American Fiction Romance

"Imaginative as your original idea may have been, it has sadly been lost in the under-cooked gumbo that is your story. As a writer, food-critic-turned-novelist, I often anchor my critiques in the analogy of cooking. It is a technique that works well in conveying complex thoughts to simple writers. Those inclined towards sappy, romantic stories that make readers wait. I suspect you're a woman. You should note that most men will not wait for you to develop such narratives. We would like for you to get to the point, if there is one, rather quickly. Your story neither had a point nor an interesting way to mask that problem.

"Your inexperienced writing lacks the needed ingredients to bring about the story's fullness. There is some preparation in the development of your setting, but not enough to satisfy the reader. It is as though you began cooking Thanksgiving dinner, on Thanksgiving Day. Your use of descriptive language is limited and your word count is far too high for someone with such a bounded vocabulary.

"Overall, I would say keep reading, you don't need much talent for that. Writing tends to be an innate trait and you seem to have been born lacking. My sincerest apologies, may your book recommendations bring you the fulfillment I doubt you will ever receive from your writing."

She refreshed the page eleven times since the comment had been posted. She knew this was illogical. The post had been left under her story and no amount of refreshing would render it a mistake. Still every time she selected the circular arrow she inhaled deeply, waiting, as the black words reappeared boxed within a disapproving red frame. It was the first comment and she knew instinctively that no amount of green frames would distract from the blazing statement that proceeded them all.

She read the words over and over again, nearly memorizing sections of the critique where she found the commentator's wit to be particularly insulting. So lost was Vayda in her mindless refreshing she didn't realized that the Scoot she ordered was a communal ride until she opened the door. The already-waiting, male passenger quickly grabbed his backpack and tucked it on the side of his leg, making more room for her in the backseat.

"Pandar?" She asked this looking at the passenger, knowing this was not his name, but the unexpected distraction was too sudden to properly sort.

"No, I, Pandar." The driver corrected, with a smile so wonderful it reflected on her face.

"I apologize. Yes, you're Pander."

She panted, shaking the curls on top of her head as if dislodging the confusion. She placed the weathered luggage between her and the man before sliding into the space. A quick glance around the car let her know that Pander was probably a considerate driver. The backseat was clean, there was a sandal-shaped air freshener hanging from the review mirror, and the calming music seeping through the speakers was just above a whisper.

"Airport, right?"

"Yes, airport. Thank you."

Vayda was not in the mood for pleasant conversation, but the thought of not acknowledging the passenger was too rude to actually carry out. So she crafted a simple statement that would excuse her from engaging in conversation while still being polite. Yet as she drew in air to voice it, Pandar whipped the car around in an abrupt U-turn that sent her and the small carry-on sliding onto the man.

"Whoa!" Pander exclaimed, as if he too were a passenger. "Very quick turn."

"Yeah, Pander, very quick turn indeed." The man in the backseat joked with eyebrows that suggested a mild concern.

"Right!" Valerie added. "What was your last assignment, Pander? NASCAR?"

The trio chuckled genuinely, but only the pair in the backseat made eye-contact. Exchanging expressive glances as they handed each other items that had flung off the seat. Grabbing his cellphone she noticed that he was logged into Ratings, the new dating app popular within their age group. Everything about it was just as all the other dating apps that proceeded it, except for one feature.

For the first time in dating app history the platform allowed past interests to leave reviews on the pages of those they had connected with. This singular distinction skyrocketed the app's popularity. Drawing people to download it, if not to utilize its dating services, then simply to feast on the humiliation left for others. It quickly become a cesspool of negativity, brimming with harsh reviews that could neither be deleted nor hidden. Breeding patrons that were as inconsiderate as they were beautiful, a complicated combination for those seeking connection.

Immediately she judged him.

Not only did she loathe new trends, she had a particular distaste for dating sites. Especially one that would allow its clients to shame each other and call it a "love tap". He didn't strike her as the type that would leave such comments. After all he had moved his backpack to further accommodate her. It was a simple gesture, but one that indicated he was used to not taking up space. Men with some wherewithal tended to be kinder than those without.

Still it upset her that he used the app. He was handsome, the type of guy she would typically be attracted to had she not known this about him yet. If she had learned it after a date or two, perhaps it would not have mattered. Other details highlighting his personality could have masked this folly; but now she would have to make the conscious decision to overlook that which was already overshadowing. She knew how the men on the app acted, she worked with them, was friends with them, and they all had something in common, even if she couldn't name it. And though his eyes disappeared behind his cheeks when he smiled, she couldn't trust someone on Rating.

Interestingly, it also made her unreasonably jealous to think of him in that way. To imagine him craving someone else's attention annoyed her. Treating these hypothetical scenarios as fact-based realities she slid into conclusions about his character with the same ease she slid into the car. Crafting a detailed analysis about a man whose name she did not know nor cared to ask. Boxing him in quickly, placing him in the category of men she would cordially disregard should he be interested.

