Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognize her?
- Ernest Hemingway, from The Old Man and the Sea
There are quite a few things in her life that Leah holds Dot Campbell responsible for, including but not limited to: the small white scar on her left elbow, the missing lid of their coffee machine, the continued existence of her own sanity, and the fact that last week their new mailman had assumed she was Dot’s girlfriend based on “the way you two were standing together, you know? Plus, she’s wearing cargo shorts.”
So, yes - there’s a lot of responsibility living in the walls of apartment 226B, most of it resting on Dot’s sturdy shoulders. And Leah thinks of all the things that Dot is responsible for, the one that’s happening right now in their living room is the absolute worst of the lot.
“Dot,” she says evenly, trying to restrain herself from either lunging at her best friend or climbing out their second-story window to escape this disaster. “Give me my phone back.”
“Sorry, can’t do that,” Dot says, thumbing through Leah’s phone with a lightning-quick ease that Leah herself doesn’t possess on the best of days. “You just told me you haven’t been on a real date in four years, and this profile already looks great. I’m doing this for your own good.”
“You knew that already,” Leah points out. “You’ve been friends with me for all of those four years and more, and it didn’t seem to bother you then.”
Dot shrugs, gracefully concedes the point. “Maybe, but things are different now. We live in LA, I have a real job, you’ve graduated to academic fossil status, and nothing and nobody can touch us if we don’t want it to.”
The end of that sentence falls heavily between them, bearing weight beyond their simple shape. Something in Leah’s throat tightens, taut with memory.
“Leah,” Dot says, softer now. Her hand finds Leah’s knee on instinct, and Leah relaxes into the familiar warmth of the touch. “I understand if you’re still not ready. But I don’t think that’s it anymore. I think you’re just afraid.”
“And what about it?” Leah answers, mouth dry, jaw clenched. “After everything, after all the shit he did - ”
“I know,” Dot rushes to say. “I didn’t mean that your fear was unjustified. I mean that it’s been five years now - or one, depending on how you look at it - and you shouldn’t have to carry that with you anymore.” She holds out Leah’s phone as an offering, the screen unlocked and open. “You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. But for what it’s worth, you deserve to find someone - and even if you don’t, you deserve to try.”
Leah takes the phone, closes her hand around it. The ember-red logo of the Tinder app blinks up at her: a bright challenge in the center of her screen, there if she dares to take it.
“Thanks,” she says, slow but steady. Then, after a long minute: “I’ll think about it.”
A smile breaks out across Dot’s face, wide and genuine; against her will, the corners of Leah’s mouth curl upwards to mirror it. Dot leans over to hug her, pushing both of them back into the sofa, and Leah pushes at her shoulder without putting strength behind it. “Fuck off, Dot, I said I’ll think about it.”
“I love you too,” Dot says, like it takes no effort, like reading between the lines of Leah’s time-worn, self-defensive script is second nature to her - and, well, it probably is by now. Leah stops fighting, sinks into the hug, and pries apart her carefully constructed cynicism just long enough to send out a prayer of thanks to the universe for sending her Dot Campbell.
“I think this gets me out of laundry duty for the next day or two,” Dot adds, her arms still wrapped around Leah, and Leah sighs.
“Fine, but I’m not washing your cargo shorts.”
Leah isn’t one to break a promise, so she does exactly as she said she would: she thinks about using Tinder. She just doesn’t think very much, or else she thinks about the wrong things altogether, a serial killer in disguise or a first date turned Dateline case. She knows it’s not healthy or reasonable, knows that if she’s not going dark then she’s at least getting dimmer, but she can’t shut her mind off regardless.
She tries her level best to make it stop, but nothing’s working; it’s all too easy to slip backwards into bad memories, even so many years later. She doesn’t tell Dot, because Dot would just fuss and fret and stew in secret guilt over starting her down the path of potential dating again. Instead, she sleeps late and stays in and declines the offer of a party that appears in her messages on Friday night courtesy of Rachel Reid, despite knowing that Dot’s going to go.
“You’re sure you don’t want to come,” Dot says for the fifth time, dressed and ready and standing in the kitchen looking back at Leah.
Leah rolls her eyes. “Dot, I’ll be fine. It’s one Friday night in, I think I’ll survive.”
“Exactly - it’s a Friday night. We always go somewhere on Friday night, even if it’s just Rachel and Nora’s again.”
“Go, Dorothy,” Leah says. “I’ll be okay, promise. Besides, I have a paper to work on.”
“Grad school claims another victim,” Dot sighs dramatically, but she blows a gentle kiss in Leah’s direction before disappearing out the door.
And then it’s just Leah and the empty apartment, the night rolling out before her in a vacant blur of half-formed ideas. She hadn’t been lying about the paper; she could write it, probably should, in fact, but it’s a Friday night and everything seems a little too dark for productivity. She leaves her laptop abandoned on an armchair, the well-loved one with a hole torn in the upholstery from one of her panic attacks and a brown stain on the left arm from Dot’s overflowing coffee mug, and wanders into the kitchen to find a glass and some wine.
There’s a bottle of rosé in the fridge that Leah doesn’t remember buying, which means that Dot bought it even though Leah’s the only one in the apartment who drinks it - Dot refers to it as “perfume water, and not even the good kind.” Leah smiles to herself as she brings it back to the living room along with a glass and a bag of Takis. She sits down, settles into the sofa, turns on the TV, and prepares to unspool like thread in the face of a night with no expectations to hold.
The thought of the front door crosses her mind, fleeting, and Leah wonders if Dot locked it on her way out. The question scratches at the back of her skull, quiet but persistent, demanding to be noticed.
She grits her teeth, cracks open the bottle, ignores it like two years of experiments with exposure therapy have told her to do, and still it haunts her all the way through the first glass and well into the second until her phone lights up with a text.
Front door’s locked btw. Don’t worry. Sorry I meant to send this earlier
Leah exhales slow and takes another sip of wine, her spine curving into the cushions behind her. If it’s the first time she’s fully breathed in twenty minutes, she doesn’t admit it to herself.
Halfway through both the bottle and a shitty B movie, it happens: the lights come back on. The tide turns, as it always does, and Leah finds herself free of the inexplicable burden that’s weighed down her mind for the better part of a week. When she looks towards the future, scared and seeking, it once again looks like a road and not a corridor.
The world slows around her, matching her breaths; the colors brighten, pulling at the seams of the room. The movie on the TV screen plays on towards its inevitable happy ending, and Leah feels herself coming back to earth like an astronaut who’s been away for far too long.
Everything seems easier now, and the memories are receding in the distance: still behind her, yes, but no longer riding her heels. The realization is nearly dizzying in its relief - and Leah, who picks all her own battles and loses most of them, wants to do something different. Something brave, something new.
Her phone sits on the sofa next to her, the screen dark. Leah picks it up and unlocks it, then slowly opens Tinder.
Dot wasn’t lying - the profile is good. There’s five pictures total: one from a party, where Leah’s wearing a lacy black top and tight shorts; one of her sitting by a tall window in the library, buried in a book; one of her holding a kitten, an ill-advised impulse rescue by Rachel that ended with Nora taking a trip to the ASPCA two hours later; one of Dot and Leah from Halloween last year, dressed as pirates and fake-scowling into the camera. The last one is a picture of Leah on the beach, laughing at a joke that Dot made from behind the camera, looking into the sunset as the sky behind her melts into streaks of pink and orange.
Leah clicks over to the bio, which reads: leah, 22. virgo, grad student, and oxford comma enthusiast. i hate olives.
“The olive incident was months ago,” Leah mumbles to herself. “We’re past it.” She doesn’t move to change it, though, just leaves the bio how it is and starts swiping through people.
Twenty profiles later, she’s starting to wish she lived anywhere but LA. Every person she’s seen so far has been either a personal trainer, a wellness guru, an aspiring actor, a film major, or some ungodly combination of the four, and every bio has been a thinly veiled innuendo or self-promotional advertisement. It kind of makes Leah want to move to the Northeast and spend the rest of her academic career tucked away in a dimly lit library surrounded with pine trees and never lay eyes on Sunset Boulevard again. Needless to say, she hasn’t swiped right on anyone yet.
She raises her rosé bottle and takes another sip of wine - she discarded the glass around the sixth fitness trainer - as she swipes through another slew of plastic people with jobs so Los Angeles-bizarre that they feel like an exercise in satire. She’s just about to quit for the night when a new profile loads on her screen, a dark-haired girl with a devastatingly confident smirk and endless amber-brown eyes. The girl is absolutely breathtaking, and Leah feels something stirring in her chest as she looks at the picture: a storm, a riptide. It’s like Leah knows this girl, like she’s seen her face in every corner of life and watched her come alive in a dozen different lights.
And then her eyes drop to the name on the profile, bold white against the background of the photo - Fatin, 21 - and everything turns blinding crystal in its clearness.
Leah has seen this girl before. She’s seen her in malls and coffee shops, flying through town on the side of a bus and lighting up the Sunset Strip with a glow like starlight in a cloudless sky, dancing across the silver screen in shimmering silk. She’s seen this girl everywhere in Los Angeles, because this girl is everywhere, and these days she might just be Los Angeles too.
Leah flicks through the other photos on Fatin’s profile - a picture clearly taken on a film set, a pool flick with a mansion in the background, a candid in the lobby of the Hotel Marmont - and she knows for sure.
“Holy shit,” Leah murmurs to herself, fingers tracing the edges of her screen. “It’s her.”
And it is. It’s Fatin Jadmani, media darling and new It Girl on the Hollywood block. Fatin Jadmani, whose first project was a tiny arthouse film that exploded at every festival it showed at and second project was a raw, powerful thriller by notorious feminist director Gretchen Klein that became a worldwide hit which Leah actually saw in theaters with Dot, white-knuckled and tense and, whenever Fatin appeared onscreen, just a little bit turned on. Fatin Jadmani, whose name has painted the town red for the last year and a half; Fatin Jadmani, whose star is rising so fast and furious that it threatens to leave their galaxy altogether.
Fatin Jadmani, whose Tinder bio simply reads: fuck around and find out, with a little winking face at the end.
Leah stares down at her phone, her mind working wine-drunk and slow through a flood of emotions: surprise, confusion, and finally understanding. This isn’t Fatin Jadmani - at least, it’s not the real Fatin Jadmani. No, this is very clearly someone using Fatin’s face and fame to trick unsuspecting Tinder users. And now that she knows the truth, it’s Leah’s duty to expose this lowlife catfish for what they really are.
Fatin smiles up at her from the screen: dazzlingly, beautifully familiar. Leah swipes right.
When Leah wakes up the next morning, rosé-muddled and more than a little hungover, the first thing she sees is the floor; she’s still on the sofa, lying on her stomach with her head hanging over the edge. The second thing she sees is her phone, resting on the edge of the carpet and flashing a set of notifications at her.
“Fuck,” Leah groans, and swats it away. Only then does she realize that there’s a blanket covering her, and a glass of water sitting next to a bottle of Tylenol a couple inches away.
The sound of whistling comes from the kitchen, loud and obnoxiously cheerful. Leah downs a Tylenol and a mouthful of water, then rolls onto her back and gazes vaguely up at the ceiling.
“Dot,” she says loudly, “if you don’t stop whistling, I think my head actually might explode right now.”
The whistling stops, and Dot appears at the back of the sofa. “That’s what you get for drinking rosé. It’s higher in alcohol content and sweeter than most wines, which means the hangovers are always worse.”
“Okay, I get it,” Leah mutters. “For an engineer, you’re one hell of a sommelier.”
Dot smiles down at her, wise and benevolent and bearing odd pieces of advice from every corner of human knowledge. “You know it.”
“Yeah, yeah. Thanks for the Tylenol.”
“No problem.” Dot’s eyes move to the floor, where Leah’s phone is still lighting up. “You’re getting a ton of notifications, by the way.”
“I know,” Leah says, throwing an arm over the sofa’s edge to blindly fumble for her phone. “It’s really annoying, I’ve got to turn that off.”
She picks up the phone and unlocks it, squinting against the brightness of the screen as she tries to work out where exactly the flood of notifications is coming from. It doesn’t take her very long: a bright red 64 sits atop the Tinder app, the number rising by one as she watches.
Dot looks on with interest. “Oh, so you tried Tinder?”
“Tried, yes,” Leah says. “Emphasis on the past tense. If I have to see one more social media influencer’s bio subtly insult my lack of social media clout…” She trails off as yet another notification slides across the top of her screen, tapping on it with disbelieving fingers.
It’s a Match! You and Fatin liked each other.
“No way,” Leah says. And then, a few seconds later when the second notification pops up: “No way.”
hey there gorgeous :)
Dot holds her hand out for the phone, her forehead creasing in confusion. “Is that Fatin Jadmani?”
“No,” Leah says, flicking through Fatin’s pictures. “Look, there’s no chance. It’s just someone pretending to be her, I think. There’s no way Fatin Jadmani is actually on Tinder.”
Dot examines the profile carefully, nods in agreement. “Total catfish,” she says, in the casually authoritative tone of someone who most likely knows their way around not only online fish but real ones too. Leah can imagine Dot as a little kid in Texas, throwing rod and reel into the river that ran through the woods near her house and coming up with a string of little creek fish. Perch, probably. Leah doesn’t know much about fishing.
Enough to know that “Fatin” is one hundred percent a catfish, though.
“Total catfish,” Dot repeats, standing up. “I’m gonna make breakfast. You want some bacon?”
“Please,” Leah replies gratefully, slumping back into the couch. Dot heads to the kitchen, leaving Leah to stare at her phone. The message from Fatin is still sitting there, indisputable and inexplicable, a mystery yet to be solved, and -
And Fatin’s typing again.
i love olives btw
Leah’s momentarily perplexed until she remembers the last line of her own bio, and scoffs to herself. This is so not what she signed up for.
“Your dumb olives line is a hit with Tinder,” she calls to Dot.
“Good,” Dot says over the sound of clanging pots and pans. “I worked hard on that one.”
Leah rolls her eyes and returns to the screen in front of her, thumbs hovering over the keyboard as she debates several different responses. In the end, she keeps it short and sweet.
i know what you are.
of course you do babe
wait don’t you mean you know WHO i am?
i always say what i mean
and i mean: i know what you are
a smoking hot chick with incredible eyeliner game?
Leah’s mouth curves upward at the corners before she can stop herself. Catfish or not, whoever’s on the other side of the screen can make her smile more easily than anyone other than Dot has in weeks.
