“I’ll only go out with him if he’s hot,” Melinda’s best friend, Shana, declared.
Zaire and Melinda had married earlier that day, and, in the giddy spirit of newlywed optimism, Melinda had suggested that her best friend should be set up with her new husband’s best friend.
“I think he’s a decent-looking guy,” Zaire said, going along with the idea, mostly to please his new wife but also, to a much lesser extent, because he, too, was caught up in the excitement of being newly married and wanting the same happiness for everyone in that way all newlyweds do.
He knew Chris would hate him for it, but it would be good for him. Zaire could count on one hand the number of times Chris had talked about a specific woman in that kind of way, one of them for an uncommonly long period of time shortly after Chris was redistributed to Washington, D.C. Unlike himself, Chris did not use apps and go out often; he was good at acting social, but he was not very social by nature. Thinking of this quality, Zaire figured he should at least warn Shana, though he felt confident if Chris ever agreed to actually go out with her that he would turn on the charm and act however he needed to be. He was good at that. But just in case, Zaire said, “He’s a little bit awkward, but–”
“Awkward?” Shana asked him. “You mean, like, he’s super tall? Is he shorter than I am?”
“No, not awkward physically,” Zaire assured her.
“Oh, no, is he, like, a freak?”
“Hey!” Melinda interjected. “You think my husband would be best friends with a weirdo?”
“Okay, maybe he’s not awkward,” Zaire said. “I’ve known him a long time, so maybe my view is biased. It’s just that he doesn’t really date much.”
Both Melinda and Shana looked at Zaire blankly.
“What does that mean?” Melinda asked. “You said he’s twenty-six, right?”
“It just means our work is demanding, that’s all,” Zaire explained, and Melinda nodded like she understood, though she had only known Zaire three days.
“I don’t know…” Shana said.
“Oh, come on,” Melinda pleaded to her. “Zed and I matched perfectly. It would make sense that our best friends would get along.” Then, she looked at Zaire and said excitedly, “Wouldn’t that be so fun? If our best friends just happened to match, too?”
Shana saw the way Zaire and Melinda looked at each other and could not help but be envious. She had not yet signed up for a matching service, but she had already read all the information about all of them. The only thing really holding her back at this point was indecision for which service to go with. It might be fun to go on one last date before she matched with someone.
They all laughed at the absurdity of such a notion. It was so pre-War and chaotic, not clean at all.
In fact, the idea of going out with someone without first checking what percent match they were and not knowing anything about him from a profile on a dating app was terrifying. Shana was so nervous just thinking about it she was practically shaking. It was a little exciting.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll give it a shot. I mean, it’s just a date, right?” She turned to Zaire and added, “And you know him, so it’s not like anything bad is going to happen.”
Zaire put his hands up in an assuring way and said, “He’s a great guy. And if it doesn’t work out, at least it’s just something fun to try.”
Melinda raised her glass to make a toast. “To blind dates,” she said.
“Wait,” her friend said, lowering her glass. With a concerned look on her face, she asked, “When you say ‘awkward,’ you don’t mean like…he’s not like…a virgin, right?”
“Well,” Zaire started to say.
“Oh, no,” she said with a disgusted look on her face. “No.”
“I mean, I don’t know!” Zaire said with a shrug.
“You’re his best friend, but you don’t know if he’s a virgin?” she asked in disbelief.
“There’s no way,” Melinda said, assuring Shana that Chris was perfectly normal. “And remember, it’s just a date. It will be fun! No pressure, no app telling you how compatible you are. And you already have something in common to talk about–you can talk about us.” As she said, “us” she motioned to herself and Zaire.
“So, by awkward, you meant his personality?”
“I shouldn’t have used the word awkward,” Zaire said, in full damage-control mode now. “He just doesn’t do the whole app hookup thing on a regular basis like the rest of society.”
“See, I think he sounds unique,” Melinda said, but Shana and Zaire could both tell it was in the nice way to make him sound interesting for Shana, not that she herself would ever be interested in such an outlier.
Zaire’s phone buzzed, and he checked it. “Sorry, it looks like I have to go.” He kissed Melinda and then looked at Shana and said, “It was nice to meet you.”
