One weekend, Karen accepted a task to help two adult siblings empty out their deceased mother’s brownstone. She often filled her spare hours getting paid to perform rote jobs for others—running errands, cleaning, organizing, delivering munchies. It was sometimes difficult to afford New York City on her full-time copywriter salary, but there was another motivation. Even in her busiest moments, she was in a state of unrest, and working was a socially acceptable stimulus. And then there was the game of it all: tasks listed, competed for, won.
Soon after arriving, however, Karen wanted to escape. The brownstone was striking—a palatial structure with fresh flowers cascading down the stairs—but the walls were mottled with tobacco stains and the corners of the closets damp from mice urine. Even worse, the siblings bickered loudly, airing a lifetime of bottled-up tension. As they opened each box, the sister gagged and the brother sighed.
“Wear a mask,” he said. “You’re so stubborn.”
“It won’t help,” she said, rubbing her reddening eyes. “That’s not the problem.”
“The fact that you were closer doesn’t make you better.”
She sneezed violently. “No. But it means I tried.”
In that moment, trapped in their dynamic, Karen was at their service. But minutes after leaving, she accepted another task. This time, she was hired to deliver diapers to new parents. She stood in their doorway while the visibly exhausted mom fished in her purse for a tip, cursing under her breath, and the dad clutched the baby in his arms. As Karen turned to leave, he let his eyes land on her chest, and in a self-corrective or punitive gesture, lowered his gaze to the floor. Once more, Karen’s high gave way to deflation; it was hard to find validation when intruding on someone else’s life.
The next day, at the corner deli, her mother was critical of her choices. “You’ll never find a husband if you’re always running around,” she said, filling her Styrofoam container with greasy beige selections and one small pocket with salad greens, tipping her tray from the weight of the food. Her mother was a thin woman, but she ate large portions, and Karen had always wondered whether she would eventually explode, caught off-guard by years of indulgence.
Her mother placed a few pieces of fruit on top of her piled-high starches. “You’re almost forty, for God’s sake. You shouldn’t let what happened with Josh keep you from settling down.”
In her late twenties, Karen had let it go far with a boyfriend. Josh was handsome, with black hair and hazel eyes, but over time, Karen grew tired of his accommodations. When she’d ask him where they should go to dinner, and he’d respond “Wherever you want,” she’d secretly resent him. On long car trips, when she’d get restless and complain about being stuck in a closed space, he wouldn’t talk sense into her. Instead, he’d put his hand on her knee and squeeze. One night, soon before they broke up, she lay there after sex, legs splayed open, letting farts escape. “You’re adorable,” he said.
A few weeks later, when her period was late, he wrapped her in a familial embrace, whispering sickly condolences—“I’m here for you no matter what” and “I can’t believe it’s our baby.” Even though the test was negative, she vomited to exorcise the idea. Since then, she intentionally kept her romantic encounters brief, soaking up the adrenaline rush of new-skin contact, the limited exchange of fluids. She remembered when that feeling dissipated in her relationship with Josh, making way for grotesque intimacy; how much more would she lose if another being occupied her completely?
Her mother stopped at a corner table and sat down. She leaned over the tray and craned her neck towards Karen as if to reveal a secret. “You know, it might help if you didn’t just sleep with every guy you meet right away.”
“What? What the hell?” Karen yelled, lowering her eyes to the plate of steamed vegetables. One of the construction workers sitting nearby raised his eyebrows at her and smiled as he bit into a hoagie.
Karen knew how to return to old patterns. “How’s your lunch?” she asked.
“This is delicious,” her mother said, macaroni globbed with cheese teetering from her fork. “What a treat.”
“Glad to hear it,” Karen said, turning her attention to her phone, which lit up with notifications. She skimmed the queue of tasks to be competed for, then opened a dating app. She had learned that the best way to make short-term plans was to initiate simultaneous messages to multiple men. Drink tonight? she’d ask. Within an hour, she’d have multiple offers to choose from.
Tonight it was Tom: tall, textbook attractive, with a light scent of fabric softener. His online profile was standard— Likes: whiskey, traveling, my English bulldog, no bullshit—and, from experience, Karen knew he would share her distaste for closeness. When they finished their first round and they finished asking boilerplate questions about each other’s lives, they both grew restless. She moved her barstool closer, and he whispered in her ear. “I want to fuck.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s all I want.”
They climbed the narrow stairs of her apartment, and proceeded to have foreplay-free sex on the couch. It was focused, programmatically perfect, his condom-sheathed penis in and out without pause, even when her phone dinged and buzzed on the coffee table.
“I’ll call you?” he asked as he got dressed to leave.
