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SCRATCH. He said his name was Scratch.
But no, it starts before that, over a year ago on a dark Friday night in Oakland, California, rain pouring down like it’s the next biblical flood and I’ve just seen the thing I’ve been afraid I’d see. Justin opening the door of a taxi for a woman with effortless blond hair that almost reaches, but stops short of, her shoulders. She wears a pink coat. I’ve always despised pink. He holds a newspaper over her head protectively as she gets in, and the taxi driver pops open the trunk for their suitcases.
He said he had a business trip. Seattle.
Justin looks gaunt in that way I always found Byronesque: pale shadows under his eyes, a military-ish buzz cut that makes his cheekbones starker. I miss his hair, the feel of it in my hand. Did he cut it for her? There hadn’t been much of an explanation—something about a new barber who got carried away.
He doesn’t see me standing in the shadow of the apartment building across the street, but then that’s always been our inside joke—the invisible girl, he calls me. I’m constantly startling the shit out of him. He swears he doesn’t hear me when I walk into a room, and has actually shouted more than once after finding me just behind him, opening a cabinet door when he thought I was asleep. It’s a skill that anyone with abusive parents learns, and learns early. How to slip into the kitchen and get a soda and a candy bar for dinner without causing a blip on the radar.
But still, I wish he’d look over this way for once. I long for it, I will it—I send a psychic message that if he doesn’t look over this way it means he doesn’t love me, that he stopped loving me months ago.
He gets into the taxi, closes the door. The cab pulls into the street, causing an arc of water to splash in the gutter. Gone.
It’s cold. I should have put on a jacket, but there had been that note in his voice when he said he was going to Seattle, a tinny drop that caused a shudder near the base of my spine, an emotional 5.0 tremor. He’d been strange for months. Distant. I don’t remember walking out the door of my apartment. I do remember when I stepped outside and realized it was cold, and I was barefoot. But my car was right there. I’d gotten lucky with a spot right in front of the apartment, no circling the neighborhood for fifteen minutes trying to land within three blocks.
Then I realized I’d left my keys in the apartment. Locked out.
The next steps—finding someone to buzz me back in, let me use their phone to call the super, making up some cheery explanation: Oh, it’s been such a stressful week at work, amazing I remember my head—was a calculation that seemed unfathomable.
So I started to walk. Not impossible—I’d done it before, although never at night. I pushed aside all the reasons this was a bad idea. Tried not to look at any of the souls folded in alleyways, huddled under trash bags and newspapers. Ignored the occasional catcall.
The rain hit about ten minutes in, and in fifteen I was completely drenched and my feet were numb, but it felt good somehow. Like I was present, a high-definition version of myself. I began to imagine scenes: Justin opening the door—looking perplexed in that way that always made him seem about ten—our having a good laugh at my neurosis again. Me taking a warm shower. Justin joining me. A smaller part of me tugged at the thought that I would seem pathetic, that his furrowed brow would really be a sign of his rising discontent, a precursor of the end. There was, or would soon be, someone else. When that thought hit I’d raise my hands to the rain, let it slide through my fingers. Wash it away.
This is how I got through the next twenty minutes, and by the time I reached his street I had convinced myself of the first version, which left me utterly unprepared for the pink coat. Just the sight of it made me dart into the entry of the apartment across from Justin’s. Left me breathless.
And then they were in the taxi, and then they were gone. Vanished. The night, and the rain, closing over them like a cloak.
THE FIRST RULE of marketing is desire. And it’s not about making people want a thing; it’s making them want a different version of themselves, someone better-looking, more in control of their lives, unique. Everyone wants to think they’re living a version of carpe diem when really they’re lemmings on a treadmill. I know this because I’m a professional treadmill designer.
