Diana frowned as she peeled the electrodes from her client’s temples. “You know, you can’t start sleeping with both sisters at the same time. I mean, unless they’re okay with it, which in this case they weren’t.”
The client looked at her drowsily and rubbed the spots where the electrodes had been. Sometimes it took men a moment to fully come to after a simulation, especially when they were new to the process.
“You realize,” Diana continued, “this was an entry-level situation.”
“Uh, yeah, sorry…”
“Did you read the manual?” The answer was usually “no,” but she still had not given up hope that someone actually would review the material before coming in for a screening.
The client was silent.
“Look,” said Diana. “I want to help you, but you really have to take this a little more seriously if you want to start dating.” As long as this process had been in place, she couldn’t believe how many men continued to think they could just wing it. Of course, that type of thinking was probably why the whole system was started in the first place…
“Yeah, okay, sorry,” he mumbled.
“All right, then,” she said, folding her hands onto her lap, “let’s go over again what you should do when you meet your girlfriend’s sister…”
Diana wrapped up the appointment and took a break before her next client was due. In the restroom she lingered at the sink for a moment, looking into the mirror. She always felt a bit relieved to see that, even in the unflattering lighting of the office bathroom, she didn’t look as ancient as this place could make her feel.
At 33, she was older than most of her coworkers. She’d been a Senior Caseworker for about five years, and her higher-ups were encouraging her to apply for a supervisory position. She was continually held up as a role model to other staffers, but she knew that many of them actually regarded her as a cautionary tale. Everyone knew she was the first one in the office and the last one to leave, and that she didn’t really have anyone to run home to.
She’d never been married, and so seemed to occupy a space outside the comfort zone of her currently-married coworkers. Those whose marriages had collapsed couldn’t wrap their heads around someone her age having never tried it. The younger ones who didn’t care about marriage yet were suspicious of her because she never seemed to be dating anyone, as though datelessness were a contagious condition. It’s not that she wasn’t interested in meeting someone; she was just no good at it. She hated making small talk, and even when she tried, conversations seemed to stop in their tracks at the part where she told them where she worked.
One of her happily married colleagues entered the bathroom and smiled hello. Diana smiled back and pretended to finish checking her makeup before heading back to meet her next client: Roger Henderson.
She walked down the hall trying not to think about his honey-brown eyes, fringed in those long, dark lashes that made her jealous and weak in the knees all at once. She didn’t think men should be allowed to have lashes like that.
Dammit, Diana, get a grip! She’d always disapproved of caseworkers who let themselves develop crushes on clients, and now here she was, vying for the office of Hypocrite-in-Chief.
Diana rounded the corner into the reception area that lay between the restrooms and her office. She knew he would be there, and yet she was never quite prepared to see him. He was leaning back in one of the waiting-room chairs, reading as usual.
He looked up and smiled pleasantly. “Hello, Ms. Kirkwood.”
Diana tried not to let his dimples distract her. “Daphne,” she said to the receptionist, “as long as I’m here, I’ll go ahead and take Roger back.”
Daphne raised an eyebrow. Diana always happened to be just coming back from the restroom before Roger’s appointments. Whatever was going on, Daphne was smart enough to stay out of it.
But she had to admit, Diana’s new dresses were pretty cute.
Roger Henderson settled into the chair and prepared for the last of his introductory simulations.
“All right,” said Diana, “you know what happens if you don’t pass this time.”
“Yes, Ms. Kirkwood, I know.”
He smelled her musky perfume as she leaned over him to make a final check of his electrodes. He hoped there weren’t any cameras in the room to catch him watching her ass as she walked over to the monitoring station. Diana flicked a switch to dim the lights and quickly tapped through the sequence of screens that would bring him into the simulation.
He watched her work the controls and wondered why he was still calling her Ms. Kirkwood after all of their sessions together. Maybe she was a little older than he was, but probably not by much. At any rate, he’d heard that a little humility could go a long way with these caseworkers. He just hoped he didn’t sound like a suck-up.
“Are you ready, Roger?”
