Welcome back to The Speed of Love, a web novel.
I’ve been playing around with the web novel concept for a while now. My autobiographical series This is Not a Sad Story is hitting its stride, but I also wanted to do something fictional. After watching the 2019 Netflix film Marriage Story, I knew what I wanted to write about. Cross that with the Modern Love column in The New York Times, and I was golden. This is Episode 2 of The Speed of Love.
The Speed of Love follows the lives, personal dramas, and love affairs of six young adults. In Episode 1, you met bumbling librarian Cara and acclaimed photojournalist Darren, who shared a drunken moment long past. In this episode, you’ll meet two more of the characters, beauty queen turned barista Eloise and grad student Alyssa. You’ll meet the last two in the next episode. There are no heroes here and no villains. Everyone is human. I expect you to pick favorites among the characters, but that’s only because you’re human too! My hope, though, is that you’ll love and hate each character by turns. Because that’s what humans do. We love and hate.
Eloise splashed water across her face.
She squinted into the mirror. Pale. She looked pale. And skinny, pretty skinny. It was hard to believe that three years ago, she’d stood among the most beautiful women in Massachusetts. Then again, what did it mean when her mother had gotten her there? Her mother had raised her up, her mother had entered her in the pageants, her mother had ordained her future.
Her mother had owned her.
Now, her mother called maybe once a month, usually when she’d found some new guy to set Eloise up with. Always a guy, though Eloise had told her straight a couple months back that she swung both ways, that maybe she only swung one way, the wrong way. Everything was always wrong in her mother’s eyes.
She pinned her hair back. God, one of these days she was going to slice it off. In a single stroke, like in that movie about the Chinese princess — not a princess, a warrior.
She was going to cut off those golden locks. She’d dye the rest red. Or blue. Or purple, her mother’s least favorite color.
And she’d try to gain some weight, goddammit. Her mother was always saying what a shame it was she couldn’t have lost the weight at the right time.
She left the bathroom. The cat was on the kitchen table. She chucked a dishcloth at him.
“Get down, pest!”
At the door, she put on her gloves. She was looking forward to quitting this job. Looking forward to marching up to Frank, the guy who had hired her for her looks, and giving him her two weeks’ notice. See you, suckers, I’m off to dreamland. Los Angeles. Not this shitty Cambridge dumphole where she had to wear these stupid white opera gloves and serve tea like a puppet on a string.
She left the apartment and went down to the street, where she hailed a cab. There was this new thing called Uber, all her friends were using it, but she still preferred cabs. Most days, she walked. But today she was running late, and she’d already been late once that week. She could only make things up to Frank so many times before he’d decide he wanted to do more than leer at her. And as much as she wanted to quit the job, she couldn’t lose it just yet.
Ten minutes of defensive driving later, the cab spat her out in front of Littleman’s Tea & More.
She snorted a little, as she did every time she saw that sign. It was the “& More” the customers came for. Even Cambridge hipsters wouldn’t have showed up just for tea.
She breezed into the kitchen. “Morning, Bill,” she said to the chef.
He glanced up from the sink, where he was scrubbing a cutting board. “Morning, beautiful.”
She grinned at him, ear to ear. Now there was a man she would’ve fallen for, in another life. As was, they were drinking buddies on the weekend’s. Came to Littleman’s and crashed the joint using his key to the back door. Drank all the Scotch. Listened to Frank moan and groan the next day about how the Scotch was gone.
“Reservations?” she asked him.
“Brunch,” he said without looking up. “A couple.”
Megan had picked the place.
She’d also told Alyssa — promised her up and down the day before — that she’d swoop by on her way in to pick her up, and they’d go together. Yeah, okay, Alyssa was dumb for believing her. It had never happened before. That was why they were in this mess, doing stupid stuff like going to brunch in a desperate attempt to salvage what they had. What they’d had.
Alyssa wasn’t sure what they had anymore.
All she knew was that over the past few months, after she’d gotten the job at the big time law firm, Megan had turned into a Grade A witch. Alyssa guessed that was the way of things — Meg had always been type A, hyper-controlling. It had been cute, at first. Now that it had morphed into something much uglier, it wasn’t cute at all.
