Martha back right that we are both DEFINITELY going and I’m picking YOU up at-“

“Michelle, please! This is too much!” Frida protested, trying to snatch Michelle’s phone from her hand. Michelle lifted her arms up and continued texting.

“-at 8 pm so your ass better be ready by 7:55.” Michelle continued, ignoring Frida. “Done and done! So now we’re going out tonight! Anyway, the concert is free because Carlos is getting us on the list-“

“Concert?!”

“Are you gonna wear that cute ass dress you scored from Bloomingdale’s the other day; that blue one with the shoulders cut out? It’ll look so good against your warm skin tone. I can’t wait for you to get Jeff’s number so he can send you dick pics that we can laugh at later. Ugh, I’m so excited.” Michelle batted her eyelashes at Frida.

“Michelle, I don’t know how to thank you.” Frida said, feeling emotional.

“Thank me on your wedding day.”

Frida shook her head as both girls both laughed, putting their heads down and continuing with their work.

Frida rode her bike home, weaving through traffic and people alike. She loved her rides though this fascinating city; the scene before changed from street to street. Traffic choked slowly through the hilly streets, as people on the packed sidewalks carried their dogs like babies and walked their toddlers on leashes. There were encampments of homeless men and women, living in tents in the shadows of some of the biggest, most-wealthiest companies; corporations that had sprung up from the ground overnight, like poisonous mushrooms. Pretty soon those encampments would get moved by the police to appease the rich, but they would be back again. They had nowhere else to go.

The sun was still high above the city, casting irregular shadows through the skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco. Unlike her coworkers, Frida couldn’t afford to live and commute far from work; they all lived on the outskirts of the city in large, beautiful homes, with yards, fences, pools, their own washer and dryer. Or in exclusive high-rise apartments that catered to the tech bros who had come in from all over the world and turned San Francisco from a wonderfully weird, eccentric city to a high-priced haven for the obscenely wealthy. A class of which, Frida had never belonged. Frida lived in a tiny cubby hole of an apartment in a building that probably should be condemned. She was thankful at least, that she didn’t have to have roommates. Frida had always been a very solitary person, preferring her privacy and quietness to the constant bustle of living around someone.

She skidded to a halt in front of the old two-story building in Outer Sunset which housed her apartment. Frida’s place at the Sea Side Apartments actually had a view of the sea, (the first apartment building she had seen when looking for a place to rent had windows that faced a brick wall and someone’s air conditioning unit), after the Great Highway and tall sand dunes that were constantly being built up and knocked back down by the strong winds that whipped around Ocean Beach. She punched in the code, hauling the bike after her. She leaned it against the gate before entering the building. Frida used to take the bike all the way up and into her apartment, before she realized she was the only person doing that. Frida had never been properly introduced to her neighbors, just a quick hello or goodbye if they happened to catch each other in the halls. It made her think that maybe they all preferred their privacy; everyone living alone, together. It was a nice thought, anyway.

Frida laid her new dress on her bed, ripping the clearance tag off and tossing it into the wastebasket. After setting three different pairs of heels next to it, she decided to go with a completely different fourth pair. She showered, taking care to shave her legs and arms. She had gotten her bikini area waxed a week ago, so she needn’t worry about that for a while. Frida put her smooth brown hair in a ponytail, and applied her make up carefully while watching a video of a girl doing her eyebrows on her old iPhone. She carefully traced them the way the girl in the video did, then filled them with powder and gel. I guess that’s good enough, Frida thought with a frown. She had never really been good at doing her make up, but wanted to look like a goddess tonight. Her mother rarely wore much besides Chapstick, and she didn’t have sisters or any friends growing up that could have taught her the mysteries of applying makeup. She dimly remembered the girls at her middle and high school, proud of their cotton training bras; bright blue eyeshadow across adolescent lids, clear cherry scented lip gloss on lips that cast sneers at Frida’s round face as she watched from afar. Those girls had always looked upon Frida in disgust, either ignoring her completely as if the bulk of Frida’s body wasn’t really there, or they would call her awful names, laughing at Frida as she wept. She hated remembering those awful years, but sometimes, the memories found back doors into her thoughts. No time for crying, Frida. She took a deep breath and let it out.

Her wristwatch began ringing- breaking her from her depressing trip down memory lane. Michelle’s picture popped up on the screen, a glint of silver running through it. Her watch was synced to her cell, so any calls that came in would also ring on her wrist. Frida pressed the answer button twice before it finally registered.

“Hey just calling to let you know I’m almost there! Sorry I’m a little late, I forgot to charge my car while I was at home.” She gave an embarrassed laugh. Frida thought she sounded slightly drunk. She wanted to sigh, but knew there wasn’t much she could do about it. Michelle would always be Michelle.

“Oh, its fine. I was just trying to do my stupid eyebrows.”

