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Stay Safe (Chapter Two)

Fiction
Michael Lacoy

Stay Safe

Last month, MAN’S WORLD ran the first chapter of Stay Safe, Michael Lacoy’s comic novel about the fictional SAARZ pandemic. Here, in chapter two, woke academic Cole Perrot meets his new next-door neighbor, the red-meat-eating lady-magnet Tyce Creamer, and Cole’s progressive worldview is sorely tested. Buy the book at bit.ly/Lacoy-books and follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelLacoy.

 

As she gathered the different items to take out to the patio—plates, bowls, wine glasses—Oona Pudding kept seeing those veins. For weeks they had been stuck in her mind, a mental image that kept repeating over and over like some song she could not shake. Not that she especially wanted to shake the image. Still, it was kind of driving her crazy. She had just had a session with Brad, thinking it would help, as it usually did. But this time, it had not helped at all. In fact, it may have made things worse, because with more and more urgency the veins were flashing in her mind, enticingly, insistently, maddeningly. Those veins, those veins

“Hi Mom.”

The voice came from behind, unexpectedly. But Oona did not flinch. She wasn’t startled. She wasn’t the excitable type. Temperamentally she was very cool, very rational. She was someone who liked to be in control, someone who was used to being in control. Which was why the vein thing was so disturbing. She turned around to see her daughter entering the kitchen, followed by her husband.

“How did it go?” she said.

Rosa, in face mask and face shield, held a reusable cloth shopping bag stuffed with groceries in her right hand, and had a flesh-colored bandage on her left arm. “OK,” the child said. “Except some man maybe died.”

“Nobody ‘maybe’ died,” Cole said brusquely from behind his face mask and face shield as he put two bags of groceries on the table.

“Did you get everything?” Oona said, giving him an unfriendly look.

“Yes.”

As Rosa took off her face shield, face mask, and latex gloves, she said, “Mom, two ambulance people came right into the waiting room at the doctors, with their stretcher thing. They came to get this man who got injured. And also, some old man started yelling because he didn’t want to stand on his safety mat. It was kind of funny.” The girl giggled.

Hey,” Cole snapped, watching as Rosa stepped up to the refrigerator and opened the door. “Have you washed your hands?” It was a rhetorical question. The child had not washed her hands.

“Oops—sorry,” Rosa said, abashed. She went over to the sink and ran the hot water.

“You got the steaks, right?” Oona said to Cole.

Yes,” he said with an edge. It was really pissing him off about these steaks, not least because Cole was a vegetarian. As far as he was concerned, if guests to his house wanted to eat animal flesh, they could bring it themselves. Was he running a damn restaurant here? A free steakhouse for cow killers? But he only said, “I got everything you asked.”

“They’ll be here in fifteen minutes,” Oona said as she began to unpack the groceries. “Why don’t you two go set the table.”

“We don’t have to wear masks tonight, do we?” Rosa asked, still scrubbing the germs off her hands at the sink. “Because of the company?”

“No,” Oona said. “Not tonight. No masks.”

Rosa smiled. Cole did not.

 

***

 

Out on the back patio Rosa asked, “What side do the napkins go on again? I always forget.”

Cole had set out six plates on the table and now picked up the two steak knives for his “guests,” wondering where to seat them. Though he had already removed his latex gloves, he was still wearing his face mask and face shield, partly for protection, but mainly as a protest. As an act of defiance. “The left,” he grumbled.

“I wonder what happened to that man from the doctors,” Rosa said as she placed folded cloth napkins next to the plates. “Do you think he’s paralyzed?”

“Would you just drop it, Rosa!” Cole said. “You’re very macabre. It’s not healthy for a girl your age. I’m sure he’s fine. He’s probably out getting another tattoo. A big syringe on his back.”

Rosa pondered this with a lugubrious air. She was convinced that the tattoo man’s condition was dire. She was sure of it. Something ominous had happened at the clinic, something bad, she felt, and she was weighed down by a sense of doom. But then, all at once, her face brightened and she exclaimed, “Hi Tyce!”

With the two steak knives still in his hand, Cole turned around. A man in a tight black T-shirt, with inflated muscles and a cocksure grin, was approaching. He had come across the backyard and was holding a bottle of wine.

“Oh, look at you!” the guy said. “A Rosa is a Rosa is a Rosa. How are you, beautiful?”

Rosa giggled and glowed, beaming with delight. Cole frowned, his face twisting with bitter enmity beneath his mask and shield. He was not happy. He was not happy at all. This was going to be, he knew, a very long and challenging night.

 

***

 

The dinner party had been Oona’s idea. Tyce Creamer, Cole’s neighbor, was currently dating Linni Mudge, a secretary in Oona’s department at Wendover College. Oona and Linni had been friendly over the past few years. They occasionally had lunch or went for a drink, and more recently Oona had joined a local gym that Tyce and Linni belonged to. Evidently a certain chumminess was developing between the three of them, and Cole was not pleased.

One year earlier, Tyce had moved into the house next door. The place was larger and fancier and considerably more expensive than Cole’s house, with luxuries that Cole could only dream of. Among other things, it had a custom-designed pool with pool house and bar, an in-ground ten-person hot tub, and a professionally landscaped yard with a Japanese koi pond and stone waterfall.

