Cracked! – Chapter One

Hello, Moto. Errr. Hello, Apple?

This is the story of a girl and her iPhone. No, that’s not quite right. This is the story of a middle-aged statistician and her best friend. Though she didn’t consider herself middle-aged. And the best friend was more of a roommate-with-whom-she’d-developed-a-friendship. And this description completely ignores the 6,000-year-old elf with whom the woman and her best friend enjoyed story gaming.

So let’s try this again.

This is the story of a woman who wished to find love, but who would rather play story games than actively look for it. Especially in the wake of a horrid break-up six months before from a man had who never sent her a single gift.

Until now.

That man, who is otherwise unimportant to this narrative, had no sense of timing.

He had, foolishly perhaps, expected something different from their three-year relationship. He’d been after crazy spontaneity and over-sexualized Carnivale stereotypes from his Brazilian-American girlfriend, whereas she’d merely expected companionship and a proposal.

So when the breakup arrived instead of a ring box, it came as quite a shock to Morena (for that was the woman’s name). And on this day, when she saw a package on her kitchen table sporting his return address (likely carried inside the night before by her staggeringly drunk roommate), she almost took it down, unopened, to the recycling bin in her apartment building’s garage.

But she didn’t.

In a fit of whimsy disguised as righteous fury, she wielded a utility knife and tore into the obviously reused box with emblazoned on the side. She slashed at the cardboard and threw packing peanuts all over her matted beige carpet, which had witnessed many a discarded packing peanut before.

The carpet didn’t mind, but it would have worried about usually sensible Morena’s mental state if it had the kind of mind that knew how to worry. But it was a carpet, so it didn’t.

If this book were a movie, the non-trash-bound contents of the box would now be surrounded in a soft yellow glow. There would be swelling music whose pulsing undertone would let the viewer know that this, THIS, was a significant moment. But since this is a book (and, for Morena, this was real life), these things did not happen. Instead, she got a paper cut from the crumpled newsprint that cushioned a very ordinary-looking iPhone.

It is perhaps sacrilegious in this day and age to refer to an iPhone as ordinary. For Morena lived, as many do, in Seattle, Washington, USA, Earth, Milky Way Galaxy during the first half of the 21st century. And during this time period, new iPhones were referred to by such words as “sexy” and “groundbreaking” and “indispensable.” Mostly “sexy.” To call one ordinary would be like calling Mata Hari or James Bond or Cleopatra some old dead person.

For someone who was usually connected to trends, from her Louboutin shoes to her barely there diamond necklaces, Morena had managed until this moment to avoid the sexy iPhone revolution. Now, though, Apple could claim one more household in its quest for 100 percent market domination.

She plucked her prize from its newspapery confines and turned on the sexy, ordinary-looking iPhone. If she hadn’t turned it on, she might have managed to avoid the unpleasant moments upcoming in this novel. She might have repackaged it in another, less damaged, box and scribbled RETURN TO SENDER all over.

But she did turn it on. And she saw that the home screen had only one icon, and that glossy, round-cornered, green icon sat dead center.

This was very strange for an iPhone, or for an iDevice of any kind. They usually overflowed with too many apps for a sensible person to use, forcing the owner to create ever-more-ridiculous categories until finally giving up and purging a few, only to realize those apps would have come in handy for leveling a friend’s DIY table or translating the back of a packet of potato chips in the grocery store’s international foods aisle.

The glossy green icon sported a large, beveled heart. It practically screamed romance. Or perhaps bizarre panic button. Morena pressed it, and the app opened with a kitschy chime, expanding to fill the screen with its green branding. A slot machine slid in from the left as though the app had been designed by a C-list executive new to PowerPoint in the early ’90s.

As a background process, and unbeknownst to Morena, the device synced itself to her life. It swiped her passwords and added all her contacts. For this was a magical iPhone, and it attached itself to our heroine like facial hair to a male hipster in Movember.