“Girl, I told you, you should go get them micro bladed. It saves so much time.” Michelle had hers done and now swears by it.

“I know, I just don’t have the money for it right now.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Two more months and you’ll be buying fur coats for everyone in the office. Okay well I’m like around the corner so make sure your brows are even and don’t forget your coat! You know the weather around here changes in a nanosecond.”

“Okay I’ll be right down.” Frida glanced at her face in the mirror before stepping down. Eyebrows, good. Eyeshadow, good. Hair, nice. Lips- oops! Frida applied some lipstick and then rushed downstairs to meet Michelle. Frida realized too late that she had forgotten her coat. Oh well.

The girls chatted nonstop about the happenings at the office, their clueless clients, and all the dates Michelle had been on recently. A boring guy from Uber (“But not a driver, ewl”), a well hung loser from Facebook, a cop who got her cocaine from the evidence locker (“You have no idea how easy it is for them to just go in there and get what they want. It’s like a drug bank, Freed.”), and a hippie looking guy she had met at a coffee shop who turned out to be a loaded dating app inventor who loved to be pegged (“Typical executive who loves to be dominated in bed.” She said with an eyeroll.) The clatter and crash of glass rolling around alerted Frida to the fact that there were empty liquor bottles in the backseat.

“Sorry, I meant to recycle those.” Michelle tossed her coat over them so they would stop clanking in the backseat. Frida hated that Michelle drank so much, but said nothing. She had tried before, to no avail. Michelle would just laugh it off, easily brushing her friends worries off of her the way beads of water rolled off of a birds feathers.

The restaurant they were going to tonight, “some tapas place run by two white guys who don’t even speak Spanish,” Michelle sneered, sticking her finger in her mouth, in an imitation of gagging herself. “Also, some super-secret show that Carlos put everyone on the list for. Apparently, he met this band while he was on an ayahuasca cleanse in a dirty ass hut in the Amazon and now he swears like they’re all best friends. I mean, he did get us all on the guest list so I guess that’s kinda cool.” Michelle grudgingly admitted. Frida chuckled. Frida didn’t know how to respond to some of Michelle’s thoughts, but it didn’t really matter. Michelle didn’t seem to need much more than a captivated audience- a role Frida enjoyed immensely.

They arrived at the restaurant dubbed TORO (“because of course,” Frida thought, rolling her eyes). Michelle handed her keys to the valet. She looked him up and down with a seductive grin before stepping around him, leaving a scent of Chanel in her wake.

“Michelle, you’re such a slut.” Frida whispered affectionately.

“Don’t act like you didn’t get turned on, too.” Michelle replied, whiplash quick. Frida laughed as she followed Michelle inside.

The restaurant walls were painted a deep scarlet with a gold paisley design that snaked up the walls at odd intervals. Above the bar congested with warm bodies thrumming with alcohol and pheromones, hung a giant painting of a bullfighter being gored by a massive black bull as a gauzy crowd looked on. The scent of sizzling meat filled the air; a waiter in all white with a red cummerbund buzzed by Frida with a tray of sautéed steak medallions that sent her hungry belly into a growling fit. The restaurant was jampacked with tech bros and beautiful women. Young, successful people in the prime of their lives. Frida took in the clothing and styles of the women. Their silky hair, gleaming white teeth, expensive clothing…She unconsciously sucked her belly in and stood up straighter, smoothing the fabric of her dress. Oh, god. What am I doing here? The women around her appeared to be in charge, gatekeepers to secrets that Frida would never be privy to. Frida thought she saw someone she recognized, a cute guy she had been on a date with once. But that guy wasn’t in tech, or very successful, either. She frowned, remembering when he had picked her up in his car and she realized that he lived out of it. He’d had to move a drawer, sans bureau, from the passenger seat and into the crowded backseat so she could get in. The date hadn’t gotten much better from there. She rolled her eyes, recalling how awful that had been. The best part about the whole thing was when she and Michelle laughed about it later.

“Sorry we’re late guys! Traffic was such a bitch!” Michelle said, pushing her way between two men. They greeted her warmly, kissing her on the cheeks. Michelle laughed, letting the attention focus onto her. Men loved Michelle, with her brassy attitude and fun, easy ways. And Michelle loved them. Well, only their bodies. She had told Frida that she had had her heart broken once and didn’t plan on letting it get broken again. And to Frida’s knowledge, it hadn’t been.