She fiddled with her phone, her bare breasts spread across her chest. “Sure. Sounds good.”
“You look beautiful lying there,” he said, hopping up and down on one leg, as he pulled his boxers over the other.
Karen scrolled through her alerts: five possible tasks, messages from other men, a voicemail from her mother. “Mhmm,” she said, convinced he meant nothing by it.
“Want to go a second time?”
She put down her phone and looked up at him. His broad, bare chest was dotted with sweat, and she could smell his natural odor breaking through.
“I should get to sleep,” she said. “I have an early morning.”
He moved towards her, his voice shaky with boyish excitement. “I want to be with you again. I want to kiss your nipples.”
“You’re a great guy,” Karen said firmly. “But please leave.”
The next day, after ten hours of brainstorming ad headlines, Karen returned home and sat down on the edge of the couch. For a moment, she considered staying put, but when her phone flashed with a familiar icon, she kept her shoes on and swiped to view the details of the possible assignment.
Task from Rebecca J.: Wait in line for us at Tim Ho Wan
Description: Please wait in line for us at Tim Ho Wan starting at 3pm (they open at 5). Text us when you are about 20 minutes from the front (5 or so deep).
Karen paused. She had never been paid to wait in line, even though it was the most commonly requested task. Perhaps it would help if she imagined Rebecca J as someone in need. Maybe she and her husband were industrious people with a large family, this was their anniversary dinner, and they couldn’t afford to leave work early. Or maybe she was older, and couldn’t be on her feet for such an extended period of time. With these fantasies in mind, Karen clicked to accept the assignment.
To avoid forfeiting the job to someone else, she had to arrive at the location within twenty-five minutes, so she stood back up, gathered her things—light jacket, folding chair, earbuds, water bottle—headed back out to the street, raced down the subway stairs, transferred at Union Square, arrived in the East Village, and walked briskly four blocks up to the restaurant.
When she arrived, Karen responded through the app— In line at Tim Ho Wan. You have nothing to worry about. Enjoy your afternoon!—then went to the end of the already-long queue, opened her chair, and sat down. Her legs were tired from the rush to arrive, and it was a temporary relief to be off her feet.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Have you been here before?”
Karen looked up to her right at a man, leaning against the restaurant window, book in the crook of his arm. With combed hair and slender arms, he was neither handsome nor offensive, his only standout feature the crimson in his cheeks, which spread into mottled pink as she looked at him, like food coloring in water.
“I haven’t,” she said. “But I hear it’s great.”
“It’s the only dim sum restaurant in North America with a Michelin star,” he said, eyes wide. His hair was flecked with gray, but Karen guessed he was no more than thirty.
When Karen didn’t respond, he blushed deeper, fingers of red down his neck. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
Karen looked down at her phone. “Not at all. I hope you enjoy.”
She then put her earbuds in, but didn’t turn on any music. She often did this in hopes of disappearing, of signaling her lack of availability. This time, though, she found it impossible to tune out. On her left, a couple argued about the translation of dim sum.
“That’s a stretch,” the man said. “It’s just the act of ordering small snacks.”
“But the Mandarin characters literally mean ‘point’ plus ‘heart,” said the woman. “Look it up. I like the idea.”
The man made a scoffing noise. “Only forty-five more minutes. I’m starving.”
The blush-face man to her right spoke once again. “I shouldn’t have apologized for talking to you before.”
“I’m sorry?” Karen responded, forgetting to pretend that music was playing.
“I’m not,” he said, moving closer to her face. His neck was still splotched, but his voice was confident, emboldened. “I was just trying to make conversation. You made me feel like a weirdo.”
Karen drew back defensively, but she felt a butterfly rise in her chest. “I’m not here to make friends.”
He considered her, letting his eyes wander to her mouth. For the first time in a while, she was conscious of her presentation. She let her lips separate, then close again to hide her teeth, then fall back apart. “Do what you have to do,” he said. “I’ll leave you alone now.”
She watched him turn away and open his book. There was something she wanted to tell him, but she didn’t know what or how, so she remained still and silent as the afternoon passed and the sun began to go down. When the restaurant opened, the line started moving, snaking around the building, and soon, Karen could only see a few other people in front of her. She messaged her client: Down to 7 or so. Are you close?
Within seconds, a response appeared on her screen: Rebecca J: Thanks! We actually had people waiting in a ton of different lines but thank you. Will tip well.
Karen grabbed her chair and tucked it under her arm. The back of her eyes began to well up, a reaction that surprised and confused her. It was absurd to feel rejection from someone she barely knew.
“You’re not going to give up now, are you?” said the man beside her. “You’ll really be missing out.”
She avoided his glance. “I was waiting for someone else.”
