It’s the first genuine smile Marla has had since the world ended.
Well, ended is putting it a bit dramatically. But changed, definitely changed. No more cheeseburgers, no more greasy fries, no more clove cigarettes or rye martinis. She misses the martinis the most: the glistening ice chips dripping languidly down the inverted triangle of her cocktail glass, gin swirling around the olive like an orbiting cloud of divinity. And the clove cigarettes that made everything smell like a Manhattan carnival. When the healthcare apocalypse hit her own term, which she uses just to annoy Blake, everything fun like bad food and booze was outlawed. In her opinion, there haven’t been a lot of reasons to smile lately.
Still, the slightly overweight dandy with the expensive haircut and top-end jeans standing at the grocery checkout counter causes the corners of her mouth to curl into an unexpected grin. It isn’t what’s in his shopping cart: a collection of starch-rich breads, whipping cream, eggs, and other odds and ends. And it isn’t his attitude: they way he smiles indulgently at the bored clerk, like a Mafia don excusing a family member who might be a little soft in the head.
It’s his love handles.
The extra flesh rolls over the tight waist of his pants like an exposed secret, masked by his loose shirt, but not hidden. The shirt’s fabric clings to its swell in a way that, she has to admit, is almost sensual. Her eyes trace along his meaty waist in a furtive caress as she unconsciously compares it to Blake’s almost skeletal torso, then climb to his face. There’s a moderate bulge beneath the stranger’s chin and a roundness to his cheeks that reminds her of a Caravaggio. Even his skin has a slightly reddish sheen, as if aglow from his lifestyle’s excesses. How a man so obviously heavy for his frame can pass a biotag scan and be cleared to buy luxuries like whipping cream is beyond her. She finds it exciting, even dangerous in a way.
A package of vitamins falls from the counter to her feet, and she automatically stoops to retrieve it.
“Thank you,” the man says.
His voice is a baritone, stroking the air rather than passing through it. As she stands up, she catches him staring straight into the dark cleft of her cleavage (naturally ample, despite the rabbit-food diet her biotag demands she eat), but it doesn’t offend her. His dark brown irises are richer than any she’s ever seen, and his silky black eyelashes, which tickle the tops of his plump cheeks as he blinks, shine as if wet. His long, straight nose is the only sharp aspect of his features, its point hovering over his deliciously full lips. Marla realizes she’s staring, and feels herself blushing as she passes him the vitamins.
“You’re welcome,” she replies, having to swallow first to loosen her throat.
He smiles broadly, an expression so engaging she feels herself wanting to lean forward and taste it, running her tongue along his lips like a lollipop. Then he turns back to the clerk, finishes his transaction, and leaves.
“Ma’am? Your tag?”
She quickly shifts her eyes back to the clerk, wondering how silly her expression must look to him. Trying to conceal her embarrassment, she reaches out with one hand to let the young man pass a wand-like bioscanner over the band of biologically altered skin cells encircling her wrist. The device reads her health status and checks it against her purchases, then sends a message across the clerk’s digital readout, clearing the sale.
“We’ve talked about this, Marla. You know you’re prone to kidney infections. Drinking caffeine only increases the probability that you’ll get another one. Do you want to live to be sixty or a hundred and ten?”
Blake came home early and began helping her put away the groceries. As he’d pulled her Kenyan coffee beans from the bag, the passive-aggressive admonishment began in the usual way, with a heavy, disappointed sigh and condescending cross-examination.
“I’m not a child, Blake. I wish you’d stop speaking to me like one.”
“I’m just looking out for you. For Pete’s sake, Marla, I’m the director of Age Infinitum’s Health Sciences Division. It’s my job to monitor biotags for every citizen in the Greater Atlantic Alliance. How does it look if my own girlfriend has compromised health?”
It’s only Wednesday, right? And already, he picks another fight. She’s hardly in the mood, still experiencing that giddy teenage lust directed at the man in the grocery store. Why does Blake always act as if she’s incapable of taking care of herself? Why can’t he just live and let live?