Besides Frida and Michelle, there were five people from software: Randy, Carlos, Allison (“the dumb blonde bitch from software” as Michelle had dubbed her). When Frida pointed out that Michelle also had blonde hair, Michelle flippantly waved her hand at her. “Yeah, but hers is real.” Frida didn’t ask how that absolved Michelle of dumb-bitchitis. Kevin (his real name was Advik but he applied using his “White name” as he called it, and it just stuck) and of course, Jeff. Martha, who was a good friend of Michelle’s (“you can trust her just not as much as me, of course.” Michelle had said of her) and Martha’s boyfriend Tony who worked with her in accounting. Michelle motioned her eyes at Frida to take the spot adjacent to Jeff’s left. Allison was sitting on Jeff’s right. Frida hesitated, unsure of what to do.

“There’s some space here, Frida.” Jeff suggested helpfully, sliding over a bit to his right. Frida smiled quickly and squeezed herself into the spot. She felt the heat of the bodies press against her, two men on either side of her whose thighs were touching the outside of hers. Frida pulled the hem of her dress down, though she was wearing stocking underneath. She hoped she wouldn’t embarrass herself in some way, like spill food on her lap, or hear her stomach growling like a jungle cat, or that she wouldn’t start sweating like crazy and stink up the place. Frida glanced at Kevin, who was scrolling through Twitter. Jeff was looking straight ahead- oh shit, he looked at me! Frida turned her head quickly.

The dishes they ordered were exotic to Frida’s spartan diet- tissue thin meats with soft, creamy cheeses. Sausages, olives, fingerling potatoes, flavorful sauces and dips. Shrimp in a delectable spicy sauce that tingled Frida’s tongue. Stuffed sardines, crispy bacon wrapped dates, tons of fresh baked bread, and of course, gallons of alcohol. Frida felt like Homer Simpson in the all you can eat buffet, gorging until his shirt explodes. Slow down, buddy. Frida’s diet was very frugal in comparison, consisting of mostly rice, beans, freeze dried soups, salads, and whatever their work was offering for lunch that day. She wasn’t a vegetarian at all, just afraid of putting on weight she wouldn’t be able to work off.

Frida had been obese from as far back as she could remember. Her weight gain had gotten so out of control by the time she was 12 that doctors had intervened and ordered Frida’s mother to keep any and all foods containing sugar and fat from Frida or she would die. Frida’s mother Gloria cried herself to sleep that night, worried about Frida’s precarious health. But it was nearly impossible to work full time with odd hours and still try to provide healthy, nutritious meals for herself and her daughter. She would have to make things that would keep all day or leave money for Frida to order pizza (which she did, religiously). But Gloria also felt guilty about being at work for so many hours, leaving Frida with her grandmother, or alone. Gloria would bring home snacks and candy to compensate for her absence. It was one of the only ways she could treat Frida to something that felt special, something that Gloria missed out on herself. It was Frida herself that finally put a stop to it-and it had been very hard. The wake-up call for her was when she could no longer move her body to get the remote control-which was sitting right next to her on the night stand. She remembered reaching, whirling her fingers as if that would somehow magically bring the remote closer to her. She had already stopped going to school, which had honestly been a relief, as her classmates bullied her relentlessly. I’m going to die if I don’t stop, she had realized suddenly.

Frida dumped everything from her diet besides soup and water. She consumed gallons of soup, her insatiable appetite barely kept in check with the thin noodles and weak broth, little bits of green and orange vegetables that were as soft and unappetizing as Play-Doh. Anyone who’s never been on such a diet can’t know how difficult it is- the constant temptation, the struggle against yourself, the deep abyss of guilt when you lose the battle. It was the most difficult thing Frida ever had to do and continue to do. Frida fought with her demons every single day.

With the help of her mother and grandmother, Frida began getting up, her thick, weak legs trembling under the strain, and walking around the house. It took two years, but Frida shed 180 lbs. What no one told her, however, was that with the massive weight loss came loose skin. With Frida now in her teenage years, the extra, flabby skin was a literal dead weight and reminder of the life she was trying to leave. Frida had gone back to school, working hard to catch up to her peers- and ignore the bullies. Gloria was the first to suggest the skin removal surgery.

“You could probably donate it to burn victims. Maybe it will help lower the cost of our bill.” Gloria said, sitting at the tiny, round kitchen table in their rented home in Los Angeles. She was getting ready to leave for work, her gas station polo shirt tucked neatly into her Dickies pants. Frida wanted to tell her it didn’t work that way, you didn’t get to trade for services, but she didn’t think her mother would understand.

It was 5 A.M., and the gray morning hung listlessly about the kitchen like a sick dog. Frida still used most of her old clothing then, as they were baggy and hid the loose skin that hung from her arms and legs. Her body had always felt uncomfortable to her; but it was even more so when she was on the verge of tears. Her breathing was hard and ragged from emotional strain. Gloria’s mother Doña Uva was at the stove, quietly preparing a pot of beans for later that night.

“No, please Mama. You’ve already done enough. How are we going to pay for that?”

“Cayate! You don’t worry about how we are going to pay for anything! You should be worrying about which ugly boy likes you-not how much skin is hanging on your body!” Her accent and anger made the English words sound garbled. Frida lowered her head and nodded, not wanting to anger her mother anymore.

