Three thousand dollars a month.
Three thousand divided by four weeks is seven hundred-fifty dollars a week.
Seven hundred-fifty dollars a week divided by five weekdays is a hundred and fifty dollars a day. She works eight hours a day but one of those hours is unpaid – lunch – which means she makes roughly twenty-one dollars and forty-three cents an hour, or thirty-six cents a minute.
It took Zoe three and a half minutes, or about a dollar and twenty-six cents, to figure out that she had made a dollar and twenty-six cents figuring out that she had made a dollar and twenty-six cents. She raised her eyebrows, amused and a little bit irritated, at the pointlessness of it all.
No one had come in today except for her – it was Friday and they were Bosses so they had all phoned in hierarchical order to let her know that they would be working from home today and would e-mail her if they needed her to do anything. Alone in the fluorescent glow of an office with a huge window overlooking the California coastline, it occurred to Zoe that she could literally do whatever she wanted and no one would be the wiser. She considered taking off all of her clothes, climbing to stand on her table, and chucking her empty coffee mug at the wall across the room. She decided, instead, to maybe say something out loud to herself. Zoe opened her mouth. She made no noise. There was nothing to say. There also had been no soft ping of a new e-mail assignment all day.
It had been forty-eight hours since the last time Zoe had spoken, which had been to say “keep the change, please,” to the Jamba Juice cashier when she had ordered a pretzel and a smoothie for lunch. Yesterday and today, she had hurriedly made herself sandwiches (avocado on squaw bread) and spent her lunch hour in her car parked in the parking lot, chain smoking cigarettes and reading. She had a good system going for her; when her stifling aloneness accosted her, she slinked in retreat back to her book. This week, she was reading Possession by A.S. Byatt and the Great Literary Romance sufficed for her own lack thereof.
Zoe is not accustomed to this sort of day-in, day-out mediocrity. She had always been a girl who lived in the throes of passion, even when she was without company. She liked drugs and running away and excessive expressions of sexual liberty. Now, though, she finds herself returned to the wealthy neighborhood where she’d grown up and settling for a corporate nine to five that paid her well and asked nothing but her steady presence in return. Her business card read “Zoe Malone; Marketing Director” though, were she to be honest, it would read “Zoe Malone: Here to Keep Up Appearances.”
It wasn’t that bad, though, was what she told herself as she opened her paperback again at her desk. She was almost finished with the book and was experiencing what she liked to call the “Fifty-Page Syndrome” where, once she had only the last fifty pages of a book left to read, she became very anxious and unwilling to finish and part ways with it. She had her books and her pride and that was about it nowadays. There was a huge resentment that she harbored towards books that inevitably ended (which was all of them).
At four-thirty, Zoe blinked the weariness from her eyes and switched her computer monitor off, collecting her things and putting them into her rose gold Michael Kors purse which she carried at the crook of her arm, and headed for the elevators that took her down down down twenty floors of the Newport Corporate Tower East. When the revolving glass door spit her outside, she blanched.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Zoe muttered, breaking her silence, then clapping a hand over her mouth in surprise. The Santa Ana winds had blown in great busty breaths that carried heat and sand and an ancient, earthy anger during the day she’d spent hiding in her office. Now, her hair blew in tiny hurricanes all around her, whipping into her eyes and her mouth, making it hard for her to inhale. With both hands and all fingers busily pushing her hair into an unwilling knot at the back of her head, which she secured with a pen, Zoe unlocked and clambered into her car. The door shut and the howling wind was suddenly muted. She, in her secure metal box, sat still as a hunting hound as big, crispy leaves were slung into her windshield, each making a satisfying smack and pausing for a moment of rest before rejoining the Santa Ana’s. These winds, Zoe understood, originated not from precipitation but rather from the bone-dry desert highlands. These were the Devil Winds, fanning the California wildfires that were already burning in the Covina mountains. Zoe loved this time of year, loved that the hottest days of the season came in October instead of July and stayed only briefly but brought with them a ferocity that Southern California rose tiredly to meet.
The Santa Ana’s always blew hot in mid-Autumn because they come from the mountains and blow downwards. As they descend, the air pressure increases and the winds blow faster, blow hotter, with all the water evaporating. The coastline finally receives Santa Ana winds as hot, dry gusts that rip apart carefully manicured yards and carefully manicured women.
They were blowing in a revolution; she could feel a deep and ferocious restlessness surge inside her chest where lethargy and boredom now usually lived. Zoe closed her eyes, cracking the windows to let the shrieking afternoon join her in her car.
She drove both aimlessly and very aware of what her destination would inevitably be. Taking a roundabout route that let her cruise along the shore for the entirety of her commute, she finally parked in a neighborhood adjacent to Main Street Huntington Beach where a concentration of bars were already illuminating their neon lights. HAPPY HOUR, one read. BEST MARGARITAS IN THE OC, another countered. She, alone and in her suit dress, was brazenly out of place but the surfers and families, retreating home now that the sun was on the brink of its setting, did not look at her. She was invisible, she was superhuman. Mechanically, Zoe took herself to a spot she knew well, a small concrete amphitheater that belonged to her.