After he was gone, Melinda said, “I don’t know what Zed’s talking about him being awkward, but they have been best friends for thirteen years, so I know he’s seen more sides to Chris than most people have, just like I’ve seen more sides to you than most people have.”
They both laughed, and Shana agreed, “That’s probably true.” They ordered more drinks from the bar, and Shana asked, “Have you two talked about kids?”
“Of course we have. It was one of the first things we talked about on our first date. We both want to wait at least a year. Zed can’t talk about what he does, of course, but whatever it is he said he may be in for some late nights for the next two years but that after that he can request to be placed in a position where he would be home in time for dinner every day, so we’re going to try to coincide the timing with that.” Then, she quickly added, “Of course, he told me he may still have to leave suddenly or for emergencies or something, but that’s how it is when you’re with someone who’s in government.”
“And you’re really okay with that?” Shana asked. “He can’t tell you anything about what he does?”
“No, but we have so many other things to talk about.”
“It would bother me.”
“It bothered me at first, too, but then I realized it’s definitely a way to make sure we don’t turn into one of those boring married couples who only talk about work and how our days were over dinner. We’re forced to talk about ourselves and the things we enjoy together or other topics. It’s really nice, actually. You don’t realize how many of your conversations consist of work-related topics until you’re not allowed to talk about it.”
“But it doesn’t bother you? I don’t know if I could handle not being able to discuss how my day was and what happened and–”
“Oh, well I can still talk about my work,” Melinda said. “And I do. But he doesn’t. You get used to it.” And truthfully, though she would never say it out loud because she knew it sounded pretentious, it made her feel like she was just a little bit above everyone else in society, to be married to someone in government. She had not actively sought out someone in government–most of them were matched through GSO–but when a matchmaker from geneHarmony sent her his profile and she saw the government status, the prestige of it coursed through her. It was then that she realized it was the closest to being elite she could ever get.
“After the last guy I went on a date with, that sounds a bit like heaven actually,” Shana said, and they both laughed. Her last date was a 93% match, and he had spent the entire evening discussing his job designing uniforms for the workers in one of his clients’ factories. Shana loved clothes and fashion, but she really didn’t care about all the business or logistics of designing.
“Well, Chris is definitely not going to talk your ear off about his job. And since he and Zaire went to the same academy, I bet he’s a good listener and very attentive, too. When I complimented Zaire for being such a good listener, he said they’re trained in that kind of thing.”
“That sounds really nice, actually,” Shana said, opening her mind up to the possibility. It was kind of exciting, actually, this idea of going out with someone without knowing anything about them. It was so mysterious and risky. Yet, it was also scary because she had nothing to go on except for what her friend’s new husband said–no profile to look at, no algorithms telling them what percent match they were or how likely they would get along, no program telling them what talking points they would have based on common interests.
She knew Chris would be at their wedding celebration the following week, so she decided she would wait until after that event to go out with him. She still told Melinda it was okay to give him her phone number so he could call her, but she decided not to go out with him until after the celebration. That way she could at least see him and see if she got “awkward” vibes from him before committing to anything that would be just the two of them alone.
– – –
When Shana saw Chris, the first thing that struck her was the desire to take him back to her place. Melinda had said that being physically fit was a necessity that came with a Societal Role in government, regardless of what they actually did. And Coastals, in general, worked out with personal trainers, so it was not like the athleticism was anything special.
But there was something about Chris that had a less…designed look about him. Yes, that was it, she realized. He had a natural look to him, even though he bore the scar of a Modified. It meant his parents had not paid for cosmetic modifications, which meant he was most likely born in the Inland and was later promoted to being a Coastal.
Most Coastal-born women like herself would have been immediately turned off by that, but there was something about it that she found so delightful, so raw. Perhaps it was because he carried himself in a way that was not ashamed of being a born-Inlander–there was always just that hint of not completely fitting in that Inlander-turned-Coastals had. But Chris did not. Nor did he carry entitled pride for having earned the status, as if he deserved it more than born-Coastals did.
