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Authors: Eliot Peper

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BOOK: Cumulus
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Instead, a ballpoint pen sat on top of a single page right in the middle of the smooth granite surface. Huian’s eyes scanned the words scrawled along the top, “Lovely, lovely Huian.” It ended there. The rest of the page was blank.

“I couldn’t finish it,” said Vera. “I just stood there forever, trying to figure out what to say. I was supposed to be gone by the time you got home. And then I saw the helicopter coming across the bay.” She let out a soft sob. “I knew it was you. It… transfixed me. It hurt too much to move.”

Huian felt unmoored. She wasn’t wracked with debilitating sadness. She was lost in a trackless wilderness. Earlier, she had been eager for Vera’s counsel. Then, she had been eager for her intimacy. Now what? It was simply too drastic a change of pace to take in all at once.

“Vera, I don’t understand,” she said. “Whatever you’re thinking, it doesn’t have to be this way. Just let me in. Tell me what’s going on.”

Vera cocked her head to the side, incredulity plain on her fine features. Then she shook her head. “This. This is exactly why, Huian.” She looked at her palms and then back up. “We’ve talked about our problems for ages and ages. We’ve been seeing Dr. Corvel for the past two and a half years. And now you’re asking

“Oh, come on.” The frustration was back in full force, confusion condensing into self-righteousness. Dr. Corvel’s stuffy, holier-than-thou attitude and his stuffier office. “Most couples see a therapist every once in a while. It’s normal. It’s what people do.”

“If this is normal, then I’m not interested in normal.” The skin around Vera’s eyes puckered up. “You’re brilliant, Huian. And I love you dearly. Nothing has changed about that. But you’re so… tangled up in your own head that you don’t see what’s happened to us. We’re a mess, my love. We’re a hot mess. And I’m tired of cleaning it all up.”

Huian tasted copper and realized she was biting her cheek. Sure, they disagreed on things occasionally. Heated debates sometimes ended with Vera in sulky retreat and Huian nursing the Pyrrhic intellectual victory. Huian was liable to forget birthdays and anniversaries. But Vera was far from blameless. She pissed off important guests with ill-considered political diatribes, and wore her bleeding heart on her sleeve in a way that made Huian privately question its authenticity.

But these things were petty. They were too insignificant to rate such a dramatic change of heart. The hairs on Huian’s neck stood on end as she considered another possibility. Tendrils of ice wove fractal patterns around her heart. She clenched her fists.

“Is there someone else?” She stared daggers at the woman she had been trying to seduce only moments before. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

Vera sighed and her shoulders slumped. Then she pressed a fist into her forehead. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response,” she said. “I can’t believe you’d think such a thing. Look, Huian, remember our summer in Thailand?”

They had met at Stanford and had orchestrated a joint study abroad in Thailand, where they spent most of their time skiving off to skinny-dip in tropical waters and make sweaty love under mosquito nets. Huian nodded. “Of
I do.”

“I fell in love with you that summer. I remember lying on the beach, looking up at the stars, and listening to you describe the way the world should be, the way the world would be. It was magical, prescient even. I’ve never stopped admiring your ability to not take the world as it is, to see the universe as an impermanent, malleable thing. You wrapped me up in the beauty and inevitability of it all.”

Vera straightened up with visible effort. “But that vision is also a prison. You’re so absorbed with the future that you don’t see or appreciate the present. You don’t see or appreciate the side effects of your mission. You don’t see or appreciate me. The universe is definitely impermanent and malleable. But it’s so much bigger and more complicated than we can imagine. We can contribute to it, but we can’t

Vera leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on Huian’s lips.

“You’re the most intelligent, beautiful, and driven woman I’ve ever met,” said Vera. “But I’m tired of being an externality. I’ve campaigned for years to get you to pay attention. But now I realize that’s not fair. I’ve been doing you a disservice. I can’t expect you to change who you are. And I likewise can’t change who I am. So… I guess this is good-bye.”

She was at the door before Huian had time to catch her breath.

“Vera, no,
,” Huian called after her, stumbling to catch up.

Vera looked back over her shoulder, tears shining on her cheeks. “Huian, I love you. Just do yourself a favor. Be spontaneous every once in a while. You might discover that incredible things can happen when you relinquish control.”

By the time Huian reached the door, Vera was already slamming the trunk closed and getting into the car parked in the drive. Vera hadn’t been unpacking farmers’ market produce from it—she had been packing her bags into it. Huian’s head was spinning. She felt like she was going to throw up.

“Vera,” yelled Huian, holding a hand against the door frame for balance. “Don’t do this. Don’t go like this.”

But the car pulled around in a smooth circle, kicking up a small cloud of dust from the gravel. It passed the gate, which slid open in anticipation, and pulled out onto the road beyond, disappearing behind the curve of the hill within a few seconds.