He nodded. Here goes…
Which scenario would it be this time? He’d been through basic training: the wasted girl at the bar, the young widow at the funeral, your fiancée’s hot sister. You go through the scenario, do your thing, and then the counselor walks you through it and basically tells you everything you did wrong. He’d heard some of his buddies talk about their counselors like they actually hoped their clients would screw everything up, like they enjoyed telling the guys what assholes they’d been. Fortunately his counselor wasn’t like that. Sometimes she even seemed a little sad when he messed up.
Of course the training sequence had allowed a little room for youthful indiscretion—boys will be boys, as they say—but now he’d come to the part where there was no more time to fool around. He’d have to get this right, or he wouldn’t get the chits needed to enter the pairing bars and cafés. And he was tired of not having access to the pairing locales, the only places real women went. As much as he liked his buddies at the corner bar, he was ready to start meeting some women who weren’t either kooky or looking for paying customers.
Some congresswomen wanted to move the pairing process out of bars altogether, removing alcohol from the equation. “For the protection of all American men and women,” they said. “Promoting pairing stability,” they said. Listening to those hearings could be aggravating. Thank god there were enough women in power who enjoyed the social lubrication of a martini to keep the more conservative elements from passing that legislation.
If he were allowed to testify, as men were on occasion, he’d give ‘em an earful.
Roger closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind. Okay, don’t take that negativity with you. He relaxed his muscles and slipped into his final simulation: Think Boy Scout, think respect, think ‘I just want to hold you...’
A little while later, Roger rubbed his eyes as he woke up from his nap – no, his simulation! He shot up in his chair and looked over at Diana. He didn’t know what to make of her expression, which in the dim light seemed to be hovering somewhere between a smile and a frown.
“How’d I do, Ms. Kirkwood? Did I pass?”
She looked at him intently, then stood up and walked over to his chair. She pressed a single bar-chit into his hand. “Meet me at the Starbucks on 7th and Main tonight and we’ll talk about it.”
She looked back at him over her shoulder as she walked out of the room. “And from now on, just call me Diana.”
Diana stood in her kitchen staring at the oven as it reconstituted her dinner. The glass of wine she’d intended to have with her meal was already empty, so she refilled it. She took a bowl from the cupboard just as the oven pinged and carefully transferred the pouch of steaming noodles into it. Just because she was taking a quikmeal again, that didn’t mean she had to gulp it down in pill form like a…
Like a what? Like a sad, lonely, single woman?
So there it was, this is what had turned her into the degenerate lawbreaker she’d become: the prospect of another night alone on her couch eating a bowl of reconstituted quikmeal.
Perhaps “degenerate” was a bit extreme, but “lawbreaker” was probably not far off. At the very least, she’d exhibited highly questionable professional behavior. She’d probably lose her job if anyone found out. Encouraging a client was one thing, but actually messing around with simulation results was pretty serious.
She exhaled, not realizing until then that she’d been holding her breath. “Think, think, think.” She grabbed her dinner and wine and headed for the couch.
She hadn’t actually done that much, really. She hadn’t manipulated the testing scenarios, hadn’t prodded or prepped him. All she’d done was start to like this guy, maybe root for him a bit more than was professionally called for. All she’d wanted was a little more time with him before releasing him into the dating-eligible population.
All she’d really done was postpone the debrief and move it to a completely inappropriate location.
She was supposed to do debriefs right then and there in the office, go through the scenarios with clients while they were still fresh and give them insight as to why their instincts were so utterly wrong. Well, at least that’s how most of the sessions went. In her darker moments she felt like she was just part of a sham finishing school, not enlightening clients so much as teaching them how to more effectively mask their true natures. But she still hoped that little bits and pieces of her guidance would filter in and take root somewhere.
Even if she couldn’t teach men how to truly understand women’s needs, she could at least make women’s lives easier through the effective training of men. Even the least intuitive client could be taught that a woman telling you she’s “independent” does not necessarily mean “sleep with as many other women as you like.” Through simulation technology, Diana could spare women the pain of going through these scenarios in real life while men learned proper interaction techniques.
But then, who am I to judge? Diana asked herself. Her dinner grew cold on her lap as she wondered what she was going to say to Roger the next evening.
Roger walked with his hands in his pockets in an effort to appear relaxed. This out-of-office debrief he was headed to couldn’t be normal.
