Tonight my name is Denise. I’m a dental assistant, I’m divorced, and I love dogs. My dark hair is covered by a muted red wig that hangs past my shoulders and makes my neck itch. The designer clothes I once obsessed over have been replaced with basic, bland pieces meant to be forgotten once the night is over, the same way I’ll forget it.
Don’t judge me. Everybody who hooks up online lies and everybody expects it. It’s just something to break up this wretched monotony, to keep me breathing until the day my father’s appeal is heard or I find the courage to jump off a building and put an end to my misery. Whichever comes first.
Until then, there’s this.
And tonight, there’s Doug.
Doug’s not so bad. Over the past two years—as Angela the accountant or Beth the barista or Carmen the cartographer—I’ve met some good guys and some questionable ones, but no one dangerous, not that I care. The only real rule is that they buy into the evening’s persona. The slightest indication that they recognize me and the deal’s off.
Doug has no clue. Doug’s a decent guy who’s newly divorced and looking to get back in the game. He’s got all the requisite first-date stories lined up, as though he’s read the same hundred internet articles every other single person has read.
We’re eating at Verre Plein, a small restaurant with leather-bound menus and a wine cellar so extensive it has its own round-the-clock guard. Not even at the height of my fame—or infamy—did I have a bodyguard.
The white cloth-covered tables are arranged close together, but instead of feeling suffocated, the proximity enhances the sense of privacy. Like everyone is making an effort to show just how much they’re not listening to your conversation. How much they can’t see you. How much they don’t care.
Originally conceived as a Wall Street off-shoot, Holden City, just an hour’s train ride from Manhattan, has taken on a life of its own. In two decades it’s transformed from a smattering of buildings housing Wall Street rejects to a glittering city of towering offices, imported cars, people too rich to care about their money, and the people they pay to care about it.
Like ninety percent of the population here, Doug is an investment banker. He has a little office in a little building and manages money for people with bigger offices in bigger buildings. I know the world well. Daughter of the one-time richest man on the eastern seaboard, I was born into money. As was expected of me, I grew up and got my Masters in Economic Policy and, for a time, had a corner office at Carlisle Gale Investors with a pristine view of the city.
Of course, everyone hated me. I was born into that, too. They didn’t even whisper nepotism; they shouted it. I could hear them through the walls. Math came to me almost as easily as the job, though I’d never been nearly as interested in managing other people’s money as I’d been in spending my own. My hobbies were going to clubs and posing for pictures and monitoring my growing internet celebrity. It wasn’t until they called me a thief and a murderer and a whore that people credited me with much of anything at all. The first two names I get, but I’m not sure where the “whore” came from; maybe they just needed three to round it out. Or maybe that infamous crotch shot did it. Anyway.
Doug is in the middle of a story about a box he found in the attic of the house he’s renovating—because renovating is one of his hobbies, along with cycling and listening to jazz—when the maître d’ seats a man at the table beside us. I try to appear interested in the contents of Doug’s box, but I’m distracted by the man. My dad used to play a game with my brother and me: Who belongs? Who doesn’t?
The man doesn’t.
He orders a beer. In a bottle, not a glass. He’s wearing a brown sports jacket with patches on the elbows like a professor in a movie, and the Rolex that peeks out at his wrist is a knock-off. Until they were taken away, my father had a world-famous collection.
Unlike everybody else, who is actively ignoring everybody else, the stranger is watching me when I lift my gaze. I’m wearing brown contacts, but the extended eye contact makes me feel exposed. I used to be bold, but years of self-imposed solitude and fake dates have made me awkward and ungraceful, and I look away.
The stranger is handsome, but he doesn’t belong in this restaurant. I know he doesn’t understand the French terms on the menu because when the server comes to recite the specials, he requests the first dish he hears and doesn’t try to repeat the name.
His shoulders are too broad for the jacket, which means he borrowed or bought it last minute, probably to adhere to the restaurant dress code. It’s been at least a day since he shaved, and his wavy brown hair is thick and unruly, like it’s never seen product or a high-end haircut. If he cares about any of this, it doesn’t show, and I wonder briefly why he would choose to come here if he had to go to the effort.
He pulls a battered old paperback Western out of his pocket and begins to read, and I do my very best to focus on Doug, who’s now telling a story about a recent humanitarian trip. I missed learning whatever was in the box and I’m annoyed. I swear I can feel the stranger watching me, but every time I risk a glance his way his eyes are dutifully trained on the book. He turns a page, sips his beer, and ignores me.
