Short Fiction. For one evening in DTLA, a progressive millennial endures the romantic overtures of a fellow Iowan. Photo Credit: Canva/Corduroy Graphics
Tara shuffles across the living room of her one bedroom in Echo Park, a semi-recently gentrified L.A. neighborhood. She enters the kitchen and chooses a responsibly-sourced, Guatemalan “Awaken Goddess” breakfast tea from the cupboard.
If Anthropology had an activist-inspired line of interior decor, Tara’s apartment would nail the look. Pom-pom edged rugs and textured pastel throws adorn the floors and couch; a gallery wall displays prints, photographs, and quotes from Gloria, Angela, Maya, and even Hilary for good measure. Bright, waxy house plants drape across the walls and hang off countertops.
The morning sun reaches through the kitchen window, making Tara gently push the window’s white curtains together and soften the intrusive rays. “Yoga in the Park” starts in an hour, a bright spot in Tara’s week. She will wear her sustainably made yoga outfit ( made out of recycled plastic), lay down her yoga mat she bought at a charity event sponsoring a local domestic abuse shelter, and pretend not to stare at the ripped guy who always finishes the class with a headstand practice. Tara hates that she wants the hot headstand guy to notice her. He’s a showy yoga fuck boi and he has a tattoo that says “Coexist” on his chest.
After James left her for an older, more accomplished version of herself, it’s been only women on her docket. The only awkward part is that she can’t stomach the idea of sticking her tongue in someone else’s slippery folds. When she’s on a date and the woman initiates the all important act, Tara freezes, wide-eyed and unmoving, not unlike a lamp post beaming uselessly in the daylight. And then she excuses herself to the bathroom, praying her date will drop the matter when she returns.
White men have made dating yet another arena for holding power over others. That’s a mantra of hers with a new variation. The “white men did this shitty thing…” is a flexible catchphrase, really. White men have ruined native L.A. culture by starting hip restaurants in low-income neighborhoods and using unresponsibly-sourced avocados. White men started pedophilia. That sort of thing.
As Tara waits for her tea to steep, she parts the kitchen window curtains and watches people slowly trickle into the busy intersection of Echo Park Lake Dr. and Sunset. Couples wander into Lassens for brunch grocery runs and Tara’s gaze lingers on a messy-haired man patting his girlfriend’s overall-clad bum. She wonders if the couple woke up as blissful as they seem, or if their romantic glow was simply a mirage, hiding shadows unfit for public consumption.
Tara’s phone lights up. Did Alessa, the Peruvian girl with a neck tat from Hinge, hit her back? No, she did not. It’s Claire, her best friend from back home. Her cousin is moving out to L.A. and can she grab dinner with him so he can meet people?
Tara sits across the table from Brent in a Thai-Chinese fusion restaurant of a hotel in DTLA. Brent Botanowitz is his full name. Why did she agree to see Claire’s cousin for dinner again? Tara wracks her mind as she looks at Brent, shiny-faced in a stiff button-up that may or may not have come from his high school wardrobe. He’s awkwardly lanky and his wide set eyes dart everywhere around the crowded bar. She’s pretty sure he might’ve voted for Trump.
Brent leans in conspiratorially. He’s overly comfortable with Tara because they’re from the same flyover state.
“Yeah, I can’t lie, I was a little nervous about moving out here. You know, it’s just different from where we grew up. Different values. Different way of living. Everyone here is just so- “
“Progressive?” Tara offers.
“I was going to say ‘into themselves’,” Brent replies. Tara slightly relaxes. A fairly common indictment of L.A.
“People aren’t purely into themselves for the sake of selfishness. They’re into their career. Their art. Their passion. You don’t move to L.A. to settle down and start a family. You move here to make shit happen for yourself.” Tara leans back in her chair and sips her gin. That was good, wasn’t it? Brent looks at her, unmoved.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. But the way people do it here, it feels grimey. Like, everyday I watch my supervisor read the sports section of The LA Times before his boss comes back from lunch. My supervisor could give a shit about the Dodgers. Told me this himself. But the way he brings them up to his boss, you think he’d personally impregnate every player if he could.”
“It’s called ‘hustling.’”
“It’s called bullshit.” Tara shrugs, no longer interested in the conversation.
The server brings their meals: vegan noodle stir fry for Tara and Mongolian Beef for Brent. Tara eyes the beef with flickering disapproval before digging into her noodles. Brent notices.