People think I’m joking when I say that the third circle of hell is reserved for marketers, but I’m not. It’s a truly twisted area of expertise. My specialty is backpacks, specifically backpacks for those who sit behind a desk 365 days a year but like to imagine they’re only a travel agent away from scaling Mount Everest. The soccer moms who buy sports utility vehicles so they don’t feel like Mrs. Brady. We sell them backpacks that cost us four dollars but will cost them a hundred and fifty because we don’t tell them these are nylon sacks with zippers made in Chinese sweatshops. No, we give these backpacks names that are evocative of adventure, of pristine wilderness, of empowerment. For women, SkyTrail in colors like Sonoma grape (purple), poplar (green), and truffle (brown). Octane for the executives who amuse themselves in board meetings by imagining the crushed scent of pine beneath their feet. Things that sound vaguely Swedish are always popular. Stores can’t keep the Utrecht 1000 stocked even though you can’t fit much more than a map and a sandwich inside it. We estimate that about 90 percent of these backpacks make it to a closet where they will remain, gathering dust, until the eventual yard sale.
To make it in marketing you have to have a good sense of your own fragile, easily manipulable mind. You can’t have any illusions. You know that when you’re in the grocery store and they’re playing music, it’s been chosen to fit your demographic. The colors on the cereal boxes make you hungry. The milk is at the back to increase the odds of impulse buys along the way. You know you’re a rat in a maze, and even knowing you’re a rat in a maze is no protection.
Justin was the one place where I felt I was outside of the maze. Where I was tangibly human.
A thought probably implanted by the marketers who sell dating services.
SCRATCH. He said his name was Scratch.
I couldn’t believe it at first, was sure I heard it wrong, thought maybe he had mistaken me for a bar wench and was trying to order a Scotch. Not that I looked like I worked there, drenched, barefoot, shivering. I was sipping at my second mojito royale in Make Westing that I’d snuck on someone else’s tab, having forgotten that my wallet was also in my locked apartment. But it was packed at the bar, and warm, and if my piracy was discovered I could pretend I was heading for the bathroom and make a break for the door instead. I was even thinking about ordering baked Brie and some artisanal pita chips.
Somehow he’d inserted himself next to me, causing the hipster guy on the next stool over to lean uncomfortably left, his sense of space obviously violated.
“Is that any good?” asks the inserter.
Cocky bastard, I think to myself. I try ignoring him, take a long sip.
He raises a finger to catch the attention of the bartender, who has to lean in to hear him it’s so loud. Music pounds from a band in the back with Pearl Jam aspirations.
“I’ll take one of whatever she’s having,” says the inserter with an accent that sounds English, or Irish—something. “And her tab’s on me.”
He knows, but he’s not outing me. What’s he want? Still, free is free so I order the foie gras sandwich instead and another mojito. The cold has made me hungry. The hipster takes his garden gimlet and pushes his way to the bocce ball lane, then the inserter settles himself down on the vacated stool and I take a look at what I’ve indentured myself to, at least for the next few hours.
This is where things get hard to explain. I get the impression he’s not bad-looking, although his nose seems like it might have been broken and not reset correctly. I feel like he has longer hair, and is olive-skinned like he’s Italian, or Arabic. But there’s something wavering about these impressions too, like the shimmer of heat over hot asphalt, and not then, nor now, would I ever be able to say exactly what he looked like. No one who’s ever seen him can either.
A part of me realizes that my wet shirt is inappropriately clingy, that I might be giving off the wrong signal. I fold my arms over my chest protectively.
The bartender drops off my sandwich and the two mojitos. I’ve never seen a sandwich look so good in my life.
“I’ll take one of those too,” says the inserter, pointing to it. The bartender sighs, as if his life would be simpler if we had just ordered all at once.
I pick up the sandwich and take a bite. Heaven.
“You know how they make foie gras?” he says.
“Not really,” I say with a mouthful. Although a part of me knows it’s bad. Veal kind of bad.
He rubs a finger along the bar top. “They stick a gavage, which is a kind of tube, down a duck’s or goose’s throat and then force-feed it so the liver becomes fatty. Enforced gluttony.” There’s a cheerful lilt to his voice as he says this. “Personally I think it’s the suffering that gives it flavor. But what you’re eating, that’s probably not the real thing. They passed a law against it a few years back. No, that must be humanely fattened goose liver. I don’t know if the goose appreciated the difference though in the end.”