On the day of his arrival, as the guys from the moving company were unloading his things, Tyce had moseyed onto Cole’s property while Cole was spraying his front lawn with a garden hose. Seeing this stranger—he was taller and younger than Cole, mid-thirties to Cole’s mid-forties—Cole had been both concerned and perplexed. Not only was the guy not wearing a mask, but he had on a red trucker hat with an American flag and a T-shirt that read “BORN TO PUMP.” What the hell is this, Cole had wondered—some kind of joke? A prank by the new neighbor? Throughout his teens and twenties and even to a certain degree up to today, Cole himself had been a satirical ironist, and so he could recognize the type. In his school days and after, among him and his friends, wearing a trucker hat with an American flag would have been a hysterical gag, an inside joke on all the clueless squares. Same with that “BORN TO PUMP” T-shirt. Yet Cole sensed something off about this character coming across his lawn. Specifically, the guy had a football player’s physique, an unnaturally muscular body that could only have resulted from countless hours spent at a gym, huffing and grunting while downing protein shakes and injecting steroids into his ass. No, this was no comedic postmodernist. This, Cole suspected, was a genuine New Hampshire redneck.

Cole let up on the trigger of the hose gun and the water stopped spraying.

“How ya doin’?” said Stars-and-Stripes Guy.

Through his Pq23 respirator face mask and his N16z plastic face shield, Cole cautiously said, “Hi.”

“I’m your new neighbor,” the guy said, stepping closer and offering his hand for a shake. “Tyce Creamer.”

Cole flinched back as though a nude leper were trying to embrace him—or rather, a nude leper infected with SPAARZ. Not only did he make no movement to shake his new neighbor’s hand, but he kept his finger on the trigger of the hose gun, should he need to defend himself. “Tyce Creamer?” he said.

“Yeah,” the guy said, still extending his hand.

Cole vacillated. He did not want to touch this person. He did not think it safe. “Uh, sorry,” he finally said. “My hands are dirty. I’ve been working in the yard.”

“Oh … that’s cool,” Tyce Creamer said, looking a touch embarrassed. He withdrew his hand.

There was silence, then Tyce said, “What’s your name?”

“Cole.”

“Well, it’s good to meet you, Cole,” Tyce said with an amiable smile.

Cole did not return the sentiment. “Where are you moving from?” he asked.

“Here. I’ve been in Beauville most of my life. I grew up on the Heights.”

“Ah—a local,” Cole said, smirking to himself. He had been correct: Stars-and-Stripes Guy was a redneck. Beauville Heights was strictly low-rent—fast food restaurants, dollar stores, meth\-a\-done clinics. White Trash, USA. Cole now suspected the guy was some sort of drug kingpin, for how else could he have afforded the house next door?

An awkward conversation ensued. Tyce asked Cole if he had a family; if he worked locally; if he liked the neighborhood. To each question Cole gave a terse, unenthused answer. He asked nothing in return about Tyce Creamer.

“Well, I should have you over for a beer sometime,” Tyce then said, as though to wind up their chat. “You could bring the family. Use the pool.”

Cole shrugged. “Uh … sure. Maybe. I’m actually not a drinker.” This, of course, was not true. Not even close. But Tyce Creamer would never know, Cole felt. “We’re pretty private here,” he added.

There was another silence, and at last Tyce Creamer seemed to get it. His formerly polite, affable, and very earnest expression now darkened. With a false, mirthless smile he slowly nodded his head. “OK. I understand,” he said. Then, with a meaningful glint in his eye, he winked and said, once again, “It was good to meet you, Cole.”

A day or two after this, Cole noticed that his new neighbor had hung a good-sized American flag near his front door, and that settled everything. Cole now had no doubts—this Tyce Creamer clown was a fascist and most likely a racist to boot. There goes the neighborhood, Cole had thought. Their idyllic upper-middle-class enclave on quiet Lilac Lane had been invaded by a nativist brownshirt. In response, Cole purchased a large rainbow flag and hung it near his front door. He also put up a “This Home Hates Hate” sign in his front yard, right next to Creamer’s property. If nothing else, he felt, the two of them now knew where the other one stood. Which was A-OK with Cole. After that their only contact had been the occasional stiff wave and fake smile when they happened to see each other in their front yards.

This neighborly détente, alas, was about to come to an end …

 

***

 

“How ya been, Cole?” Tyce said in a booming manly voice, as he came onto the patio with an unmasked face and an outstretched hand.

With spirit-sinking resignation, Cole realized there was no getting out of this one. Still holding the steak knives in his left hand, he shook Tyce Creamer’s hand with his right, and promptly winced at the vicelike force of the man’s grip.

From behind a pair of smoke-tinted sunglasses, Tyce said, “I’ve been waiting a year for that handshake. It feels good to press the flesh, you know? It’s how men connect.” He grinned slyly, flashing a set of titanium-white teeth, and gave Cole a friendly yet stinging slap to the side of his shoulder, which jostled Cole and caused him to wince yet again.

Tyce,” Rosa said excitedly, eager to draw his attention back to herself, “Lucas showed me some of your videos. They’re really cool.”

“You think so? Which ones did you like?”

“The workout ones. Last night I did some pushups. Four. You want to feel my muscle?”

“I don’t know—will it hurt my hand?”

Rosa giggled merrily. “See? Feel,” she said, now raising her right arm and energetically flexing her bicep.

“Oh wow!” Tyce said. “Look at that.” He bent over, extended his hand, and did as requested, squeezing the tiny straining muscle between his thumb and forefinger. “Ouch!” he cried and comically jumped back. “I knew it would hurt!”