She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, knowing that nothing she says will make any difference. When she opens them, she keeps her focus on the groceries, trying to avoid being provoked by the mannered offense in his expression.
“Just forget it. It’s not even about me anyway. All you care about is your quarterly report and how many people Age Infinitum catches eating an extra helping of proxy chocolate. The more people your company gets kicked off National Health Division’s health program, the more funding you’ll keep getting. I told you; I’m not a child, I know how it works.”
His lips keep moving, but her mind is elsewhere. She’ll drink her coffee, and he’ll be angry, but her biotag cleared it and he hardly has any authority to control what she eats or drinks, as long as it’s legally purchased. God, it’s like she’s living with her father.
“I’m sorry, miss. It looks like you’re not cleared for the steak, but we have a fantastic tuna and caper salad if you’d like.”
“If I have to eat another salad I’m going to vomit,” Marla says to Erin, her lunch date. Then to the waiter, “Fine. Can I get bleu cheese dressing?”
The waiter consults his scanner readout and smiles. “We have an excellent soy-cheese substitute. Will that be okay?”
“No. I’m allergic to soy. Just the balsamic vinaigrette.” She knows it’s not the waiter’s fault that her family has a history of heart disease, but she wants to strangle someone, and he’s the closest. Sensing the rising threat, the waiter quickly disappears.
Erin picks up the conversation they’d been having before their order was taken. “Really? He told you he thought you should start seeing a couple’s therapist?” She takes a drink of water, trying to cover her pitying smile, Marla is sure. Her friend has heard enough of these complaints over the last two years, and she knows Marla won’t do anything but gripe. “Just because you aren’t going to give up coffee?”
“It’s bullshit, I know. I don’t need some quack telling me to make compromises for my own happiness.” She pauses, waiting for Erin to dutifully agree and reiterate what a bonehead Blake is, but Erin only takes another sip of her water and looks past her at the rest of the lunch crowd. “Anyway, he’s going on a work trip this week. Maybe he’ll forget it if I don’t bring it up.”
“Maybe,” Erin agrees, but there’s no heart in it.
Damn, Marla thinks, even my best friend can’t hide how bored she is by my ridiculous façade of a relationship. Maybe it really is time to do something about it.
She searches for something else to talk about, and the man from the market peeks out from her mental photo album, clearly impressed into her memory from her constant recollections over the last few days. “You know, Erin, I have to tell you about this guy—”
She’s interrupted as the cautious waiter delivers their lunch. Erin’s mind is elsewhere, and Marla decides to drop the subject. She picks through her salad with a predictable lack of enthusiasm, hoping Erin doesn’t catch the envious way she can’t help glancing at her waif-thin friend’s roasted vegetable and tenderloin special.
Halfway through their meal, a disturbance in the foyer catches their attention, and they spot the vests of an Emergency Services crew hustling through a crowd toward the elevators.
“Wow, I wonder what that’s about,” Erin remarks.
“Let’s see what’s going on,” Marla says, grabbing her purse and waving her credit card at the table reader, the insipid salad happily abandoned.
The show is over by the time they find a good vantage point, but the story wafts through the watching crowd like a morning mist. It was Edward, the new accountant for their department; probably an aneurysm; dead before he hit the floor; drug use noted as the cause. Sadly, his next of kin will never see a dime of death benefits. NHD won’t pay out for self-induced death.
Erin nods with somber interest as the story is relayed, but Marla is barely listening. Her attention belongs to the stout paramedic gathering up medical equipment scattered over the office carpet. It’s the man from the grocery store, his bulky form just as tantalizing in his blue tailored ES uniform as it had been the week before in his too-tight shirt and jeans.
He glances up and catches her staring. A wide grin spreads over his face as if he recognizes her, and she smiles back with what is probably too much enthusiasm. He’s not the red meat she’s been craving, but there is no ignoring her almost rapacious attraction.
Erin leans toward her, whispering, “Wow, obviously something wrong with that big boy’s b-tag. Maybe someone should stop feeding…” But Marla’s cold stare freezes the rest of her friend’s commentary in her throat.