“So, I will call your doctor from work mas al rato and see what we can do. Okay, now I have to catch the bus before I am late. I love you. Be good, listen to your abuela, eh?” Gloria said, getting up and kissing the top of Frida’s head.

“I love you too, Mami.” Frida mumbled. She hung her head, staring at the flower-patterned table cloth under the clear plastic sheet that protected it from years of abuse. She heard the screen door open and slam shut on its own accord, followed by the heavy front door as her mother left for work.

“Mejor ir a tu cuarto si vas a andar aquí como perro golpeado.” Doña Uva muttered, her small, hunched back to Frida. Doña Uva would not let an English word slip across her tongue if she couldn’t help it. It was the language of thieves, she had remarked on more than one occasion. She hadn’t turned at all, had just sensed Frida’s sadness. But Doña Uva was a hard woman, growing up in extreme poverty and political unrest that had buried any kindness beneath years of racism and low-paying jobs; two children lost in childbirth in Mexico. Another child left behind in Mexico who she hadn’t seen in years; one baby girl, Frida’s mother, born healthy in the United States. Her husband, Frida’s grandfather, lost overboard in the freezing waters of Alaska, never to be seen again. She had never had another soul to comfort her, and didn’t know how to be sympathetic. Frida sighed heavily before standing up. She had been about to return to her room and wallow in a deep depression, when she made the split decision to go outside instead. She hadn’t been out in the front yard unless it was on the way to school or to her doctor, for years.

“Abuela, voy a ir afuera a caminar.” Frida announced. Doña Uva gasped and dropped her wooden spoon where it clattered to the ground, sending warm brown liquid spreading across the surface of the cracked linoleum. She looked at Frida in shock. Frida nearly laughed, but laughing at Doña Uva was a surefire way to get smacked with said wooden spoon. Still, it was hard to ruffle the old lady’s feathers, and Frida felt proud for having done so.

And so began Frida’s love for walking, then running. At first, she would only walk to the end of her block and back, but after her surgery, and with more weight loss, she began jogging and running for miles. It helped keep her depression in check, which always seemed to be just below her skin. Frida would strap her Walkman on and listen to the same Nirvana tape she had owned for years. The screeching vocals and rhythmic guitars accompanied her as she ran on hard pavement through her vibrant neighborhood. She ran past overcrowded apartment complexes as barking dogs chased each other behind chain link fences. A mother would sit outside every day at 3:30 in the afternoon in a broken, white plastic chair. She would wave to Frida as she smoked in the shade of a large lemon tree, her two naked toddlers playing in a kiddie pool. Frida’s dirty white running shoes pounded the concrete and pushing herself up to the next step…if she’d had wings, she would have flown.

Doña Uva died suddenly, when Frida turned 16. She had a heart attack as she was walking home from her job at a Mexican grocery store. It was in the weeks that followed her grandmothers death that Frida learned her mother had paid for Frida’s surgery with credit cards and loans. Frida was wracked with guilt, and felt personally responsible, as she knew her mother wouldn’t have had the need for such things if it wasn’t for her. Frida took odd jobs all throughout high school and in college to help her mother pay everything off.

Frida made an appointment with her high school guidance counselor to apply for grants and choose a college. She sat with her backpack on her lap, unconsciously hiding her belly. Frida pulled her sweater closer around her body, as if to shield herself from the stares and comments that would inevitably follow. Already she saw the stares, eyes flicked in her direction accompanied by sneers. Even though Frida wasn’t big anymore, her classmates still made fun of her. She picked at her nail polish so she wouldn’t have to see them. Flakes of black nail polish settled onto her clothes like dandruff.

The guidance counselor finally called her name, and she nearly ran into his crowded office. He was a short, balding man with a tie that was too long for him, the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character printed all over. Frida’s little cousin had the exact same tie. There were boxes of papers everywhere. He tossed a greasy bag of fast food into his overcrowded waste basket. Frida moved gingerly over a stack of paper, and set another stack on the floor before sitting down. Mr. Collins looked at Frida’s report cards and attendance records before informing her that her best bet would be to get a job, any job, as soon as she got out of high school, like most of her other classmates, and work her way up from there. She stared in shock before leaving the office in tears, tripping over a stack of papers near the door. The papers went flying, and he called out angrily at her, but Frida didn’t turn around. She ran straight out of the office into the school library to be alone. Frida spent the rest of the day imagining her life as one long awful drag of low paying jobs and hardship until she died. Frida felt the tears begin to flow, big fat salty drops that pooled on the fake wood of the desk she was sitting at. The school librarian, Mrs. Farmer, appeared out of nowhere, startling Frida. She sat opposite Frida and held her hand.