Still, that doesn’t mean she’ll let them get away with this.
you’re a catfish.
a catfish. you know, a person who uses someone else’s identity online, usually a famous person’s.
in this case, you’re some weirdo using fatin jadmani’s pictures on tinder
so just to be clear
you’re saying you don’t think i’m fatin
you think i’m some random pretending to be her
i don’t think that, i know it
but yeah pretty much
babe thats the craziest thing i’ve ever heard
how can you be a celebrity when you don’t even use apostrophes half the time
i get lazy and autocorrect doesn’t always work idk
but back to the point
i’m not pretending to be anyone? i’m me. like my profile is legit pictures of me
no, they're pictures of fatin
WHO IS ME
nice try. those pictures on your profile are all things that she’s posted on instagram
oh so you follow me on ig
hope you at least double tapped bc i look fucking good in my recent
Leah calls to mind the post in question: a picture of Fatin sitting on the end of a pier overlooking the water, bathed in the glow of golden hour and smiling like the sun sets only so it can touch her face on the way down. Good doesn’t even begin to cover it; she’d looked ethereal, enchanting, positively radiant.
But that post was from the real Fatin, not this person lurking behind her face on the internet.
yeah fatin does look good in her recent
too bad she’s not you
are you always this stubborn
it’s honestly kinda hot
Leah blinks at the message in disbelief, a strange flush of heat traveling to her face. She pushes it down, determined; she is not going to let some catfish on the internet make her blush, even if they are hiding behind Fatin Jadmani’s admittedly gorgeous face.
this conversation is pointless
and i have things to do
is one of them me
not even going to dignify that with a response
nice knowing you
nooo don’t ghost me you’re so sexy ahaha
Leah closes out of Tinder and sets her phone down, burying herself in the sofa again to wait for breakfast. If she’s laughing to herself just a little, well, that’s nobody’s business.
Leah doesn’t expect to hear from not-Fatin again, figuring that since she exposed the catfishing nature of the profile, the person behind it wouldn’t bother reaching out again. But the next night, when Leah checks her phone between rounds of Scrabble with Dot, there’s a message waiting.
Leah frowns, looks down at her phone. Looks up at Dot, who’s making a valiant attempt to form a word with only the letters P, Q, X, R, and S left on her rack, and then back down again.
not talking to catfish
you're still on that?
come on what’re you really doing
“PRQXS,” Dot mumbles under her breath. “Prqxs. Percs. Hey, that would fit. Perfect irony, really Lee, let’s switch to phonetic Scrabble.”
“Too soon,” Leah says, stern. “And that’s not how it works.”
Dot scowls over her tiles, pushing them around to arrange them in a different order and mumbling something that sounds like “English majors.” Leah watches her fondly, refrains from telling her that she’s already spotted four potential words on the board.
fine. i’m kicking my best friend’s ass at scrabble
so you’re smart then
i do love a girl with a good brain
also just love good brain
wow, you almost managed to not sound like a frat boy for one minute there
i knew a man had to be behind this
i’m actually a woman
like i know you’re gonna doubt me and pull the catfish card again but i really am a girl
well that’s good at least. still doesn’t explain why you’re posing as fatin though
for the last time i’m not
you can't fake being this flawless i’m the real deal baby
if you were the real fatin you’d send me a picture right now and prove it
already begging for pics huh
you’re cute when you’re easy
and i’m not deflecting
you can’t send pics on tinder tho
this may come as a shock, but there are other ways to communicate
well see i can’t just hand out my snapchat to a girl i met on tinder
no matter how pretty she is
you could follow me on instagram
trust when i say that would stir shit up too
rumors and what fucking ever
the tabloids could eat that shit up like not to sound douchey but you gotta be careful when you’re in the public eye
or when you’re a catfish
god you really are stubborn
that’s okay i like a challenge
“Who are you texting over there, anyway,” Dot says. “You’ve been smiling at your phone for the last ten minutes.”
Leah turns her phone off, mildly horrified, and pulls her face into a frown. “No I haven’t.”
Dot just gives her a look that says, in no uncertain terms, that she’s calling Leah’s bluff with ease. A look that says, I’ve been your friend since freshman year, held your hand after panic attacks and your hair after tequila shots, slept in your bed more times than either of us would like to admit, and I know when you’re lying to me. It’s a long and lengthy subtext, but Dot conveys it with just the set of her mouth and Leah reads it like a page from her favorite book. That’s the dynamic between them in a nutshell: Dot steady and simple, Leah anxious and analytical, the two of them meeting on a middle ground that’s worn smooth beneath five years of walking together.
“It’s the catfish,” Leah says reluctantly. “The one pretending to be Fatin Jadmani.”
Dot laughs. “You’re still talking to them?”
“Not intentionally,” Leah protests. “She just messaged me again for some reason, and I wasn’t sure what she wanted. Besides, she’s weirdly entertaining to talk to.”
“Mm,” Dot says thoughtfully, somehow emanating skepticism and consideration within that singular syllable. “Interesting.”
“Besides,” Leah adds. “The more time she spends talking to me, the less time she has to message other people on Tinder who might not know that she’s a fraud. Really, I’m doing a public service by continuing the conversation.”
“Right,” Dot says, in the manner of someone already looking left. Then, looking down at her Scrabble rack again: “Wait, I got one.”
She pushes a couple tiles into place, and the word HOPELESS appears on the board. Leah, who graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in English, pointedly ignores the symbolism of it all. If there really is a god in existence, she thinks, then they’re terribly heavy-handed with their metaphors.
Now that lightning’s struck twice and it seems like not-Fatin will be, if not a permanent institution, at least around for a while longer, Leah does what she does best: motherfucking homework.
She pulls up Fatin Jadmani’s Wikipedia page, the latest news articles. She scrolls through Fatin’s Twitter account. She watches a couple of Fatin’s interviews from the Dawn of Eve press tour - just for the sake of research, not at all because the way Fatin talks is low and intimate and sometimes has a hint of rasp that makes Leah’s blood run hot.
Leah finds Fatin’s Instagram easily enough - her username is iamfatinjadmani, 1M followers, 666 following. Leah flicks through a few of the posts, but it feels wrong to her for some reason she’s unable to articulate. She closes out of the app, turns back to Wikipedia, and works with what she’s got.
Unfortunately, what she’s got isn’t much. For some reason, in spite of her fame, Fatin Jadmani’s Wikipedia page is a barren desert. There’s only the most basic of information: born August 17, originally from the Bay Area, began her career as a freelance actor not yet SAG-eligible. Took the main role in the indie film Pigeon’s Nest as an unknown and came out of it a rising star; got cast as the lead in Gretchen Klein’s subversive psych thriller Dawn of Eve less than a year later and came out of it a household name with two Oscar nominations. Eventually signed with renowned agent Jeanette Dao at FCK Talent, one of the biggest agencies in Hollywood. There’s next to nothing about her early life, and even less about her personal. Even in interviews, where Fatin mentions things about her day to day life, she’s strangely inaccessible.
Still, anything’s better than nothing, and once Leah feels that she’s gotten at least a few pieces of the Fatin Jadmani puzzle, she opens Tinder again.
you say you’re the real fatin
when’s your birthday
how many oscar nominations do you have
two and i deserved both
who’s your agent
love that girl but she can be a hardass like no other
and she listens to way too much p!nk
if i hear raise your glass one more time this year i might actually snap and kill her
or at least drop her phone in a fish tank
Leah frowns, minorly unnerved by the readiness of not-Fatin’s answers. It’s all information that’s available online or able to be made up on the fly, and yet it’s almost too quick to be natural, like not-Fatin’s rehearsed this a dozen times.
you could've looked up all these answers but okay
but i didnt
bc i didn’t need to
bc i’m not a catfish
that doesn't get more convincing the more you say it
what’s your favorite ben and jerry’s flavor
Leah checks the article open on her phone, double-checks it, and bites down on a triumphant smile.
fatin’s favorite flavor is cherry garcia
wtf no it’s not
literally who told you that
babe you’re a grad student shouldn’t you know to check their sources
trust me when i say i would never eat cherry garcia that shit is vile
i’m strongly inclined to doubt you
except cherry garcia IS awful
so did i pass your test
you just didn’t fail. yet.
well like i said before
i like a challenge ;)
Leah closes Tinder and clears her search history, irked and frustrated and feeling like, at least for the time being, she’s lost the upper hand.
“Dot said you’re trying to start a relationship with a girl who’s impersonating Fatin Jadmani on the internet,” Nora says, and Leah nearly chokes on her vanilla latte.
They’re sitting at a corner table at Starbucks, both because it’s the closest coffee shop to the UCLA campus where Leah does grad school and Rachel coaches dive team and because Leah is always outvoted two to one by Rachel and Nora when she suggests the independent café down the road - which is, admittedly, an extra ten minutes walk, but still. Dot, whose preference for coffee leans towards the two dollars for a large cup gas station variety, doesn’t care either way, leaving Leah outmatched and outmaneuvered. It feels almost like a pattern in her life at this point, like everywhere she goes she’ll be outdone by someone regardless of their intention.
“I’m not,” Leah says now, trying to subtly clear her lungs of coffee remnants. “Trying to date her, I mean.”
Nora nods, eyes wide. “So you just want a fling, then?”
“First of all, nobody beneath the age of forty has ever used the term fling. Second of all, no, I don’t want to hook up with a girl who has nothing better to do with her life than catfish Tinder users.”
“Oh,” Nora says, looking unsure. “But Dot said that you’ve been messaging this girl a lot, and consistent communication is a hallmark of a good relationship.”
“I have not,” Leah says, “and if Dot knows what’s good for her, she’ll stop telling tales to you.”
Dot shows up right on time, swinging herself into the seat next to Leah and stealing a sip of her latte. “What tales am I telling?”
“The ones about Leah’s online lover,” Nora answers, without a trace of irony.
Dot grins. “Oh, yeah. Her.”
“Dot,” Leah groans. “She’s not. I barely even talk to her.”
“Really,” Dot says. She takes a sip of her own coffee - large dark roast, hot - and all of Los Angeles lets out a psychic sigh of pain at the lack of syrups, shots, foams, and customizations in her cup. “Then why did you keep checking your phone and giggling to yourself last night?”
Leah opens her mouth, and then closes it again when she realizes she has no real argument. In her defense, she hadn’t meant to be messaging the catfish throughout dinner; it’d started with a simple do you have a pool? from not-Fatin and spiraled into a half-hour long debate about both the best way to survive drowning (Leah) and the easiest way to fuck in a hot tub (not-Fatin). Leah hadn’t realized that Dot was watching the entire thing.
“Not to mention the night before that,” Dot says, and Leah slouches down in her seat. Alright, so maybe she’s been messaging not-Fatin more frequently; maybe she’s told her about the essay she’s writing and the coffee she orders and laughed at more of not-Fatin’s jokes than she strictly should, considering the fact that most of them are either sexual or plain bad, but it’s not a thing - it’s not. It’s nothing but a distraction dancing across her phone in words and letters, and if the sight of a new message from not-Fatin has become oddly grounding to Leah, it’s only because it affords her another chance to get out of her own head. Nothing less, nothing more.
Nora’s looking at her as if observing some kind of scientific experiment. Leah looks down at the table and wonders how much force would be necessary to slam her head through it.
“Yo,” Rachel says, sitting down across from Leah with two iced shaken espressos that look like they have about ten shots each. “What are you losers talking about?”
“Leah is denying that she has an internet girlfriend,” Nora replies, “but Dot and I both think she’s lying. Rachel, is one of those espressos mine? You know I don’t like too much caffeine.”
Rachel pulls the coffees closer, protective. “Are you kidding me? These are both for me. I got you a regular iced coffee, it’s on the way.” She downs one espresso in a few quick swallows and levels a judgemental stare at Leah, who can only assume it’s the same look that Rachel used to intimidate her opponents back when she still did competitive diving. “So what’s this about an internet girlfriend?”
“For the last time,” Leah says, loudly enough to draw curious glances from the surrounding tables, “I do not have an internet girlfriend.”
As if to disprove her point, Leah’s phone lights up with a Tinder notification and makes her instantly, profoundly grateful that her lock screen doesn’t show previews; she’d disabled that feature in settings ages ago, after a vague but persistent fear of having her messages found and read by a stranger crossed her mind. Not that it matters anyway. Dot still leans over and looks at the screen, building something from next to nothing in that baffling, half-magic way she always does.
“That’s her now, huh,” Dot says, and Leah rubs a hand across her face in exasperation. She’s not in a relationship with not-Fatin; she can barely even stand the girl, and besides, there’s no part of her that could fall for someone she met while they were catfishing on Tinder, of all places, even if the girl is smart and funny and makes Leah smile despite her distinct lack of authenticity. Leah doesn’t care about her at all. She’s not even going to answer this message, probably.
Another notification appears below the first, the same red flame of the Tinder logo, and Leah reaches for her phone.
Monday night is designated movie night at 226B, which usually means that they watch an indie arthouse film or a true crime documentary if it’s Leah’s choice and a survival in the wilderness-type movie or an early 2000s feminist-type romcom if it’s Dot’s. This Monday happens to be Dot’s week to choose, which is how Leah finds herself seated on their couch for their apartment’s ten o’clock showing of Bend It Like Beckham.
“Why,” Leah had questioned Dot earlier, “why are we watching two sports-related movies? You don’t even like sports.”
“I like sports fine,” Dot says mildly. “Besides, it’s Keira Knightley. Playing soccer.” And Leah hadn’t been able to argue with that, being a red-blooded woman who is not immune to the sight of Keira Knightley in a soccer jersey.
They’re about halfway through the movie now, and Dot’s bowl of popcorn is perilously low, but she doesn’t seem to have noticed. Onscreen, Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra are staring at each other in a spectacular display of mutual, homoerotically charged annoyance.
Leah’s staring too, straight ahead at the screen, and she’s maybe a little more transfixed than she ought to be by a cheesy 2000s movie but it’s because there’s a dimension to it that extends beyond the plot, beyond the screen: the universal, half-lost in translation language of female friendship turned forest fire, breaking from its boundaries and spilling over into the space between definitive terms. It’s the kind of bond that forms between girls the way leaves grow from trees, ever-changing and inevitable and eventually falling in some way: through, apart, in love.
