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Authors: Rebecca Serle

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Chapter Thirty

I show up to work the next day to find that Irina has erected a
CONGRATULATIONS, GRADUATE!
banner over the kitchen island. There are balloons and a giant Ring Pop, the size of my hand.

“Wow,” I say. “Word travels fast.”

“Kendra called,” she says. “Let me see it.”

I hold my hand out to her, and she surveys it, flipping my wrist back and forth like she's a doctor at an exam.

“So fine; it's gorgeous. He's like perfect or something?”

“Or something,” I say.

Irina hands me a coffee that has just finished in the Nespresso. I set my bag on a stool and lean over the counter.

“And he took it like a champ,” she says. It's not a question. It's a reminder, maybe.

I look at her. She's got on high-waisted jeans and a white bodysuit. Her hair is pulled back in a low bun. She doesn't have a stitch of makeup on, and her skin is flawless—radiant and rosy.

“You know, until Jake you were the only one besides my family, Hugo, and some friends from college who knew about my heart.”

Irina nods. “It's my trustworthy face,” she deadpans. “And the fact that I made you fill out insurance forms.”

I shake my head. “No. You never treated me any differently. You never made me feel like I had something to make up for, or that there were things I couldn't do.”

“You can't pick out a proper handbag,” Irina says, gesturing to the leather satchel that's with me. “So I'd hold on to some modesty.”

I shake my head. “That's not what I mean.”

Irina touches my hand. “I know what you mean,” she says. “But this relationship is like fight club. It works because we don't talk about it.”

She turns around, back to the sink, and sets her coffee cup inside.

“I love you,” I tell her.

“Oh, Daphne,” she says, her back still to me. “Don't be obvious.”

And then she turns around. I see a smile creep onto her face.

“You are one of the people I love most in this world. It should be self-evident. But—” She holds my gaze; I see just the slightest film on her eyes. “There you go.”

It feels good to say it. It feels good to hear it. All this easy intimacy I denied myself for so long.

When I first met Kendra, I hadn't gotten close with a single person outside Tae and my family for years. I was in a glass bubble. I had friends, but they didn't understand my reality, and as the years wore on, we kept in touch less and less. I sidelined their
friendship because I knew, somewhere deep down, that my life would never resemble theirs. That I may never get married; that I wouldn't carry children; that I'd only progress to the middle. I didn't want the comparison shoved in my face every day. I didn't want to look at them and feel ugly or resentful. I didn't want to see that the people I'd started with were already somewhere I'd never be.

And then there was Kendra. Maybe it was that she was alternative, that her life with Joel was narrated with happenstance instead of intention, or that she never questioned my life, just kept showing up, but our friendship was easy to maintain. She cracked the window. Irina flew in and blew down the door.

“What's going on with Penelope?” I ask Irina now.

Irina rolls her neck out. “What is always going on with Penelope,” she says. “A lot of love and not as much compatibility. You think when you get to a certain age you figure it out, but life is much more like a continuum than a three-act structure. Here's the thing no one tells you in any of these fucking movies we make: love is not enough.”

“No one wants to hear that,” I say. “It's not sexy.”

“You need so much more than love,” she says. “Are you kidding? I'd love to be with someone who didn't sleep until ten a.m. Or who understood the importance of a clean house. Or who didn't splash water all over the bathroom sink when she brushed her teeth.”

I laugh. “You think you'll ever go searching for someone who doesn't?”

Irina kneads a muscle in her neck. “The problem with love is that it's not enough,” she says. And then she looks up at me. Her
eyes are still soft. “But it's also nearly impossible to let go of once you've found it.”

I straighten up.

“Well, that is a catch-22,” I say.

Irina nods. She plucks a crumbled dish towel off the counter and begins to fold it. “Life is a catch-22,” Irina says. “That's why God invented female friendship.”

Chapter Thirty-One

Josh, six months.