"Bad news?"

The break in the silence made her turn abruptly to face him, slightly bewildered by the fact that she had been lost in thoughts about him. This embarrassed her almost immediately, and she wondered if he had been trying to get her attention.

Staring at him with a peculiar pause the man repeated the question. Glancing towards her phone so as to indicate a clue, making her realize she had been staring at her screen while in deep contemplation of him. It was a marvel to her how swiftly her previous ruminations had allowed themselves to be hijacked. The comment under her story becoming a but a blur in his presence.

"Oh...yeah...a little. How did you know?"

"You weren't breathing."

"Pardon me?"

"Whatever you're reading, you keep holding your breath while doing it."

"Oh. Wow. I didn't even notice. Holding my breath? The whole time? That's crazy."

"Is it work related?"

"No, it's my writing."

The words slipped out of her mouth as if laced in foreign oil. She didn't share this fact about herself often, if at all, and now he possessed it. A secret so notably her own she resented him for taking it so easily. Blamed him for the personal betrayal she had committed. And as she contemplated ways to shift the conversation the man was on to his next question. Posing it with the ease of someone completely unaware of the looming boundaries that surrounded her.

"Can I read it?"

"No!" She blurted, attempting to stop the man's avalanche of intrusion before adding, "I don't like people I know reading my work." Smoothing over her tone with what could have been a genuine smile had her eyes participated.

"But you don't me and I don't know you."

This quieted her. Eased her almost immediately. Reminded her that this was in fact the case. Yet the thought of handing over her phone to watch him silently consume her story and its subsequent critique made her shift in her seat. Still she considered the proposal. Wondered if it would be liberating to read the critique aloud, to release the crushing words into the air and see if they still had their own gravitational pull. Contemplated the idea of inviting a random stranger into her private embarrassment.

"Someone left a comment under my story. They didn't like it. I'll let you read that, but first you have to read me one of your Ratings. I saw that you have the app."

The man glanced at his phone, flipping it on its back almost instinctively.

"I only have one Rating and it's really bad."

"I want to hear it." She pressed, "Vulnerability is a currency and a courtesy. I'll trade you mine for yours."

The man looked out the window, glancing towards the sky as if confirmation existed outside himself. While Vayda smiled, all lips and no teeth with a hint of coyness that danced at the corners of her eyes. He glanced at her, then at his phone, sighing as he unlocked it. Clearing his voice he began to read his Rating, rushing through the words as if speed alone could distort their meaning.

"Omar is what God had in mind when he considered the word basic. From his job to his restaurant choices the man as is wonderfully standard. He has two main topics of conversation, neither of which I was interested in; and a very liberal definition of 5'9. I'm sorry but inches matter. I wore heels on our date and was properly mortified to find us at eye level. His physique will lure you in, he has a fit and athletic frame which is quite attractive but I fear he may weigh more than his credit score. His sex is not bad but that's about the only thing that's good, and he gets really high and mighty about it, refusing to have it if he feels 'the energy is off'. He is the cliche good guy, someone your dad wants you to date, even if you don't. Unfortunately he has peaked at mediocre for me. I score him highest on physical attraction, lowest on long-term potential."

With every sentence the man shrank in the backseat. Wiping his forehead whenever he attempted to rewrite words as he was reading them. Failing every time. Humiliation lined his brow and his shoulders readjusted to an invisible weigh. Shamed engulfed the backseat in the form of silence as they both found themselves imperfect and at fault.

"What star you give internet people?"

Pandar's voice was so unexpected the pair looked at around, simultaneously remembering the driver. Neither had sensed him throughout the whole ride, a marvel considering their abrupt start.

"What star you give internet people?" He repeated, not waiting for a response. "Internet people always give bad stars, low stars. Internet people don't say nice story, or nice guy. Tbey don't have interest in that. Only negative things. That's problem with internet, with social media. Internet people stars means more than real people stars."

"You're right, Pandar." Vayda tilted her head slightly as she inclined her ear, waiting to hear more. Causing the wild curls towards the crown of her head to flop over tipsy still from the conversation. He noted this and smiled, all teeth, and eyes that disappeared behind chubby cheeks. Catching this she smiled back. Both finding momentarily relief in Pandar's analysis of digital networks.

"My turn." He mouthed so as to not disrupt Pandar's steady ascension onto his soap box. Vayda, still pressed to the back of the front seat, closed her eyes slowly. Smiled a semi-reluctant smile and placed her unlocked phone in the palm of the man's outstretched hand.

With a stilled breath she watched as he scrolled passed the red box towards the top of the page where her story began.

April 23, 2022 03:57

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