“Hey, Dot,” Leah says, ready and eager to expand on her theory of homoerotic female friendship. Dot doesn’t answer, though, and when Leah looks over at her, it’s to find that she’s fallen asleep with her head tipped back against the sofa and her legs resting on Leah’s lap. Leah smiles gently, pulls a blanket over Dot’s sleeping form, and digs her own phone out of her pocket.
do you ever think about how nearly all early 2000s white feminist movies are kind of inherently homoerotic
hello to you too
also, yes but what brought this on
oh i’m watching bend it like beckham with my roommate but she fell asleep
so now you get to hear my thoughts on it instead
so what im hearing is, i’m your second choice
you sure know how to make a girl feel special
you would’ve been my fourth choice actually, but one of my friends is bad at interpreting subtext
and the other is too impatient to even try watching movies most of the time unless it’s film for training
are you telling me you only have three friends
no? shut up
do YOU even have friends? seems like you spend most of your time messaging me instead
i have tons of friends
none of them are as hot as you that’s all
Leah bites down on her lip, refusing to blush. This is a trite and corny come-on wearing the guise of a compliment, and she is absolutely not affected by it.
can we maintain focus on the homerotically subtextual topic at hand or
what i’m hearing is, there’s homoerotic subtext between us rn
well then you must be deaf
pfft you’re no fun
fine yes okay homoerotic subtext
i believe there’s a homoerotic element to almost every female friendship actually
like yes, you’re friends…but what if
some people might think thats a bad thing but i don’t
the whole world is horny so you may as well admit to it yk
i mean i’m not horny i’m agreeing with your first point
someday i’ll change the first part of that sentence
i swear if i didn't like talking to you so much i’d block you
oh so you like talking to me huh
careful with all this flattery
a girl might get the wrong impression
fine. you’re not terrible to hold a conversation with
Leah looks down at what she’s written, almost surprised to find that it’s true; she’s not sure when or how or why, but for some reason the simple act of sending messages to not-Fatin has dropped neatly into the rituals of Leah’s life, trading thoughts and anecdotes like stamps on the corners of postcards, It’s a startling realization, if not completely unpleasant, but the honesty of it all makes a small shiver of discomfort curl at the base of Leah’s spine. She quickly adds another message to distance herself from an admission that feels, for some reason, bigger than it is.
too bad you’re a catfish
just out of curiosity what makes you so sure i’m a catfish
Leah laughs to herself. Oh, this’ll be good.
hmm i don’t know
let’s start with the fact that no celebrity would be dumb enough to use tinder and expose themself to the general public
i’m not even in the industry and i know that would be a total pr nightmare
what my publicist doesnt know won’t hurt her but go on
and then there’s the fact that fatin jadmani manifestly doesn’t need to use tinder
like objectively speaking she’s gorgeous, plus she’s famous. people are probably falling over themselves to get with her
you’re not one of them tho :(
would you believe it if i said you’re my only match on here
probably because they know you’re catfishing hard
i just haven't swiped right on anyone but you
and if i'm such a catfish then why’d you swipe right hm
so i could expose you for what you are
and why are you still talking to me days later
And, maddeningly enough, Leah really doesn’t have an answer to that. She scrambles for something within her reach, easy if not entirely true.
i’m nobly sacrificing myself so you don’t have time to swindle other tinder users, obviously
keep telling yourself that babe
i gotta go now but enjoy your homoerotic movie
Leah glances up at the homoerotic movie in question only to see that twenty minutes have gone by and she hasn’t taken in any of it. She has a feeling, sudden and sinking, that somewhere along the way she's lost the plot.
From Hemingway to Hawthorne: A Comparative Analysis of Literature, the Tuesday-Thursday undergrad class in which Leah serves as a TA, is never especially interesting but this particular Tuesday it’s duller than a pencil without a point or sharpener in sight. Leah rests her chin against her palm and stares into the middle distance, her laptop falling asleep on the desk before her.
A text from Dot pops up her screen, the message a tiny hint of salvation in the midst of this endless boredom, and Leah opens it without caring how many students see her texting during lecture. She’s a grad student; she’s above all of this anyway.
Going to the store, do you want anything
ramen and instant coffee please
Yeah I get that you’re technically still in college but you’re an adult and you need to eat real food
I’m getting you some vegetables. What kind
If you don’t pick i’m just buying you asparagus
kale and broccoli
The professor’s eyeing her now with a stern look that says, You’re being a bad example to my students. It’s a pretty good stern look, as stern looks go, and Leah’s just about to put her phone away when a notification from Tinder slides across the screen: a message from not-Fatin.
Leah taps it open immediately, heedless of the glare she receives from the professor.
i told my friends about you n they all think i have a crush on you
i mean theyre right but
A flood of warmth rises inside Leah’s chest, pushing at her ribs, but she doggedly beats it back. She pictures a seawall, tall and proud and standing strong against the relentless rush of the ocean.
bet you say that to all the girls
babe you’re the only girl for me
that made me roll my eyes so hard they hurt now
just so you know
you know you love it
having pain-free eyeballs? yes i do
i’ll really miss it
so wyd rn
is this the part where you ask what i’m wearing
it’s two in the afternoon it’s too early for this
yeah well better early than never
way to butcher a classic saying
my version is better
fr tho what’re you up to
in class bored as hell
doesn’t sound very studious of you, miss grad student
it isn’t one of my classes. i’m a TA for undergrad english
oh i see
are you wearing glasses
i’m not playing into your nerd-girl fantasy
worth a shot
let me guess it’s ucla
it is actually
how’d you know
cause you’re smart and we live in la there’s only so many good colleges here
did you do undergrad there too
no i went to berkeley
what about you?
juilliard actually but only for one year and then i left to pursue acting
then after pigeon’s nest blew up at the festivals i didn’t bother going back
and we’re back to the fake fatin answers
just when i thought we were getting somewhere
for fuck’s sake i’m not
oh forget it i give up
i should go anyway i’m supposed to be taking seminar notes
until later ;)
don’t hold your breath
Leah slides her phone into her bag and turns her gaze back to the lecture, which has moved along in the absence of her attention. The professor has evidently given up on silent reprimands and is now reading from the book propped open in her hand, her voice clear and carrying against the weary-hazed quiet of the room.
“He can’t have gone,” the professor reads; “he said ‘Christ knows he can’t have gone. He’s making a turn. Maybe he has been hooked before and he remembers something of it.’ Then he felt the gentle touch on the line and he was happy.”
Leah’s phone lights up in her bag again, and she knows without even checking that it’s from not-Fatin: getting the last word, as usual.
“At this point in the book,” the professor continues, “the fisherman says ‘It was only his turn’ and ‘he’ll take it.’ For me, these simple lines capture the true essence of Hemingway’s meaning. Because that’s what it’s about, in the end, isn’t it? Yes, it’s the tale of an old man who’s trying to catch a fish, but beneath that it’s a story of mutual respect despite damages and differing agendas. There’s a push and pull here that borders on hypnotic, like there’s something inevitable about it. Like the story was never going to end any other way.”
A single notification rests on Leah’s lock screen, waiting patiently. Leah smiles, thinks of the sunset over the ocean.
A few nights later, the clock’s pushing midnight and Leah’s nearly asleep when her phone glows bright against the darkened room.
depends why you’re asking
how did you meet your best friend?
Leah frowns slightly at the message, fingers flying over the screen.
idk you mention her a lot
thought it’d be nice to hear the story behind you guys
And it’s not the question Leah was expecting, not by a nautical mile, but she doesn’t mind; it’s an improvement over not-Fatin’s usual conversation starters, which slide back and forth between subtle insinuation and straight-up innuendo depending on the day. Leah’s not against a bit of suggestive language, but there’s a limit to everything.
Besides, mundane though it may be, the story of Leah and Dot’s friendship is one that Leah will never turn down the chance to tell. Dot is the closest person to Leah’s heart, has been for five years, and will be for the rest of their lives, and even if Dot would never see it this way, Leah owes her a debt that can never be repaid. Dot’s the best friend Leah’s ever had, and Leah would trade the entire world for her.
pretty typical college story really
we met in berkeley when i was at uc berkeley and she was at a community college in the area
ran into each other at a party and ended up ditching the scene to hit the all-night diner
then we got an apartment the next year and the rest is history
we’ve lived together ever since
It’s the standard, stripped-down story of their meeting, without the pain and particulars. She leaves out the finer strokes, like the nights they almost got arrested and the days when Dot was the only reason Leah left her bed and the twin holes in their lives where their fathers should be, because it’s sad and unnecessary - and besides, no one but the two of them would truly understand the layers of it anyway.
she’s pretty much the best person i’ve ever met
that’s really sweet actually
are you both from cali
dot’s from texas she just wanted a change of scenery
i’m from the bay area tho
wait no way.
im from the bay too
yes i know fatin’s from the bay
are you talking as yourself or as her
how many times do i have to say
small world then i guess
i wonder if our paths ever crossed
maybe they did
maybe we were always meant to end up here
or something lame like that
It strikes at a bell within the reluctant cage of Leah’s ribs, an echo of the day earlier and a story of inevitability echoing around a classroom full of youth. The ocean calls out across the city, waves beckoning; Leah inhales deeply, swears she smells salt air.
Swears, too, that she won’t be swept away this easily.
what, like destiny
you don't believe in destiny?
not really no
me either fuck that
i believe in choices though
A beat falls between messages. Leah watches the screen intently, searching, predicting patterns. She finds nothing tangible, only an unmoored, unfounded sense of hope; she wonders, fleetingly, if she’s one of not-Fatin’s choices.
anyways what school did you go to
west bay prep
what about you
that’s fucking wild
i was supposed to go there but my parents switched me to east bay academy of the art bc they thought i was some sort of cello prodigy
wanted me to go full carnegie someday
just one of the many things we disagreed on
well if it makes you feel any better, west bay prep was a typical private school shitshow
not surprised tbh
but isn't that crazy? we almost went to the same school
imagine if we had
i probably wouldn’t have talked to you
i didn’t talk to many people in high school
i would’ve found some way to your heart
asked you to borrow a tampon in the bathroom maybe
i would’ve said you couldn’t borrow a tampon
you could have one though
bad joke, forget it
anyway why’d you ask about me and dot?
okay this is going to sound kind of lame but
i guess i've just never been the kind of girl who had a lot of friends that were girls
boys were always easier for some reason
idk like i’ve always been popular i’ve never spent a day alone and i’m surrounded by a metric fuckton of people every day now but it feels like so many of them just move right through my life without really looking at me and it gets lonely
and i’ve never had a best friend like that so it’s just nice to know that some people do
The words are honest, and familiar too; it’s like Leah’s standing in front of the mirror five years earlier, wondering if there’d ever be someone to see her for who she was and love her despite it all. Her chest aches with something a little to the left of longing, an odd and abiding urge to somehow reach through this screen and close the distance between them.
i understand that
i never really had many friends in high school at all
i mostly kept to myself
my so-called best friend was a guy who spent all four years in love with me even though i never once reciprocated
four years with no play and he still didn’t give up on you? he’s insane
full offense taken
but as i was saying, i was never the type to have a best friend either, not like the ones you see in the hallmark movies or whatever
and then i met dot
and yeah maybe no costume designer would ever let her cargo shorts on set but you get my point
she wears cargo shorts? is she a lesbian?
no, she just likes the storage
what i’m TRYING to say, if you’d let me finish, is that i felt like i was alone for a very long time and then suddenly i wasn’t
and it can happen at any time to anyone
there will always be someone else you’ll meet and think, i’m glad i met you
for me, that was dot
Leah pauses, reckless instinct fighting deepest nature. She has some faith in not-Fatin, she really does, in spite of all the catfish-shaped reasons why she shouldn’t; there’s a trench-deep pull in her stomach that guides her towards trust, towards conviction. But she’s never been one to give in easily, and that’s a difficult thing to change even when she’s not stranded on a rock in a hard place.
She takes a deep breath and sets full sail into the wind.
There’s another beat between messages, typing and pausing and typing again. Just when Leah’s starting to worry that she made a mistake, the answer materializes in her palm.
i think that’s the nicest thing someone’s said to me in a long time
that can’t be true
okay but it’s the nicest thing someone’s said to me without expecting something in return
don’t make me get all sappy bitch
perish the thought
and just so you know i’ll always let you finish
unless you want to be edged ofc
anddd there goes the moment we were having
there’ll be more
It’s such a simple statement, so matter of fact. Leah thinks, once again, of inevitability.
i think there will be
y’know what? i take back what i said about that guy who waited four years for you
he’s not insane
i probably would’ve done the same thing in his place
The screen light fades out, and the room returns to darkness. Leah doesn’t fall asleep for hours after.
She isn’t sure if things will change after that night, if tectonic plates or just the tide has shifted between them in the planes of that conversation, but she doesn’t have to wonder long.
They keep it light the next day, a comparison of their breakfasts and a quick story from not-Fatin about her taxi driver from that morning, who allegedly almost ran over an elderly grandmother at a crosswalk downtown. It’s mildly morbid, but the way not-Fatin describes it borders on comical, and Leah laughs along without even thinking to check up on the elder population of greater Los Angeles or the number of people who die in car crashes per year. She’s still laughing a little when not-Fatin’s next message pops up.
wanna watch a movie w me
is this you asking me out
anyone who goes to the movies for a first date needs to be shot
unless youre just trying to bang in public which i respect
pls watch a movie w me i have a five hour flight n i get bored easily
a flight to where?
the big apple
okay that’s actually pretty cool
i’ve never been
we’ll fix that some day
ah, the royal we
why are you going to new york
you wouldn’t believe me if i told you
hey so will you help me get my moneys worth
i bought the fancy in flight wifi package im ready to stream the library of congress
the library of congress is like 15 terabytes
you’d crash the plane
why do you know that
also god imagine if that happened
i did a project on amelia earhart in middle school and for years afterwards i always wondered what i’d do if my plane ever crashed
like what if i got stuck on some island in the middle of nowhere
the first step would be finding water obviously but what then
thats not a thing you should ever worry about
shit like that doesn’t happen to normal people, it happens to characters on tv shows
btw amelia earhart totally ate box
female pilot in the early 1900s? that just screams lesbian
i agree actually
like she was already challenging the status quo in so many ways, it would make sense for her to challenge heterosexuality as well
sooo are you gonna watch the movie
if not i’ll just sit here and plan my survival strat if i do end up crashing on some godforsaken rock
fine. what do you want to watch
i feel like it would really resonate with you
i love austen's emma as much as the next girl but i’ve never understood that movie’s popularity
and doesn’t alicia silverstone fall in love with her stepbrother or something
we’ll watch 10 things i hate about you
have you ever seen that
oh you’re in for a ride babe
you’re gonna love kat
cynical little bitch who’s whip-smart but emotionally distant and represses her true feelings like a closeted kid at bible camp
sound familiar yet?
not even a little bit
Leah reaches for her laptop, opens it, finds a streaming service, searches up 10 Things I Hate About You. It looks like a typical lowbrow romcom, and she resolves not to like it.
okay im set up
Leah does, and the action seems strangely natural to her; she can almost imagine herself on a plane, sitting aisle-side to a girl with a cocky voice and a confident smile. Leah can’t see the girl’s face, but they’re flying nonetheless: through the clouds, past the mountains, out over the ocean.
Leah shakes her head hard in an effort to clear it, drags her attention back to the movie at hand, and soon realizes that not-Fatin had a point; there is something familiar about Kat Stratford, a quality that’s hard to put into words. Leah identifies with her, albeit grudgingly, like they’re two halves of the same intelligent, sarcastic, socially and emotionally unavailable coin.
Fine, Leah thinks as she watches. Fine, I get it now. And as Kat finds herself falling for Heath Ledger’s mysteriously alluring, white-button-down-clad persona, Leah thinks she understands that too.
She doesn’t tell not-Fatin any of this, though. It obviously has nothing to do with her.
