Dedicated to Julia Cohen AKA Julia Ann Cohen AKA Amber AKA Julia Zoe Christie.
Part One - Tough Love
Zoe checked her Fetlife account, as she did each morning, with her usual combination of reluctance and optimism. It was a nine to one ratio. Her faith in men was now at ten percent, and falling. Ten percent was actually quite generous. Each and every one she had ever known, in the biblical sense, had somehow let her down. It was a trend that, realistically, she expected to continue. To her, pessimism was the same as realism.
When it reached three percent, according to a formula only she understood, and couldn’t articulate, she swore she would swear off men forever. That could be a real problem for her. Because she only really liked men, in theory. She liked the way they looked, the way they smelled and tasted. The way they touched her, spoke to her. She liked the way they thought.
Some of them, anyway.
They all failed her, one way or another. Zoe had never found the complete package. She now doubted that such a man existed. But without that ten percent, which was now actually nine, she would be dead inside. That scared her, because she knew what sort of self-destructive behavior she was capable of. It wouldn’t be pretty.
Enormous fun, perhaps, for those who would help her lose her humanity. Scared? She was terrified. Zoe was her own worst enemy. Men, paradoxically, were a close second.
Zach was a high as he could get at work. At the three hundred elevation, he could see for miles. It was one of his few remaining pleasures in life. He pulled his binoculars and started watching his people. His men, in actuality. But political correctness was such that he now mentally edited his own thoughts to use gender-neutral terminology.
It offended him, philosophically. But he placed pragmatism over principles where concerned his income, provided it didn’t conflict with his rather rigid internal morality. By doing so, he was able to maintain a rather lucrative career while preserving his essential dignity.
Humanity was his highest ideal. And by humanity, he meant the moral actions of men. He couldn’t speak of the essence of femininity. Both objectively and subjectively, he was male. For better or for worse.
Zach strove for the better.
Having never had an actual father of his own, he pretty much had to wing it. He grandfather, now deceased, was a reference point, but he knew the man was not without flaws of his own. Rest his soul.
Not that he believed in God, as such. Unless you defined it as the universe itself, which did indeed move in mysterious ways. At the same time, he felt it was at least possible that it was beneficial that he only had an adopted father (and various step-fathers). A clean slate, of sorts. It wasn’t ideal. But everything had a starting point.
Briefly, he considered jumping.
He understood that from a psychological standpoint, this was somehow a natural phenomenon. At the same time, it was deeper, in his case. The only thing that stopped him each time were the people that depended on him.
Renee, of course. But his feelings extended to the least member of Zen Construction. A suicide would ruin their safety record and destroy their morale.
It was one of the great ironies of his life. He lived for no one but himself. Served no man. Or woman.
At the same time, he lived out of consideration for others. And the faint hope that he would one day find his counterpart.
As was usually the case, he was saved by the crackle of the radio.
It was Renee.
“Hey, shit-for-brains. You ready to do something for a change?”
“Roger that. Lift plans are on that mess of a desk of yours.”
“Roger me…” she said.
Zach headed down the structure. Critical lift time.
As usual, Zoe’s inbox filled her with a mixture of delight and disgust.
The only delight came in mocking some of the idiots that tried to contact her.
She sighed. Poetry, prose, and romance had become lost arts, she feared. Even the lesbians that tried to talk to her lacked tact. They were like men, but without the masculine qualities she enjoyed. Not to put too fine a point on it.
She wanted Tarzan and Shakespeare.
Zoe closed the window without sending a single scornful reply, got dressed, and went to work.
When he got down to the lift site, the first thing Zach noticed was the one-inch stainless piping running along both lifting lugs. It hadn’t been there the day before, and the understanding had been that it was to be installed post-erection.
It would cost a lot more to do it that way, but he couldn’t have anything interfere with his lift.
At sixty-seven thousand tons, you didn’t leave things to chance.
Mildly irritated, he sought out the piping superintendent.
“Mr. Morales. May I show you something?”
“Shitcan the Spanish. I’m serious.”
He led him to the lifting lugs.
“Do you see what I see?”
Pedro scanned the flare stack, which lay on its side.
“I see a big-ass chingadera.”