He fingered the single one-chit token in his pocket. From what he’d heard, you usually got a five- or ten-pack after your last simulation, depending on how well you’d done. Then you’d keep meeting your caseworker for refills, and after a while, if it had been established that you weren’t a complete slimebag, you worked your way up to the card. But he hadn’t even rated a five-pack? Something was wrong here...
And what if he was right, what if Kirkwood were going rogue? Should he report it to the Agency—or was he looking at a golden opportunity to shake down a caseworker? Or, better yet, maybe if he could expose an out-of-control caseworker—if in fact that’s where she was heading—he could blow the lid off the whole process of screening!
Of course, he thought resignedly, with a majority female congress and woman president, there was little chance the Screening Act would be repealed anytime soon.
Roger had walked half a block past the Starbucks before he thought to look up. He circled back to the entrance and the doors slid open. A tall, muscular man in a dark suit approached him as he stepped inside and scanned the room.
Roger stared at him blankly, then noticed the hand extended, palm up, in his direction. Of course, his token. His one chit…
He took it out of his pocket, dropped it into the bouncer’s hand, and walked into the café.
Diana fidgeted with the cup of coffee she’d ordered on autopilot. There was no way she needed the caffeine sitting in front of her. The fear of losing her job was going to be enough to keep her up all night.
She slipped a hand into her purse to check again for the rest of the five-pack she should have given him back at the office. It wasn’t too late to fix this; she would tell him he’d passed, and that she was just there to take him through his first visit to a pairing locale. No one could fault a caseworker for going the extra mile for a client, could they?
Diana saw Roger at the door with the bouncer. Her hand shot out of her purse to motion to him, sending the tokens flying across the table. Cursing under her breath, she scrambled to scoop them back into her bag. She looked up again and pasted a serene, slightly detached smile on her face, hoping it would counteract the flush she felt rising to her cheeks.
Roger had seen her and was heading her way. He seemed to be savoring his first visit, walking slowly and looking around as he moved through the room. In all her years as a caseworker, she’d never really thought about what it was like for a man on his first visit to an actual pairing locale.
Okay, she said to herself, time to take care of this. She stood up briskly and waved him to a seat at her table.
“Hello Roger,” she said, careful to make her smile welcoming but professional. She noted that he was still scanning the room from his chair. Surely he couldn’t be looking at other women when he’d come there to meet her? But then again, she thought sourly, that was her job, to help men become eligible to meet other women. He was just coming to get the rest of his chits.
“Hi.” Roger’s voice snapped Diana back to attention, and she realized that he was looking right at her. The heat in her cheeks intensified.
“Yes, hello,” she said, tapping the table twice to activate the menu. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Um, just some water, thanks.” He sat ramrod straight with his hands on his knees. How had she ever thought this was going to go anywhere?
“So, welcome to Starbucks.”
“Your first pairing café.”
“Yes, yes it is…” he said, glancing over at a passing barista.
Diana understood loud and clear. It would be best for everyone if she just gave him the rest of his chits and went home. She opened her purse again and fished for the tokens. Tomorrow she’d write a memo to get him reassigned to another caseworker…
“…and,” continued Roger, “it’s kind of nice to see you outside of the training center.”
Her hand froze inside her bag.
“Maybe I will have something,” he said, leaning forward to scan the menu.
“The lattes are good.” Diana noted the way the café lighting brought out little highlights in his hair and accentuated the fullness of his lips.
Roger nodded and tapped in his order. He leaned back in his seat and ventured a smile.
Diana looked into his honey-brown eyes. She closed her purse and smiled back.
Louie’s was one of the few non-pairing locales trendy enough for a guy to be seen in without feeling like a loser. It was the perfect place for buddies with mixed dating clearances to meet up.
Roger was sitting at a high-top table with a beer when Jared walked in. He strode over to Roger with casual authority. Tall and trim with chiseled features and perfect teeth, he was the kind of guy even other guys had to admit was good looking. If there was anyone Roger could sound out on the dating process, it was Jared.
Jared had taken the whole process pretty seriously, plugging into his network of female acquaintances for feedback, and leaping at any opportunity to share his wisdom with others. “You just have to listen, man,” he would tell them. “Really try to understand why they’re saying what they’re saying. It’s actually pretty interesting once you stop to listen.”