Red silk curtains keep the light and most of the noise from the street below from interfering with their evening. Two glasses of Primitivo absorb the muted candlelight, casting a wavering ambience over the embroidered tablecloth and remains of their five-course Italian dinner. Tony tells her the wine comes from the Mediterranean Federation, who have no sanctions against alcohol as long as citizens’ production doesn’t drop, and that he’s able to get it through a relative who does a lot of international travel. She doesn’t care how he gets it; it’s the most delicious thing she’s tasted since the NHD health regulations passed ten years ago.
It’s been over three weeks since Antonio Lazzarani introduced himself on the same afternoon poor Edward the druggie accountant had collapsed. He’d been in the lobby of her office waiting for her after work. When she saw him through the opening elevator doors, she’d thought she was imagining him, her obsession grown out of hand, and her heart stutter-stepped before settling into a heavy-metal rhythm. Perhaps it was time to cut back on coffee after all. Then he was standing next to her, reaching out to take her hand, kissing it, and telling her she was more beautiful than Debussy’s Clair de lune. Could he buy her an espresso or a latte? She’d nearly gasped in surprise, but it hadn’t been that hard to say yes.
And the sex; the sex was more than good. It was fantastic! Explosive, passionate and robust, ranking high above the fondly remembered martinis she so missed. How could she have forgotten what good sex was like? That velvet fire that spread from her center and consumed her, even from something as small as his hands running along her back. The healthcare apocalypse had stripped more pleasures from life than just forbidden food; it seems to have made everything as dull as her diet.
Everything about Tony is the opposite of Blake. His lips are the perfect sweetness and texture of a ripe mango, soft and yielding, but with a hidden firmness that still makes her body feel liquid when they kiss. When she runs her hands along his arms or hips, it’s like a treasure of flesh, the embodiment of opulence. There’s a feeling of firmness to him, a real and touchable substantiality that no man she’s known has possessed. He feels real and complete in the way that the others felt hollow and shell-like. And she can’t get enough of him.
She’s lost count of how many times they’ve made love since meeting, maybe fifteen or twenty, and she’s sure Blake is suspicious. Something else she doesn’t care about. Her mental litany of his faults, his bossiness, his needling, his egotism, his bony ass and hollow cheeks, fades into the background whenever she and Tony are together, and she barely pays attention anymore to Blake’s not-so-subtle accusations. That part of her life is coming to an end, and she’s one unprovoked criticism away from chucking it out for good.
As deliciously irresistible as he is, Tony has another attribute that makes her quiver with desire. He cooks, and cooks well. None of the pasty soy-protein-isolate breads and whole-grain goop that passes for nutritious fare these days. He makes something like manna: pastas swimming in cream sauces, chicken drenched in curries and spices, steak and desserts that are both as marvelous and forbidden as apples from the Tree of Wisdom. Her dresses are clinging more tightly than they used to, and the half of her bra collection reserved for the time of the month when her boobs swell up like puffer fish are the only ones she fits comfortably into anymore. She’s just waiting for someone at the office to ask her if she’s pregnant, and she knows she’ll have to scale back these excesses soon, but for now, it’s too much to resist.
And why should she? She’s not a robot, not like Blake, doing what the NHD tells him without question. She’s a person with her own tastes and desires, and she should be free to do as she pleases. No one is ever going to die because she loves crème brûlée. Shouldn’t it be her choice to eat it or not?
Tony is into her too, she’s sure. He wouldn’t go to so much trouble to impress her if he wasn’t, right? The fancy dinners, the secretive calls during the day when he knows she’s working but can’t, or won’t, ignore him, and the unexpected flowers he’s sent her twice. Yet, there’s something nagging at her, a voice in her head that she’s been quite successful at ignoring. The extravagant dinners are amazing, yes, no argument, but Erin had had a point. How could he buy any of it? He’s heavyset, no way to refute it, and his biotag is a clear ribbon of darker pink skin around his wrist. With the NHD’s healthcare reforms, no scanner in the country would let him buy cuts of marbleized steak or gorgonzola cheese. Which means he’s getting these things illegally.