“That piping by my lifting lugs. What the fuck? That was to be left off until we flew it.”
Mr Morales nodded.
“Si, pero Renee dice’…”
“Fuck Renee. Cut it out.”
Pedro shook his head side to side.
“I can’t do that, brother. Boss’s orders.”
“Then I’ll do it myself. Job-scared puto.”
Mr Morales watched in disbelief as Zach got a Sawzall, drove a manlift into position, and cut eight lines on either side of the flare. When he got down, he passed Pedro and said, “Looked like shit, anyway.”
Zach got on the radio.
“Ready for lift-off. Renee, we need to talk.”
Zoe arrived at her Starbucks, dressed in black. The only other color in her ensemble was the mandatory apron. Beige. Ugh.
It was stupid, but she loved her job. All the interesting people! She didn’t have to work, really. Just serve coffee and talk. When things got slow, she read. Fiction, she’d gotten enough non-fiction in college. With a summa cum laude in Philosophy, specializing in animal ethics, she wasn’t even the most credentialed barista on staff.
The lift went off without a hitch. When the tower was leveled and secured, Zach got on the radio.
“Ms. Hollander. A word in my office, if you would.”
He had no office.
“Ooooh,” someone replied.
Ten minutes later, Renee was at the lift site. She was dressed as a cowgirl, in Daisy Dukes, pink boots, and a pearl-buttoned shirt tied in a knot.
“Good to see you dressed for work,” he told her.
“These guys don’t work for money, at this point. They want tits and ass.”
He nodded. This was at least partially true. The majority of them were made men with Zen. Some of them were approaching millionaire status, and their vested interests alone could provide them with a hefty income for life.
“So, what the fuck?” he asked.
“What?” she said, smirking.
“You fucking know what. My lift.”
“That? Silly boy. Did you check it?”
“I don’t have to. I make the call on critical lifts.”
“You make the call on all lifts. They hate you.”
“That’s because you make me your bad guy.”
“You love it. Mean daddy. Anyway, I checked. You had four inches of clearance. Completely legal. One hundred percent safe.”
“Ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent safe. It’s the remainder that I worry about.”
“You worry about birds flying into lifts!”
“I may worry slightly too much, at times…”
“But we haven’t killed anyone yet.’
Zen Construction had had a few heart attacks and injuries, but they were the only company of their size with such an immaculate record.
“Okay, hard ass. You win this round.”
“I win every round.”
And he did. Which is why Renee relied on him.
Zoe felt reluctant to go home after work, and she wondered what she was doing with her life.
Her current live-in boyfriend seemed like a good idea at the time. Good-looking, interesting. A musician and a bad boy. She liked that. Plus, he was older than her, which really turned her on. For some reason.
Except she knew the reason.
Zoe was once a runaway. And in a sense, she had been ever since.
Her history was one of diminishing returns, where romance was concerned.
Her first real love, beyond her father, was a small-time dealer of pot and acid. Having run away from home at sixteen, she became Amber, with the help of a stolen birth certificate. That was the start of ten years of naïve, relative bliss. They had even gotten engaged, something she hadn’t expected at the onset of the relationship.
Inexplicably, he had cheated on her.
So began her disillusion.
The event was particularly painful, because there was nothing she wouldn’t do for a man she loved, sexually or otherwise. If he had wanted other girls, all he would have had to do was ask. And she didn’t even like sex with women, as far as she knew.
She had been a model wife. Or, live-in girlfriend, to be realistic. She cared for the home, filling it with love and beauty, while he sat on the couch and watched cartoons.
Zoe had thought that was love. And on her end, it was. But not only did she not receive any income from the drug sales in which she had participated, he actually made her split the rent and bills.
The end came one Monday, when, after a weekend with her mother, Zoe was dutifully cleaning the apartment.
There was a half-full can of Coke in the bedroom. When she dumped it into the sink (reduce, reuse, recycle), something other than cola came out. It started to swell, and for a moment, things became surreal.
To her horror, it was a condom.
Zoe dropped the can into the sink and vomited.
Then she screamed.
Then she cried.
The betrayal was unrecoverable.
She left him, penniless, without a career, and never looked back.