“Is this- should I not have ordered this in front of you?”
“No, no. It’s fine. You’re a grown human. You can order whatever you want.”
“I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect. You’re the first vegan I think I’ve ever met.”
“Don’t apologize.” Tara reddens in spite of herself. Brent’s keen observational powers surprise her.
“Geez. I really know how to screw up a date, don’t I? Eat something she considers precious and vulnerable. Criticize her city.” Tara stiffens. Date? Did he actually say the forbidden word? Why did doing her friend a favor mean that this was a date?
“This isn’t a date,” Tara says. It tumbles out of her, harsh and quick.
“Oh. I-I thought – Clare said it was dinner. That you’re single and looking for something. You’re all dressed up. I thought…I’m an idiot.” It’s Brent’s turn to blush. Tara almost feels bad for him. Except for why was Claire going around telling people she’s on the market when she’s not?
“I only date women,” Tara says. She sits up a little taller, waiting to be acknowledged as more distinct than she might’ve been perceived just a moment ago. Brent only nods and takes a large sip of his beer.
“I’ll be right back,” Brent says as he gets up from the table. The glasses shake as Brent’s knee bumps into the table leg, threatening to drown each meal in their accompanying beverages. Brent’s chopsticks clatter to the floor.
“Jesus,” Brent mutters, slapping the chopsticks back onto the table. Tara fakes a smile and Brent departs. Quickly. Tara scarfs down her noodles in solitude and asks for the check. It’s been a while so she figures Brent’s giving her an easy out. He’s puttering in the bathroom so that she can escape and they’ll both slink away from the restaurant with their dignity intact.
The server returns at the same time as Brent, who triumphantly plunks down his credit card into the bill before Tara can suggest going dutch.
“I got it. Trust me.”
“It’s still not a date.”
“Roger that. But I wanted to pay for it as a thanks. For getting dinner with me.” Brent seems to be boring a hole into Tara’s forehead now. ‘A passive aggressive, meal-paying-power move?’ Tara wonders. It’s a ‘thank you’ that’s supposed to taste like a ‘fuck you.’
The time that passes, waiting for the leftovers to get boxed up and for the server to return, is literally endless. Tara is certain that their table has accidentally gotten swallowed up into another time dimension and they’re rendered no longer visible to the real world. Their server glides by at least five times, ignoring Tara’s pleading glances and extended hand. Brent takes advantage of the time and prattles on about any and everything: his ex-girlfriend, his intramural disc golf team back home, and his super annoying roommate who plays the guitar rather poorly late into the night ( the gall people have). This feels hostile too, making conversation after both parties tacitly agreed to not make conversation again.
Finally the server drops off the bill and boxed up food, smiling breezily at them and wishing them a fun rest of their evening. The two dart out of the restaurant and onto the mostly empty, dark streets. Some pockets of homeless people are dotted along the way, resigned for the evening. Except for one, a younger man with a pitbull, who immediately spews expletives at the two as soon as he spots them. Tara gives Brent an awkward wave.
“Well, I’m parked in a garage that way. Um, it was nice-“
“Look at these motherfuckers. Fucking little bitches.”
“I’ll walk you.”
“You don’t need to do that. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you kidding me? I can’t let you do that.”
“Fucking little bitches. Stupid fucks.” Tara looks at the man, who’s beginning to get up.
“Fine.” Tara takes off at a brisk speed down the block and Brent catches up. The homeless man follows too, his voice growing louder and angrier with each step.
“Fucking little bitches. That’s what you two are. You hear me?” Tara steps up her pace. She hates moments like these. She’s done enough work in activism to know that homelessness isn’t the crime, it’s systemic poverty and capitalism that’s to blame. These are humans. Treat them like humans. But none of this really affects Tara like it’s intended to because she still carries pepper spray with her everywhere she goes. She swallows hard, her guilt and fear swirling together at the pit of her stomach.
“Slow down,” Brent says. He takes her arm and Tara shrugs him off.
“Fuck that,” Tara replies. The homeless man, with pitbull in tow, is now mere feet from them.
“He’s got a dog. He could let that dog off the leash at any time.”
“Just let me handle this.” Tara looks at Brent’s face: sweaty, determined, and still scared as she is. Tara digs into her purse. She feels the shape of her pepper spray and grips it.
“I have experience with this population. I’ve got this. We don’t need to escalate the situation.” Brent stands and faces the homeless man. The homeless man and dog continue approaching. Defend the vulnerable. Champion the rights of the voiceless.