What is it about Tony and his delicacies that makes her not care? Is it really that everything tastes so much better now, after years of food that had all the variety and flavor of cotton balls? Or is it the memory of that freedom, the choice to eat or drink whatever she desires? And now that she has that again, how could she possibly give it up?
Blake had reacted exactly as she’d predicted: wounded incredulity followed by choleric histrionics. She’d thought calling her a “fat, frumpy slut” was going a little too far, but refused to stoop to his childish name-calling. Her suitcases were already packed, and it had been easy to slip out the door, calling back that the movers would be there on Saturday to get the rest. After two years of codependent pandering and dysfunctional doldrums, the most she expected to salvage of their relationship was the hope that he wouldn’t change the locks before that.
A cool Atlantic rain shower accompanies her as she drags the suitcases to the XCity SkyTran, but she doesn’t mind. The water beads lightly on her long hair, dripping playfully into the collar of her jacket and tickling her neck. It will give her an excuse to strip naked when she gets to Tony’s and wait for him in bed. He isn’t expecting her tonight, but after the last few weeks, it seems entirely natural for her to be showing up unannounced. If he minded, he wouldn’t have given her the door code. They haven’t talked about her moving in per se, but if it turns out that she’s being a bit too presumptuous, she’ll just stay with Erin for a while until things settle down and she has a chance to find her own apartment.
Tony lives in one of the older downtown buildings, one that still has an electric elevator rather than the newer magnetic kind. As it clanks up its cables, she notes for the first time the yellow-brown stains retreating into the dingy corners of the floor and the cracked plastic casing on some of the buttons. The old-world charms she’s always imagined the building bore now look a little faded, a little seedy. This is the first time she’s been to Tony’s without him, and something about it doesn’t feel quite as she’d expected. As if she’s committing some personal transgression, like lifting up the edge of a theater curtain and glimpsing the actors without their makeup, old and wrinkled, tawdry, ugly, and false. She imagines what it would look like to Tony’s neighbors, this strange woman they’d only seen a couple of times. Some floozy, invasive and cheap, like a creeping vine that you can’t quite kill once it’s laid roots in your yard.
The elevator shudders as it reaches the fifth floor, and the doors hesitate before opening, perhaps considering whether or not she deserves to be set free in this building that isn’t hers. Finally, they telescope clear in a halting, mechanical slide. As she pulls her suitcases along behind her, the wheel of one catches in the gap between the doors and the floor, forcing her to yank it free, and making her feel as if the whole building resents her being here.
Shaking it off, she walks down the empty hall to Tony’s and enters the door code, stubbornly resisting the belief that it won’t work. The lock releases with a soft hitch, and she sighs, relieved. She’s just overly emotional, upset after breaking it off with Blake. Only natural. It would be strange if she didn’t feel at least a little sad about it. There should be some leftover béarnaise and crab in the refrigerator, and possibly a bottle of chardonnay. That will be perfect. She can wait for Tony in peace and quiet, maybe work on a little buzz, and let the residue of her and Blake’s relationship slough away like old skin cream under a steam shower.
After rifling through the fridge for a minute, she gives up. He must have eaten it for lunch. He hasn’t been to the market in a few days and nothing easy and quick to cook remains. Perhaps there’ll be something in the freezer she can reheat.
The icebox is like a miniature Antarctica, the frosty air that swirls out as she opens the door turning the rain still in her hair and on her neck frigid and uncomfortable. Packages of frozen shallots and phyllo dough block the front, and the door shelf holds equally unappealing items. She pushes the first layer aside and finds several more bags of frozen meat and vegetables. Almost ready to accept the idea that she’ll have to unthaw something and cook it herself, she reaches to the back corner and comes across an opaque container, half a quart in size. Hoping it will be some kind of delicious dessert, maybe a chocolate torte or ice cream confection, she pulls it out and lets the freezer door swing closed.
“What the hell are those, Tony?” she cries as he walks through the door.