Rosa was delighted, pealing with more giggles.

Amid this nauseating banter, Cole took a moment to discreetly size up his neighbor. For whatever reason, this Creamer made him feel … uneasy. There was something disquieting about him, something beyond the surface vulgarity and buffoonery, something that Cole simply did not trust.

Tyce had a shaved head, though given the discernible stubble pattern on his scalp it was clear he hadn’t done it because he was balding. He had a precisely shaped beard and a square, virile jaw. He wasn’t good looking in a Hollywood sense but he had presence, Cole had to admit. He was abundantly confident and self-assured in a way that was vaguely aggressive, or perhaps intentionally aggressive. He was also in fantastic shape, which no doubt partly explained the confidence. Under his too-tight black T-shirt his gladiator muscles noticeably flexed and rippled with each movement. There was an outsized vitality about him, a dynamic masculine vibe, and it unsettled Cole. It put him on the defensive. Cole was especially aware of something else: Creamer’s arms were riddled with popping veins, and not just his forearms. Down each of his bulging biceps there coursed a single prominent vein, as thick and long as a number two pencil.

 

***

 

Hearing laughter and voices outside, Oona went straight for the kitchen window. The guests had arrived. He had arrived. A tingly thrill passed through her body, electrifying her flesh. For the third time in the past hour Oona stepped into the bathroom off the kitchen and looked in the mirror. She inspected her hair and made sure no gray strands were visible; then, with the subtlest of smiles, she admired the discreet bit of cleavage that showed in her scoop-necked top; and last, she stared worriedly at her face. The tiny lines around her eyes and mouth, the first hints of the wrinkles to come, filled her with anxiety and a pang of dread. She was becoming obsessed with those tiny lines, staring at them more and more each day. She was getting old, passing her prime, and it was happening fast. But then she scowled at her reflection and scolded herself, irritated that she would think in such a retrograde manner. She was a career woman, not a housewife! An intellectual, not a cookie baker—and so why should she care? Why should she fall prey to patriarchal norms of social worth? Why should she give two shits about capitalistic criteria of female value? She was above all of that, and she should know better. Oona left the bathroom and went out to the patio.

 

***

 

“Hey, there she is!” Tyce said, finding a new target for his manly charm attack. In one smooth motion he removed his sunglasses, hung them from the collar of his T-shirt, stepped toward Oona, gripped one of her arms, and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Cole’s mouth fell open. Rosa was dumbstruck. Even Oona was taken aback, though she did not seem particularly upset. Her face and her eyes had lit up, shining with stunned delight. It was their first-ever kiss.

“Thanks for doing this,” Tyce went on with vivacious good cheer, unaffected by the surprised looks of his three hosts. “I can’t believe it’s taken so long for us to get together. I mean, we’re next-door neighbors, right?”

Now flushed and frankly aroused, Oona found her gaze drifting unthinkingly to Tyce’s right bicep, where that thick vein now seemed to be visibly throbbing. “Oh, you know,” she heard herself mumbling, “the pandemic and … uh … everything else. But here we are!” she added with sudden girlish glee, her voice rising steeply in pitch. Now beaming, she shined her radiant eyes directly into his.

Cole was baffled. Rosa was baffled. Neither of them had ever known Oona to be either gleeful or girlish, or even beaming for that matter.

Then, as the red flush slowly ebbed from her cheeks, Oona realized something was amiss. Looking all around she said, “Where’s Linni?”

Tyce shrugged and gave her a cryptic half-smile.

“What—is she running late? … Is she doing her hair?” Oona joked and abruptly broke into a peal of maniacal laughter. Her eyes flashed riotously and most of her teeth shone in her gaping mouth.

Cole was horrified. Rosa was horrified. They stared perplexedly at Oona, wondering who this person was.

“No,” Tyce said with a cocky grin.

“Is she ill?” Oona said, now concerned. “Did she come down with something? SPAARZ?

“Actually …” Tyce said, both reluctant and amused, as though he was somehow pleased with himself but did not want to boast, “we just broke up.”

“You just broke up? Come on!” Oona said.

“I’m serious. About an hour ago.”

Oona went silent, staring at him questioningly.

He shrugged again and said, “Anyway, I brought this.” He handed her the wine bottle.

Oona mechanically received it and said, as if to confirm that she had heard him correctly, “You just broke up with Linni …? An hour ago?”

“Yeah. Though it had been coming. For weeks. Maybe longer.”

“But didn’t you guys just get together?”

“Not really. It started in April. So, four months.”

“It’s June,” Rosa interjected. “That’s three months.”

Tyce laughed. “You got me, Rosa!”

The child giggled, her face glowing.

So many things were going through Oona’s addled mind. She looked at the bottle in her hand and wondered how it had gotten there. She held it out to Cole. “Would you open this?”

From behind his mask and face shield Cole sneered resentfully, annoyed at his wife’s presumption. But he took the bottle and went into the house.

“OK, you need to tell me what happened,” Oona said to Tyce. “I’m … concerned about Linni. Rosa, go help your father.”

“Why?” the girl said, instantly displeased. Something weird was happening here, she felt. Something very weird. And plus, she wanted to talk to Tyce.

“Because I said,” Oona replied, giving the girl a dark look.

Rosa didn’t budge. “It only takes one person to open wine, and that’s Daddy’s job.”

Rosa, I need you to bring out the food. Daddy’s going to be grilling. Get the meat and the potato salad. Everything’s in the fridge.”