After my breakup with Tae I stayed in Los Angeles for another year. There was an easing out of constant hospital living. I still had to do all the appointments and tests and blood draws, but we were no longer in constant-crisis mode and instead in a sort of homeostasis. There was a hovering, some space, and I wanted to fill it.

On the eve of my twenty-fourth birthday, I moved to San Francisco. I had gotten the job at Flext, a tech-venture start-up that was looking to revolutionize how people worked out at home. It was pre-Peloton, and they were getting a lot of buzz.

I'd first heard about the start-up from Alisa, my old college roommate. It was a friend of hers from New York's venture, and she asked me if I wanted to be an assistant there. They were looking for someone with a communications background who didn't mind the grunt work and the long hours. It sounded perfect.

“The only catch is, it's in San Francisco,” Alisa said.

“Even better.”

All during my years of dating Tae when he was at Stanford, I'd hear about the glory of San Francisco. It felt like a city comprised of everything off-limits. Hilly neighborhoods, bike rides, drinks at the top of skyscrapers, meetings on scooters.

We talked about my visiting often, but something always got in the way. I couldn't fly; it wasn't safe. There was another appointment.
What if something happened?

Something always did.

But now I was free. I could visit if I wanted to. Hell, I could live there. So I did just that, I moved.

I met Noah the second night I was there, in that tiki bar down the block from the hotel where I was staying, and our five weeks together sped by with all the particularity of a film dissolve. When it ended, I was sadder than I should have been. And then I met Josh.

Josh was my boss. He was twenty-nine, with a 4.0 from Harvard and a hundred million dollars in venture capital. He was on fire.
Forbes
had just written a piece about him. He was being followed by
The New Yorker
for a three-month interview. He was poised to become Silicon Valley's next billionaire. To me, he just seemed like a guy in a J.Crew ad.

I walked into Flext's offices that day in jeans, a collared shirt, and so much enthusiasm I felt like a different person. I was excited to be there. The offices were an open-floor plan—no one had a door. Josh sat in the middle of the bullpen, typing away at his computer.

“That's our founder,” Janelle, the receptionist, told me. “He's hot, right?”

Josh had auburn hair and green eyes, and everything about him felt congruent, all his features working together to present a unified image. He was like a completed puzzle. Symmetrical. Organized.

“Josh,” Janelle said. “This is Daphne, our new assistant from Los Angeles.”

Josh blinked once, as if pulling out of a trance, and then looked at me. “Hi,” he said. “Daphne from Los Angeles.”

I nodded.

“Glad to have you on board. I'm told you're good with Excel, that will come in handy. We're a tech start-up that isn't very high-tech.”

I laughed. “Happy to help.”

I didn't report to Josh. Instead, I reported to Tanaz, a twenty-eight-year-old who could code better than anyone I'd ever met. In college my sophomore-year roommate had been a computer science major. I had absorbed a few things by osmosis during our year together, and I could tell Tanaz was better than anyone.

It soon became clear to me that my job was mostly to make sure Tanaz never needed anything so she could continue to do what she did so well.

I began to anticipate her rhythms—when she'd want coffee, lunch, even a bathroom break. And I liked her, too. She started calling me “DB.”

“It's shorter,” she said. “And I like it more.”

She made me call her “Tanz.”

One syllable saves time.

I loved it there because it was a place where no one knew. I felt like a superhero, but instead of hiding a power I was hiding
my illness. For the first time in nearly three years no one saw me as being sick. I was just a part of something. Normal. It felt incredible.

Josh and I didn't really speak until I'd been at Flext almost six weeks. At that point I was living in the Financial District simply because I'd found a cheap sublet. It was about an hour from the office but an easy drive. I'd taken my car with me up to San Francisco because I knew I'd never be able to walk the hills, and nothing made me happier than the freedom being behind the wheel afforded. I was in control, finally, again.

Flext's offices were in Palo Alto, and if I ever didn't feel like driving (which I rarely did) there was a direct train that the company reimbursed me for.