And of course Jared’s female friends had loved being consulted. They’d fallen for that big time. By the time he’d asked for their advice, listened intently, and considered their various points of view, the actual test was pretty much a technicality—Jared had a bevy of women who couldn’t wait until he could start dating. Strictly speaking, they didn’t have to wait, but none of them wanted to be like those women at the other, non-pairing bars. So they were all content to let the process run its course, each woman thinking her long talks with Jared would give her the inside edge once he was cleared for the pairing locales.
Roger had to hand it to him, he knew how to work it. But sometimes he couldn’t tell if Jared was still playing the system or if he had really drunk the Kool-Aid. Whenever Roger complained about screening, Jared would remind him that it was all opt-in; no one was forcing him to do it. Jared couldn’t be for real; didn’t he chafe under the manipulation? Or was he just Zen-master of the process now?
Jared smiled and clapped Roger on the shoulder. “Hey, man, good to see you.”
“So,” said Jared, settling onto a stool, “what’s up? How’d your screening go?” He pulled up the tabletop menu and ordered a martini.
“Well, it’s weird, man… I think I just went on a date with my caseworker.”
Jared gaped. Roger briefed him on the events of the past few days, feeling a rush of pride at being able to surprise Jared with something related to the screening process.
“So she gives me the rest of the tokens at the end of our—meeting, date, whatever it was…”
“Whatd’ya get, five-pack? Ten-pack?”
“Five-pack. Which by then was a four-pack.”
“Well, see, if you hadn’t screwed up the young widow at the funeral scenario…”
“I didn’t screw up the—look, that’s not the point. So she hands me the tokens and says, now that she’s shown me a pairing café, she should take me to my first pairing bar too.”
“Wait, wait, wait, she can’t do that!”
Roger laughed and waved his hand, proudly nonchalant. “Oh, it’s okay, I don’t mind meeting up with her.”
“No, man, that’s crazy. I’ve never heard of that. There have to be some kind of guidelines for this.” Jared pulled out his phone and started a search.
“Don’t worry about it, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.” At least, he thought, not until he had decided how he wanted to work the situation.
“So you don’t even care that she’s using up your chits? Think about it, how are you supposed to meet anyone with your caseworker hanging around?”
“I don’t know,” said Roger with a shrug, “she’s kind of hot herself.”
Jared looked at Roger and shook his head. “All right, man,” he said, putting his phone away. “But I can’t help you out here. This is all uncharted territory.”
“No worries, I’ll handle it. And for once I get to tell you how things go.”
Jared rubbed his chin thoughtfully and gave voice to what they were both thinking: “Why would she take a risk like this?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” quipped Roger, pointing at himself.
Jared didn’t react to Roger’s joke, didn’t even seem to have heard it. He studied Roger for a moment, then leaned over the table and lowered his voice. “You know, I talk to a lot of guys who are pretty frustrated with this whole screening process.”
“Yeah, who isn’t?”
“That’s right. And these guys might appreciate a little extra help. More than just advice.”
“Well, we could start with a few tokens, see how it goes. I hear they fetch a pretty high price.” There was an edge to his voice that Roger hadn’t heard before.
“Think about it,” said Jared. “It’d be worth both our while, and would help a lot of guys out.”
“I suppose it would… I’ll think about it.”
Roger took a long pull on his beer. This is what he wanted, isn’t it? There was no way the “exposure and public outrage” plan would have worked anyway; screening wasn’t going away. Here was the other choice falling right into his lap.
So why did he feel like a little boy poking at a sleeping Rottweiler with a stick?
Client Progress Report
Client: Roger Henderson
Caseworker: Diana Kirkwood
Comments: Client has been adjusting well to a variety of pairing locales. Has displayed respectful and responsible behavior toward female patrons in both daytime and evening settings. Use of alcohol has not impaired judgment beyond an acceptable degree. Client has successfully:
procured contact information from women in non-coercive manner
used contact information to initiate subsequent dates
embraced approach of cautious optimism regarding sex. Coercion, pleading, petulance not employed
Recommendation: Increase to 10-pack.