An obstinate look came over the girl’s face. She stayed put.

“Rosa—now!” Oona said.

The girl pouted and scoffed and finally went into the house.

Oona turned to Tyce. “Let’s sit down,” she said with an alluring smile. “I want to hear all about it.”

 

***

 

“What an asshole,” Cole muttered to himself.

“Who?” Rosa said, turning to look at him from the refrigerator.

“Nobody,” Cole said. He had removed his mask and face shield, and was now opening the bottle his neighbor had brought. It was a Burgundy Pinot Noir, a grand cru no less, which still had its price sticker: $260. Cole had been planning to serve a $12 Oregon Chardonnay.

“Showoff bastard,” he mumbled acrimoniously.

Dad, you keep talking to yourself—it’s creeping me out!” Rosa said, as she took the steaks out of the refrigerator. “Oh gross! This meat’s bleeding!” she shrieked, looking at the cow flesh and the red juices that had seeped onto the plate.

Cole removed the cork with a slight pop, sniffed the open mouth of the bottle, and was immediately intrigued: the wine smelled lovely, a tantalizing aroma. He poured out an inch or so, swirled it around in his glass, inhaled its complex scents, then soaked his mouth with liquid pleasure. It was … blissful. Astoundingly good. Maybe the best wine he had ever tasted. “Oh man,” he moaned, shutting his eyes with coital-like rapture.

“Is it good?” Rosa said.

No,” Cole said, opening his eyes and resuming his resentful temper. “It tastes crappy.”

“It didn’t sound like it,” Rosa said doubtfully. She took the steaks outside to the grill and Cole quickly refilled his glass, making it a double, and took another mouthful. The taste, the experience, was truly blissful, and somehow this moment of high-end pleasure—$260 worth of liquid luxury—reminded him of his own relative poverty, and his mood plunged. Though he lived better than most people on planet Earth, Cole himself earned a fairly modest income. It was Oona, the “celebrated professor,” who was primarily responsible for their nice house and pretty much everything else they had.

Hoping to get his buzz back, Cole reached for his phone. He wanted to check his social media and see how his “So proud of Rosa” post was doing. He had done this as soon as he and Rosa had arrived at the Beauville Co-op, following their trip to the clinic, and he had done it again while they had been waiting in the check-out line to pay for their groceries, and then again just after they had gotten home. And now, with bleak disappointment, he saw it was just more of the same. The deluge of likes, comments, and re-posts and re-chirps that he had been hoping for had yet to materialize. And at this point, it was looking more and more likely that they would not materialize. The FaceFace tally was thirty-six likes, nine comments, three re-posts. The Chirper tally was forty-two likes, thirteen comments, seven re-chirps.

“How many likes did my picture get?” Rosa said, coming in from the patio.

This irked Cole, and even embarrassed him a touch. Was he really that transparent? That desperate? “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t checked. I was just reading a text. From a friend.”

“Will you help me bring out the rest of the food?” the girl said.

A cell phone left on the counter started ringing. Rosa picked it up, read the caller ID, then went to the sliding glass door to the patio.

Mom, it says ‘Linni.’ Should I answer?”

No. Don’t touch it.”

 

***

 

“I feel like you’re holding back on me,” Oona said with a charmed smile and a flirty sparkle in her eye. She and Tyce were seated at the patio table, side by side. “You’re being evasive.”

“No. Just self-respecting,” he said. “I never talk about a woman behind her back. It’s very beta.”

“Oh, so that’s it—you’re a gentleman. An alpha gentleman,” Oona teased. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“I guess it depends on how you define ‘gentleman,’ ” Tyce said, giving her a bit of the flirty eye sparkle right back.

“See, what I don’t understand,” Oona went on, her expression shifting from alluring to analytical, “is that there was obvious chemistry between the two of you. I could see it at the gym. You and Linni seemed very happy together. And this was just days ago … Days,” Oona added emphatically.

“Sure. There was definitely chemistry there. Both ways,” Tyce admitted.

“So then what happened? … Did you meet someone else?”

Tyce quietly laughed, watching her with cool amusement—a spider watching a fly.

For her part, Oona was watching Tyce’s teeth. They were well-formed teeth, strong and unusually white. Fake white, of course. Cosmetically enhanced. Something that normally would have struck Oona as tacky and superficial. But on him it was somehow … wildly attractive. “Well,” she said, “it’s pretty obvious you’re the one who ended it. Otherwise she’d be here and not you. Hopefully you weren’t an ass.”

“She knew where things stood,” Tyce said. “I made it clear from the beginning. Actually, I made it clear before the beginning.”

“Come on, tell me,” Oona said confidentially. “What happened? You cheated?”

He grinned and shook his head. “No.”

Linni cheated?”

He laughed. “No.”

“Then what?” Oona said, squirming with curiosity. “She wanted something?”

“Yes.”

“Ah,” Oona said. “What—marriage?”

He laughed again. “No.”

What?

“She wanted us to be exclusive.”

“Exclusive?”

“Monogamous.”

“Oh,” Oona said, now understanding. “So you’re not a gentleman. I had a feeling you weren’t.”

 

***

 

When Cole returned to the patio he had the wine bottle in one hand and a wine glass in the other. The glass was half filled and the bottle was half empty.

“I thought you didn’t drink?” Tyce said to him.

“Me?” Cole said with surprise as he set the bottle on the table between Tyce and Oona. “Who told you that?”