Dot goes on her weekly trip to the farmers’ market and comes home with canvas bags full of fresh vegetables: lettuce, carrots, onions, Chinese cabbage. Leah offers to make dinner that night, figuring it’s only fair after Dot went and bought all the food. It’s their usual state of affairs on market day, since the farmers’ market in LA, rather than being a leisurely gathering of agriculturally minded folks who are city people for the moment but country people at heart, is often a vicious dogfight between fitness trainers and juice bar owners desperate to get the freshest microgreens.
In short, it’s a quintessential Los Angeles mess painted red with beet juice and occasionally blood, and Dot’s a lot better equipped to handle it than Leah is. Thus, Leah’s making dinner tonight: fried rice, because it’s easy and she’s not the best cook but this she can make with her eyes closed.
Dot helps Leah chop some of the vegetables - onions, carrots - before retiring to the living room and stretching out on the sofa. Thanks to the open-floor nature of their apartment, Leah can still see her: the back of Dot’s head rises above the sofa’s backing, and the TV screen displays half its picture to Leah before the wall cuts off the rest of it.
Dot’s got the remote in her hands now, flipping through channels. Leah hums to herself, not bothering to watch the screen, content just to listen as the sounds of a dozen shows and commercials wash over her without sinking in. She knows that Dot will end up picking a good show, or at least a recorded episode of Survivor that Leah hasn’t seen before. The rice is cooking perfectly, the air smells of ginger and oyster sauce, and all of this is comforting, familiar routine.
“Hey,” Dot calls to her. “Check this out.”
“What,” Leah answers, mostly incurious. The rice is nearly done, and she’s busy gathering bowls and chopsticks.
“Your girl’s on TV.”
Leah’s fingers slip on the edge of the bowls she’s carrying, sea-green ceramics from the thrift store shop down the block, and she just barely manages to catch them in time. She sets them safely on the counter and pulls the rice pot from the burner, then pads into the living room. “What? What girl?”
Dot gestures at the screen, which is broadcasting one of those talk shows with musical guests and a live-audience laugh track. This one is The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, which Leah can only describe as The Laugh Track Show with White Guy Comedian. It’s far from being within the circle of her interests, and not very close to Dot’s either.
Leah arches an eyebrow. “You want to watch this? Why?”
“Look,” Dot says, pointing to the person in the guest chair. Leah looks up at the TV, dazed, her lips slightly parted.
Fatin Jadmani is sitting there next to Jimmy Fallon, wearing an exorbitant black dress and smirking at the camera like she owns it and the room and the building where the show is filmed as well. Her eyes are winged with black, her lips painted bold crimson, a subtle dusting of gold stroked over her lashes; her hair is dark and sleek, braided back into an elaborate crown.
“Oh, it’s just her,” Leah says in a tone of forced nonchalance, betrayed to herself by the heartbeat rushing to her pulse points: chest, wrists, throat. Onscreen, with the New York skyline as their background, Fatin and Jimmy Fallon are running through some kind of skit involving a pie tin and a life-size cardboard cutout of Fatin’s face glued to the end of a stick. Jimmy Fallon says something inaudible, and Fatin laughs with her head tilted back; Leah’s eyes are drawn to the movement before she can think better of it. “Dot, why do you want me to watch this? You know the girl I met on Tinder isn’t actually Fatin Jadmani, right?”
Dot shrugs. “Maybe not, but I still thought you’d want to see her. The real Fatin, I mean.”
“Lee, come on,” Dot laughs. “We saw Dawn of Eve together. I was sitting right next to you, and I saw the look on your face whenever Fatin’s character came onto the screen.”
Leah glares at her. “That’s not - it was a great movie, okay.”
“It was,” Dot says affably. “Fatin’s also incredibly hot.” Then, off Leah’s eye roll: “Don’t give me that. I may be straight, but I think I’d still do her.”
“Pretty sure the whole world would do her,” Leah mumbles, but she sits down anyway. “We can watch for a minute, I guess.”
“Play it cool,” Dot says with a knowing smile. “I’ll get the food.” She gets up and heads into the kitchen; Leah moves back further into her seat, eyes wary and glued to the screen.
“So, Fatin,” Jimmy Fallon is saying. “You’ve been an international sensation for nearly two years now, ever since your first movie, Pigeon’s Nest, became the talk of film festivals all over the world. We’ve got no doubt about your acting skills, and you’re no slouch in the music department either. And now we’re hearing that you’ve got an eye for fashion as well?”
“The rumors are true, Jimmy,” Fatin answers. “My first line of collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent will be dropping next summer. It’s mostly dresses, though - sorry to disappoint, if you were hoping to pick up a piece for yourself.” She gestures playfully at his straightlaced suit and tie, fingers grazing the edge of his lapels. “No offense, but you don’t seem like the kind of guy who can rock a silk chiffon dress.”
“Well, now I’ll have to buy one just to prove you wrong.”
Fatin shrugs one shoulder gracefully. “Be my guest.”
“But this fashion collab isn’t the only new thing that’s coming to us, is it?” Jimmy asks. “A little bird told me that you’re involved in a new project with some other big names, like Shelby Goodkind and Toni Shalifoe.”
Fatin shrugs again, a smile curling at the corner of her mouth; it’s enigmatic and flirtatious, spreads like shadows at night, gives a little but promises a lot. Something hot curls in Leah’s stomach, simmering lower.
“I can’t confirm or deny anything yet,” Fatin says, looking directly at the camera now. “But keep your eyes open and you just might get lucky.” And then she winks, cataclysmic.
Leah’s teeth dig into her lower lip, energy running fluid beneath her skin. She feels restless, wild, like she needs to do something: find an outlet, hold up a key. Pull this lightning storm towards herself before it strikes somewhere else.
She pulls out the phone and types the message without allowing herself to think twice about it.
“you” looked really good on fallon tonight
An answer doesn’t appear right away. The Tonight Show comes to a close, flipping over to commercials. Dot brings out the food, passes Leah a bowl, and they’re five minutes into an old Western when the reply finally comes.
could do without the quotation marks but thanks sweetheart
i’m trying new things
how do you feel about babygirl
not terrible but it sounds wrong coming from you
now you’re just trying to piss me off
whatever you say princess
That one lands - despite what Leah tells herself, it knocks the breath out of her like a wave she wasn’t expecting. She bites her bottom lip, her jaw tensing. It is, as it always is, time for her to steer around her emotions and floor it down the highway.
so is tonight finally the night you admit you’re a catfish
can i not call a pretty girl princess in peace without being accused of awful things
i just watched the real fatin jadmani on the tonight show
and you liked what you saw
if you were actually fatin there’s no way you’d be on your phone this quick after appearing on live tv
especially not to check tinder
fair enough i guess
what if i said i only checked my phone to see if you texted
then i’d say you’re full of shit
look we’re friends now it’s okay for you to admit that you’re not her
i won’t be mad i’ve literally known this whole time
never change babe
i do have to go now but thanks for saying i looked good
i said fatin looked good
one and the same, princess
one and the same
Leah exits out of Tinder and tries not to scream.
It doesn’t come crashing down on her until the next day. She falls asleep thinking about Fatin Jadmani, the black dress and red mouth and irresistible smirk, and when she wakes up thinking about not-Fatin, the bad jokes and strong innuendos and raw confessions, it’s enough to make her sick. There’s a toxic mix of emotion trapped inside of her, breaking itself against her walls in search of an exit.
Leah can’t explain it, really, the way she can’t explain anything else that goes on in her mess of a mind: her overactive fear, her lulls of sadness, her endless sense of homesickness for a place that doesn’t exist and maybe never has. All she knows is that here in the light of day, things seem clear-cut along an invisible divide.
Before last night, the catfish issue hadn’t seemed like a true problem, because it wasn’t; nothing was true about it. Not-Fatin wasn’t Fatin, and Leah knew it, and to her that was enough. But now, after seeing the real Fatin smirk and joke around with Jimmy Fallon and hint at a new project in her upcoming future, Leah feels knocked off balance. The world seems to shrink around her, dimensions shifting, everything upside down and utterly wrong.
Not-Fatin could be anyone, Leah thinks wildly, and it scares the shit out of her for the first time since they matched. It’s not like she’d believed that not-Fatin was actually Fatin, not for a minute - and yet somewhere along the way, the lines had blurred and Leah’s guard had come down.
But now she’s seen Fatin onscreen, radiating fame and power, looking as untouchable as the sun, and the lines between them are drawn in permanent ink.
Leah holds her phone in her palm, and it feels like a hand grenade. The old paranoia washes over her again, pries at her bones, digs its way beneath her skin. I’m here, it’s saying; I’ll always be here.
Her mind races furiously, creating outlines, calculating angles. It’s an itch she can’t reach, a wound she can’t shrug off. She feels powerless, frantic, fear and frustration chasing each other around her body like birds across the sky. She needs to do something, anything. Her phone weighs heavy in her hand, waiting.
She shouldn’t do it. She does anyway.
you’re actually 21 right
like that part of your profile is real
where’s this coming from all of a sudden
just answer the question
jesus yes im fucking 21
i promise im a real normal person not some random 40 year old man jerking off in his basement
Leah swallows around what feels like a throat full of glass, because she knows all about that, doesn’t she; forty-year old men and their psychopath tendencies. The basement or a hotel room paid for by a credit card Leah was too young to even think about applying for - what’s the difference, really? Nightmares, like history, haunt you regardless of what direction you run.
are you okay
you sound…idk. different than usual
well it sure seems like you are
did you WANT me to be a 40 year old man?
like are you disappointed rn
what the fuck
bc i was starting to wonder if you had some kind of age kink
like maybe you go for old men
Leah’s fingers freeze against the screen, unmoving.
got something to say for yourself there, sweetheart?
Leah’s blood runs cold, stagnant. It’s just a joke, but it’s not; it’s just a joke, but the ceiling is caving in above her. Not-Fatin isn’t aware of what she’s saying, and Leah knows it, but it still cuts through her like sharks’ teeth through bone.
Her heart, aching for a softer life, says, Just tell her, just explain. Her head, drowned in the chorus of voices that have quieted but never truly left, says, Burn it all down.
Tinder is, after all, nothing more than a means to a fiery end, and Leah sometimes feels like she’s been burning since the day she was born. She never stood a chance.
like seriously go fuck yourself
you think you know me just because we matched on tinder
you don’t. you don’t know a single fucking thing about me
and i don’t want you to
so fuck off
leah calm down
i wasn’t being serious
More messages come after that, piling up on the screen the way cars pile up on the freeway, but Leah doesn’t bother checking them. Instead, she shuts her phone off and buries herself back in her bed. The memories come washing in like garbage in a hurricane, spreading themselves across the beach of Leah’s mind, and she can’t do anything to stop them.
She sticks her head under the pillow and bites against the side of her mouth until she tastes blood.
She gets five, six, seven hours of stewing in self-loathing sadness before it’s interrupted by Dot: coming home from work, throwing off her heavy boots, going to the kitchen for a glass of ice water. Leah hears all of this even from where she’s lying in bed; the pattern of Dot’s movements is ingrained deep in her memory by now, carved by consistency and strengthened by the constant creak of the apartment’s well-aged floorboards whenever weight is placed on them.
The fridge door opens and closes again, and this is usually the part where Dot would go water the plants or crash on the couch and nap through a rerun of Survivor, but she doesn’t - her footsteps stop and then start again, getting closer. Leah groans to herself, knowing what’s to come, torn between falling deeper into self-destruction and seeking comfort where she knows she’ll always find it.
“Yo,” Dot says, head halfway through the open the door. “Leah.”
“Made iced tea,” Dot continues, placid. “You want any?”
Leah mumbles, “No,” the sound mostly lost in her pillows.
“Okay,” Dot says, but she doesn’t leave. She crosses the room instead, sits on the edge of Leah’s bed; the mattress dips beneath the sudden shift in weight, sends Leah rolling closer towards her. There’s a message there, Leah thinks, or maybe it’s just physics. “You want to tell me why you skipped all your classes today then?”
“No,” Leah says again, face still turned away, hidden and hiding all at the same time.
Dot moves closer by a few degrees and reaches out a hand, brushes it against Leah’s forehead. Leah leans forward into the touch on a reflex, wanting reassurance more than dignity, and well - by now she knows by rote, sure and occasionally insufferable, that she can’t hide from Dot any more than she can hide from herself.
“No fever,” Dot observes, pulling her hand away. “You’re not sick?”
“Fuck off,” Leah mutters. Then, because she owes Dot this at least and doesn’t want her to worry: “I’m not sick.”
Dot lets the conversation lie where it is for a minute, and Leah appreciates it. It’s sometimes worth more than any words, she thinks: this easy, significant silence of Dot’s that settles around Leah like a warm embrace, waits at her heels until she feels ready to start walking again.
“I fucked up,” Leah admits at last, when she’s finally ready.
Dot tips her head to the side. “What happened?”
“Fake Fatin,” Leah says. “Tinder Fatin. She made a joke about me liking old men, it hit a nerve that I thought had fucking died by now, I don’t know. It’s not really her fault in the end, is it, but also she could be anyone in Los Angeles, anyone, she said she’s twenty-two and a woman and I believe her on that but it’s still such a broad demographic to canvas. Fuck.” Leah’s head flies to her head, pulls at her hair, rips at the roots like that’ll be enough to rid herself of these skeletons’ fingers that won’t relinquish their hold on her life. “And I should find her suspicious, she’s literally a catfish on Tinder, but I don’t, I fucking don’t, all the alarm bells are silent and it doesn’t make sense. I can’t make sense of it.”
“Leah,” Dot says gently. “Breathe.” She inhales, holds for four counts, exhales, and Leah repeats the action.
“Thanks,” Leah says, marginally calmer. “I don’t know why I’m so upset over this, really. It’s just - she feels like something to me for some reason, but she said one stupid thing and now all I can think about is him. It’s been over a year since he last talked to me, five fucking years since we ended, and I’m still not over it. How can I not fucking be over it?”
“At your own pace,” Dot reminds her. “Always at your own pace.”
“Fuck my own pace,” Leah snaps. “I’m tired of this.” She curls further into herself, knees pressed to Dot’s legs. “I’m so tired, Dot.”
Dot’s hand descends on her shoulder, gentle, understated, and Leah lets it soothe her into a softer state.
“The worst part is,” Leah says, “it almost felt like there was something between me and her. Maybe not like that kind of thing, but maybe - I wanted it. And maybe that’s the worst part of all.”
“Don’t be dumb,” Dot says comfortingly. “Come back to earth, Lee. Everything’s not ruined just because you’ve had a setback.”
Leah’s eyes burn. She closes them against the sting. “Feels like it is.”
Dot’s quiet again for a moment. Then she flops back against the bed, her body parallel to Leah’s, and says, “I was reading this article a while ago about why coal miners used to take canaries with them when they entered a new part of the mine.”