“You can eat alone, can’t you?”
“I was just holding their place—”
“Go in,” he said, smiling in anticipation. “Just try the barbecued pork buns. Then you can leave. You can leave once you try the buns.”
She considered him, a little pang in her stomach, tears still building. “Alright. I guess I need dinner anyway.”
“Good to hear,” he said, turning to enter the restaurant. “I’m Avery, by the way.”
Karen went into the waiting area and rested the folding chair against the wall. The hostess returned from seating him and looked her up and down. “Three? Yes?”
“It will just be me,” Karen said.
“Oh,” the hostess said, with a look to her assistant. “Next time, you have to tell us.”
The assistant walked Karen to her table, positioned right next to Avery, who had already placed the menu on the corner of the table. “Well,” Karen said, as she sat down, leaning her chair against the table leg and unfolding the maroon napkin into her lap. “Looks like us singles get our own section.”
He laughed, hearty and staccato, like a burp. “We’re eating alone together.”
Around them, the restaurant was teeming with life: bartenders pouring carafes of steaming sake, large groups reaching over each other to get the last piece of something, old women with carts who lifted the lids of their baskets to reveal their wares. One of them passed by, and Avery flagged her over with a hand.
Her mother had always over-ordered, leaving the family with a fridge full of meticulously packed leftovers. Once, she and her parents had gone to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant to celebrate her high marks in tenth grade. Karen had gotten her favorite—Moo Shu pork—and her dad, trying to manage heart problems, had ordered steamed broccoli and white meat chicken with no oil.
When the waiter got to her mother, her list of items was so long that he grabbed his notepad and scribbled to keep up. Thirty minutes later, he was also scrambling, packing up every item to go, including delicate sauces in tiny plastic containers. Karen was embarrassed by her mother’s excess, but her father was impressed. “You always enjoy yourself, honey,” he’d say, beaming at her exuberance.
Avery noticed Karen’s hesitation. “Four orders of pork buns, please. Two for her, two for me.”
Karen studied the buns, rounded on the plate, like perfect breasts, gleaming with glaze.
“I’m excited for you to try,” he said, cheeks flushing again.
She opened wide, biting off half of the first bun. Her mouth experienced the tastes in order—sweet, shiny coating, fluffy warm dough, and tender pork bits floating in tangy barbeque sauce—and when she finished, she sighed.
Avery beamed. “I’m glad you liked them.”
“What’s next?” she said. “I don’t even know where to go after that.”
He smiled and nodded towards the little table, where she had placed her phone. “You’re going to want to clear the table. You’ll need the room.”
So they ate, side-by-side, him choosing the plates and directing her what to try in what order. She tried delicate Har How and wrinkled Siu Mai, both bursting with pure, sweet shrimp, floral-scented lotus-wrapped rice, and chicken feet, chewy, collagen-like, forcing her to slow down.
And just when she thought she would burst, he ordered a variety of sweet options: French toast with custard, and steamed egg cake—light, subtly sweet and so fluffy it seemed to still be rising. They never spoke, except to comment on a flavor or texture, but Karen felt him watching her, and herself letting go.
When she had taken her last bite, and their tables were empty, save stains of grease and speckles of sauce across the beige cloths, she asked a passing server for her check.
“Someone already paid,” the server said. “Thank you again, sir.”
“Thank you,” Karen said to Avery, wondering for the first time what he expected in return.
He turned towards her, calm, just a rosy hint in the lobes of his ears. Karen studied his face, crumbs under his nose, brown sauce on his cheek and a slick of oil on his lips and chin. She suddenly hoped he would ask her to leave with him, silently begged him to invite her back to his place where she’d lay down, his greedy mouth lingering between her thighs. Yes, she thought, she’d melt at his persistence, his dedication, his lust for enjoyment.
“You should stay a little longer,” he said.
“I have to go,” she said, disappointed at his words. “I have work to do.”
He swiped the back of his hand across his lips and laughed. “Such New Yorkers. Always racing to the next thing.”
“We have to,” Karen said, standing to collect her things, gathering her usual resolve. “We don’t have a choice.”
“It’s just a few minutes,” he said, suddenly stern. “Sit.” The commanding tone of his voice made Karen quiver. It would feel nice to sit down, she thought.
Obedient, she lowered herself back down, watching him disappear into the waiting crowd. She thought of Rebecca J and her boyfriend, both beautiful and unstable, wondering all night if they had chosen the right restaurant. She smiled at the fresh memory of Avery, grateful for his ability to forge opportunities from rejection. She placed her palm on her belly, allowing her mind to wander and her eyes to take it all in. Here, unmoving, she was in control.