Tyce made another cryptic smile. “I guess I’m thinking of someone else.”

“Why don’t we start cooking,” Oona said, meaning that Cole should start cooking.

“Hey Tyce.” This was Lucas, coming from the backdoor of the garage. He had been out playing pickup soccer and was dressed in shorts and sneakers.

“Hey there, big man,” Tyce said. “How’ve you been?”

Lucas stepped up to the table and gave Tyce a fist bump.

“I watched the live stream on Monday,” the boy said. “It was really good.”

“Oh, yeah? Cool. What did you like?”

“I liked the diet questions, because I’m really getting into that. But I also liked that story about the guy who caught his wife cheating. It was pretty funny.”

From the grill, Cole watched this exchange in amazement. ‘Big man’? A fist bump? Since when, he wondered, had his son and his redneck neighbor become buddies? When had it happened, and how? It was incredible. First Rosa, then Oona, and now Lucas—all fawning over Creamer. What the hell was happening to this family?

Rosa came outside with a large wooden bowl filled with salad.

“What’s that bandage on your arm?” Lucas said.

Rosa made a guilty face. “Dad made me do it.”

Lucas glared at his father.

“I didn’t make you do anything,” Cole said sharply to the girl. “You did it for your own safety. And for the safety of everyone in this house.”

“You didn’t make Lucas do it, only me,” she said with a sullen look.

“Well, when you’re eighteen we’ll let you make your own stupid decisions just like your brother. Till then, your mother and I know what’s best. And I don’t want to hear any more about this for the rest of the night, from either of you.”

“What about the tattoo man?” Rosa said. “Can I tell Lucas about that?”

“No.”

She told him anyway.

 

***

 

The whole party—the four Perrot-Puddings plus Tyce Creamer—was now seated at the patio table. Dinner was served.

“Tyce, don’t you want some salad?” Rosa said.

“No. I’m all set, Rosa. Thank you.”

“Are you sure? It’s really good,” the girl said, trying to tempt him with her voice.

“He’s a carnivore,” Lucas said matter-of-factly. “He doesn’t eat vegetables.”

“What’s a carnivore?” Rosa said.

“He just eats meat. Meat, butter, and dairy,” Lucas said.

“Just meat? No vegetables?” Cole said, looking at Tyce.

“No. No vegetables,” he said.

What? That’s crazy!” Cole said indignantly, as though personally offended. “How can you not eat vegetables?”

“I don’t care for them. They’re not healthy.”

“Oh, come on!” Cole said. He was becoming enraged. “They’re not healthy?”

“No.”

Cole scoffed with derision. “Did you hear that?” he said to Oona. “Vegetables aren’t healthy … And what about fruit?” he said, turning back to Tyce. “Do you eat that? Or is that not healthy too?”

“No, I don’t eat fruit. Too much sugar. I just eat animal products,” Tyce said patiently.

“Of course,” Cole said. “ ‘Too much sugar.’ What about grains? Rice, quinoa?”

“No.”

Nuts?

“No. Just animal products.”

“I don’t understand,” Cole said, now flabbergasted. “How are you even alive?”

“He looks healthy to me,” Oona said, taking a bite of her vegan veggie burger.

“I am healthy,” Tyce said, cutting off a piece of steak. “This is the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’ve got the energy of a teenager.”

This got Oona’s attention. Her eyebrows rose, and she contemplated him with an intrigued expression.

“I like steaks,” Rosa piped up, though she too was eating a vegan veggie burger.

“Good for you, healthy girl,” Tyce said, winking at her.

Rosa beamed.

“I’m thinking of going carnivore too. I’ve been doing a lot of research,” Lucas said, as he chewed a bite of the steak that Cole had originally bought for Linni.

“Not while you’re living here, you’re not,” Cole said, as he cut off a piece of his vegan veggie burger. “We’re not cow killers in this house. This isn’t the Stone Age. You want to eat murdered animals, you can go live in a cave.”

“What’s the Stone Age?” Rosa said.

“People are curing themselves of all sorts of problems on carnivore,” Lucas said. “Autoimmune diseases, emotional problems, acne, fatigue, leaky gut. Just by eating animal protein and fat.”

“Where did you get this nonsense?” Cole said.

“From his video. And his live stream,” Lucas said.

“Whose live stream?” Cole said.

“Tyce’s.”

Cole looked questioningly at Tyce.

“He’s on MyToobs,” Rosa explained. “He’s famous.”

“That’s not true,” Tyce said, grinning with false modesty and making it clear that it probably was true.

“He has a channel,” Lucas said.

“A channel?” Cole said with sneering disbelief, as though Tyce himself was not present.

“Yeah,” Lucas said. “ ‘Bro2Bro with Tyce Creamer.’ He has two-hundred-thousand subscribers.”

“Two hundred and twenty,” Tyce added helpfully.

“Two hundred and twenty thousand,” Lucas said.

“That’s a lot,” Rosa said. “I can’t even count that high.”

“It is a lot,” Oona said, taking a moment to once again glance longingly at the vein on Tyce’s well-developed bicep.

Tyce was relishing the attention.

Cole could not believe this. Any of it. “You have a MyToobs channel?” he repeated, staring heatedly at his guest. “With two-hundred-and-twenty-thousand subscribers?”

“Yep.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No.”

“He’s not,” Rosa said earnestly. “I saw it.”