The stark container inhabits the tabletop between them, alien and accusatory. His eyes jump from where she stands near the drapes, one hand clutching anxiously at the still damp collar of her shirt, then follow her pointing finger to the container. She sees the way his expression freezes for a moment, then his widening eyes fly back to her face.
“I know what you must be thinking,” he says, his tone as silky and soothing as a fine port. “But you have to let me explain.”
There is no doubt that he does know exactly what she’s thinking, what anyone would be thinking after finding a box of biotags that had obviously been removed from the arms of real people in their lover’s freezer. What she wasn’t thinking, couldn’t bring herself to think about, was how they’d been removed, and from whom.
“Why do you have those… those things?”
He sets a shopping bag he’d brought in with him beside the table and walks to her side. He tries to put a reassuring hand on hers, but she jerks her arm away before he can touch her. The skin around his mouth and eyes sags in sadness.
“Please, Marla ”
“Just for God’s sake, Tony just answer me.”
He sighs. “Okay. I’ll tell you the truth. You deserve to know.” Walking back to the bag, he begins pulling items out and laying them on the table, pushing the biotag container aside with no more ceremony than if it had been a napkin. “I use them to get things like this.” He places a quart of vanilla bean gelato on the table. “And this.” A set of bacon-wrapped filet mignons follows. “And this.” He lifts a square box from the bottom of the bag and sets it next to the other items. Pulling open the lid, he reveals a cake with icing made of chocolate so dark she can almost smell the cacao beans as they’d roasted. “Your favorite. I got it to mark our first month anniversary.”
His words catch her by surprise. Had it been a month? The time had slipped by so quickly, so many indulgences had accumulated, that she hasn’t realized how long they’d been dating. But the momentary tingle of excitement she feels at this realization is trampled by the loathing she has for the question that has to be asked. “Wh–where did you get them?”
Instead of answering directly, he pulls out a chair and sits, placing his hands palms down on the table as if to prove he has nothing to hide. “When people die, Marla, their biotags retain a trace of energy, a static charge. Enough that the tags still work for a while. The difference is, when they’re no longer attached to people, they can no longer read any personal bio-info. Do you see what I mean?”
She shakes her head miserably, trying to force the echo of the words when people die out of her ears.
“When you’re dead, nothing can kill you,” he explains. “So nothing is off limits. The biotags of dead people let me buy anything I want.”
Her stomach lurches. “You cut these off of corpses?” It makes sense; he works for Emergency Services. He sees more death in a week than most people see in their lives, and she knows he is friends with the city coroner. “You desecrate their bodies!” she tries to scream, but it comes out a horrified whisper.
He balls one hand into a fist and hammers it down on the table hard enough to make the containers jump. For the first time, she sees anger in his face in the way his brow creases into a cascade of wrinkles, and his lips tighten. “Damn it, what’s more of a desecration? The NHD forcing people to wear these bio-engineered manacles their whole lives, or letting people go to their graves in the same body they were born with? Don’t you see? I refuse to live as a prisoner in my own skin. I’ve thrown off my chains, Marla.” He takes a deep breath, and his expression rearranges itself back into the slightly chubby but undeniably handsome face of the Caravaggio she’d first fallen for. “I thought that’s what you loved about me.”
Inexplicably, the image of the salad she’d been trying to eat for lunch the day she’d met Tony comes to mind. The memory of the smell of its overcooked tuna and slightly wilted lettuce turn her stomach more than what he’d just said did. She realizes she hasn’t eaten anything she hasn’t wanted since she met him, and she’s never been as happy as she has been in the last four weeks. Like he said, she feels free. For the first time in ten years, she’s living on her own terms, making her own choices, and experiencing no regrets. What good are NHD sanctions that attempt to prolong life if that life is not the one you want?
She looks into his eyes and sees the same warmth and, yes, love, that she’d seen in them nearly every day since their first date. His gentle and compliant hands are flat on the table again, and she knows they will never harm her, had probably never harmed anyone. And that was the thing; did it matter how he got the contraband biotags? He wasn’t hurting anyone.
She approaches the table, takes the seat opposite him, slips one of her hands into one of his, and asks, “Would you mind if we have dessert first?”