“Honey, what’s the matter?” She asked in her kindly voice. Frida recounted to her what had just happened with the guidance counselor. Mrs. Farmer’s face changed from concern to anger.

“Don’t let this asshole ruin your life.” She whispered to Frida. “Fuck him and his ugly tie.”

With Mrs. Farmer’s help, Frida applied at every nearby college and grant they could think of. Frida was careful about the amount of school loans she took on once she was accepted. Still, she left college with a $30,000 loan on her back. She knew it was less than most, but the thought of paying it off still seemed daunting to her. Frida found a great job at a start-up in LA; she was there for several years, designing ads for small clothing companies before it suddenly went under, leaving her jobless for a year. Frida was forced to live off her credit cards and meagre savings, desperately searching for a job, any job, that would pay her close to what she was earning before. She took the job in San Francisco, because of the promise of a lucrative raise after the first year. She made very good money now, but for SF, it was just above survival. She sent as much money to her mother as she could, after all her bills and the allotment she kept back for groceries and the like; which is why she declined nearly every outing that popped up. She simply couldn’t afford it.

A thread of silver suddenly appeared across the face of Frida’s iFitness, breaking her from her reverie.

“Shit,” she muttered under her breath. She tapped the screen. She could still see the numbers, but the silver thread remained.

“Something wrong?” Jeff asked her, his low voice near her ear. She felt herself freeze.

“Uh, no, it’s just my dumb iFitness. It’s falling apart.”

“Here, let me see.” He asked, extending his right hand towards her. She recoiled a bit, then realized what she was doing. It was hard for Frida to let men be near her. She was afraid that they would notice the scars from her surgery and recoil. Frida unhooked the iFitness from her wrist and handed it to Jeff. He turned it over and over, examining it closely.

“It’s old.” Frida said nervously. She could see Allison lean in and look at it as well. She cursed herself internally.

“Yeah, it’s old.” Allison observed rudely. Frida felt her face glow bright red. Frida reached for the iFitness and took it from Jeff’s hands.

“It’s not a big deal.” Frida said, stuffing it in her purse. She turned her attention away from them, feeling her hot face flush with embarrassment. She busied herself with her purse, the sting of tears biting the corners of her eyes. Unbeknownst to her, Jeff had given Allison a cold stare that made her shrivel. When Frida felt the tears disappear, she turned her attention to Kevin, who was sitting on her left. They chatted amiably for a bit, Kevin’s quiet brown eyes lighting up at being able to recount the day to day happenings in software with someone else. Frida smiled as he spoke, feeling a tad bored as she had no idea what he was talking about, but happy for the attention to be on someone else.

The bill was split equally between them, with Michelle quietly paying Frida’s portion of the bill. Frida mouthed the word ‘thank you’ to her to which Michelle stuck her tongue out at her in return.

Carlos kept them in suspense as to the band until the very end of dinner, not wanting to have other’s around them overhear.

“The band is- Pogo!” He whispered excitedly. A few of the eyes around them widened in shock. Neither Frida or Michelle had ever heard of them, however. They both looked at each other and shrugged as the others talked excitedly around them.

“Who are they?” She whispered to Kevin.

“An indie rock band from New York. They’ve got this great punk rock sound with biting satirical lyrics. They took the name from the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. That’s the name of the clown character he performed under for children’s parties- and when he killed some of his victims.” He said the last part in a fake Transylvanian accent that made Frida laugh.

“Not that murder is funny in anyway.” He added seriously. Frida laughed again.

“You laugh at everything.” He said with a laugh.

“It’s my defense mechanism; sorry.” She replied as nervous giggles escaped her mouth.

Once back in the car, Frida recounted everything that she had done on her side of the table.

“Fucking blonde elitist bitch.” Michelle grumbled. “I told you she was a dumb blonde bitch.”

Frida nodded.

“Yeah, so she totally killed the rapport I was establishing with Jeff. Now he knows I’m a poor bitch with old tech around my arms.”

“No, that’s not what that means. It means you have your priorities in order, unlike the rest of us. If he doesn’t see that then the size of his dick doesn’t matter; he’d still be a little bitch and deserves to have a stuck up Capitalist knave like Allison suck his meagre dick for the rest of his boring life.”

“Jesus, Michelle.”

“Sorry, I just hate her.” Michelle said with a laugh. She accidentally swerved into the left lane and quickly corrected herself.

“Whoopsie. Also, I think I had one too many.” She smiled sweetly at Frida.

“Do you want me to take over? Maybe we can put it on self-drive for a bit?” Frida asked nervously. She eyed the lights of the oncoming traffic with dread.