I look at my foie gras benefactor and get the impression of twinkling eyes. What color, I couldn’t say.
“Do you mind if I just enjoy my sandwich?”
The bartender slides a plate with the inserter’s sandwich to him. He picks up a half. “Not at all. Bon appétit.”
AN HOUR LATER and each clunk of the bocce ball with the accompanying cheers or groans makes the bar feel festive, like we’re all on vacation, like we’re not the working drones we are, released for forty-eight hours before we’re back in the cubes, voluntary prisoners for cash and health benefits. I’m nursing my third (fourth?) mojito, he’s switched to Guinness; crumbs from the sandwich soak up the water rings on the wood counter. The bread was really good.
“What kind of a name is Scratch?” I say.
He’s leaning on the bar now, half turned to me, half turned to the crowd, fingers keeping time with the music. His black denim jacket fits him like a second skin. That level of tailoring is expensive.
“Just a nickname,” he says. “My real name is hard for Americans to pronounce.”
“So say it.” I tuck a strand of clumped wet hair behind my ear.
He does, a tumble of syllables that rise and fall in odd ways. The lights dim briefly. Huh.
“Is that Gaelic?”
“Not exactly,” he says. “But you still haven’t told me your name yet.”
“Ah, that.” I lick the rim of my glass. “Some call me the invisible girl.”
There’s a pang as I say this, a soft betrayal. Justin’s inside joke trotted out for a stranger to see.
“Maybe you need a new boyfriend.”
This isn’t really funny but it strikes me so, and I cover a laugh with the back of my hand. The mojitos at work. Still, I feel lighter. Freer. Like a balloon cut loose.
“Wouldn’t it be cool though, to really be invisible?” My finger reaches for the water ring and starts to doodle with it. X’s and O’s, the way Justin always ends his texts.
“I don’t know,” says Scratch. “You’d have to wrap yourself in bandages for anyone to know you existed, right?”
A problem I hadn’t considered. “On demand then,” I say. “But you could go anywhere. You could find out what people are really up to.”
“On-demand invisibility. Hmm. That’d be a right challenge. Corporeal or non-corporeal?”
“What do you mean?”
He sits back, takes a long sip of his Guinness. “Well . . . would you want to be invisible with a body, able to move shit, or invisible without a body, like a ghost?”
This invisibility stuff is more complicated than I thought. “Yes.”
He laughs. It’s a nice laugh. “Such an American answer.”
I have a vision then of myself, a ghost-twin standing in Justin’s living room, where he sits on the couch with Pink-Coat Girl. She unbuttons the top of it, slowly, seductively. Asshole. There’s a pleasant throb of self-righteous indignation that more than makes up for my disclosure.
Scratch reaches for a nearby bowl of popcorn and his wrist brushes mine. “But do you need to know what people are really up to?”
“What he’s up to.”
“Oh. I see.”
Now I feel exposed, revealed, so I take another sip of mojito to bolster myself. But there’s scarcely any left.
Scratch raises a hand, orders another.
THE BAND IS PACKING UP and the boisterous crowd has dwindled down to a small cluster of alcoholics. The bartender wipes down the bar with a blue, micro-absorbent towel. I have a friend who worked on the product design at REI.
“What color is that?” I ask the bartender.
He arches an eyebrow, but we’ve run up a decent bill and Scratch has been a generous tipper.
“Uh, blue,” he says.
I lean over like I’m revealing a secret. “No,” I whisper. “That color’s called Puget Sound.”
With that, I start into a peal of laughter that nearly causes me to tip over, but Scratch catches me by the elbow and keeps me upright. Thick man-hands. I imagine them in other places. It takes more moments than it should for the guilt to kick in.
“How many drinks have I had?” The overhead lights glow like headlights in fog.
