The great thing about being successful: no one could question your actions anymore. Instead, every action became a tip for success. Before the book deals and the interviews, how many times had she been made a jester for liking cold, starchy salads drenched in mayonnaise and onions? But now, every sloppy forkful of macaroni salad seemed the mark of a great poetess. She’s feeding her muse. If paparazzi were around, she put on an extra little performance, picking up steak and spinach leaves between two fingers, eating with no fork. She’d learned long ago that working for an audience was more profitable.
Across from her sat John. He was comfortable in fancy restaurants, having grown up eating his chicken tenders on silk tablecloths pressed to Michelin-five-star-standards. He ate with a fork and a knife, and ordered the same thing each time -- salade niçoise, no eggs please.
John was not a poet, but he did write, with little success. It didn’t matter. He could retreat after every rejection to Cape Cod, hole up in the family beach house, lick his wounds in private. The stakes were never high and his work reflected that. She never told him this though. The man had been coddled since birth; a single pinprick of truth could deflate him to nothing.
“Are you nervous about the grant?” he asked, stabbing an olive into his mouth.
“Of course, baby. I’m competing against you. Who wouldn’t be nervous?”
“I hope you get it. Or I get it. One of us gets it. It’s such a good opportunity, life-changing really.”
“Yes. The Patricia-Thornby-Grant-to-Nobel-Prize-in-Literature pipeline is well-established.”
John wasn’t the first. She had a type. There was Robert, from junior year, so stiff, perfectly erect posture, rigid as a birdhouse. His mother ran a daycare in the basement. It smelled forever like baby powder and it was the best place to get drunk. You can just lay down on the mattresses. The kids take their naps here, but Mom washes the sheets each weekend. The parties were lowkey, between six and fifteen teenagers drooling with e-cigarette smoke, trying not to bounce their legs too much. Sometimes Natasha brought her tarot cards. It was always annoying at first, her walking around, asking for someone to let her practice, but seventeen year olds run out of conversation topics fast, brains soon soaked and dull with heavy liquor. Eh, why not? Tell me what the cards have in store.
One night, the boys went outside to smoke, and she pulled Natasha into a corner, whispering, “Hey, can you read my cards? Quickly, before they come back.”
“Yeah.” Natasha was already shuffling. “What’s your question?”
“Can you tell me if I have a chance with Robert?”
She didn’t. The tarot was ruthless. Natasha was honest in her cards readings, never sugarcoating. She tried to make it into a business and it never worked out -- that’s probably why. Who wants to hear the bitter truth from someone you already sorta-kinda don’t believe?
She didn’t think Natasha would be the one person to stay in touch from high school. It made sense though -- they sold bullshit for a living. Natasha just wasn’t successful.
It had been three months since she last met with Natasha, for a consultation -- that’s what she called them now. A love reading: would her and John last? Natasha’s spider-fingers flipped the first card. Three of swords, three silver daggers straight through a heart, stormy skies draped in the back. You didn’t need to be a tarot reader to interpret that one.
“How’s your macaroni salad?” John asked.
“Good.” It was vinegary comfort, slick and slimy in the mouth, satisfying like digging your toes in lake-mud. John had been taught to suppress reactions. Disgust thrashed against the steel door of his face. He ate his salade niçoise in tiny bites.
She wanted to cry. It always went down like this. At first, the men liked that she was weird and literary, a certain type of man did, the kind that considered himself better than the common brute. But it got old fast. They all really wanted a mommy-substitute, someone warm, milky, and maternal, not an insect in a dress. With Robert, she tried. She baked cookies for him once, brought them to school wrapped in tinfoil. She forgot the cinnamon and they hardened into pale lumps. He ate one and his face twisted like a bow then settled immediately back into place -- polite men! Why not just say aloud you hate what you’ve been handed?
The cards never lied. Robert never gave her a second thought. He dated Alison, then married her. Alison’s social media was littered with pumpkin bread and golden retrievers in sweaters these days. John liked golden retrievers too, but they could never get one -- she was allergic to dogs.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about,” said John. Oh God.
“Yeah?” She shut her heart into a padlocked cupboard. There were plenty of rich and pretty men. She’d find another, one that liked her and her spider’s nest of a life, loved it even. That’s what she deserved.
“My parents cut me off. They said they want me to build something for myself.”
“They’re not supporting you anymore?” she asked.
“Yeah. That’s why I’m especially nervous about this grant. I really need the money now.”
“Aw, babe. I’m sure you’ll get it.”
He wouldn’t get it. She already knew the recipient of the grant. She’d sweet-talked Patricia Thornby, a friend of a friend, a high-up in the publishing world, to give it to her. But why spoil their dinner? He already looked so pitiful with his eggless salade.
She jammed in the last cold macaronis, gave him a reassuring smile, swiped a bit of mayonnaise from the lipsticked corner of her mouth. She’d break up with him tomorrow, after they sent the results of the grant out. You won’t get to ‘three of swords’ me, buddy, not if I do it first. Hopefully the next man would be less judgemental.