I hadn't been with Noah often during our five-week stint, and once it ended, I'd stay at the office late. I had gotten the paper a week earlier. It was sitting in the printer when I went to scan something:
Josh, six months.

I was elated. Not necessarily about Josh, but about the length.

Six months felt like forever. I could swim in that much time. I could bathe in it.

Whatever stragglers were around in Flext's office after hours started having dinner together. There were only twenty-five employees in the office, and everyone knew one another, especially because there were no office doors. We'd order in—salads, tacos, pizza—and eat in a huddle—Parmesan packs and napkins littering the railing.

One particular Thursday evening Josh joined us. He sat with Tanaz, and then when he stood to get a napkin, we made eye contact. I waved.

“How's it going?” he asked. “Sorry things have been so hectic around here. I hope you're enjoying at least some of it?”

I swallowed my pizza. “No, it's good,” I said. “Great, actually.”

It was true. I was happy. I loved the schedule, the rhythm, and I loved how people relied on me. After so many years of feeling like a victim—always having to accept help—it felt good to be able to provide some.

There was an HR department, comprised of one person, Kelly, and she knew about my condition. If I had to come in an hour late or leave for a blood draw, it was always kosher.

“I like to get to know everyone who comes in, but things have been so crazy lately,” Josh said. He looked at me. “I'm sorry.”

“Don't be,” I said. “I get it.”

“Want to grab a bite?” Josh swung his arm out, inviting me into his section of the bullpen. I grabbed my pizza box.

He was relaxed—that was the thing that struck me first about him, how casual he was. In an industry and business that is neurotic and wired nearly all the time, he was like a raft on a lake. I could barely see him move.

“I know you're from LA,” he said. “And that's where my knowledge evades me.”

“Born and raised in the Palisades.”

Josh folded a slice in half. I watched the grease funnel down into his napkin. “We lived in Sherman Oaks when I was a little kid, but then my folks moved to Hawaii.”

“Hawaii?”

He took a bite, chewed through it. “I know. Everyone always asks me what growing up there was like, but honestly it's not that different from everywhere else.”

“I feel like that was true of Malibu, too. The Palisades was suburban but still close to the ocean. People would ask me if I surfed all the time.”

“Did you?”

“Not well.”

Josh smiled, wiped his mouth. “Do you miss it?”

“The ocean?”

Josh shrugged. “Home.”

I took a small bite of pizza. “Not right now.”

Josh laughed. “One thing that's nice about the start-up life is that it doesn't matter that San Francisco sucks, you never have time to hang out in it anyway.”

“So is work what you do for fun?”

Jake smiled. “Indeed,” he said. “I'm honestly not sure I could sketch my apartment from memory. I broke up with someone last year, and my life has been kind of all work since.” He looked at me, alarmed. “Sorry if that's too much information.”

“That you're single?” I asked. “I can handle it.”

Flext's office was incredibly close-knit—everyone was friends. It felt halfway between pulling an all-nighter in college and summer camp. Both things I had, confessionally, enjoyed. I loved the energy of it. Whole hours would go by where I'd forget the past two years.

I was the one who asked Josh out first.

We were at a company happy hour, at a karaoke bar not too far from my apartment, as it turned out. It was called Karaoke One, and it had a neon sign that read:
OPEN YOUR WALLET. YOUR MOUTH IS YOUR CHOICE.

We got a room in the back that was covered in geometric-print wallpaper. It would have made me feel claustrophobic if I hadn't
kicked that fear somewhere around my eighth MRI scan—being forced into small, confined spaces regularly made me adapt.

Josh got up to sing a Pat Benatar song. I liked him, that much I knew. I liked his ease, and how down-to-earth he seemed. It had been two weeks since the paper, and my crush had fully bloomed. I felt it was reciprocated, but it was hard to tell. Josh was a good boss and a great role model. I knew he'd never make the first move.

“ ‘
We are young
,' ” Josh sang.

Tanaz cupped her hands around her mouth and hollered into my ear.