“Nah, we’re already here.” She said, pulling into a multi-level parking garage that Carlos had indicated they should all park at. She paid the machine and the automatic arm rose up, the recorded female voice thanking them for choosing to park in the structure. Michelle’s silent electric car drove through. The hot air trapped underground made the odor of gasoline in the cramped garage sting Frida’s nose. They rushed to the main stairwell, not wanting to be underground with the horrid reek of hot gasoline and motor oil any longer than they had to. They found the group there, waiting for them.

“Okay, you guys ready for the next step?” Carlos asked excitedly. They all nodded. Michelle rolled her eyes in response. Frida knew how Michelle felt about Carlos’s sense of drama.

They followed Carlos up the stairs, all a little unsure of what was happening next. Set in the wall of the parking garage, was a set of heavy duty steel doors guarded by two, very large security guards. One of them had a clipboard. Both of them had guns at their waist. Carlos walked up to them pleasantly and indicated they were all on the list. Everyone produced their ID’s, and after verification, the man with the clipboard opened the door.

They were instantly blasted with cold air and pulsing rock music.

“Wow!” Frida exclaimed. She would have never guessed there was this cavernous room hidden in a dirty parking garage. They filed in, loving the blast of cold air. Frida could see camera men recording the band on stage.

“I didn’t want to say it before, but now that we’re here, I can. We are going to be in their new music video!” Carlos shouted over the din. Michelle nodded, finally seeming impressed. A bald man with a headset and clipboard approached them.

“Hey guys! I’m Michael Krauss. I’m directing this little vid we’re shooting right now. So, we’ve got alcohol over there in the corner out of camera shot, and of course water and all that good stuff. The bartenders will serve you whatever you want, don’t even worry. We just want you guys to go out into the crowd and just have a rocking good time, okay?” He smiled, his bright eyes and pleasant tone seemed at odds with the music on stage. They all nodded. Frida and Michelle looked at each other and made a beeline for the free drinks.

“I can’t wait to be a star,” Michelle sighed when they had reached the bar area. Frida laughed.

“Me either.” They ordered two drinks, tossed those back and ordered two more. They sipped these more casually.

“This is my last drink, promise.” Michelle said, chewing on the maraschino cherry that was in her drink.

“Okay,” Frida replied happily. She knew that was a lie, but didn’t let it bother her. Jeff and Allison appeared, joining them at the makeshift bar. Michelle rolled her eyes, not caring if either of them saw her.

“The air is feeling incredibly hot and elitist all of a sudden. C’mon Frida, let’s go.” She grabbed Frida’s arm and pulled her towards the surging crowd.

Frida and Michelle lost themselves to the music. They danced, waving their arms above their heads, feeling their bodies bump and grind with others in the crowd. Frida closed her eyes, letting the music flow over her, the cool air pour down from above them. She opened her eyes to see Michelle’s arms wrapped tightly around a strange man, kissing him deeply. Frida laughed and moved away from them, trying to give them a little space. Men smiled at her; Frida smiled back. She felt the heat of other bodies press against her. She pressed back. She felt a freedom that she rarely experienced in her daily life. A safe anonymity in the darkness and music that she never knew existed. Frida had never been to a club before, or she would have recognized the weightlessness that fills you when you lose yourself to pulse and to darkness.

Frida spotted the rest of her coworkers dancing in front of the stage, Allison among them- but no Jeff. She turned the other way, not wanting to be near them. Frida bumped into someone’s chest, a tall man who smelled like pine and something else… she looked up, straight into Jeff’s startled face. Frida’s drink spilled on the ground.

“Oops! Sorry!” He yelled over the music. “Let me get you another one!” He took the empty plastic cup from her hand. Frida smiled thinly, pointed to her ear and shook her head no, indicating that she couldn’t hear him, though she could hear just fine. She could see that he wanted to say something else, but Frida didn’t give him the chance. The loud music wasn’t exactly invitation to deep conversation, anyway. She smiled and danced away, leaving him standing there with her empty cup.

The song ended, the crowd cheered enthusiastically as the amps buzzed with the feedback of the electric guitars. The director appeared on stage then, indicating that the official filming was over, but the band was still going to play a few more songs as a thank you to the crowd, and they were welcome to stay.

“There will be some B-roll recorded during this time, but don’t feel any pressure! Just be your normal selves and have some fun!” He shouted, raising a fist in the air. Frida could feel his awkwardness from a mile away. She giggled to herself.

“Thanks Mike, you’ve been great to work with.” The singer interrupted, taking the mic from his hands. “And how about this fucking crowd tonight, aye!” He shouted, getting the crowd worked up again. Frida started making her way towards the exit. She waited a bit to see if any of her coworkers were going to leave. Michelle appeared in front of her, excited and happy.

“Hey bitch I was looking’ for you!” Michelle exclaimed happily. She was drunk, or high, maybe both.

“Sorry! I saw you making out with that guy and wanted to give you some space!”