Diana looked up from her monitor and leaned back in her chair. She was stuck at the references. She had to list at least one woman who could vouch for Roger’s dating behavior out in the world. Problem was, Diana was the only reference he had.
She and Roger had burned through his first packet of tokens and had already started in on his 10-pack, so technically her report was already late. Of course, no one would notice; the paperwork was always running behind in this place. Besides, they all trusted her to get it done right. They trusted her. She’d been trying not to let that part get to her.
But then, who was actually getting hurt here? Roger obviously didn’t mind. If he didn’t want to go along with it, he could file a complaint tomorrow and be done with it. She wondered if this is how other girls at work had been finding their boyfriends and husbands. Had she been completely obtuse all these years?
So, which of her friends would least mind being Roger’s reference? Not that it mattered; nobody actually called her references anymore. Her friend Natalie was a bit on the wild side, she wouldn’t mind. She typed in Natalie’s name with a random phone number and submitted the report.
“Just in time,” she said, checking the time on her monitor. She didn’t want to be late for dinner with Roger.
Two weeks after submitting Roger’s Client Progress Report, Diana found herself prepping her friend Natalie for the reference check the agency would be making any day now, the call Diana never thought would happen.
Diana’s files were under review; everyone’s were. She’d seen a number of investigations go down at the Agency. Every time a well-placed woman went through a nasty breakup there were congressional inquiries into their screening methods. But this time it was the Vice President’s daughter, and it was a very public, very broken engagement. These reviews were being conducted with a whole new level of thoroughness.
Diana had gained some time from the fake phone number she’d used for Natalie. Somehow she’d thought a home-cooked dinner with bottomless wine would make coaching her friend for a fraudulent reference check seem a little less criminal. It didn’t.
“Okay,” said Diana, “we’ll say you met him at a Starbucks...”
“Aw jeez, Diana, you know I hate Starbucks!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me, I’m about to lose my job, and you can’t handle a visit to Starbucks?”
Natalie raised her hands in surrender. “All right, so I met him at Starbucks. What does he look like?”
“Well, he’s really good looking. Curly dark hair, light brown eyes with nauseatingly long eyelashes...” She and Natalie had the same objection to—and weakness for—female-length eyelashes on men. “He’s about 5’8”, nice and fit. He jogs. Let’s see… He’s into astro-punk-hop. Not my taste in music, but you can’t have everything, right?”
“Right. And what does he do?”
“He’s a teacher. But it’s not about the money,” she added quickly. She almost wished he were a lawyer or something like that so she wouldn’t come across as a gold-digger. Education sector salaries had jumped considerably since the Fair Pay Act, and superstar teachers like Roger could bring home bonuses that made moguls think about jumping ship from Wall Street.
“I see…” mused Natalie with a prospector’s gleam in her eye. “Most importantly, is he any good in bed?”
Diana shook her head. “I mean, I don’t know. It hasn’t… We haven’t.”
“Well, if he wants to get anywhere,” Natalie said with a wink, “it sounds like he’s going to have to take me somewhere nice on our next date.”
“Sure,” said Diana flatly. “For the sake of authenticity.” It was bad enough that she and Roger had already decided to curtail their dates until the scandal blew over; now she was going to have to set up a date between him and Natalie.
She trusted Natalie, but Roger? She was starting to wonder about him. He’d asked her if he could have some extra tokens for a friend of his, someone whose case manager was impossible to please and kept flunking him for no reason. Knowing some of the girls at the Agency, she didn’t doubt that could happen. She even knew of a way to get the tokens without having to sign for them, but didn’t he realize she was covering up enough as it was?
She’d have to have a talk with him, somewhere private, where she could really lay out the situation for him.
Roger walked quickly away from Diana’s apartment building, smoothing out the wrinkles in his suit. It was Saturday morning, and he was conscious of the sound his dress shoes made on the relatively empty sidewalk. He hadn’t really wanted to go, but he was too disgusted with himself to stay any longer. The five-pack she’d given him was burning in his pocket.
What the hell was he doing, squeezing a caseworker for tokens? He was a teacher, for god’s sake! What was he trying to prove? So big deal, he’d shown the system was broken; it was corruptible. But what did that make him?