She rotated the phone to landscape mode in order to better see the user interface. The slot machine had five columns, as follows:

The leftmost column offered spinning choices of number ranges: 12–15, 16–17, 18–20, 21–26, 27–35, 36–46, 47–55, 56–65, 66–75, 76–90, 91–201, 202–364, 365–572, 573–700, 701–1500, 1501–4000, 4001+. Morena had to scroll to see them all.

The second column offered financial situations: Broke, Hand-to-mouth, Comfortable enough, Comfortable, Lucky, Crazy rich.

The center column only had one option: a bright green heart. Some people, like Morena, might have called it pond-scum green, but it was really more the color of antifreeze that has eaten through the radiator hoses and then puddled beneath a 1982 Toyota Corolla (hatchback) on a light gray garage floor, a description very few people can easily picture, so this book will allow pond-scum green as an acceptable, mainstream substitute.

The fourth column suggested: Male, Female, Both, Neither, It’s complicated.

The fifth, and final, column offered: Single, Dating, In a relationship, Engaged, Married, Polyamorous.

Beneath each column was a picture of a lock. Not a modern lock, like the locker-style ones used in the Urbanspoon app, though it did feel very like Urbanspoon (not that Morena would know, since she had yet to explore other iPhone apps), but more rounded on the bottom, suggesting something antiquated that would never belong on the bike storage boxes for Park & Ride commuters.

The maker of this mysterious slot-machine app had clearly realized that antique translated to romantic among people searching for love. Readers will agree that this is a ridiculous conceit because love conquers all is a recent invention. To marry for love, prior to the 1800s and even during much of that century, was lucky but unlikely. To fall in love at all, before then, was actually an unfortunate event because odds were good the couple would be ripped apart once a more sensible match was established by parents or necessity.

But the app maker prized his target market more than he believed in historical accuracy.

A line of text below the slot machine told Morena to Shake to find your perfect mate. Below the line of text was a button that just said Randomize.

Though she may have been new to iPhone culture, Morena knew that affecting one’s iPhone by shaking it in one’s hand was The Best Feature. So she shook, and the slot-machine’s rollers spun until they shuddered to a stop with a loud ding ding DING!

Across the top of the screen scrolled: Rest easy! Your perfect mate is on their way to you.

Whatever. Morena knew finding love wasn’t that easy. It hadn’t even told her who this mystery mate might be.

Back in their shared single bedroom, Morena’s roommate made a vaguely unhappy noise and slammed a pillow over her kink-curled head. Suzyn, the roommate, was NYC-raised and therefore familiar with city noise, but not inside her own apartment at this time of morning (where “this time of morning” was any time before she was ready to get up, in the tradition of recent college grads everywhere). It wouldn’t have bothered Suzyn at all if Morena cursed in three languages or drove a backfiring car beneath her window. But a ding-ing iPhone was just not acceptable.

As Morena had suspected, Suzyn had indeed been drunk the night before when she’d tripped over the package in the hallway. She’d been more than just drunk. She had shot up a drug cocktail between songs at karaoke before somehow getting home to their one-bedroom apartment in Lower Queen Anne, a trip that necessitated at least one bus transfer or some very shady ridesharing because, as Morena knew full well, Suzyn certainly did not have the kind of money a taxi would require. If she had had that kind of cash, she wouldn’t be sharing a one-bedroom apartment.

But if Suzyn was attempting to convey her irritation at the iPhone’s noise via the dramatic pillow over her head, then the gesture went unnoticed; for Morena was in the main room and could neither see nor hear Suzyn’s protests at the loud dings. No, Morena just laughed at the silly scrolling message until she noticed the time, at which point she slipped into her wool (Prada) pea coat and red-soled shoes, grabbed her tote bag and ORCA card, and speed-walked to the downtown-bound bus stop where she could catch the RapidRide D with both the new iPhone and her regular Samsung in her pockets.