“Because the miners needed them to determine the air quality,” Leah answers, automatic. “If the canaries were singing, the air was safe; if the canaries died, the miners knew they had to get to safety.”
“Right,” Dot says. “And if they were singing, they had oxygen. So as long as the canaries were breathing, they were fine.”
“I guess,” Leah says, not quite following whatever thread that Dot’s unwinding. “So?”
“So you’re breathing,” Dot says, her hand still light against the slant of Leah’s shoulder. “And that’s all you need for now.”
It’s an imperfect metaphor, like so many others in Leah’s imperfect life, but Leah understands; she pictures walls coming down around her, thinks about fleeing the dark and spreading wings to fly from the world, and finds that she’s alright where she is. She inhales, exhales again, deciphers meaning where no one else would find it.
She’s breathing, and she doesn’t need an escape route just yet. Maybe it can be enough.
“God damn,” Leah says, and it comes out watery. “All these years of therapy and you can still talk me off the ledge better than most licensed psychiatrists.”
“You’ll always be my favorite head case,” Dot says, whimsical. “I won’t quit my day job just yet. You’re okay.”
And in some small miracle, like a plane flying over a deserted island, Leah thinks, Maybe I am.
The clouds that have been hovering low over the city begin to break; sun streams in the window for the first time all day, weak but undeniable. It slips into the room, touches things gently. Dot casts a glance towards the plant in the corner, a large fern in a brown-glaze pot that’s wilting sadly to one side despite Leah’s best attempts to remember the watering can that sits next to it, and clicks her tongue.
“Your fern’s fucked,” Dot says, observational without admonishment. “You should probably water it more often.”
“I definitely should,” Leah agrees. She looks at it again, notices the newer shoots sprouting up at its base. “But it’ll be fine. It can always grow back.”
Even after all of that, she’s not fully settled. These things take time, and Leah has never been especially fast. She’s never had it easy, has she. A flight risk full of salt and fire, hates to back down whether she’s right or wrong, and that’s just the kind of girl she is sometimes: half-manic and hurting, hitched to a star that most likely burned out light-years ago. It’s exhausting and exhilarating all in the span of the same breath, and sometimes Leah wishes she could climb right out of herself, scale the tower of her bones and just jump.
This isn’t one of those times, though. This is something slower, greener, a forest blooming to life or a waterfall found hidden behind a grove.
She leaves it a day longer, two, spends her hours moving through the motions of meds and meals and classes and lunch with Rachel and dinner with Dot. She picks up her battered old copy of The Great Gatsby, flips carefully through it, lets her eyes linger on the closing line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The voices in her head talk until they’re blue in their metaphysical faces and then slowly go quiet, until they’re only the dull murmur she’s lived with for as long as she can remember.
On the third day, she picks up her phone.
There’s a slew of messages spanning the last three days when she opens Tinder, all of them from not-Fatin. Leah scrolls through them, her stomach aching with a nameless hurt.
don’t ignore me
still not gonna talk to me?
idk what i did but this sucks
at least let me apologize you dumb fuck
sorry that wasnt very apologetic
leah, whatever it was, i’m sorry. i’m sorry okay
i don’t want to lose you
There’s nothing more after that, just empty white space waiting for Leah’s words. Leah takes a deep breath, listens for her canary in the coal mine, hears nothing. She starts typing.
Well, she’s never been accused of being a good communicator.
so i have an apology to make
here’s the thing
There’s no typing signal from the other side of the screen, no sign that not-Fatin is reading or waiting or even there, and that somehow makes it easier. Leah continues on, pulling each word from where it lives at the back of her brain in a well of hurt that won’t run dry no matter what she tries.
when i was seventeen i was in a really bad relationship
with a guy thirty years older than me
so fine, you weren't technically wrong about my tendencies, are you happy
sorry that was needlessly petty but anyway
he thought i was eighteen and when he found out he completely lost it and ended the relationship
and i was destroyed by it, like batshit off the walls heartbroken, for the better part of a year
im so sorry
but then i finally got over him in sophomore year
stopped thinking about him, stopped hurting over it
and then three months later he texted me out of the blue saying he wanted to talk
fuck im sorry
and i said no obviously but he just kept contacting me
on and off every few months for the next year
like he’d just drink himself stupid and text me or call me or send me a dm on fucking instagram
i finally got a restraining order on him last year and i’ve mostly moved past it again but i have bad days
i know you were making a joke the other day and you couldn’t have possibly known. but it caught me just right
i shouldn’t have blown up on you like that though
so i’m sorry
i didn't mean any of what i said. you do know me
and i do want you to
first, im so fucking sorry that i hurt you even unintentionally
second, im so fucking sorry all of that happened to you
third, do you want me to track this fucker down and kill him
i know a guy who knows a guy we could have him dead and dusted in a matter of days
The corners of Leah’s mouth quirk upwards - not a smile, not properly, but the closest she’s gotten in four days.
as interesting as it would be to see if you’re serious, no
i don’t want to even give him that much thought
but seriously im so sorry about the joke like i had no idea
it’s fine i swear
you’re not the problem
in fact of all the things in my life right now you’re like the farthest from a problem
oh so it’s like that
well right back at you babe
i can’t stand you
getting serious mixed messages here
okay it’s like this
you ARE a problem
but one i don’t mind having
almost sounds like you like me
in your dreams
oh you're in my dreams alright
wanna hear about them
i will ghost you again
don’t test me
hey thanks for telling me all of this
i know it probably wasn’t easy
but it was worth it
and this is the last time i’ll say it but the offer to kill that dickbag stands
i’d do it for you
i think i’d do a lot of things for you
“It worked out alright, then,” Dot says over breakfast the next day - “breakfast” being a loose, generous term for half a carton of leftover Chinese food and black coffee.
Leah rolls her eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Dot just smiles and sips her coffee. The room is bright, airy; Leah looks out the window, feels late spring turning itself upwards like an offering to the sun. Their kitchen table, always a comfortable fit for two, seems almost too big between them now, and Leah imagines fitting in a third chair, putting down a third setting.
“By the way,” Dot says, pushing the carton towards Leah to indicate that she’s done with it if Leah wants the rest, “I’ll probably be home late tonight, if I make it back at all.”
Leah cracks a smile. “Hot date?”
“Med student boy,” Dot nods. “He keeps trying to ask me out and losing his nerve. Figured I’d finally bail him out.”
“That’s kind of you.” Leah pushes her foot against Dot’s beneath the table, taps twice. “Be safe, use protection…”
“…and carry pepper spray,” Dot finishes. “The LA woman trifecta.”
Her smile mirrors Leah’s, warm with satisfaction. Leah knows that wherever they go, the two of them, they’ll always find their way back here: to late-morning breakfast at a table they’ve nearly outgrown, constant and content. It’s a good feeling to have. Sometimes she thinks she could live in this apartment forever.
“By the way,” Dot says, “the hot water is out again and maintenance says it won’t be fixed for two days,” and oh, yeah, sometimes Leah can’t wait to move out of here.
An odd mood overtakes Leah for the next few days, clings low around her head like a cloud over the ocean. It’s not sadness, really - not unhappiness, more of a pointlessness. It’s as if she’s come loose from her place in the world and now she’s drifting, lost in doldrums and carried at the current’s whims.
She gets this way often enough that it’s not a surprise, just a deviation from the normal; the switch flips so easily sometimes, from frantic fear to absent apathy. The world’s ending or nothing matters, take your pick.
She shakes it off for hours at a time, goes about her usual routine without the weight of it on her shoulders, but it creeps back in whenever she’s alone with too much time to think, especially at night - it comes in waves, spills through her fingers as imbalance and nostalgia. This always happens in the end: too many thoughts and not enough time in the world. And in the thick of it all, there’s only one person she really wants to talk to.
As if in answer, Leah’s phone lights up.
you ever wonder if you’re doing life wrong
Existential dread by osmosis. Leah almost smiles.
happy saturday night to you too
we were supposed to go to this hot new club downtown but i took a nap before pregame and didn’t wake up in time
and now i don’t feel like getting out of bed
a modern day tragedy
shakespeare would weep
god i hate english majors
yeah, yeah. we’re the scourge of the academic earth
you think you’re doing life wrong?
uh no. i KNOW im doing it right
i have some good friends i have a job i love
financially im doing better than i ever fucking was
but sometimes i wonder. just a little
except i wonder a lot
anything in particular or
like maybe all my life choices haven’t been the best
today’s the five year anniversary of the last time i spoke to my dad
shit im sorry
oh dont be he’s not dead
i just wish he was
he cheated on my mom when i was in high school
like multiple times
and when i found out i got so mad that i sent his nudes to every business contact in his phone
it didn’t help tho
just made my mom sadder
made my brothers confused
and brought eternal shame upon the family, etc
haven’t talked to him since
what about your mom and your brothers? do you still talk to them?
my brothers text me sometimes about movies bc they’re still too young to really understand all the shit that went down
and i talk to my mom but it’s never been the same like she didn’t even leave him after the whole scandal
and i have a great career now but it’s not the one they both planned for me so she doesn’t really like to hear about it
drives me crazy sometimes. like not to sound full of myself but i’m fucking good at what i do
and it still doesn’t mean anything to her because it’s not what SHE wanted me to do
yeah it bites the big one but what can ya do
can’t believe i have issues with both my parents
really checks all the cliche boxes
what about your parents what are they like
i feel like this is a third-date-over-wine kind of question
oh so we’re dating now
no you’re so annoying
i’m just saying
idk about you but i am two glasses deep rn so we’re all set on that front
now if only you’d let me ask you out
my parents were nice, once
one of them’s dead and one never got over his death
and to be fair i am an adult with my own apartment and my own life but still i talk to my mom maybe twice a month now
fuck i’m sorry leah
it’s fine i never really knew him
i was pretty young when he died
well now that we’ve unpacked our parental trauma
wanna watch pitch perfect with me
only if it’s pitch perfect 2
better start believing in me then
Leah pulls up the movie on her laptop, presses play. The fog that’s been surrounding her begins to lift, to fade away with the distraction like it always does; her phone blinks up at her with another message, and Leah swears she sees a lighthouse out beyond the clouds.
Spring semester ends more quietly than Leah expected, without flare or fanfare. Grad school’s a different beast altogether, and the path of burnout from September to May is a well-worn track. She hands in her last papers, takes her last finals, and leaves campus without much more than a few goodbyes to her friends in the English department.
She comes home from class to find Rachel making jello shots in her kitchen, and yeah, this seems more like it.
“What’re you doing,” Leah says, mostly rhetorically. She has eyes; she can see exactly what Rachel’s doing, which has her wondering why there’s so many grape shots being constructed on a table that was spotlessly clean only four hours ago. Rachel’s the only one who likes grape - Dot’s favorite is cherry, while Leah prefers lime and Nora, for some godforsaken reason, only likes coconut, a flavor of jello that Leah didn’t even know existed until she made the mistake of grocery shopping with Nora once. “Are all the cherry ones for you?”
“Pretty much,” Rachel says with a nod. “Come on, it’s the end of the semester. We’re gonna live it up.”
“I’m the only one of us who’s actually in school right now,” Leah points out.
Rachel frowns. “Uh, no, you’re not in school right now. The semester literally just ended, that’s the whole point of all this.”
Leah shrugs, conceding the point.
“Plus,” Rachel adds, “being a grad student and coaching the dive team are close enough.”
“They’re not that close,” Nora calls from the living room, and Leah jumps. She hadn’t even realized Nora was here. “Realistically speaking, the disparity between working as a coach and learning as a student on the same college campus is large.”
“The disparity between me and all the fucks I don’t give is also large,” Rachel replies impatiently. Then, to Leah: “Here, try this mix. I don’t know if I added enough vodka.”
Leah takes the spoon that Rachel hands to her, sips from its edge, and chokes. “No, you definitely did.”
“Honey, I’m home,” Dot calls out, closing the front door behind her and toeing off her work boots. Even from here, Leah can see faint burn marks and grease stains on her cargo shorts - another exploded fuse box, probably, which is always a bitch to wash out. “Oh good, we’ve got company.”
“You knew we were here,” Nora says, “you let us in earlier, remember?”
“No, I remember,” Dot says. “Just employing a little sarcasm, the kind that’s always wasted on you. Rachel, why are nearly all of those jello shots cherry-flavored?”
“Cause cherry is fucking good. Sue me.”
“Oh, wow,” Dot says, surveying the table. Leah can see the very moment when realization sets in: yes, those are two hundred jello shots, and yes, it is only four in the afternoon. “We’re going hard tonight, then.”
“End of the semester,” Leah says, wry. “No other way to celebrate.”
“In that case,” Dot says, “time to break out the special stash.” She crosses the kitchen and opens the cabinet next to the sink, pulling out a handle of Titos and two fifths of Jose Cuervo. “We’re locked and loaded.”
“Damn right,” Rachel says with feeling. “Even Nora’s getting fucked up tonight, right Nora?”
“Maybe not completely inebriated,” Nora says, now joining them in the kitchen and peering apprehensively at the table full of alcohol, “but I’ll try a couple drinks.”
Rachel slaps her on the back. Nora winces. Leah winces too, in sympathy; she’s been on the receiving end of Rachel’s physically violent expressions of affection before. What Rachel’s near-superhuman strength and former Division I athlete brain see as a light love tap usually hurts like a bitch.
“Where do you think we’ll end up tonight?” Nora asks, still a little wide-eyed at the sheer volume of bottled liver damage in front of them. “By the end, I mean?”
Dot shrugs. “Doesn’t really matter, does it,” she says, and that’s the end of that.
They end up in a bar somewhere downtown, a fairly small place that’s not big and bright enough to be a club but not dim enough inside to be seen as anything else. The lights are low, flashing in strobes of green and red and blue across the floor and walls every twenty seconds; there’s a space cleared in the middle for a dance floor, where a large cluster of people are moving around to the beat. The music’s loud and the drinks are strong and Leah’s feeling all of it.
She’s holding her fifth drink of the night - fifth from the bar anyway, there’d been the seven jello shots and four tequila shots at the apartment and a tall can of Twisted Tea bought from a corner store on the way from the car. She’s kept count somehow, the way she always does when she drinks, no matter how far gone she is.
Everything’s loose and light around her, blurring into indistinct colors and shapes when she stares too hard. Everyone in this bar is beautiful, and Leah doesn’t love many people in this world, she really doesn’t , but at this blurry, liquor-hazed moment she swears she loves the entire room.
A hand catches her shoulder and spins her around, and she turns to see Dot there, pink-faced and beaming, a drink with a little pink umbrella clutched in her free hand.
“Dude,” Dot’s saying. “Dude. You’re so fucked.”
“Not really,” Leah says, “not really, no, I’m fine. I still know how many drinks I’ve had and everything.”
“And it’s a fucking lot,” Dot says around a grin. “Take a breather after this one, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Leah says. The umbrella in Dot’s drink suddenly looks hilarious to her; she fishes it out, sticks it in the corner of her mouth like a cigarette. “Where’s Nora and Rachel?”