Okay, maybe sleeping with her had been a mistake. Not because he hadn’t enjoyed it, no, but if you’re going to be shaking someone down, you can’t start sleeping with her too. Or can you? He wasn’t current on the whole miscreant thing.
Forget it. He was going to go back to Jared, tell him this wasn’t going to work. But… He was a little curious to see how much these tokens could fetch, merely in a social-science kind of way.
Diana kept going in to the office as usual, trying to look as concerned as the next person; not more, not less. Everyone walked around waiting for the other shoe to drop, hoping it would fall into someone else’s office. She’d always known her files were on the network and could be reviewed at any time, but this time—for the first time—she knew there was something in those files that could come back to haunt her. She told herself to just keep her head and do her job, and tried not to think about how the whole thing could unravel.
The days passed. The higher-ups were still nervous, but they hadn’t said anything to Diana. Just when she’d convinced herself everything would be okay, Roger messaged her wanting to meet up for a drink. Her paranoia flared, and she felt the eyes of the office on her.
As long as he doesn’t ask me for tokens again, she thought. He’d been a little weird about it the last time, like HE was the one taking the risk. Diana knew the smart course of action would be to just ignore him, or tell him they couldn’t see each other outside the office anymore. Then she let her mind wander back to their last night together. She messaged him back to arrange a time and place to meet.
There was a knock on her door and Cynthia, her supervisor, leaned in.
“Hey, Diana, do you have any more clients today?”
“Oh good, I’d like to see you in my office for a minute, please.”
“Sure, I’ll just finish logging off here.” She wondered how she could answer so calmly when all she could think was ohmygodohmygodohmygod. She stood up too fast, and the sound of blood rushing in her ears was almost overpowering as she followed Cynthia down the hall.
Cynthia waved Diana into a chair as they entered her office. Cynthia sat down behind her desk and folded her hands on top of it.
“Diana, you’ve been here for a while. You’ve seen how these inquiries play out. Everyone starts clamoring for accountability, so of course we have to start digging.”
“Of course,” said Diana, trying not to wring her hands.
“And once we start digging, it’s inevitable that all kinds of—issues—are uncovered with caseworkers across the agency.”
“Yes, unfortunately.” Oh god, I’m getting fired.
“And I know,” said Cynthia, leaning closer, “you’re used to seeing things patched up or papered over, but this time there’s too much scrutiny for that. We can’t just sweep things under the rug this time. And that’s why I need to talk to you…”
Diana arrived at the Starbucks on 7th and Main, still trying to wrap her head around what had just happened. Roger was waiting for her in front.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said.
“No problem, I just wanted to be sure you could make it before I gave up my last token.” He handed his chit over and they went inside to find a table.
They settled into a booth near the back, and Roger leaned in close. “So I guess I need to go in for a refill now. There’s this woman I’d like to keep seeing.”
“I wish I could help you,” she said, “but it looks like this was my last week as your caseworker.”
He sat back and dropped her hand. “What happened?”
“Don’t worry, they don’t know anything. The inquiry’s over; Natalie’s very convincing.”
“So why am I being reassigned?” he asked, looking around nervously.
“Re-org,” she answered. “They want all the Senior Caseworkers to have more time for oversight, so they’re reassigning most of our clients. I guess your file was so thin, it looked like it would be easy to hand off to someone junior.” She laughed at the absurdity, but he was silent.
“That’s not all,” she continued. “My boss said there’s a position coming up that they really want me to apply for. Won’t take no for an answer this time.” She still couldn’t believe this part. “They want me to be the next Head of Screening Oversight. They need someone with a clean record, and nobody’s is cleaner than mine.”
He blinked a couple of times as though he were waking up. “That’s great, baby! Congratulations!” He squeezed her and gave her a kiss. “Do they serve champagne here?”
She watched him tap at the menu, realizing that she had no idea what he was really thinking. Was he happy for her, or was he toasting a future gravy train of tokens? Was he celebrating the beginning of their relationship, or just happy to have a well-placed ally in the screening process?
Now that she wasn’t his caseworker anymore they were free to see each other, but she couldn’t scan him, had no direct access to his innermost thoughts. This was it: no case file, no electrodes, no control panel.
Diana smiled. She had no idea where this was going, but she was ready to give low-tech love a try.