“He's cute, huh?” she said to me.

I was staring.

“Yes.” I didn't see the point in denying it. People met at work sometimes, didn't they?

“He was so torn up about his ex last year he barely came around. He seems happier since you got here.” She smiled at me. “When you have so few people in the office, one person can really change the dynamic. And I think you changed ours in a great way.” It was the longest conversation we'd ever had.

“ ‘
Searching our hearts for so long.
' ”

Someone handed me a beer. I took a swig. The bar was loud, and our room was small and crowded and hot. Everyone was sweating. I loved it.

“ ‘
Love is a battlefield.
' ”

When Josh passed the mic off to Janelle, he came down to Tanaz and me.

“How much did that suck?” he asked.

“You were bad,” Tanaz said. “But you looked happy about it.”

“Do you want to get a drink sometime?” I asked him.

He tilted his beer toward me. “No time like the present.”

“That's not what I mean,” I said.

“I know,” Josh said.

Tanaz was making herself scarce.

“But I'm your boss.”

“Do you like me?” I asked. I'd never been that bold before. It felt like adrenaline to the vein.

“I do,” Josh said.

“So let's have a drink.”

Josh eyed me. I could tell he wanted to.

“OK,” he said.

Before anything—before we went out for that drink, or held hands, or even had a conversation with the door shut—which admittedly would have been difficult, again, there were no doors—we told our one-woman HR department, Kelly.

“Is that really necessary?” I asked Josh.

“This is a small company. Everything has to be aboveboard.”

We signed a bunch of papers that I didn't read and Josh read thoroughly. “There's a clause in here that says if we stop dating for any reason she doesn't have to leave the company, correct?”

“She cannot be fired for your relationship,” Kelly said. “Is that what you're asking?”

“I just want to make sure she is looked after.”

It's just a drink
, I thought.

It wasn't just a drink. After the papers were signed we went to Alchemist Bar & Lounge, a dimly lit bar near Oracle Park. We drank rye whiskey and apple brandy out of mason jars, and then we went back to Josh's apartment. He had a loft overlooking the bay that was sparsely decorated in a step up from IKEA furniture.

“I haven't had time to make it something. My ex did some decorating, but when we broke up, she took most of the things with her.”

“I like it,” I said. “You could throw a huge party here.”

Josh laughed. “I've had a few company get-togethers. Not much as of late.” He went over to the stainless steel refrigerator. “I have red or white, and they're both in the fridge because I know nothing about wine.”

“Can I have a glass of water?”

Josh struck a hand to his face in a gesture that felt overly dramatic. “I'm so sorry, of course, I should have offered as soon as we got in.”

He took a mini Brita out of his fridge and poured me a large glass.

“Thanks.”

I took a few big gulps. He watched me.

“You're very interesting,” he said. “You don't seem to have a whole lot of fear. Me on the other hand, I'm basically living in a Hitchcock movie.”

I wiped my lips. “That is not true.”

Jake shook his head. “No, it is. I mean, I'm not trying to invalidate your experience or anything, but that's how it reads to me. You seem very direct.” He paused. “I like it.”

I set the water glass down. I came around the counter to meet him by the sink.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi.”

I put my hands on his chest. He was the same height as me. I didn't have to reach.

“Can I kiss you now?” I asked.

He shook his head. I could see his dimples. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

“Yes. If it would help, I can sign more papers. Maybe page eighty will give you a sense of security.”

He put his hand around my waist and then pressed his lips against mine. The kiss was tame, chaste almost. A finger wiggled through an envelope seam.

It was the first relationship I'd ever had that moved so quickly legally but so slowly physically. After that night, we were just together. Nothing at the office changed; for the most part things were so busy there that interpersonal drama wouldn't even have been possible if we'd wanted it—there just wasn't enough time. But after work we'd often leave together, stopping off for a drink or going back to his place to cook a Blue Apron meal.

BOOK: Expiration Dates: A Novel
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