“Are you on Chirper?” Cole said.

“I am. I just broke a hundred-and-fifty-thousand followers, even though they’re shadow banning me. Otherwise it would be way more. Probably double. Maybe half a million.”

Come on,” Cole said, now growing visibly upset. He himself had seventy-eight Chirper followers. “Are they real?”

“Sure,” Tyce said.

“Are you on FaceFace?”

“No. Nobody’s on FaceFace.”

“My dad is,” Rosa said. “He’s always on FaceFace.”

“Now wait,” Cole said testily, trying to process all of this. “You said your channel is … what was it called?”

“ ‘Bro2Bro with Tyce Creamer.’ ”

“What the hell is it? What’s your angle?”

“It’s a men’s lifestyle channel. I started off with health and fitness videos, about ten years ago. I was running a personal-training service and I uploaded a couple videos for my clients, and without even expecting it, they kind of took off. So I made more and the channel started to grow. Then I added nutrition advice, and that was popular too. Funny enough, I was a vegetarian at the time, so I ended up taking all of those down after I went carnivore and started making carnivore videos. The thing with MyToobs is, your channel can be short-lived if you don’t evolve. If you have just one message, people learn it and move on. So you have to keep growing, adding new content. About three, four years ago I started with more social-psychological topics. You know, dating advice, relationship advice, societal analysis—”

Cole was incredulous. “You give relationship advice?”

“Yeah.”

“And you make money off this?”

Cole, stop being so nosy!” Oona shrieked, glaring at him with extreme exasperation. “God, it’s embarrassing!”

“It’s OK,” Tyce said calmly. “Yeah, the channel makes money, but not as much as the books. That’s where—”

“Hold on, hold on, hold on,” Cole said, cutting him off and looking as though he was starting to feel ill. “You’ve published … books?”

“Yeah. Three of them. I’m doing a series. They’re really taking off.”

“I don’t believe it!” Cole snapped, now with outrage. His feeling was that books and writing were properly reserved for people of a different sort than this Tyce Creamer. They were for people who were serious. People who were progressive and intellectual. People like himself, for instance. That this vulgar cretin could be called an “author” was too much for Cole. It was indecent. It was obscene. It was an insult to everything he held dear. “I don’t believe it!” he said again, nearly shouting.

“Dad, that’s rude!” Rosa said, her little eyes burning with reproach.

“I just read the first one,” Lucas said. “It’s really good. I’m definitely reading the next one.”

Tyce gave Lucas a fist bump.

Cole was dumbfounded. All this past year he had assumed that Stars-and-Stripes Guy was peddling opioids or weed. Or that maybe he was a pimp or some sort of con-man grifter. But instead Creamer was … a popular author and an online celebrity? It was incredible! With astonished eyes Cole turned to his wife, to see if she was thinking the same thing. But Oona, with a rapt, dreamy expression, was gazing fixedly at Tyce.

 

***

 

Cole was seated up in bed, with his reading light on, when Oona came out of their en suite bathroom. She had brushed her teeth, removed her clothes, and now wore just her bra and cotton mom panties.

“What a jackass that guy is,” Cole grumbled. “A complete phony. Could you believe him?”

“Who?” Oona said distractedly. Her thoughts were focused entirely on Tyce Creamer: his veiny arms, his shining white teeth, and especially his flirtatious behavior. Oona was fairly convinced that he had been coming on to her.

“What do you mean, ‘who’? Who do you think?” Cole fumed, observing his wife’s nearly nude body. He loved Oona’s curves, and always had. They were one of her best features. And now, in his tipsy state—they had gone through two and a half bottles that night, most of which was drunk by Cole himself—he felt a distinct twinge of tumescence.

“You mean Tyce?” Oona said irritably as she went over to her bureau. She opened a drawer, withdrew an old T-shirt, turned her back to Cole—because she knew he was leering at her—and put it on.

Now checking out his wife’s ass, Cole had to admit it wasn’t quite what it had once been. Same with her legs. “Yes—Tyce,” he said biliously. “Tyce Creamer. What kind of a name is that anyway? It sounds pornographic.”

Oona bristled with annoyance as she got into bed. “Who knows?” she snarled, hoping to make it clear she was in no mood to listen to him bitch for the next half hour.

But Cole seemed to miss the hint. “He’s so in love with himself,” he went on. “Those bleached teeth and that too-small T-shirt—I bet he shops in the kids section.”

Oona rolled her eyes.

“And did you see the price tag? On the wine?” Cole said. “He did that on purpose. Guaranteed. It was a crass move!”

Despite herself, Oona smiled. She too had noticed the price tag, and had thought it … flattering. She felt it had been done to impress her. “Maybe it was a mistake,” she said.

“Yeah, right. And why the hell did he even come over in the first place? You’re friends with Linni, not him.”

“We’re not that close,” Oona corrected him.

“But you’re closer to her than to him. And so if she wasn’t coming, then that should have been the end of it. He should have stayed home.”

“He said he didn’t want to be rude, canceling at the last minute.”

“Well that makes sense. They did make us buy them steaks. It would have been rude of him not to come over and eat them.”

“I don’t know,” Oona said pensively. “I think it showed a certain amount of …” She paused, searching for the right word.

“Social ineptitude?” Cole offered. “Narcissistic psychopathy?”

Boldness,” she decided. “It showed boldness.”

“I’ll tell you what shows boldness,” Cole said, “naming your MyToobs channel ‘Bro2Bro with Tyce Creamer.’ That shows boldness.”