The morning bus was standing room only, as commuter buses usually are no matter whether one rides them in Seattle or New York, Tokyo or Los Angeles. The only difference is that no one wants to ride a bus in Los Angeles, largely because the buses don’t run on time and have a disproportionate number of knife-wielders; plus, they often truncate in complete violation of their posted schedules.

Since this story takes place in Seattle, however, the buses were reliable and often full of affluent commuters like Morena who, in fact, owned a car and rented a parking space for it next to her apartment building but preferred the speed of the RapidRide (even if she told acquaintances she cared more about the environmental repercussions than about the convenience; all good Seattleites cared about the environment, so finding a reason to tell people about conservational efforts was a badge of honor. This was how plastic bags, desirable for storage and trash removal, found themselves pushed out of supermarkets in favor of less sanitary canvas bags that everyone already owned too many of and nearly always forgot at home, at which point they needed to buy new ones, thus adding to their never-ending piles of forgotten canvas bags).

On this particular trip, more people than usual jostled Morena’s body. By the time the RapidRide D had turned into the downtown RapidRide C, Morena had been fallen on, bumped into, nudged, and stumbled over no less than seventeen times by a mishmash of passengers wearing everything from torn jeans to suits and all sporting the ubiquitous ear buds. Each touch had been preceded by a muffled ding from Morena’s coat pocket, which, of course, no one could hear over their podcasts and mp3s.

Only slightly rattled (for she was used to some touching during her daily commute but still appreciated the personal-space bubble inherently understood by commuters), Morena disembarked and walked southward through Pioneer Square, a place much less dangerous in the early morning light than people gave it credit for.

As she passed the south end of Century Link Field, she was joined by a tall aging hippie whose gray hair clumped greasily below his shoulders. He wore a tie-dye t-shirt underneath his ratty Army/Navy Surplus jacket.

“Hey there, pretty lady,” he said as he fell in step beside her.

While the man in question did enjoy making conversation with strangers, he wasn’t prone to walking heavens-knew-where with them. And yet, something about this one caught his attention. Her right pocket, in particular, sang the siren song of socialism and SUVs.

Morena shied away, walking dangerously close to the curb in an effort to create distance between them, and ignored him. Even if she hadn’t been conditioned to ignore creepy men on the street who called her pretty lady and demanded her attention, even if she didn’t have places to be, she still wouldn’t have talked to him. His hair was vile, and she had never felt comfortable talking to new people anyway. (This had been a problem when she was eleven and her mother had shipped her off to visit her grandparents in São Paulo, whom she’d never met before stepping off the plane.)

The aging hopeful tried again. “Aww, c’mon, sweetheart. Talk to an old man for a minute.”

He didn’t really think of himself as an “old man,” but she was walking much faster than a person in spiked heels should be able to move. (At least, so experience told him. The one time he’d tried drag back in ’85 had been a disaster as far as footwear was concerned, and he hadn’t cared to practice again, swearing that he could feel the blisters forming on his pinky toes after only two minutes.) If he wanted to chat, he needed her to slow down.

Morena had been raised to respect her elders, so she sighed and slowed. “Can I help you, sir?” She ran a nervous hand through her dark brown hair with its subtle golden highlights.

Shrugging, he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Just wanted to get to know you better,” he mumbled.

Morena thought that was a pretty weak reason to stop a stranger on the street at morning-commute hour. However, she could believe he was simply lonely. Who knew why this stranger spent time in SoDo at the start of the workday? His clothing betrayed his unemployed status, so he had to have an alternate motivation, and maybe it was loneliness. If he’d been across the lake in Redmond, she’d have pegged him for a computer programmer. SoDo, however, was for service, industry, or super-corporate jobs. There was no room for a messy hippie.

“I need to get to work,” she said.

Acting as though she hadn’t tried to extricate herself, he ignored her words and used his favorite pick-up line. It was so philosophical, so deep and engaging. It always attracted the right sort of woman. Morena wasn’t his usual type, but he couldn’t let that keep him from trying. That would be discrimination. “We should shower together,” he declared.