“I lost count,” Scratch says.
“Me too.” I know he’s kept up with me, mojito for mojito, with a few shots in between and the Guinness, but he’s as sober as if he’s been drinking coffee all night. Outside, the rain still falls in sheets, a lonely sound. I don’t want to go back to my apartment. I don’t want to think about the pink coat.
Scratch doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave either. He doesn’t even check his watch, which must be a knockoff of a Vacheron Constantin Tour de l’Ile unless he’s actually wearing $1.25 million on his wrist.
“So they call blue Puget Sound now? I had no idea.”
I nod. My head feels twice as heavy as it should, like I’ve entered a different gravitational field. “According to our research, if you rebrand the color you can charge double. So beige isn’t beige anymore. It’s not taupe either, that’s too eighties. It’s timber wolf.”
The lead singer clicks off the microphone and there’s a momentary loud squeal.
“Clever,” says Scratch.
A couple of guys stand, one putting the arm of the other over his shoulders. They head out the door. I pick up whatever number mojito is in front of me and give the glass a swirl. It catches the lingering light nicely.
“Yup. Marketing is so very, very clever. All started with a very, very clever man. Do you know who coined the term public relations?”
“I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.”
“That I am,” I say, tipping my drink and it sloshes over unexpectedly, spilling on my thumb. “Edward Bernays. Freud’s nephew. Used his uncle’s research to create marketing that operated on subconscious desires.”
“What does that have to do with public relations?”
“He coined the term. After World War II, ‘propaganda’ got a bad name, so he just did the same shit but—poof—called it public relations.”
“Seems a little deceptive.”
Now I lean in to Scratch, or not lean so much as try to adjust for the fact that the bar seems to be listing, like a ship in high seas.
“Oh, he was just getting warmed up. What’s really sneaky is how he used PR for crowd marketing. In 1929 Lucky Strike wanted to open up the market to women, but a woman caught smoking in public could get arrested. Not good for business.”
“I’d imagine not.”
“So. Bernays pays off models to light up during the Easter Parade in New York. Calls Lucky Strike ‘torches of freedom.’ What’s brilliant is it plays off women’s desire for equality and the subconsciously sexual act of women wrapping their lips around a phallic symbol. Makes such a big stir that the papers can’t avoid covering it like real news, and then suddenly a woman smoking is acceptable in public. Or not suddenly . . . it takes a few years to change perception. But it starts with that tap. If you really want to manipulate an individual, you start with a group. Seems counterintuitive, but it works.”
“Interesting,” says Scratch. He pushes his glass of Guinness toward me. “How would you market this?”
“Beer?” I say. “Oh please, give me something hard.”
“Not just beer,” he says, a hint of something defensive. “Guinness. I don’t know why you Americans still drink crap like Pabst.”
“Our culture is founded on crap.”
He nudges the glass another inch toward me. This is fourth-grade marketing stuff.
“Okay,” I say. “First you have to imagine me blond and two cup sizes bigger.”
“You don’t have to sound so eager.” With clumsy hands, I unbutton the top button of my shirt, give it a think, then unbutton one more. I cock my head at him, offer a grand smile, reach for the Guinness without looking at it.
“Now I say something insipid, like . . . there’s only one reason to go for a guy with a Guinness.” I angle the glass slightly so I can reach in with my index finger, dip into a nice amount of foam. “Taste.”
I take my finger out of the glass, touch my sternum with the foam, and then trace my finger up my chest, neck, and face until I reach my lips. I give a campy wink, open my mouth, and lick my finger. Hold a moment before bowing.
Scratch leans back on the bar. “And people pay for that?”
“Very well. Sex sells anything. Make it self-aware-slash-ironic, and you can catch all the people who think they’re immune to messaging, too.”
“Doesn’t seem very viral.”
“Internet’s a baser channel. For that you just throw in a debutante with a well-oiled ass and launch a meme generator.”
“But you haven’t even tried the product. How can you sell something you don’t know anything about?”