Oona, lying beside Cole in their marriage bed, laughed. Cole had made her laugh often in their early days, but less so more recently. Much less so. “Well, yes. It is a bit tacky,” she admitted. “But so what? He seems to be doing pretty well.”

“Did you know about all this? His MyToobs channel and his twenty-million Chirper followers?”

Over the past few months Oona had watched a number of Tyce’s videos, after first learning about them from Linni. “Not really,” she fibbed.

“And what about the books? Did you know that Lucas was reading him?”

“No,” she said, now telling the truth.

Cole said, “I’m telling you, this really bothers me. The next thing you know, the kid will be wearing a trucker hat with an American flag on it—and not as a joke.”

Again Oona laughed, picturing her son in a trucker hat and thinking it was possible. Lucas had been very rebellious over the last year, standing up to his father and his school and just about everyone else around the issue of SPAARZ. Oona admired it. She herself had never rebelled, not in any significant sense. In almost every way possible she had done exactly what was expected of her.

Cole, noting the improvement in Oona’s mood, felt his own mood improve as well. It had been many months since they had gotten along like this, chatting easily and sharing private laughs. Thinking he might take advantage of the situation, he turned toward her and put his hand on her lower abdomen.

“Cole, no,” she immediately said. “You’re drunk.”

“So what, you’re drunk too.”

He caressed one of her breasts, moaning, “Mmmmmm.”

“Cole, stop!” she shouted with fury.

Startled, he pulled away from her as if a snake had just bitten him. Even worse than her angry voice had been the flash of hatred in her eyes. It was a look of pure loathing, and it wounded him.

“I don’t feel like it!” she said.

“When do you ever feel like it?” he said, now becoming angry himself. “It’s been a year, Oona! Or more! I can’t even remember who was president the last time we screwed!”

She did not back down. In fact, it was just the opposite. Glaring fiercely at him, she bellowed, “Are you kidding me?” She was happy to see his anger, and raise it. “Are you fricking kidding me?”

Cole paused, taken aback by the strength of her feeling.

“Did you really just say that?” she went on, her scornful eyes baring down on him from just inches away.

He paused again, now wondering what verbal line he had crossed. Nothing he had said was factually incorrect: they hadn’t had sex in more than a year and it was because Oona herself never felt like it.

Seeing her husband hesitate, as he often did when they argued, Oona redoubled her attack. “I just can’t believe you. I really can’t!”

Cole seemed to wilt. “I’m … I’m sorry,” he said uncertainly, since he didn’t quite know what he was apologizing for. “It was … insensitive,” he offered, feeling this might placate her.

“I’ll say!” she said.

Still, Cole was puzzled, and he briefly considered asking how, exactly, he had offended her. But he knew this would lead to a fiery lecture about something that he should have already known. Something to do with patriarchy and oppression and white-male privilege, and so Cole kept quiet.

“I just need some time,” Oona finally said, softening her tone.

“OK. Well …” he said cautiously, afraid of stepping on another mine, “you have said that before. A few times. Maybe we could, you know, see a therapist. A couple’s therapist.”

Oona shut her eyes hard, as though from extreme vexation, and raised a hand for him to stop. “Cole, I just can’t take this right now. I’m done with this conversation.”

She turned her back to him, switched off her reading lamp, and assumed a sleeping posture.

Minutes passed in silence, and Cole suffered. He hated it when they fought like this, when he didn’t even know why they were fighting. It made him feel guilty. It made him feel lonesome. It made him feel confused and lost. Presently he said, “Oona?”

She was still on her side with her back to him. She said nothing.

“Oona, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I said.”

There was no reply.

“And I want you to know,” he went on, “that I’m here for you … When you’re ready.”

At last, Oona made a response—or rather, she made a sound. It was an ambiguous sound. It could have been a muffled sob, or possibly a mocking scoff. Cole wasn’t sure.

“Oona? What?” he said quietly and with sensitive concern, looking at the back of her head by the dim light of his reading lamp. “What was that? Oona, are you OK?”

“I’m trying to sleep!” she growled. “Go to bed!”

For Cole, it was yet another humiliation. Another pie in the face. It burned him, she burned him, and he felt the impulse to lash out. He was teeming with animosity and resentment, years and years of it. He was choking on it. But rather than venting his rage at his wife, he did what he always did in these situations—he stifled it, he tamped it down.

 

***

 

Too upset to sleep, Cole reached for his phone on the bedside table. He wanted to see what was happening on Chirper and FaceFace. Though it was not something he would have cared to admit, Cole was addicted to social media. It was central to his life and his emotional well-being, like breathing and regular bowel movements. It was his connection to the world, to the zeitgeist, to all the real action taking place beyond his boring paltry life in Beauville, New Hampshire. And more importantly, it was the one place where he could genuinely express himself, the one place where Cole Perrot could truly be Cole Perrot. As such, he had put a lot of effort into the crafting of his public persona. On Chirper, his handle was @zarathooostra, a nod to his grad-school days and a tipoff to the digital masses of his sophistication and ironic wit. His banner photo was of him marching amid a dense crowd, with a raised fist and a snarling face, at a social justice rally in Boston, pre-pandemic. His profile photo was a headshot of him in his Pq23 face mask and N16z face shield with the caption, “I Stand With Gerbyll.” For his bio he had written, “Seeker of justice, despiser of lies. Antiracist feminist radical. Speaking truth to power since 1976. Just be kind. He/Him.” It was all there, Cole felt—all the things that made him him. On FaceFace and Chirper he regularly posted urgent political messages and attacked all the morons and fascists who thought differently than he did. But he also posted more personal things, such as quotes from revered philosophers—Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Foucault—as well as videos of his favorite bands and pictures of meals he had eaten.