Not if it was the last shower on Earth. Morena rooted around in her bag for any relevant prop. “I need to take this call.”

He sped up to match her steps. He’d met a woman like this at a concert once, uptight until he showed her that a good friend and a good joint could relax anyone. “When two people want to know each other better, they should always shower together. It’s the perfect start to a friendship.” He bounced on holey-sneakered feet, warming to his topic. “It lets you see everything a person usually hides, gives you perspective about a person’s true self.”

They were closing increasingly quickly on the Starbucks at the corner of 1st and Walker, Morena’s usual morning caffeination station. “Excuse me,” she said and ducked in the door so fast that he would have to double back if he wanted to join her.

Worried he might try to follow, she slipped past the customers waiting in line, trying her best not to jostle or upset them. Gracefully, she wended her way to the pick-up counter where a barista was slinging and steaming away.

The barista looked up and greeted her. “Hi, Morena.”

“Hi, Violet.” Violet’s hair was as purple as her name suggested. “Can I hang out here for a minute while I avoid this creepy guy on the street?”

Outside, said creepy guy was deep in conversation with a man dressed all in green. The Green Man wore an emerald wool coat, a forest green slouchy knit hat, and Kelly green gloves. (People frequently asked him whether he bought coordinating contact lenses, or whether his eyes were naturally green.) It had to be concluded that the man enjoyed wearing the color green.

The aging hippie who’d wished to shower with Morena was not, in fact, asking about the Green Man’s contact lenses, though that was at least half because he believed it was none of his business. Instead, he was explaining how he’d seen the most amazing woman and had to pursue her; yes, all the way into that Starbucks, vile purveyor of burnt coffee and corporate consumerism that it was. The Green Man, in response, tried to dissuade him from this course of action. After all, no one wants to be That Guy. And so Morena was saved from further discomfort by a man she’d never even seen. Eventually, her pursuer-to-be gave up, partially thanks to the Green Man’s persuasion and partially to inertia.

And partially because the iPhone in Morena’s pocket made another ding, which no one could hear over the shrieks of milk held just short of boiling.

Inside the café, Violet shrugged her reply to Morena’s desperate request. “Sure. Oh, hey. You can talk to this customer, Vadim. Keep him company while I—”

The milk steamer fired up, providing a perfect example of what Violet was doing that kept her from entertaining customers.

“Hello,” said Vadim over the roar of frothing non-fat liquids.

“Hello,” said Morena.

“Are you from around here?”

To the casual reader, this sounds analogous to D’you come here often?, a phrase that Morena would rightly be wary of in the best of situations. But Morena was not the casual reader. She was actually there. And she heard his delectable Slavic accent, a clear sign that English was not his first language and that this was not, then, his attempt at a stilted pick-up line.

No, it was small talk. And given a choice between small talk with a tall, neatly groomed, dark-haired, polite man and going outside to brave the possibility of re-meeting the man who wanted to shower with her, her choice was obvious.

For his part, Vadim would have been willing to jump into a shower with Morena. But he wasn’t going to ask. He knew better. He also knew that he’d be leaving the country for his native Ukraine in under two weeks. Some men might use this as an excuse to be boorish because what chances would it hurt?, but Vadim was not that sort of man. He was the kind of man a woman hoped to meet, whether it was in a crowded bar (for fun) or a deserted alleyway at midnight (for safety).

In this particular crowded bar, Vadim felt a sort of pull toward Morena that his childhood physics professors called gravitic attraction. So he stepped closer. To facilitate conversation.

She was saying, “Yeah, I live a few miles north. Over in Queen Anne.” Morena might have been familiar with small talk, but that didn’t mean she was any good at it. Her answer did not invite further discussion.

She ducked her head and ran a hand through her hair, twirling the ends. She looked up at Vadim through her lashes, fearing she was failing at the whole flirting thing. She had long preferred new numbers to new people.