“Because you’re never selling product. You’re selling desire. You’re tapping misery, or creating it so your product can then fix that misery.”
Persistent, he pushes the glass of Guinness another couple of inches toward me.
“Truth is, I don’t even like beer,” I say. My nose wrinkles. No, I actually abhor it. Growing up, the rank stink of piss and beer was forever in the carpet.
“I think you might like the bitter stuff. Unless, you know, it’s too masculine for you.”
“Too masculine. That didn’t sound sexist at all.”
“You just don’t strike me as a mojito kind of person.”
There was something tasty about the foam, more like an exotic dessert than a beer. Oh, what the hell.
My hand isn’t as steady as I’d like it to be, but I manage to lift the heavy glass, take a sip. Dark, and rich, and yes, bitter. Nothing girly about this draught.
I do like it, and take another, longer sip. Warmth tingles through my esophagus, lands nicely in my stomach. I place the glass back on the counter, concentrating hard so I don’t drop it, like I’m playing Jenga. There.
Scratch takes one of the bar napkins, scrunches the end of it, reaches toward me, and gently starts to wipe the foam from my upper lip. A strangely comforting, paternal act.
“So you know what I do,” I say. “What do you do?”
Scratch smiles, or I think he does. “I’m actually in a similar line of work. Maybe I should hire you.” He takes a moment to inspect my upper lip for any leftover traces of foam, then, apparently satisfied, tucks the napkin in his back pocket.
“Are you in sales?”
“No,” says Scratch. “I’m the devil.”
Well, I think. Not only has he gotten me wasted but he’s fucking with me too. “Wow. What’s that like?”
“Fun,” he says. “Depending on your idea of fun.”
“There money in being the devil?”
“There is,” he says, and when he says there it sounds like ter. That foreign lilt. “But that’s not the fun part.”
“What’s the fun part?”
Ah. An investment banker with a hand in the subprime crisis feeling a little angst.
“Fortunately for you,” I say, leaning into the bar. “I’m an atheist.”
He leans in too, and I catch a faint hint of something smoky, and damp. “Most are, until they meet me.”
The conversation has gotten complicated in some strange way, off track. Either that or I’m just out of touch with flirting—it’s been a few years—or he’s going to try to sell me something. I sit a bit more upright, reach for my mojito for something to do. A queasy feeling builds in my stomach. Maybe the foie gras was a bad idea. Maybe this all was.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” he says. “You don’t have to be like this.”
An insult. Even though I recognize the manipulation, my damned ego bristles.
“I don’t have to be like what?”
“Powerless. Helpless. Defeated.”
Each word falls like a hammer. Yes, and yes, and yes. “Is that what you think?”
“No,” says Scratch. “It’s what you think.”
I drop my mojito glass on the bar. It rolls and then falls onto the tile floor, shattering into pieces. All eyes turn to me. The drunk barefoot girl.
“Oh fuck,” I mutter. There are so many, many pieces.
But Scratch doesn’t seem to notice, or care. “So, Fiona, what can we do to change that?”
I told him my real name? Shit. I don’t remember that. A vein throbs near my temple—the precursor to the mother of all hangovers. I want to push myself up, say something about the ladies’ room, splash some water on my face and have a cogent moment, but I’m barefoot and surrounded by broken glass. I look hopefully in the direction of the bartender, but he must be in the back.
“What do you want?” Scratch asks softly.
What do I want? I want parents who don’t shoot up and call me for bail, I want to stop being so desperately afraid of life, I want to take that pink coat and tear it apart by the seams.
But most of all, I want that ghost-twin, so I can know. Beyond a shadow of a doubt and all that.
“Maybe I want to be the invisible girl . . . sometimes,” I whisper.
In the distance, there’s the wail of a siren.
“What would you give up in exchange?” Scratch asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Would you give up your soul? How about it?”
I shrug. Giving up something you don’t believe in doesn’t cost a thing.
Or so one thinks in the moment.