“Rachel’s arguing with a bartender over the price of Jameson,” Dot answers, the words coming out ever so slightly slurred, “and Nora’s over there somewhere.” Leah follows the vague wave of Dot’s hand until she spots Nora in the corner, both hands wrapped around what must be her third drink of the whole night and smiling an awkward smile up at an equally awkward looking boy.
“Good for her,” Dot says, and Leah has to agree; the boy looks nice enough, if more than a little bit like a guy who’d bring a book to a nightclub or a Lego set to the beach, and who’d do that; sand everywhere, although Leah wouldn’t mind the book at the nightclub idea, that wouldn’t too bad as long as it wasn’t in first person - and yes, okay, she’s completely and utterly wasted.
“Good for her,” she agrees, and takes another sip of her drink.
Rachel comes over to them bearing four shot glasses, two of which she pushes into Leah and Dot’s respective hands. “Brought him down to five dollars each,” she says proudly, and Leah’s all set to throw hers back when Dot intercepts the glass and downs it herself.
“Hey,” Leah protests. “Paid good money for that.”
“I paid good money for that,” Rachel corrects, “and maybe Dad here is right, you could take a break. You look hammered. Where’s Nora?”
“Consummating her relationship with the walking equivalent of dollar-store magic tricks in the corner,” Leah replies. Rachel rolls her eyes, looks over at her sister, and fakes a dry heave.
“I’m cutting you off,” Dot says, plucking Leah’s glass from her hand, “both because you’re drunk enough and because I want your vodka cran. This tequila sunrise isn’t doing it for me anymore.”
“Bitch,” Leah says, but it’s affectionate. “Fine. I’m going to the bathroom.”
Dot nods. “Good plan. Don’t fall in.”
Leah raises her middle finger high in the air as she heads towards the back of the bar. Even without turning back, she can hear Dot’s quiet laughter.
The bathroom miraculously has no line, and Leah stumbles through the door without interruption. She washes her hands for five minutes straight after she emerges from the stall, stands at the sink for a while to stare at her reflection in the thoughtful, rose-tinted way that only truly trashed people can achieve, and tries ineffectively to pull open the empty paper towel dispenser.
And then, because she’s dumb and drunk and just a little bit stupid, she takes out her phone and does the one thing she promised herself she wouldn’t do: she looks up Fatin Jadmani’s Instagram account.
She scrolls through Fatin’s posts with an unfocused gaze, taking it all in. There’s pictures from sets, on beaches, with friends; Fatin’s all over Los Angeles, all over the world it seems, surfing a wave, cutting a pineapple, tanning by a pool, smirking for the camera with her hair falling loose and her designer sunglasses propped on top of her head. She smiles the same way in nearly every frame, confident and slightly crooked with a laugh hidden away in the curve of her mouth. She’s so bright she’s nearly incandescent, even through the screen of a phone in the shitty lighting of a dive bar bathroom, and Leah’s heart beats a little faster the more she scrolls.
Then, because she’s drunk and young enough to get away with bad decisions still, Leah switches over to Tinder.
are yuo up
no way are you drunk
im not drnuk the roomsjust spinning kind of
holy shit you’re so drunk
fine maeybe a little
you know what
i wish yuo really were the real fatin
you sweet summer child
just out of curiosity, why
becaus e. fatin jadmani is so hot
like insanely gorgeous
hey how come you can drunk spell gorgeous but not maybe
no but forreal fatin is so hot
id let her do disgusting things to me i’m so seroious
this is literally gold keep going
when i saw her in that movie the one with the feminist directoer and the creepy psych plot it kind of turned me on
so much actuylly
screenshotting all of this for future blackmail btw
sounds like you want to yeah
inreally do wish you were her
shes so hot/and i really like you way more than i expected to for atinder catfish
if yuo were the same person itd be perfect;
yeah about that
The ground dips beneath Leah’s feet, sharp and sudden, like her whole world’s about to turn itself over. She grabs at the sink, pulls herself to safety, and laboriously types out another message.
i think i mijht be falling down
babe are you good fr
do i need to come collect you
or send an uber at least
no ive Got this
A knock comes from the door of the bathroom and then Dot steps in, not bothering to wait for an answer. “Leah?”
Leah swings her head towards Dot. “Present,” she says, “and accounted for,” and then tries to continue what she’s typing, but the keyboard keeps dissolving beneath her thumbs.
y it n kSo
Leah stumbles again. Dot catches her easily, wraps an arm around her waist. “That’s a wrap on the night, drunky. Don’t want you taking a nosedive right when the semester’s finally over.”
“No,” Leah says, “I can keep going, I’m fine,” and then Rachel appears over Dot’s shoulder and the phone in Leah’s hand is flashing brightly and the room is suddenly spinning faster.
are you still there?
Leah thinks, Huh, I should probably answer that.
And then she stops thinking anything at all.
She wakes up the next morning and instantly regrets it: she’s wearing a bra with shorts and nothing else, everything smells like vodka, and the sun is unbearably bright against her weary eyes. A glass of water sits on her nightstand, but she doesn’t even want to look at it.
It takes ten minutes for her to be able to keep her eyes open in the light, and another ten to drag herself from the bed and shuffle miserably into the bathroom, where she finds Dot sitting on the edge of the tub with her elbows braced against her thighs. Dot’s wearing nothing but an oversized Joni Mitchell T-shirt that Leah bought for three dollars at a Goodwill the other day, no doubt swiped from Leah’s laundry basket, and she looks about as alive as Leah feels.
“You look like shit,” Dot says encouragingly from her perch on the tub.
In response, Leah turns her head and throws up into the trash can next to the sink. She manages, between heaves, to say, “Fuck off.”
“Better out than in,” Dot says, unfazed. “I’m holding your hair back in spirit, okay, but in real life I can’t move from where I’m sitting or I will actually die.”
Leah finishes throwing up, sticks her head in the sink, takes a mouthful of water to rinse out her mouth. It doesn’t really help. “Where’s Rachel and Nora?”
“Their apartment, as far as I know. It’s like, two in the afternoon.” Dot waves a hand in the air, limp and apathetic. “Rachel texted me this morning that she’s going on a run, which is batshit. Her and her fucking perfect hangover cure. Could’ve at least made us some. Hey, are you gonna throw up again? You look kind of green.”
Leah stands stock-still, horrified. Dot’s words are ringing a bell in her aching head, a bell that she can’t bear hearing. This is a nightmare, or worse; at least nightmares you can wake up from. For Leah, waking up was where everything went wrong.
“Fuck,” she says, the night coming back to her in slow-blurred pieces: the umbrella, the bathroom, the messages. “Fuck.”
“What,” Dot says with a groan, but Leah’s already lurching back out of the bathroom without stopping to answer. She makes it back into her room, collapses halfway onto the bed, digs around frantically in the mess of sheets. When she finally unearths her phone and opens Tinder to scroll through her messages from last night, she very nearly throws up again from sheer embarrassment.
“Jesus,” Leah mumbles, dragging a hand across her face. She refuses to read it all word for horrifying word, but the phrases jumping out at her are enough to make her crave the sweet release of oblivion. “I need to die.”
She finally thumbs her way to the bottom of the messages, her throat tight with hangover-blunt anxiety, and finds the last texts from Fatin.
dude did you die? come back
you’re like actually fucked rn i hope you’re okay
this is objectively hilarious tho i’ve never seen you wasted before
okay for my own peace of mind im going to assume that your friends took you home
text me in the morning so i know you’re alive
btw we WILL be unpacking your drunk horniness you’re not escaping that
Bile rises in Leah’s lungs, but she forces it back down. She can do this. She’s built herself back up from ground far lower than where she is now; in comparison, this is like nothing.
It is, however, still a mortifying ordeal.
Maybe it’s a terrible opener, but it’s gotten her this far; she might as well stick with it till the end.
i haven’t been that drunk since freshman year
im assuming there was an occasion
last day of spring semester
on a wednesday night at that
lemme guess you’re never drinking again
i’m never drinking again.
does that mean i’ll never get another unprompted monologue about how bad you want fatin jadmani to fuck you
bc i’ll be honest that was a top ten moment
i mean yes you’ll never get one again
i’m so sorry for that actually like i just dumped it on you with no warning
or concept of shame
no it’s okay
it was great
Something’s strange about this picture, but Leah can’t quite put her finger on it. She racks her brain for a minute, scans their messages as the hangover pounds at her temples, sticking like rocks beneath the wheels of her thoughts. She looks at the screen once more and sees pieces of the puzzle slot into place neatly - there it is, right there.
wait a minute
you said “how bad you want fatin jadmani to fuck you,” not “how bad you want ME to fuck you”
you slipped up
and i caught you even with a hangover the size of texas
finally outed yourself as a catfish
what a complete and total surprise that comes as a shock to everyone
yeah so about that
what are you doing this friday night at around 8
don’t try deflecting
i caught you
i caught you red handed in the midst of your catfishing tendencies
so does that mean you’re free
Still liquor-flushed and high on triumph, it takes Leah a few minutes to comprehend the magnitude of what’s happening here. Once it sinks in, though, it burns all the way down her spine.
Not-Fatin is a real person who lives in LA, shares the same town as Leah, and she wants to meet up. Still wants to meet up, even after Leah spent the better part of half an hour last night detailing the degree to which she wants Fatin Jadmani to sweep her off her feet and bend her over a table. If she wasn’t so mortified, Leah would almost be impressed with herself.
The offer of dinner sits on her screen like a gun on a table, leaving Leah to question whether or not it’s loaded. It’s the kind of thing she’d usually suspect with a fear bordering on mania, a suicide mission the voices in her head should be screaming to avoid, but they’re not.
Fuck, they’re not - all her sirens have gone silent, her instincts a compass pointing her undeniably toward this unorthodox true north, and Leah’s never been one to go against her grain; she may not like it, but she still trusts herself more than anyone else in the world. She’s her first and best line of defense against existence, knows exactly where she wants to place her hits and pulls her punches, and she’ll hold onto what she believes in until the cliff of it crumbles away from beneath her.
She thinks of canaries singing in the dark; thinks of the ocean, free and unrestrained. She thinks of Dot saying: You’re breathing, and that’s all you need for now.
She thinks of thousands of messages flying back and forth through space and time and the streets of Los Angeles, and maybe this really was coming from the start.
where do you want to go
When she lets herself think about Jeff, finally, quick and reluctant like running her tongue over the gap of a missing tooth, it’s like thinking about anyone. It’s like thinking about nothing.
Leah smiles around an exhale, feeling like she could swallow the ocean whole.
“I’m meeting up with the catfish from Tinder on Friday and we’re getting dinner,” Leah announces later that evening, once they’ve mostly recovered from their hangovers and forced themselves to pick at Thai food in front of the TV. “Wow, that sentence sounds even more stupid when I say it out loud.”
“Good on you,” Dot says. “Be safe, use protection…”
“…and carry pepper spray,” Leah finishes. “The LA woman tri - oh god, I really am gonna have dinner with this girl, what the fuck. Dot, what have I done?”
“Stuck me with outfit assistant duty, probably,” Dot says, shoving an entire spring roll into her mouth and making a face like she instantly regrets it. “Cheer up, sunshine. At least you have plans for Friday night.”
Friday night rolls around quicker than expected, and before Leah knows what’s happening, it’s seven pm and she’s sitting on the floor of her room amid a pile of discarded outfits, blouses and cardigans and denim shorts strewn around the carpet like the aftermath of an earthquake at the Salvation Army. Nothing seems right and everything looks stupid, and she’s panicking - and she shouldn’t be, because it isn’t a date.
“This is totally a date,” Dot says from where she’s sitting at Leah’s desk, flicking through a paperback she took from the shelf. Reading Leah’s mind, as always.
Leah shoots her a look. “It’s not a date.”
“This girl’s been hitting on you since the day you matched and now you’ve agreed to get dinner with her? Total date.” Dot flips a page. “Trust me on this one.”
“I don’t want to think about that,” Leah says.
“Sure,” Dot says. “How about what you’re gonna wear?”
“Don’t want to think about that either.” Leah shuffles across the floor to her closet and pulls down a few more hangers, throws the clothes to the floor. “Fucking hell, Dot, help me out.”
“I won’t pick your date fit for you,” Dot says firmly, “for your own sake. But I will say that if you’re not dressed and leaving in ten minutes, I’ll push you out into the hall no matter what you’re wearing.”
“The power of tough love compels you,” Leah mumbles, but she throws Dot a grateful look.
Ten minutes later she’s leaving the apartment in black shorts and a pink-striped blue button down left open and layered over a black lace tank top, stepping into the street, calling a taxi with a hand that’s just barely shaking. The restaurant is only five miles away, at the waterfront, which means that it takes the better part of an hour to get there; when they finally pull up to the curb, Leah swipes her credit card and practically throws herself out of the cab.
It’s only then, when she’s standing alone on the sidewalk and looking up at the golden awning of Nouveau Depart, that she fully realizes what she’s gotten herself into: she’s going into a restaurant that looks like it’s got a Michelin star and five forks at each place setting to meet a girl who’s been posing as Fatin Jadmani on the internet. This is possibly one of the most insane things she’s ever done, and there’s a long list to choose from.
Leah could leave, still. She could back down from this, go home, have dinner with Dot, text an excuse or maybe say nothing at all, I couldn’t make it or this isn’t right or it’s not your fault but I’m just not ready. She could - but she thinks of the jokes and the banter and the deep cuts, of pressing play on a movie and knowing it starts on someone else’s screen, and she can’t see herself doing it. She’s only moving forward, after all; she isn’t going back.
She breathes in, just once, and steps into the restaurant. The door closes with a pleasant chime behind her.
“Good evening,” the hostess says, smiling at her politely. “Name?”
“Uh,” Leah says, anxiety climbing up the back of her throat like a reflex, “yeah, hi. Should be under J? Reservation for two.”
The hostess looks down at her tablet, nods, checks something off. “Right this way, please.”
Leah follows her through what seems like an endless maze of tables until the hostess stops by a window overlooking the harbor and gestures towards the table beneath it. There’s two chairs here, both empty, and a static shock of suspicion runs through Leah’s system as she sits down.
“Our best table,” the hostess says proudly. “I’ll wait to take orders until the other half of your party arrives, but could I get you any drinks to start?”
“Just a water would be good, thanks.”
“Absolutely,” the hostess says, “I’ll send a waitress over right away with that,” and then she disappears, leaving Leah to sit and wonder just how not-Fatin managed to get the best table in the house at a waterfront restaurant on a Friday night. The girl really is committing to the bit, which is both admirable and a little concerning.
Her water comes, and Leah sips it slowly, looking around the restaurant. It’s packed from wall to wall, but the woven divisions between tables dim the noise of overlapping conversations to a tolerable level; the light is low and intimate, candles flickering on every table within the confines of metal lanterns. Music plays softly over hidden speakers, something with strings. Leah checks her phone - 7:55, no new messages - and sets it back down, settles back in her seat to wait. The nerves press against her bones, rattle in her stomach, but she stifles them and takes another sip of water.