Vadim’s breath paused in his lungs when Morena’s eyes met his. He counted to three while internally rhapsodizing over her dewy lashes, her skin the color of his sugar-free-hazelnut-vanilla-caramel mocha, and her subtly sparkling necklace. His internal rhapsodizing went something like this:

She stands in licorice;

The cancerous black framing her orbs

Spikes into my soul.

She shivers my pancreas

When the dog dies on the side of the road.

It was better in the original Ukrainian.

Vadim yipped, “Then you must tell me all the best places!” He reached for her hands and pumped them up and down, up and down.

Contrary to what any onlookers probably believed, he intended this purely as an expression of enthusiasm, not as an excuse to touch a beautiful woman. It thrilled him, of course, that her warm hands rasped against his own (an excuse to share his hand lotion!) and that she seemed amenable to his touch. But that hadn’t been the intention.

Morena also enjoyed the feeling of another person’s skin on her own. Growing up in her mother’s household and sporadically in Brazil, she often found herself missing casual touch when among the culturally American. And since she’d broken up with her boyfriend six months ago, she hadn’t experienced much deliberate touch, either.

She gripped his fingers in return and laughed, showing off straight white teeth. “What do you want to know? Have you been to the Space Needle yet?”

“Yes, yes.” Vadim was not interested in the Space Needle. “You must tell me something that is purely of Morena, yes?”

Luckily for Vadim, Morena was more than familiar with second-language acquisition and the way a person had to talk around what he or she wanted to say. She’d had to do it with her Portuguese-speaking grandparents, and her mother still occasionally needed the trick to get by in English even after forty years in Washington state. “I don’t have a lot of favorites. Maybe some restaurants…” She trailed off, wondering where she could send him.

“Restaurants!” crowed Vadim. “Yes, yes! We go to restaurant together. Tonight at nine. It is, how you say, a date.” Vadim, of course, knew exactly how to say it’s a date. He could say it in English, in Russian, in Ukrainian, in Spanish, in German, in French, in Breton, in Latin, in Egyptian Arabic, and in Cantonese. But not in Afrikaans. Never in Afrikaans.

“I, ah, um.” Morena pushed her hair back again. She turned away from Vadim to rifle through her shoulder bag, looking for nothing other than an excuse to compose herself. “Right. A date. But not tonight. I have plans. How about the day after tomorrow?”

Her mother would be so pleased: her little Morena jumping back into the dating scene and not growing old alone.

Morena worried that she might be a bit too old for him. Vadim looked perhaps in his early thirties, and she was nearly forty, but statistics showed that women aged slower than men all over the world. This disparity put them on even footing.

“The day after tomorrow is perfect. It is a date,” he reiterated. Then he kissed her hand, on the palm side, and felt the twitch in her fingertips against his clean-shaven chin. It tickled.

And so they arranged to meet two nights later, Saturday evening, at 9 p.m. for dinner at a location she’d choose and text to him. Nine p.m. A nice, non-American dinner hour.

Morena had always eaten later than the majority of her friends, and that only got worse when her friend group got older. Many things, in fact, had gotten worse for Morena as her friend-group aged. She tended to lose them to children or marriage or disinterest, as their lives changed and hers did not.

This, then, explained how she ended up with a twenty-two-year-old roommate whom she’d met while story gaming in Capitol Hill a few weeks after breaking up with her boyfriend.

After moving out of his apartment, she’d first gone to stay at her mother’s townhouse in Issaquah. But she couldn’t live there indefinitely. She needed a place closer to work. Still, she’d waited on getting a place of her own, hoping to find a roommate to defray the loneliness. When Suzyn had arrived at a story gaming meetup in all her sprawling, dusky glory, mentioning that she’d just moved to Seattle and was looking for a roommate if anyone knew a person who needed one, Morena was ecstatic.