“Hey, hi. How are you doing?” Brent says.
“Little bitches.” The man spits at them, narrowly missing Brent’s shoes. Tara’s heart races. The man takes another step. Her kindergarten teacher told her that because of God’s imagination it’s normal to be different. But this man is more than different from her. He’s dangerous.
“Fucking little bitches need to be put in their- “ Tara shoots the pepper spray but it doesn’t go in the intended direction. The pepper spray cloud engulfs her- she screams with pain and doubles to the ground. The homeless man yells and runs from the street corner. Brent grabs Tara from her crouch and drags her away from the cloud.
“Come on, it travels fast. Move, move.” Brent barks. Tara wipes her eyes but the pepper spray on her hands gets into her eyes and burns her further. She yelps in pain.
“Don’t touch your face.” Brent guides her for a few blocks, as she stumbles with tears streaming down her face, both of them coughing frequently. He finally slows down at a parking lot and directs her towards a red Ford mustang.
“That’s not my car.”
“It’s mine. I’m driving you home.” Tara nods.
The drive home is quiet except for the navigation voice on a GPS app directing Brent where to go. Tara’s eyes still stream partially from pain, partially from embarrassment. She sniffles and wipes her face with the backs of her hands. She doesn’t dare use her sleeve. She paid too much for her Reformation top to get snot all over it.
“I’m sorry,” Tara wheezes finally.
“We all do crazy shit when we’re scared.” Tara looks up at Brent, his face tight with fatigue and worry. He must not stay up this late on a Wednesday night normally. He was probably looking forward to this night too. His button-up and distressed jeans looks less high school now and more of an intentional choice, indicating hope- hope that Tara and him would connect. There’s even a wisp of cologne hanging in the air. Tara turns away, her stomach churning with noodles and disappointment for him.
“Fight, flight, or freeze,” Brent continues. “ You’re a fighter.”
“I’m an idiot,” Tara replies. Brent laughs.
“Claire said you and I would be a good match. She didn’t mention the fact that you’re a lesbian to me. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have brought it up.”
“Why did Claire think we’d suit each other?” Tara asks.
“She said we’re both humanitarians. She told me how you were really involved in an activist group and stuff. I think that makes a person so attractive, when they care about the bigger picture, you know? I’ve been working with unhoused folks for a while now. That’s why I wanted to defuse the situation before it got any worse.”
“Well, now you know the truth. I’m a big asshole actually.” Brent laughs loudly.
“Yeah, I’m not going to lie. That was… Not great. I mean, you learned the hard way that’s for sure. If you’re going to mace someone, at least aim it in their direction. Shit.” Tara laughs now, and for the first time that night.
“I’ll have to teach you some new methods for deescalation. They’re good tools to have on the ready.” Tara nods her head
“Thank you.” She glances at Brent’s profile. He looks more relaxed now, more himself. She doesn’t even know who he is, but she’s decided that he’s very much himself in this moment. The car pulls up in front of Tara’s apartment building. Brent looks at Tara’s puffy face and cracks a smile.
“Thank you again for tonight. It’s honestly been super lonely since I’ve moved here. I feel like I have no interesting updates to share with people at work about what I do in my free time. I’ve been recapping “Agents of Shield” episodes for them and it’s getting pretty old. At least now, I’ve got a really good story to tell my coworkers tomorrow.”
“Hey, whatever it takes to get that promotion, “ Tara replies and scoots out of the car. She hesitates to close the door.
“Let’s hang again. Not in downtown at night. But you know, somewhere else,” Tara says.
“Gotcha yeah. We’ll go to Glendale next ime,” Brent says, chuckling. Tara waves and hurries into the building.
She stumbles into her apartment, throws her takeout on the counter and reaches into her fridge. She grabs a string cheese and not just any string cheese: it’s made with cow’s milk. She unwraps the cheese, nearly flinching at the sound of the wrapper unsticking itself from the moist, forbidden cylinder. She chomps down on the stick hungrily.
Her phone shows a text from Claire: “How was the date??”
Tara drafts a response: “ Why are you calling it a date? You know I’m only seeing women. ” She re-reads the text. Her swollen face softens and she deletes her draft.
She starts a new text message: “He’ll make a great friend. Glad to have another Iowa buddy here.” Tara sends the text and melts into a chair at her kitchen table, her heart rate finally returning to its steady beat.