Five minutes go by, and then ten, and then fifteen. Leah’s anxiety fades into annoyance and then anger. People at nearby tables glance at her occasionally, then turn away again; the waitresses give her pitying looks as they pass by. Leah grits her teeth and checks her phone again: still nothing.
Embarrassment wells up in her chest, hot and bitter, and really, this is all her fault - she should’ve known better than to have faith, to trust again after everything the universe has thrown at her like a handful of sand or a knife to the back. She’d wanted to be proven wrong, just once, just enough to finally have something of her own.
She’d wanted this, so desperately it hurt to admit even to herself.
Leah shifts in her seat, ready to get up and walk out, but something stays her hand. She wants to believe - wants to be able to believe, with a hunger that threatens to pull her apart from the inside out.
One more minute, she decides. She’ll wait one more minute. Then she’ll go home, block not-Fatin, delete Tinder, take a hammer to her phone and burn down the city with a blowtorch and a dream while she’s at it. Or she’ll just collapse on the couch with Dot and shed a silent tear as they watch a black and white thirties film. It’s all relative, really.
“Excuse me,” says a voice from behind her, vaguely familiar in a way that Leah can’t quite parse. She’s too annoyed to care who it is anyway. “Is this seat taken?”
“Yes, it’s taken,” Leah snaps, every part of her running hot with irritation and tipping dangerously close to the edge. “I’m actually waiting for someone, so…”
“Oh, I know you are,” the voice says, sounding amused now. Leah frowns, turns around, and feels her entire world blow apart at the seams.
Fatin Jadmani is standing there in a little black dress and high-heeled boots, her hair down and loose, her mouth painted a soft red and curled into an amused grin. She looks like the thing that daydreams fantasize about, hair like waves of the ocean and eyes like love caught in amber, and she’s really here; she’s here and she’s real, and Leah -
Leah is a tidal wave trapped in human skin, all her bones turned to birds’ wings, and she is fucked.
She is so, so fucked.
“Sorry I’m late, sweetheart,” Fatin says as she slides into the chair opposite Leah, pure confidence tucked away in the slant of her smile. “Traffic was murder.”
“No,” Leah says. It’s too loud for the quiet atmosphere of the restaurant, but she doesn’t care. “No, no, no. No. No.”
“Take your time,” Fatin says encouragingly, one eyebrow arched in a way that Leah would blush over, just a little, if she wasn’t too busy being horrified. “I can be patient.”
“You’re her,” Leah blurts out, dazed and misconstrued, head spinning in a dozen directions at once. “You - what the fuck. You’re the real Fatin.”
“The one and only,” Fatin confirms. Her grin flashes sharp, amused.
“But,” Leah says, grasping at straws that dissolve at her fingertips. “You’re not. You can’t be - you can’t be here .”
“And yet here I am. Fashionably late - sorry about that, by the way. It’s my driver’s day off, so I took a cab, but that driver was a fucking moron who couldn’t even use Google maps. I was just about ready to get out and walk.” Fatin gives Leah a different smile now, one that’s a little less cocky and a little more vulnerable. “I hope you didn’t think I was standing you up.”
“I,” Leah says dumbly. “You. I can’t - you should have told me you were really Fatin.”
“Babe,” Fatin says, and god, those four letters are so different when they’re falling from Fatin’s lips. Leah’s stomach clenches like a fist, hot and wanting. “I told you, like, upwards of twenty times. You just refused to believe me.”
“Oh.” Leah scrubs a hand against the back of her head, chastened. “Fuck.”
“Fuck is right,” Fatin says, giving her a wink. It’s possible that Leah might spontaneously combust and die right here at this table; well, it’s as good a way as any to go out. “Have you looked at the menu yet? How do you feel about oysters?”
“They’re an aphrodisiac,” Leah says automatically.
Fatin winks again. “I know.”
Leah rolls her eyes. “Also, I hate them.”
“That’s okay,” Fatin says. “I’ll get enough for the both of us.” She picks up her menu, opens it flat against the table, and starts flipping through the pages.
Leah’s mouth hangs open, incredulous. “That’s it? Aren’t you going to rub this in? Make fun of me some more? At least tell me I told you so a couple hundred times?”
“I can do that if you want me to,” Fatin says with a shrug. “But honestly, I don’t feel the need to.”
Leah’s eyebrows rise, sensing the shift: a trap, or maybe just an opening. “Oh yeah? Why?”
“Well, think about it,” Fatin says, closing her menu. “I’m finally on a date with you. For me, that’s enough. Everything else is just a cherry on top.”
Leah’s heartbeat flares, races; there are mountains moving in her chest, rivers running to her heart, power pouring hot through her veins. Everyone in the restaurant’s seen them now, every head turning their way, but Fatin has eyes only for Leah. There’s power there, too, and it makes Leah’s bones feel weak.
“Speaking of which,” Fatin says, casual, like she didn’t just uproot the garden of Leah’s world and grow new flowers by hand. “Cherry Garcia is not my favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor. You really need to work on your research methods.”
“Oh my god,” Leah says around a laugh that’s building in her throat. “Fuck you.”
“You can if you want to, babe,” Fatin murmurs, glancing up at Leah from beneath the dark curl of her eyelashes, and then opens her menu once more like nothing ever happened. “Okay, let’s order.”
Leah opens her menu too, staring at words she can’t hold onto and feeling like she might just burn right through her skin.
They end up with a pile of shared dishes for the table: wine, bread, olive oil, skewers of chicken, black truffle brie. Fatin handles most of it, places the orders with a quick and facile efficiency that’s hotter than it should be; Leah sits back to watch, tries not to let her gaze catch on Fatin’s mouth or collarbones for too long. She’s not entirely successful.
“See something you like?” Fatin asks, but it’s light, no expectation behind it. She passes Leah the bread basket. “Try the ciabatta braid, I swear to god it’s holy.”
“Thanks,” Leah says, and tries again, unsuccessfully, to avoid blushing. There’s no oysters, but she feels love-drugged all the same.
The conversation flows easily, the same way it has for thousands of messages, so fluid and effortless that it may as well be water instead of words. Leah tells Fatin about grad school, her master’s program and the workload and the end of her first semester, and Fatin tells Leah about work, the schedule and her favorite project so far and Gretchen Klein’s tendency to spontaneously lecture every man on set about the inherently patriarchal nature of society (“Like they don’t know already,” Fatin says; “like they didn’t design it this way on purpose). They’re all over the place, hitting favorite colors and childhood stories and all the bones they’ve ever broken (Leah, left pinky; Fatin, left wrist) and the way they look up at the sky when it starts to rain. Their main dishes come - filet mignon for Fatin, chicken piccata for Leah - and it’s like the waiter’s not even there, like the food materializes of its own accord and tries not to bother them.
Halfway through Fatin’s explanation of why she thinks that the dimensional boundaries of a friends with benefits relationship are a fallacy, thank you very much, Leah looks at her and it all falls into place; she knows Fatin, knows her already and all but intimately, could list her opinions on desserts and homoerotic friendships and the man who’s technically her father. Could chart her like the tides, constant and unwavering.
Fatin catches her eye from across the table, and Leah knows she sees it too: they recognize each other, and it’s something close to godliness. Like this, nothing can touch them; like this, every place in the world is theirs and theirs alone.
“Yeah?” Fatin says quietly, as if it’s all been spoken out loud.
“Yeah,” Leah echoes, impossibly warm with emotion. Fatin’s got one elbow braced against the edge of the table, her chin resting in her hand, and what Leah wants right now wouldn’t fit within the pages of twenty books. Fatin dropped into her life like a hurricane unforecasted, tore down her defenses like a house of cards even though their paths never should have crossed at all, and Leah wants to keep this.
That’s the answer, when it’s boiled down to its barest form: Leah wants Fatin, every part of her, for as long as she can hold her. It’s a revelation only because it isn’t one; there’s no surprise, just a sense of rightness. No tsunami, just a smooth sea.
“So,” Leah says, tapping two fingers against her empty plate. “Can you tell me anything about your upcoming project?”
Fatin’s eyes sparkle. “Legally? No. For you - well.” She drops her voice, leans forward across the table. “Don’t repeat this to anyone or Jeannette and Gretchen and probably the entire FCK legal team will rip my head off, but I’m doing a flick with Toni Shalifoe and Shelby Goodkind next - it’s an action thing, kind of like if Kingsman fucked Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and their love child was dipped in a pool of lesbian-coded feminism. Perfect for Shalifoe and Goodkind, actually, since they’re already banging behind the scenes.”
Leah’s eyebrows shoot up. True, Shelby Goodkind recently came out as the final nail in the coffin of her former Disney career and Toni Shalifoe has never been anything but open about her sexuality, but Leah still never would’ve expected to see them together. “Wait, really? They’re together?”
“Ah, shit,” Fatin says. “Yeah, they are, but I probably shouldn’t have said anything. They’re trying to keep it on the down low for as long as possible, or at least until the movie premieres and the press tour is over, so just, like - maybe don’t run to the tabloids with it right away.” She smirks. “I know how much you love Hollywood Hot Goss dot com.”
“One time. That was one time.”
Fatin fakes a pout. “I’m just a one-time thing to you? That hurts, babe.”
“No,” Leah says, rolling her eyes. Then, quieter: “No, you’re not.”
“Yeah,” Fatin answers, cockiness fading into something gentler, her eyes searching Leah’s face and finding it good. “You’re not either.”
The night wears on, the lantern burns lower; dessert plates sit half-eaten between them as they talk and talk, laugh within the candlelight, press skin to skin beneath the shelter of the table. Fatin’s leg brushes against Leah’s, skin smooth as canvas, and Leah’s drunk enough wine by now that the touch goes straight to her stomach and burns its way lower. She shifts in her seat, trying to remain neutral as Fatin pushes their legs together harder now and smirks at her like she knows exactly what effect she’s having.
“I'm gonna go to the bathroom,” Leah says, too quick and too loud. She practically jumps out of her chair, nearly colliding with a waiter in her hurry to get away from their table before she lets Fatin bend her right over it.
The bathroom is small but luxurious, marble tiled, all copper basins and dim gold lighting. Leah leans against one of the sinks and stares down at her hands, tries to remember how to breathe with nothing but Fatin in her lungs.
The door opens behind her, and Leah knows who it is without turning, without looking in the mirror. She turns anyway, and yes - there’s Fatin, long before Leah was ready to face her again, a golden kind of brown in this low light and looking like sin in her little black dress.
“Hey,” Leah manages, voice shoved to the back of her throat and stuck there with desert-dry thirst.
“Hey,” Fatin says. “You good?” It’s easygoing, lighthearted, but Leah senses the core of concern.
“Yeah,” Leah promises. “I’m good.”
“Good,” Fatin says, her smile sliding back to suggestive. “So…do you come here often?”
“Do you always try to pick up girls in bathrooms?” Leah fires back, digging her heels into the ground to hide how badly she wants to close the distance between them.
Fatin’s grin shows a hint of teeth this time. “Only the pretty ones.”
“You really think you could get me?” Leah asks, biting her lower lip on a reflex.
“Oh, babe,” Fatin says, devastating. “I don’t think. I know.”
It’s a challenge, but Leah hasn’t backed down from that yet - and anyway, she’s picked far worse hills to die on.
“Yeah?” she says, letting her gaze drop from Fatin’s eyes to her mouth, and then lower. “Prove it.”
Fatin steps towards her, slow and deliberate until their bodies are flush against each other; her left hand comes to rest at the base of Leah’s spine, while her right rises to cradle Leah’s jaw. She drifts forward until their lips are nearly brushing, and it takes all Leah has not to lean in and finish what she started.
“Need more proof?” Fatin asks, that maddening smirk curling at the edge of her mouth. “Cause I have to warn you, I’m a visual teacher.”
Leah takes a deep breath, feels herself shaking not with fear but with anticipation. This is the middle of the ocean - Fatin is the line and the hook and the sea itself and Leah is drowning with no sign of land, hopelessly pierced by a desire far too strong to wound.
“Hey,” Fatin says under her breath, seduction stripped away for a moment. Her touch softens against Leah’s jaw, thumb stroking gently over the soft skin there. “Do you want to slow it down? If this is too much, I can stop.”
“Please don’t,” Leah says, and kisses her.
Their mouths meet the way the sea strikes the shore, a first kiss worthy of the silver screen. Fatin makes a noise somewhere deep in her throat, like she wasn’t expecting it to happen this way, and it’s enough to drive Leah mad; she feels every wall come crashing down, feels the ocean spilling through like it was always meant to. She backs them up against the sink until Fatin’s left hand finds her hip instead, holds on tight, fingers dipping below the edge of the waistband. It rips a pathetic sound from Leah, leaving her with barely enough sense to grab at Fatin’s wrist before she reaches a point she won’t want to come back from.
“Okay, wait,” Leah says, and it’s nearly a whine. Christ. “I want this as much as you, but I’m not doing it in the bathroom of a five star restaurant.”
Fatin smirks. “What, so four star restaurants are fair game?”
“Fatin,” Leah says, impatience running through her tone. “Shut up and take me home.”
Fatin pulls her in for one more kiss, long enough that it has Leah breathless when they break apart. “Sounds good to me, baby,” she says, her thumb brushing against Leah’s bottom lip. Her grin is practically wicked in the copper-glow light of the bathroom - and oh, if this is drowning then Leah will never touch land again.
Leah isn’t quite sure how they get to Fatin’s apartment; maybe they walk, maybe they take a taxi, maybe they wish themselves there by sheer force of desire. All she knows is that they’re suddenly there, twisting through the door of Fatin’s room and gliding backwards, dropping clothes as they go until they find the bed. Fatin bites at Leah’s neck, and pushes her back against the mattress, climbs on top of her; Leah arches up into Fatin’s body, wanting to feel her everywhere.
“God, you’re hot,” Fatin breathes out against Leah’s lips, then licks into her mouth - it’s hot and wet and filthy, and it’s all Leah can do not to moan. Fatin’s tongue sweeps across Leah’s bottom lip once more and then her mouth moves again, traveling down - she bites at Leah’s neck, sucks a mark into the skin there. Leah whines deep in her throat, hands grasping at Fatin’s hips.
“Fuck,” Leah mutters, trying to keep it quiet, but Fatin hears anyway. She looks down at Leah, devastatingly arrogant, sure and self-satisfied.
“That dirty mouth’s gonna get you in trouble someday,” she says, sucking another hickey into Leah’s neck. “Maybe that’s what you’re counting on, huh baby?”
“Fuck,” Leah curses again, the words almost as good as Fatin’s mouth on her. “Fuck, Fatin.”