I vow to pay attention to Doug, but not before noting that the stranger’s fingernails are clean but not buffed, and his knuckles are cracked, like he works outdoors. I doubt even the chef here has cracked knuckles.
“…walking across this field,” Doug is saying, the faintest traces of his North Carolina accent coming through, “and I see we’re approaching a dry streambed with a log laying across so people can get to the other side. It’s not so deep you’d die if you fell, but it’s deep enough that you’d have trouble getting out. Anyway, we’re about fifteen feet away when suddenly the villagers in my group start to run. I check over my shoulder to see if there’s a lion or something, but there’s nothing there. When I turn back around, they’ve all crossed the log and are waiting to watch me attempt it. They wanted front row seats.”
I sip my wine, the second of the two drinks I allow myself on these dates. “Did you fall?”
He’s quiet for a second. “Yeah.”
A laugh slips out.
I know it’s mean, but I can’t stifle it. Maybe it’s nervous energy. Maybe it’s five weeks of limited human contact, tension searching for a natural outlet. I don’t know the last time I laughed. I’m not very funny.
Doug blushes, then offers a sheepish grin as he pushes a piece of fish around his plate.
“I’m sorry,” I manage, trying to shut up. “Did you… Were you hurt?”
“I sprained my ankle.”
My shoulders shudder as I fail to suppress one last guilty laugh. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. You’re pretty when you smile, Denise.”
I’d heard that a lot growing up. My father spent a small fortune on dental care, beating my snaggle tooth into submission and closing the gap between my front teeth. Back then, I had a lot to smile about. Or so I’d thought.
I know he meant it as a compliment, an effort to get this date on track, and I vow again to try harder. I need this. I need a couple of hours every once in a while, just to keep going. To feel something. Before my father’s arrest, I’d been the life of the party; after the arrest, a pariah. Now, a hermit. Doug is the second person I’ve spoken to in three weeks, and it will be at least that long before I speak to someone else.
The stranger’s food comes and Doug talks and I listen and occasionally the stranger glances up, turns a page, and meets my eye. The connection is palpable and terrifying. I can’t have it but I want it. I want it but I don’t need it. Those are distinctions I’d never had to make before my world fell apart.
I tell myself I’m only feeling this way because it’s been so long since I felt anything at all. That the stranger only interests me because I didn’t already read his too-long biography on the Fantasy Friends website and scroll through his profile and study his photos. He’s only appealing because he’s unknown, and he finds me appealing for the same reason.
If only he knew.
Doug asks if I’d like coffee or dessert, and I decline. We didn’t come here for coffee or dessert. Dinner is just protocol. I know he’s got a condo ten minutes from the restaurant; we’d discussed it in our emails. I told him what I tell everyone: Denise rents a studio apartment in one of the artist buildings at the edge of the city. It’s cluttered and the dogs bark and we’ll have to go to his place, if things progress that far. Doug agreed. They all do.
He folds his napkin on the table and excuses himself to go to the restroom. I know it’s my imagination, but it feels like the air in the restaurant grows ten degrees hotter. The stranger finishes his meal and closes the paperback and returns it to his pocket. Our eyes meet. When the server places my bill on the table, the stranger asks for his at the same time. He pays cash and stands, and I can’t look away. I want to. I need to. Brown contacts, red wig, fake name. He doesn’t know me. He can’t.
His jaw flexes like he’s considering speaking but decides against it. Eventually, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a card. It’s flat, shiny and black. He puts the card on the table, the edge of his thumb grazing the side of my hand. Then he walks out.
I don’t turn around to watch him leave. I couldn’t if I wanted to. Instead I stare at the card, the fancy silver script. Holden City Grand Hotel. Room 804.
I know what this means. It’s why I’m here. My legs are shaved, my skin is soft, my underwear is new. But until this moment, I hadn’t truly wanted it, not this way. Not really.
Now I do.
I pick up the card and turn it in my fingers.
I put it in my purse.
Then I pay the bill and leave before Doug returns.
Reese Carlisle hates her life.
Three years after her father’s arrest for one of the largest embezzlement schemes in history, twenty million dollars is still missing, and the world believes she knows where it is.
Two years after her brother’s death, they still think she killed him.
One year later, she’s still hiding.
When the loneliness is too much, she seeks out strangers for one dark night, no questions asked. She makes up a name, puts on a disguise, and tries to forget.
One night she meets a new man. She tells him her name is Denise, she’s a dental assistant, and she loves dogs. He tells her she’s smart, she’s pretty, she’s funny. Things she hasn’t heard in too long.
Things that are too good to be true…