Now, he first looked to see where things stood with his “So proud of Rosa” post. As he had feared, the likes and comments, on both Chirper and FaceFace, had mostly dried up. It was dispiriting, and his mood dipped even lower. A number of people had even written negative comments. On FaceFace, one of his so-called “friends” had written, “There’s no evidence that kids actually need these shots. They may even be harmful.” This was from a guy named Pedro Leboeuf. Cole had barely known Leboeuf at college twenty-five years earlier and had never seen or talked to him since, outside of FaceFace. Normally Cole would have responded to such a preening display of ignorance and negativity with a clever yet devastating put-down. Cole put a lot of thought into his online put-downs. They were, he felt, a sort of public art form, social displays of intelligence and wit reminiscent of the verbal swordplay made famous at the court of Louis XIV. Glory and praise could be had with a sparkling bon mot or a cutting riposte. Yet tonight Cole did not have the energy to compose a clever insult for Pedro Leboeuf. There was no fire in his veins, no desire to engage in digital combat. Instead, he just deleted the comment and “unfriended” Leboeuf who wasn’t a friend in the first place.

Typically Cole would have spent the next hour or more scrolling through his feeds, reading about and commenting on the day’s various outrages. But a nagging curiosity led him in a different direction. He clicked over to Amazin! and, with a vague sense of foreboding, typed “Tyce Creamer” into the search window. The results were worse—or better, depending on how he looked at it—than even he could have imagined. Tyce Creamer, Cole’s Stars-and-Stripes muscle-bound price-tag-flaunting titanium-teethed loser neighbor, was indeed a published author. However, the title of his book series—it was called, unbelievably, “Don’t Be a Bitch”—was so gloriously vulgar and offensive that Cole would have shouted and hooted but for fear that he would wake Oona. Regardless, he derived much satisfaction at this confirmation of his longstanding suspicion of his neighbor’s moral turpitude. “Don’t Be a Bitch”? Ha! The man—the buffoon!—was an out-of-the-closet, unashamed, in-your-face misogynist. For Cole it was too comical, and too perfect. The fool had dug his own grave. Surely his cancelation was imminent.

But then Cole looked a little closer and his spirits plunged—plunged to great, dark depths. Book one in the series was entitled, Don’t Be a Bitch: Transform Your Body and Transform Your Life in Thirty Days! It had 9,486 ratings, nearly all five stars. How was this possible, Cole wondered? Nine-thousand-plus ratings, nearly all five stars? Those were best-seller numbers. Presidential memoir numbers. Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy numbers.

He scrolled down to the first reader review. It was headlined “Life Altering,” and began, “Bros, I didn’t think it was possible, but Tyce is just as good on the page as he is on the screen. I was afraid this might be some sellout bullshit rehash of his videos, but there’s a lot of new info here that really busted my balls, in a good way. His writing is both entertaining and engaging, with humor and insights that really raise the bar for other influencers in the dudiverse. Mad props to my boy—”

Cole could not read any more. It was sickening, and depressing. What was wrong with the world? What was wrong with this country? It was a conspiracy of cretins, a confederacy of clowns. One idiot writes a book, and nine thousand idiots on Amazin! give it a five-star rating. Cole clicked back to the series page to see if maybe this was an anomaly, to see if book one’s success was just a fluke. It wasn’t. Book two was entitled, Don’t Be a Bitch: From Simp to Pimp—How to Become a Dominant, High-Value Male. It had 8,872 ratings, nearly all five stars. Book three was, Don’t Be a Bitch: The Sissyfication of America and How to Resist. 12,944 ratings. Nearly all five stars.

A bleak melancholy came over Cole. Not only was Creamer younger and fitter and richer than him, but he was also a successful author. A well-known author. How could life be this unfair? This unjust?

As if this weren’t enough punishment for one evening—and Cole was, it must be said, just a tad bit masochistic—he clicked over from Amazin! to MyToobs and did another search. And there it was: “Bro2Bro with Tyce Creamer.” The man did indeed have a MyToobs channel, and he did indeed have two-hundred-and-twenty-thousand subscribers—220,683 to be exact. Going back ten years, Creamer had made a whopping one hundred and fifty-six videos. Some of the titles were, “Six Steps to Increased Testosterone—Your Lady Will Thank You!”; “Charisma: I Wasn’t Born This Way—You Can Learn Too!”; “Success Is a Mindset, Failure Is a Choice”; and “Playa Don’t Get Played: 10 Signs That She’s Cheating On You.” This last title alone had gotten more than 1.6 million views.

It was more than Cole’s battered heart could take. Melancholy gave way to despair. Crushing, soul-killing, full-body-paralyzing despair. Cole had always felt a certain kinship with Sisyphus—a man who valiantly struggled on despite the opposition of the gods. But now Cole felt more like Sisyphus’s unknown kid brother—the one who had stumbled, fallen, and been pinned helplessly and for all eternity under an immovable rock. Cole was down, and he could not get up. No, life is not fair, he thought. It is not fair at all.

He turned off his phone, switched off the light, and tried to sleep.

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