(Born-Coastals, by the way, deserved their Coastal status just as much as those who had been promoted to Coastal status did, thank you very much. She had to maintain the status and not get demoted to the Inland, after all. She may not have had to climb her way up, but it’s not like she didn’t work for it.)
She walked over to him and introduced herself. Melinda was going to introduce them, but Shana couldn’t wait. “Would you like to join me for a drink after this?” she asked him.
“Yeah, Zaire said something about us maybe getting along.”
“Yes, he was going to introduce us, but it looks like they’re busy with their families, and I didn’t want to bother them. So, do you want to go out later?”
“Actually, I have to leave pretty soon,” he said, and her heart sank in disappointment. “Work.”
“Oh,” she said, “of course. Melinda said that happens sometimes.”
“Yeah, I can’t really say why.”
“Okay,” Shana said, “well, maybe after work?”
“Well, I won’t be in town, actually.”
“But I should be back by tomorrow evening, so maybe we can do something the day after that?”
“That would be perfect! I have tickets to the game, if you want to go.” In actuality, she had plans to go to the game with a friend, but for this hunk in front of her, she would figure it out.
Before he could answer, she added, “I know it’s not easy to commit to so much time for you.” She leaned in and whispered, “Zaire and Melinda told me you are also government status.” Then, she stood normally again and continued in a normal speaking volume, “So, if you have to cancel at the last minute or leave in the middle of the game, I totally understand.”
He looked pleased with her understanding and not at all upset that she knew he was government status; in fact, he looked maybe even a little relieved that she knew.
“Yeah, okay, then,” he said.
“Great! It’s a date.” She gave him her phone and asked him to put his number into it.
After he handed her phone back to her, Chris looked at his watch and said, “Yeah, I’m sorry, but I should leave now. I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”
He flashed a grin that made her heart skip a beat, and she said, “Can’t wait. It was nice to meet you, Chris.”
“You, too, Shana,” he said, and she watched him walk over to Zaire and Melinda and congratulate them again before leaving.
She sent a text to her friend: “Hey, I need your ticket to the game. I’ll owe you one and explain why later.”
– – –
A couple days later, they went on their date, and he was everything.
Everything she wanted in a partner.
She could tell he was not a born Coastal, like she was, but she could get past that. Because he was so great–sweet, charming, and everything he was supposed to be.
At the game, they talked in intervals between plays–about their Societal Roles and when they were placed in their Roles and how he couldn’t talk about his Societal Role because he was in government. They talked about Ziare and Melinda and how perfect for each other they were. She repeated Melinda’s sentiment about how since they matched 100% it was likely their best friends would, too, but he did not express agreement.
Still, she continued to pursue him; he was not worth giving up. She no longer cared that he had not been raised on the Coasts. He wasn’t like any of the other men she had dated. He was deep and expressed original thoughts and was very observant. Maybe it was an Inland thing. Maybe growing up in the Inland, growing up with that desire and ambition to be promoted to Coastal status, made someone the way he was.
But as nice and accommodating and polite as he was, she wasn’t really getting the vibe from him that he was as into her as she was into him. She would continue to pursue him, but maybe if this didn’t work out, she would open up Inlanders as an option for matching. She had planned on going with a Coastal-specific matching service, but maybe that was too limiting. Maybe all born-Inlanders were like Chris. Or at least Inlanders who had been promoted to Coastal status. (In case it’s not obvious: she would never want to be matched with someone who was currently an Inlander.)
Maybe that was the key: born in the Inland and promoted to the Coasts. Maybe Nouveau Coastal was the way to go. Maybe there was something about that diversity in cross-cultural adaptation that made someone like Chris and required the above-average intellect he so clearly possessed. It was irresistibly sexy. Not to mention his body, which Zaire had said was part of the job; apparently their line of work required a certain physical fitness.
He almost made her nervous in how confident he was, despite having been born an Inlander when she had been a Coastal all her life. It must have been due to his government status. In a way, it made her understand how Melinda was so okay with Zaire not being able to talk about his job because there was something about the mystery of it that felt important.