She’d taken the train in when Meg had texted saying she was running late at the nail salon. Meg had made a whole lot of trips to the nail salon lately. Maybe she was cheating. No, there was no way. She didn’t have enough time. She worked in that law office from seven in the morning till nine or ten at night. Unless she was lying. No, she wouldn’t — Alyssa sighed.
She was standing in front of Littleman’s Tea & More. It was exactly the sort of strange shop that could have existed only in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A faded sign read TEA, HOT. DRINKS, ALWAYS ON THE ROCKS. TOAST, TOASTED.
It struck Alyssa as pretty bad humor.
The windows of Littleman’s Tea & More were frosted glass up to her eye level, clear from there. She stood on her tiptoes to peer through and saw a quiet room, serene in the morning sunlight. Heavy brocade curtains on one brick wall. A long bar of sleek wood along the other. The center of the room set up as if for a formal English tea. She snorted. It was exactly the kind of strange hoity-toity-hipster place Megan picked these days.
A door in the back opened, and a lady stepped out, wheeling a cart, the kind of cart you’d see at dim sum. Alyssa blinked. The lady was thin, supermodel thin. And she looked like — well, if Alyssa had a type, the lady was her type.
The lady left the cart near the bar and started towards the door. Alyssa ducked down, a flush creeping up the back of her neck. The lady came to the door, gave it a shove, reached out, and flipped the “Closed” sign to “Open.”
She didn’t notice Alyssa standing in the shade of the awning.
The door swung shut with the tinkle of chimes. Alyssa caught the handle and tugged it open. The lady had just gotten to the bar. She turned around and fixed Alyssa with a pinpoint stare. Her eyes were hazel.
“Reservation?” she asked.
“Yeah. It’s probably under…” Alyssa fidgeted. “Alcantara.”
The lady gave her a hard stare.
“I’m not the Alcantara,” Alyssa said quickly. “Everyone thinks I am, because I guess I look Hispanic — I’m biracial, actually — my girlfriend, she’s the Alcantara.”
“Oh, okay. I guess you’re the nine o’clock brunch reservation for two?”
“Yeah, except my girlfriend’s running late. She, uh, went to the nail salon.”
“Nice of her.” The lady pointed across the room. “Take that table. My name’s Eloise. Call me if you need anything.”
“Thanks,” Alyssa said.
She went to the table. It was already five past nine. Megan was late. But what had she expected? She glanced across the room at Eloise, who was wiping down the bar. She looked kinda familiar.
“Are you an actress or something?” she called.
Eloise glanced up, seeming to wince. “No, not really.”
“You just look familiar.”
“Yeah, well… I was Miss Massachusetts runner-up a few years ago. I guess you might’ve seen me there. And I did a couple magazine covers after that. But nothing really… that serious.”
“Oh,” Alyssa said.
She stared at the tablecloth and tugged on its lacy trim, then looked at the curtains. Red and gold velvet brocade.
“Cool place,” she said.
At the bar, Eloise shrugged.
Then it was ten past nine and Meg still hadn’t showed up and she hadn’t texted, either. Alyssa stared into space. Another five minutes and the tears sitting in her stomach were going to rise into her throat, and she’d have trouble not crying because she could see the writing on the wall. For all she said she was trying, Meg wasn’t changing. She was only getting worse. She was no longer the cute, quirky, driven girl Alyssa had met in her sophomore year of college. She was something else.
“Hey,” came a voice from the bar, piercing her thoughts. It was Eloise, but she was speaking softer. “Are you okay? Do you want a drink?”
“Yeah. I don’t think she’s showing up.” Alyssa felt tears prickling at her eyes. She went to the bar and sat down. “I think it’s over. I think I better pull the plug on love.”
“Well, that’s one way to say it.” Eloise turned and looked at the shelves behind her. “So will it be a gin and tonic, bourbon on the rocks, or a margarita?”
In the next episode…
You’ll meet wilderness-obsessed rebel Josh and undocumented immigrant Alejandra.
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