One year ago, under the influence of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide.
The three of them, two boys on skateboards and Zoe jogging to keep up, made their way from the side streets to the Huntington Beach pier at four in the morning, where they could see nothing in the fog. The sound of waves crashing guided them and they eventually settled on a half-circle of concrete steps that framed a small patch of grass, up against where the sand began. Will readjusted the guitar he’d been carrying across his back and settled into rhythmic strumming. Brian, after skating around a bit more on the waterlogged concrete, sat down and started tapping out a beat with his fingertips, lightly lightly, on the face of his drum. Zoe (forever and foremost a dancer) stood with her hands on her hips, facing Will and Brian. She started to shift her weight from one foot to the other, Brian’s downbeat dictating the pace of her movement. She imagined the rope of her spine and the snake of her arms, the fluidity of dance traveling across different planes of her body. Flexing her hands and tilting to the right, she let the top of her head lead her in a twirl and her long, long hair came loose, straight as it had been when she was thirteen. A great fan of black swept across the top of her collarbones.
“Zoe,” Brian said, maintaining his drumming. She went to him and he paused for a moment, finding a Blue Moon bottle cap in his pocket. She knelt in front of where he was sitting and leaned hard into him as he pressed the jagged edge of the bottle cap against her sternum. There was a moment of suspended tension, one human force against the next and Brian forced her to look at him before, with a tiny pop, Zoe felt her skin break and a bit of blood trickled out from the edges of the bottle cap. She had been marked, by him. Both of them exhaled hard, in some sort of morbid relief, and Zoe moved away from him with the bottle cap still dug into her. This was about control, she understood it. The dichotomy between Brian and Zoe had become something of a power struggle and she did not want to fight him. You can just have it, she decided. He could just have her.
She resumed her dancing, slowly at first, and Brian’s drum echoed deep, hollow thumps that escalated and she moved faster, faster with him as her driving force.
The sky lightened from a brooding dark grey to a nondescript white and, as the sun peeked above the horizon behind them, to the East and away from the sea, it began to burn away the fog. Zoe’s hair now fell in wet tendrils, having gathered the moisture in the air and stuck to the sweat on her cheeks when she spun and spun and spun. Early morning joggers began to emerge, trespassing on their secret, fairy world. They stopped in their tracks to listen to Will sing. There was an urgency and a ferocity in his voice that Zoe had not heard before. It was guttural and rough, beautifully organic and she let herself trip over her own feet, experimenting with the weight of her body. She let her shoulders pour their heaviness to her ankles.
Out of nowhere, Will stopped playing and the morning was engulfed in anguished groans from him, dreadlocks smacking at his eyes as he rocked forward and back. Brian played faster and faster but Zoe had ceased to move, her attention now fixated on this angry boy who was overtaken by his passion and by the drugs. In that moment, she understood what people meant when they claimed to be infinite and unlike what she’d liked to imagine, there was no glory. There was no glam in being unending.
“You are reborn today,” Brian said to no one in particular and, closing her eyes, Zoe felt the perspiration on her skin. She felt like an infant, her skin felt new. It occurred to her that she had somehow, by sharing this with Brian, allowed him to be even more significant in her life and the prospect thereof frightened her. She didn’t like how much she needed him; she didn’t like how invincible he made her feel. By taking away her fears, he created a renewed terror – the terror of losing him, which was preordained, and was already upon her just as the thought crossed her mind.
She sat alone now, alone almost always, and her desperation turned repeatedly skyward-and-outward. She deliberately and carefully looked towards but never at the ocean against the horizon. Ash from the wildfire in the mountains to the East billowed with the wind, raining down on her in a storm of delicate grey-white bits that stuck to her nest of hair, the tips of her eyelashes, the wrinkles in her used-up lips. Zoe lit a cigarette, and then another.
As the sun disappeared into the sea, the sky burned red with the reflection of flames and Indian heat. She rose to her feet, leaving her pack of cigarettes balanced on her purse and walked towards the water. One shoe was kicked off, then the other. Zoe pulled her shirt over her head when her bare feet met the cold Pacific. The water was deceivingly calm today, each wave losing gusto and giving up before they ever reached the shore so that they rolled in as subdued sea foam cinnamon buns. The hem of Zoe’s dress gathered up the water but she kept walking, her progress made laborious now that she was thigh-deep in the moving water. Vaguely, she felt the sea push and pull at her ankles. She stopped when the water was at her waist, lapping up the side of her body to give her little kisses on the tops of her shoulders every now and then. She and the Pacific were one and the same. In her element, her body of water, Zoe imagined the rope of her spine and the snake of her arms, the fluidity of dance traveling across different planes of her body. Flexing her hands and tilting to the right, she let the top of her head lead her in a twirl and her long, long hair came loose.