I mean, he could be anything, she thought. Then, she laughed inwardly at herself at the thought. He was probably, like, a front desk clerk or something. They both probably were. Because they both–Zaire and Chris–just seemed so normal, not like nerdy analysts or dramatic like they knew top-secret classified information or anything. That was probably for the best because she would not want to be with someone who did anything dangerous.
As their date progressed, she fell more and more for him and started to think “what if?” in terms of being with him, like what if they were compatible and what if the government-sanctioned algorithms approved them for the Marriage License and even the Child License?!?!?
He made her laugh, and then he grinned to reveal perfect teeth–not that she would expect anything less from a Coastal, but he was so much more than she expected when Zaire talked about his friend. There was absolutely nothing awkward about this guy.
Yet, even though he was saying and doing everything right, he was incredibly difficult to read, despite being so expressive in his facial expressions and tone of voice and body language. She could tell he was only showing a facade; he was not trying to hide the fact that he was that way. She realized, then, that as a government employee, he must have been so good at having a poker face. She then realized, with that revelation, that she actually liked that about him. It meant that even though he could not talk about his job he was still sociable and not awkward or anything.
She also realized, with that revelation, that she wouldn’t want to be with someone super genuine anyway, someone who constantly revealed everything about themselves. There are some things you don’t need to know, and all that genuine stuff comes with so much baggage. She could tell he was deeper than he let on, and she appreciated that he was able to internalize it and didn’t need to tell her everything he was thinking. In fact, the more she was around him, the more impressed she was with his lack of a need to impress her. He was not like anyone she had ever dated. She realized, then, that she had always limited herself to Coastal-lifers, men who had been born and raised on the Coasts and who had never even been Inland. Was this a Chris thing or an Inlander-turned-Coastal thing?
After the game, she invited Chris back to her place for a drink, but instead they went to a nearby bar. Chris only ordered a soda, and she assumed it was because he could get called away for work at any moment. There was something exciting about that, too. Like, at any moment, he could be called away to something so crucial and necessary, to something where they needed him specifically to break their date and go off and do something that she was not even allowed to know about.
After she had two more drinks, in addition to what she had consumed at the game, he said he had to go home, something about preparing for going out of town again. After an awkward minute or so of her waiting for him to ask her to accompany him home, she asked, “Would you like to stop by my place on your way home?” When he declined, she said, “Would you prefer your place? Or some neutral place like a hotel? I know a great one not far from here. It’s only a minute or two away.”
Somehow, even though he declined all of the options for going to bed with her, she did not feel slighted. Instead, she felt like maybe he genuinely just needed to leave for work and that it had nothing to do with her, like it was just some unhappy coincidence. Like he somehow rejected her without rejecting her.
After she got home, when she thought about it some more, she decided she would definitely go with Coastals4Life because Inlanders were too weird, apparently even after they had been promoted to the Coasts.
And apps really were the way to go. She had heard a rumor that pre-War dating was pure chaos, and now she felt like she got a true glimpse of what that Hell must have been like. How very inefficient life was before order. She was grateful for the experience but more grateful to have been born into post-War life where she did not have to deal with all that nonsense of the unknown.
If this was what it was going to be like to try to go it on her own, she wanted nothing to do with it. It was too much work, all that trial and error, all that confusion and uncertainty, all that not knowing if she had actually been rejected or if they really had just run out of time.
Her head hurt from thinking about all the possibilities and variables. This whole experiment with pretending to live like she was in the pre-War dating scene was a mistake. She didn’t want to have to think.
She opened her laptop and went to the Coastals4Life site and filled out the application.
Then, she pulled out her phone and got on her favorite hookup app. She looked through the profile pictures, unashamedly looking for someone who most resembled Chris, and sent a request to meet up that evening. She did not care what percent match they were; it did not matter, for tomorrow she would find someone who was a 100% match–not uncertainties, not surprises, no guessing or questioning or thinking.
This guy she sent the request to would probably be nothing like Chris, but that didn’t matter. She checked herself in the mirror and touched up her makeup, and then she left to meet up with her last one-night stand before she would be matched and not have to worry about whether or not someone reciprocated her feelings ever again.
The Unexpected Inlander is available at Amazon.