Morena had dragged Suzyn to her mother’s after a vicious game of Fiasco, because although the young woman might not have minded sleeping wherever (intimated: with any hottie who picked her up in a club after story gaming), Morena didn’t let potential friends put themselves in such dangerous situations. Suzyn and Morena’s mother (Luiza) had chatted about Harlem and the New York art scene, and then Suzyn had tried to turn Morena off being her roommate.

“I’m a super-geeky story gamer,” warned Suzyn. But so was Morena.

“And I love watching the SyFy channel, especially on Friday nights,” she continued. But so did Morena.

“…after which I like to go dancing, where I will probably get drunk or high.” Well, Morena wasn’t into getting wasted, but she loved dancing. During the periods when her age-appropriate friends outgrew clubbing, she’d taken her mother along. Having a less-embarrassing dance-mate would be glorious.

“And I can only afford five hundred dollars a month,” said Suzyn, “so you’re not going to do much better than living with your mom. Even if you’ve got the same amount available, that’s only a thousand-dollar apartment.”

But Suzyn was still thinking in terms of NYC rent prices. In Seattle, $1,000 could get you 800 square feet and a parking space with a convenient location to cafés, clubs, and bus lines. Plus, Morena would only be responsible for $500 a month—which was, like, half a pair of shoes for her—while getting to live with a fellow gamer who appreciated SyFy and could share cabs. Score!

And that is the story of how Morena and Suzyn came to live together.

But this scene was not about Morena and Suzyn. It was about Morena and Vadim making plans for their first date. Before this six-month flashback, the potential couple had decided on a 9 p.m. Saturday dinner at a location of Morena’s choosing.

Still holding her hand, Vadim played with her fingers, taking special care with the fourth finger. “This is the start of a beautiful relationship,” he misquoted Casablanca, jewel of English-speaking cinema. “We should get married some day in this very café. We will live together forever.”

Morena laughed, unaware that this was only half a joke and, therefore, half serious. “Sure,” she agreed. She’d believe a proposal when she saw it. None of this nebulous should or maybe or other finagling. She’d waited three whole years for her jerk of an ex to propose. She’d thought she’d found someone who’d care for her when she was sick, whom she could support and be supported by, who’d be her lifelong companion.

And after three years, all she had to show for that relationship was a new iPhone.

Leaving on a high note, Morena waved goodbye to Violet and headed out. As Morena walked the last few blocks to her office at Starbucks Corporate Headquarters, she unlocked her new iPhone. The screen lit up and the silly app started to spin, but she needed to send a text, so she hit the button at the bottom to get back to the home screen—the only actual button on the phone—and closed out of it.

Then she laughed at herself, a mix of rue and general elation at having a date. She couldn’t text from this phone, she remembered. She didn’t have a phone plan for it yet, and her SIM card was still in her other one. How strange that she’d pulled it from her pocket instead of her Samsung. She couldn’t even recall putting it there…

A practical woman, she’d believed her old Samsung had worked just fine. Moreover, it had synced with her work computer years before the iPhone could. The Samsung was truly viable as a work phone, a feature that was deeply important to Morena who spent even more time at work than she did on shoe shopping and story gaming combined. This, then, explained how she could afford Louboutins not only now but also back in her second year in the workforce.

So why had her ex-boyfriend thought she’d need the phone?

Morena’s mother’s voice in her head suggested, “Maybe he wants to get back together with you, minha filha. I do wish you’d get married. I don’t want you to grow old alone.”

And hells no to that, thought Morena. Because there was no way she was getting back with the jerk who’d led her on for three years and broke it off like their relationship was nothing. In retrospect, she understood that he fetishized women from South America. He got upset when she wasn’t all warm and loving. And he always wanted her to speak Spanish, when the second language she knew (ish) was Portuguese. No matter how many times she’d told him, the jerk couldn’t seem to remember that they didn’t speak Spanish in Brazil.

She decided that as soon as she reached her office, she’d email Suzyn and her mother. They had to know as soon as possible: Morena had a date!

(It never occurred to her to use the other phone, the normal phone, waiting in her bag.)