“Oh, that guy? He was a loser! Hey, you think you could drive me home? I’m way too fucked up.” Michelle said with a laugh.

“Of course! C’mon.” Michelle wrapped her arms around Frida, steadying herself.

“You’re the fucking best, Frida.” Michelle yawned, then stumbled over her feet. Frida buckled an already sleeping Michelle into the front passenger seat and got in to the drivers’ side of her fully electric Tesla.

“We’re going to be Video Vixens like the kind they used to have on MTV. Remember, MTV, Freed? They played music videos for hours on end. It was the fucking best. I used to watch it all day with my friend Courtney before the bitch stole my boyfriend.” Michelle mumbled.

“They played a lot of the same videos over and over again. Probably got paid a shitload of money to do that. Which is probably illegal, now that I think about it.” Frida tried to recall some obscure law she thought she remembered, something about radio stations getting sued for playing some artists more than others because the record companies had paid the stations off.

“Freed, you know that money doesn’t care about law.” Michelle mumbled before snoring loudly.

Frida had driven Michelle’s car many times before, but it always felt strange to be in the drivers’ seat of someone else’s vehicle. She pushed the start button and made the journey back to Oakland. Traffic was light at this hour and they arrived in front of Michelle’s Spanish style home on El Monte Ave. before she knew it. Frida opened the garage and carefully drove the car in. She plugged it in to the charging port that had been recently installed in the stucco walls of the old home. Frida helped Michelle up the stairs and into her queen-sized bed. Frida removed the strappy heels off her comatose friend and set them on the floor. After she was done she grabbed her a glass of water and two Tylenol from the kitchen and set it on the nightstand. Frida used Michelle’s phone to order a car from Uber to take her home. If Frida seemed to be a pro at this, it’s because she was. Driving her drunk friend home had become their weekend routine for the past six months.

The driver was silent after offering Frida mints and water, which she declined. The radio played soft jazz that suited the sultry night. She was thankful for his silence, thankful for the emptiness of the road. The quiet of the night filled her with peace. He dropped her off in front of her apartment building. The low, three story building seemed almost charming at this late hour. Frida stared at the darkened building for a moment before making an impulsive decision that would change her life…

Frida still felt amped up from the concert. Instead of punching the code on the outdoor gate and letting herself into the building, she crossed the street and walked one block down to the local bar.

It was a beautiful, old little dive bar called The Riptide. It was quiet at this hour, being near to closing time. A woman was positioned in the corner of the bar, singing old country songs into a vintage looking microphone with her quivering voice. Frida’s favorite bartender Aaron smiled and welcomed her in. There were a few people inside, seated at the tables along the walls, keeping to themselves. A lone occupant sat at the middle of the bar, with a bottle of beer and empty shot glass. He appeared to be writing in a journal. Frida walked towards the bar and realized too late that the lone person at the middle of the counter was Jeff. She felt a spasm of panic rise up her throat.

“Everything okay, Frida?” Aaron asked. Jeff looked up at Aaron, surprised, then turned around and saw Frida standing there.

“Uh, yeah. Everything is fine. My usual, please.” She smiled and walked up to Jeff.

“Hi, Jeff! I didn’t expect to see you here.” She said nervously, taking the stool next to him at the bar. She could feel Aaron’s attention on her, making sure she was okay. He was a nice guy, occasionally giving her free drinks when she was here by herself as she read a book or sketched something at the end of the bar. Jeff smiled and closed his notebook. Frida caught a quick glimpse of his tiny print, words so small they looked almost like cuneiform, before he shoved it back in his bag.

“Tell you the truth, I haven’t been here in a few years. But I wasn’t tired after the show, and I remembered how quiet this place was this late at night. I used to live a few blocks north on Judah St. Near the café.”

“Ah, yeah. I know exactly which one you’re talking about. I grab coffee from there all the time, after my morning jog.” Aaron placed a Midori Sour in front of her. She reached for her wallet when Jeff interrupted.

“Can you put her drinks on my tab? Thank you.” Jeff said.

“No, really, it’s okay. I can pay for my own drinks. Anyway, I was just going to have one and then go home.”

“I don’t mind. This elitist can pay for a woman’s drink now and again.” He grinned, showing off his straight white teeth. Frida winced.

“So you heard that, huh?” She took a sip of her drink. Extra sour, the way she liked it.

“Oh yeah. I didn’t mind so much. I’ve been called worse.” He laughed. “Allison wasn’t amused.” He laughed again.

“Michelle hates Allison.” Frida responded.

“Michelle hates everyone.” Jeff replied. “Well, except maybe you,” He smiled at her. Frida shrugged.

“I don’t blame her. People can suck.” He continued.

“Yep.” Frida felt the conversation begin to lull. She took a big drink, wanting to finish quickly so she could go home. She could see Jeff open his mouth to speak, then shut it. He opened his mouth again.