“We will,” Fatin assures her, dipping lower against Leah’s body now, settling in the cradle of Leah’s hips; she puts her mouth to the line of Leah’s collarbone, kisses it gently. “Have a little patience.”
“Kind of hard to have patience when you’re - god - shirtless on top of me,” Leah answers, her hips pushing forward as Fatin’s hand slips between her legs and strokes her just once, teasingly, over her underwear. “Jesus Christ.”
“Just me, actually,” Fatin says, smug, biting at Leah’s neck once more. Her throat will be bruised to all hell tomorrow, and the thought of it sends a spike of heat shooting through Leah. She manages to gather her wits long enough to say, breathless and wanting, “that was terrible.”
Fatin laughs, her fingers moving between Leah’s legs again - teasing, touching, light circles over fabric. Leah chases the touch, hips arching upwards, whines in frustration when Fatin pulls her hand away; she slips her own hand between their bodies to where she can tell that Fatin’s already soaked with desire, wants to at least give Fatin as good as she’s getting -
“No you don’t, baby,” Fatin says, and suddenly Leah’s wrists are being pinned against the mattress by Fatin’s strong grip. Leah strains against it, can’t break free; the realization sends another pulse of heat between her thighs. “Stay right there.”
“What,” Leah gets out, “no, I wanna touch you too, let me - ”
“I would,” Fatin answers, almost conversationally, “but see, I’ve got an idea.”
“Fuck,” is the only response Leah can manage.
“You didn’t believe I was the real Fatin at first,” Fatin says. She sucks another hickey into Leah’s skin, this one at the place where her neck meets her shoulder. “So now I’m going to fuck you until you scream my name.”
"God," Leah breathes out, "okay. Yeah."
"Plus," Fatin says, her tone hovering on just the right side of arrogance, "I know you'll let me to do disgusting things to you, so."
“Oh,” Leah says around a broken exhale, “oh, fuck,” and then Fatin’s moving farther down her body, kissing at her hipbones, and all Leah can do is breathe.
It’s all a blur after that - Leah catches the night in pieces, holds onto it as best she can even as she’s drowning in waves of pleasure. It comes in flashes: Fatin’s mouth between her legs, Leah’s hands twined in her hair, Fatin slipping two fingers inside her, Fatin’s voice low and sultry in her ear, that’s right, good girl, just like that. Fatin gets Leah to scream her name just like she promised, pulls her apart with tongue and teeth and hands until she feels like she’s being undone altogether; Leah comes four times before she can finally return the favor, gets Fatin straddling her lap with her legs spread and Leah three fingers deep inside her, pulls her up until she’s riding Leah’s face. It’s the best sex Leah’s had in her life; it’s shameless and filthy, and it’s the closest she’s ever come to feeling immortal.
Hours later, when they’re finally done, Fatin rolls over on her side and looks towards Leah. Leah mirrors the gesture until they’re face to face, still short of breath and slicked with sweat, and they just stare at each other for a minute.
Fatin’s got dark marks trailing down the side of her throat, and Leah feels a thrill run through her at the knowledge that she’s the reason why; Fatin’s hair is a bed-tangled mess, her mouth red and kiss-bitten, and she looks utterly wrecked. She also looks more beautiful than any human being has a right to, her smile like a siren beckoning from the waves, her curves like valleys in the orange-tinted moonlight pollution spilling through the window. Leah thinks, briefly, that she could spend her entire lifetime writing and still never come close to finding the words for this feeling. Fatin’s too good to be true, some kind of daydream wrapped up in folklore; mere mortals were never meant to hold this kind of beauty.
“Are you real?” Leah asks, the question falling somewhere short of a joke.
Fatin rolls her eyes, and there she is - the girl within the goddess, twenty-one years old and feeling every one of them, made for this life and none other.
“Yes, I’m real,” she says. “Fuck off, I thought we’d established this by now. You sure seemed to think I was when you were begging me earlier, anyway, which I’d say is pretty much - ”
“No, I mean,” Leah hurries to correct herself. “Are you real?” It falls like a prayer this time, reverent and questioning; is this real, she’s asking. Are you. Am I.
Fatin’s expression softens, and she drapes one arm over Leah’s side, pulling her closer. “Yeah, of course I am. Why?”
“I don’t know,” Leah mumbles, dropping her gaze to the top of Fatin’s chest. Eye contact feels too vulnerable right now, like she’s sewing her heart on her sleeve and wrapping the jacket around Fatin’s shoulders. “I just…it feels like I made you up.”
Fatin brings her fingers up to cradle Leah’s face, so tender that it’s suddenly hard for Leah to breathe; she catches Leah’s eye again, holds the contact like her hand on a busy street.
“Please,” Fatin scoffs. “As if even your brain could dream up someone like me.”
The fear inside her melts away, and Leah laughs. Fatin does too. The sound fills the bedroom, drives the darkness into the corners. Leah feels safer here than any road she’s ever walked, and when she listens for the sound of voices in her head, there’s only Fatin’s laughter.
Leah knows it won’t last - knows that they’ll always return, that they won’t be silenced for anything. Knows, too, that this isn’t going to fix her. But Fatin meets her eyes, smiles, tucks a strand of hair behind Leah’s ear as Leah rolls over onto her back, and maybe this is the truth; maybe she doesn’t need to be fixed. Maybe it’s enough to just live.
“Stay the night,” Fatin says, her hand finding Leah’s now, their fingers intertwining. “If you want.”
“I do,” Leah says. “I want that a lot.”
Fatin’s smile this time is quieter, more private. She curls into Leah, closing her eyes, and they fall silent for a while. Just when Leah thinks she’s asleep, Fatin’s slightly muffled voice rises from where her face is tucked away in Leah’s shoulder.
“Hey,” Fatin says, the words rough with tiredness. “Remember when we matched on Tinder and you thought I was a catfish?”
Leah bites back a smile. “Go to sleep, Fatin.”
Fatin does. Leah follows soon after, and her last conscious thought is that Fatin’s body fits perfectly with hers.
Leah wakes up first the next morning, slides out of bed and pulls on one of Fatin’s shirts without waking her and pads out to the kitchen. In the light of day, it’s massive: white marble, stainless steel, all of it pristine and shining. It’s a beautiful room, filled with flawless appliances and natural light, but there’s something that feels almost empty about it, too. Leah almost wishes Fatin were awake so she could have company.
The coffee machine is far too fancy for Leah to understand - she gives up after a minute’s fruitless search for an instruction manual, takes orange juice from the fridge and pours two glasses instead. She finds a loaf of bread, a stick of butter, and she’s just placed two slices of honey wheat loaf into the massive toaster when Fatin emerges from the bedroom, also dressed in an overly large T-shirt and looking exhausted but deeply satisfied.
“Morning,” Leah says in a tone she hopes is casual. “I raided the fridge, I hope you don’t mind.”
“Are you kidding me,” Fatin says, taking a seat at the wide, white-marble expanse of the kitchen counter. “You could take half the contents of that fridge and I probably wouldn’t even notice. I have no idea what’s in there, I haven’t been grocery shopping in a week or two.” She gives Leah a long, lingering once-over from head to toe, smirks in appreciation. “Plus, the whole domestic thing is kind of hot.”
The toast pops up with a loud ringing noise. Leah takes both slices out, butters them generously, plates them, slides one over to Fatin along with a glass of juice.
“I don’t know that I’d call making toast domestic,” she says, dry, “but whatever floats your boat.”
“You,” Fatin says, winking at her. “You float my boat.”
Leah rolls her eyes affectionately. “I don’t know what your boat is supposed to be a euphemism for, and I’m not sure you do either.”
“Eh, well,” Fatin says. “The effort was there. I’ll workshop it later.”
They sit and eat their toast together, and Leah looks out the tall living room windows to a stunning sight: Los Angeles is laid out below them, sunlight glittering on buildings in shades of gold and silver, the farthest edge of the city sprawling out into the faint blue haze of the horizon.
“God,” Leah says, a grudging note of admiration seeping into her voice. Her and Dot’s second story walk-up has a lot of good points, but their windows just don’t compare. “You live with this view every day?”
Fatin lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool, I guess. There are better views, though.”
Leah scoffs. “I’d like to see them.”
“You’d have to look in a mirror then,” Fatin says, so casually that it takes Leah a minute to find the compliment. Once she’s located it, she just scoffs. “Shut up.”
“What?” Fatin says. “I mean it. You’re beautiful.”
A blush rises to Leah’s face, warm and rose-tinted; Fatin sees it, and a smile breaks out over her face.
“You’re something else, you know that?” she says. “I can call you a good girl in bed, go down on you until you’re begging, whatever - but when I give you a genuine compliment, that’s what makes you blush?”
Leah’s face grows warmer, and she forces a scowl. “Shut up.”
Fatin just laughs, then reaches out to take Leah’s empty plate. “Here, I’ll throw these in the dishwasher.”
“No, I’ll get it,” Leah says, “after all, you did make me come four times last night,” and is rewarded with Fatin’s delighted grin. Leah takes both plates, rinses them in the sink, and she’s loading them into the top rack of the dishwasher when she hears Fatin sigh, soft and understated.
“Hey,” Leah says, turning back to her. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?”
“No, no,” Fatin says, the expression on her face almost wistful. “No, something’s right, actually. I was just thinking - I bought this apartment with the first check that cleared after my career began to take off, you know? I’ve been living here for nearly two years, I’ve thrown parties and had friends over and everything, and…” She trails off, props her chin on her hand, gives Leah a smile that’s like being drenched in summer sunshine. “It’s never really felt like home until right now.”
“You corny motherfucker,” Leah says, and leans across the counter to kiss her.
Fatin sighs again when they break apart, happily this time, and stretches ostentatiously in her seat. “Can we just stay here all day?”
“We’ll have to leave some time,” Leah points out. “Half the things in your fridge are past their expiration date. We’ll starve.”
“Don’t count on it,” Fatin says, dragging her gaze slowly down Leah’s bare legs. “I’ve got everything I need right here.”
Leah swats at Fatin’s arm. “I’m not edible.”
“Well,” Fatin says, her voice dropping lower, “we both know that’s not true.”
Leah blushes for the third time this morning - the third, but not the last. “Behave.”
“Anything for you, babe.” Fatin downs the last of her orange juice. “So, is that a no to saying here for the rest of the day?”
“Actually, I’d love that,” Leah says. “But there’s one other place I’d like to make a stop.”
Dot’s in the living room when they step through the door of 226B, and Leah instantly blushes - fourth time - as Dot’s gaze zeroes in on her neck and her eyebrows rise nearly to the ceiling.
“Welcome home,” Dot says, thankfully not commenting on the fact that Leah looks like she’s been attacked by a vampire. Then, without a bit of apparent surprise at the sight of an A-list celebrity in their apartment: “Hello, Fatin.”
“Hey there,” Fatin says, taking off her shoes and setting them beside Leah’s. “Dot, right?”
“That’s me,” Dot says cheerfully. “Great to finally meet you - the real you, at that. Lee, Rachel and Nora are coming over for breakfast soon, if that’s cool with you.”
“Great,” Leah mumbles. “Nora’s definitely going to have something to say about - I don’t know, literally all of this.”
“Nora has something to say about everything,” Dot says, “and you’re usually not listening anyway. Fatin, there’s leftover lasagna in the fridge if you’re hungry.”
“Definitely gonna take you up on that later,” Fatin replies distractedly. Her eyes are roaming around the rooms, taking in every detail: the faded light-green walls, the vaguely coffee-stained rug, the mugs on the side tables. Dot’s plants lie scattered at random around the room, leaves and blossoms of all kinds sprawling over the sides of the pots; one of Leah’s UCLA sweatshirts is draped over the back of the sofa, and her sketchpad, folded open to a blank page, has graphite stains smeared across the spine. Leah looks at Fatin looking at the apartment, sees it through Fatin’s eyes, and this is what she comes up with: it’s not the mess that Fatin sees, but the proof of life. It’s not the untidiness, it’s the love.
Leah shifts back to her own perspective, sees the history ingrained in every inch of this apartment - breakfasts with Dot and movie marathons with Rachel and Nora, shots done off the kitchen counter, shirts that belong to Dot but appear in Leah’s dressers half the time, the way that Dot rests her boots in the exact same spot by the door every day, and Fatin here in the middle of it all - and it pulls at something in her chest, an ache so big it’s joyful.
“I love your apartment,” Fatin says, eyes bright with honesty, and Leah smiles.
“Did you just get Leah to smile?” Dot says, incredulous. “Yeah, she’ll be keeping you around.”
“She better,” Fatin replies. “So hey, Dorothy, you’ve been best friends for five years. You must have some embarrassing stories about Leah.”
Dot laughs. “Oh man, do I ever. Have you heard about the time with the tequila shots and the window - ”
“Okay,” Leah says, cutting Dot off. “Fatin, come see the kitchen.”
“You’re hot when you’re bossy,” Fatin says matter of factly, following her out of the living room. She turns to Leah once they’re in the kitchen, and the ache in Leah’s chest grows a little bigger. Sunlight is falling through the window, painting Fatin pure gold - and if Leah’s life isn’t perfect, if she’s still got problems and shortcomings and things that haunt her in the night, she has good things too. Her friends are coming for breakfast, her best friend in the world is just a room away, and Fatin’s right here in front of her, bathed in golden glow and smiling like every daydream Leah’s ever had.
“Dot thinks you’re gonna keep me around,” Fatin says, teasing. “Think she’s right?”
Leah scoffs. “No way. I’m already planning on how to get rid of you.”
“Tough luck, baby,” Fatin says. “This isn’t catch and release. You caught me, now you’re stuck with me.”
“Yeah,” Leah says, and it comes out just a little bit awed. “I am.”
Later, they’ll go to brunch with Rachel and Nora, and Fatin will fit so easily with the four of them that Leah will forget she hasn’t been there all along. Later, Leah will pull Fatin off the dance floor of a nightclub and get down on her knees in the single stall bathroom until they’re both two short breaths from seeing god. Later, there’ll be a shitstorm of rumors and tabloid speculation that Fatin dissolves, in the end, by publicly declaring Leah to be her girlfriend.
Later, Leah’s mental state will fall and rise and fall again, ebbing with lows and flowing with highs until she finally climbs her tortuous way back to happiness, and Dot and Fatin will be there for her even on the coldest, darkest nights.
But right now, Leah kisses Fatin in the middle of a kitchen filled with gold - no ghosts surrounding them, only an infinite ocean - and it's enough.
hey there hot stuff
why are you like this
is that any way to talk to your girlfriend
yes it’s the only way
turns out there’s some big event happening this weekend
and i was wondering
if you’d maybe want to be my date
did you really just tinder message me to ask if i’ll be your date to the oscars
it’s so sexy how you know words
so do you wanna
i can’t stand you
of course i do
wear something slutty
i’m not dressing slutty on national tv
i swear to god
you’re no fun
but i love you anyway
i’m leaving my place now, see you soon
i love you too
just so you know
i do baby