“Hey, uh. I just want to say sorry, about what happened at dinner. With Allison. She can be rude, like Michelle, and she doesn’t always realize the things she says- “

“She knew exactly what she was doing, but don’t apologize on her behalf. And Michelle isn’t malicious the way Allison is. Michelle was protecting me from you two.” Frida could feel anger beginning to rise up. Jeff stayed silent for a moment.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. What she said was dumb, and malicious. I’m not her, I don’t know why she said it, but I know it hurt your feelings and I wanted to apologize to you for it.”

Frida nodded, her anger subsiding a bit. She looked away, towards the exit. Well, this evening turned out to be a real fucking dud. I don’t know why I go out at all. Frida thought glumly. She suddenly felt a wave of depression sweep over her. She wished Jeff would leave so she could have another drink.

“Oh boy, that didn’t go the way I wanted to. Look, I’m really bad at talking to people outside of work context and yeah.” He exhaled. “I’m gonna get another drink. Do you want another drink?”

“Yes.”

Jeff ordered two more drinks. He gulped his shot down followed by a swallow of beer. Frida finished her first drink and started the second.

“Thank you.” She said quietly. She felt raw, as if he had been the one to hurt her. But he hadn’t, so why was she feeling this way? She took a deep breath and told herself to relax. He apologized for the actions of someone else. He didn’t have to do that. She would try to turn the mood around.

“So, what were you working on?” She asked him. He looked up, surprised.

“When?”

“When I came in, you were writing in your journal. What were you working on?”

“Oh. work stuff.” He began. Jeff smiled, shaking his head. “We just broke ground on a new, custom office space for Onyx in South San Francisco. If everything goes as planned, it should be finished and opened by this time next year.”

“Wow. I had no idea. No one talks about it at work.”

“No one at Onyx knows but the rest of the board.” He said with a wide grin.

“So why are you telling me?”

“I know you are trustworthy.” He said sincerely.

Frida was surprised at his choice of words. She smiled, intrigued and a little excited by Jeff.

“Well, thank you for trusting me, Jeff. I feel honored.” She giggled.

“Do you really?” He asked, his voice rising a bit. He turned in his stool to face Frida, his knees knocking into hers.

“Shit! Sorry, I’m a little drunk.” He smiled, rubbed his knee through his jeans. Frida laughed.

“It’s okay; it didn’t hurt.”

“You must have knees of steel ’cause my knee hurts.” He said with a laugh.

“Well, I do run a lot.” She added bashfully.

“Do you?” Jeff seemed genuinely interested. “Every day?”

“Yeah. Either run or walk, every day. I walk up to Golden Gate Park and jog on the trails, or I go down to the beach.”

“Rain or shine?”

“Well, if the weather is bad I go to the gym.”

“Ah, yeah. Duh.” He nodded his head, lost in thought. Frida finished her drink, feeling the numbness in her teeth that meant she was getting drunk. She ordered another drink. Why not?

“So, tell me about yourself, Frida DeLeon.” He leaned in close, his amber eyes locking onto hers. Frida felt an instant wave of manic lust before she quashed it down.

“Uh, let’s see, which trauma do you want to hear about first?” She said with a laugh. Jeff nearly spit out his drink.

“Let’s start with the basics.” He chuckled.

“I’m not really in the habit of talking about myself.” She said with a shrug. “But you can ask me whatever you want.”

Jeff asked her how she liked working there, (“Its fine, I’m happy there”) what kind of music she liked, (“Well, as long as its not that new country bullshit I’m fine”) to which he burst out in laughter, and what her favorite color was (“Blue, like the ocean.”) Aaron gave them one more drink and announced the bar would be closing in ten minutes. The remaining patrons ordered their road beers and went back to their seats. Frida felt giddy, not wanting the night the end. She knew Jeff was too drunk to drive, and she idly wondered if his plan was to try and sleep with her. Would she allow it? She wasn’t quite sure yet. They both downed their drinks, with Jeff making a rough sound over the harshness of the whiskey. He followed it with the last of his beer.

“Do you want to go for a walk on the beach?” He asked suddenly. Frida hesitated. She didn’t think that Jeff would hurt her, or anything like that. She felt sure that he would want her, and she wanted him. She wanted him badly. But she was afraid of what he’d say when he saw her scars.

“Yes. Yes I do very much.” She smiled at him. Jeff asked Aaron for the bill. He signed it, not even looking at the cost. Frida didn’t know if this was habit or boast; as she always checked her receipts carefully for any mistakes. She noticed Jeff scrawl ‘200’ on the tip line. Aaron glanced at Frida and flashed his teeth in approval. Frida wanted to laugh but didn’t want to give him away. Instead she wished him a goodnight. Aaron waved them off as they exited into the humid night.

Next Chapter: The Perfect Lover