Huian sank into a crouch, her breathing shallow. This must be some kind of nightmare. An evil dream that sends your psyche circling the drain of your deepest fears. She would wake up any minute amid sheets soaked in cold sweat. Vera would roll over and caress her cheek, murmuring words of comfort to lead her away from the shadows of her subconscious. Huian could begin again from the beginning. Live this terrible day differently. Press rewind and start from scratch.

But when Huian’s fingertips brushed the doorstep beneath her, the wood grain felt solid and real. When she pinched her arm, it drew a scarlet pearl of blood and sent a sizzling jolt of pain along her nerve endings. And that damn Glasper album was playing over the house speakers now, climaxing in a dizzying piano solo.

No, this wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t an ephemeral night terror that a stack of pancakes and a mug of strong coffee would put to rest. Her wife had left her. The worst part was that she couldn’t fault Vera’s thinking. Her arguments left no room for reasonable rebuttal. They had been going to counseling for years now. Quarrels often ended in resentment instead of resolution. Every moment of joy seemed to demand a sacrifice in pain. It was like Newton’s third law applied to relationships. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But wasn’t that what every couple had to deal with? Nobody had promised that marriage would be easy. To Huian, the lows had seemed a price worth paying for the highs. The moments of frustration were intense but fleeting. In the bigger picture, they were in love with each other. But that very perspective was also a source of pain to Vera because it trivialized the things she saw as most important.

A bee buzzed by her ear and Huian waved it away. She had taken Vera for granted. That much was clear. Even worse, she had thought that taking her for granted was a good thing. Vera was her rock, a solid anchor amid the turmoil of her professional life. The one person she could trust implicitly. Not just her wife—her confidante.

Were they simply incompatible, as Vera had said? Was she, Huian, simply an impossible spouse? Was she doomed to a life alone, bringing pain to those around her through sheer force of personality? Richard would surely attest to that. She had burned many bridges to get where she was today. But sometimes scorched earth was the only way forward. Huian knew she had a propensity for getting so absorbed in her own head that the outside world seemed to fade. But great work required great dedication.

Cumulus. Her great work. The company that she had built from the ground up. The company that came more and more under threat every day. The company that was now veering wildly out of control. Richard’s mishandling of Tectonix, and his subsequent dismissal. The antitrust suit trying to dismantle her life’s work piece by piece. The new set of European regulations that made half of their products immediately subject to expensive regulatory constraints. The board’s constant questions and mindless pressure to prioritize quarterly profits at the expense of long-term growth.

Action. That was the only way out of a halting problem. The only way to short-circuit complexity. If you were tossed under a wave, you might not know which way was up but you had to start swimming anyway.

She swallowed, trying to get rid of the taste of bile. Slowly, so as not to upset her equilibrium any further, she stood up. The world swam around her. She took a few short breaths. Eventually, the garden came back into focus. The lush serenity sparked a flare of rage at the injustice of it all.

Tearing her eyes away from the newly vacated front yard, Huian turned and made her way back into the kitchen, gripping the counter for support.


The jazzy scales died, leaving a hollow stillness in their wake. The loudest sound was Huian’s own breathing. The granite was cold and solid under her hands. She and Vera had chosen the granite together. They had toured warehouses full of massive slabs to find the piece with the perfect color and texture pattern. Warehouse workers had bantered with each other in harsh Cantonese. Working with the architect and general contractor had been an exercise of joint patience. They had to balance each other’s goals and whims with the reality of design and construction over the course of many months. In the end, it had transformed the house into their home.

And now, that home was broken. Desperation welled inside Huian again, drowning out her rational mind. Vera was gone. It wasn’t like their other fights. Vera had never left, never even threatened to leave before. This was for real. Huian was alone. Alone in a treacherous world. Holding the tiller of a sinking ship.

The lump in her throat ripened into a sob that she fought to contain. How many times had she watched Vera wash the dishes, profiled against the view? How many times had they finished a bottle of pinot noir together and let its boozy warmth shelter their tired souls? What was life without Vera? Huian’s knuckles were white against the granite.

Action. She couldn’t allow herself to be led astray by the sirens of self-pity. She had to steer herself away from the black hole. She had to distract herself from the rubble of her personal life. She had to

“Call Graham.”

For a few interminable seconds, she thought the connection might not go through and she’d be left to vacillate in ethical purgatory.

“Chandler here.” His neutral voice sounded almost as if he were right here beside her.

But she was alone. Truly alone. It was time to take care of things herself.

“Graham.” She released the countertop and slowly moved her fingers, as if trying out a new pair of gloves for the first time. “The Tectonix acquisition and the Levine lawsuit…”

“Yes?” he asked into the silence.

“Take care of them.”

There was a beat.

“Yes, ma’am.” She searched for a hint of something in his voice. Enthusiasm? Gratification? But his tone was as calm as ever.

She ended the connection, and banished the moral quandary from her mind. When you were truly alone, sometimes you needed to address things head-on and take care of them yourself. When the buck stopped with you, what choice did you have? Often, the only way out of an insoluble situation was to make a lateral move. And if there was one thing she was good at, it was solving the insoluble.

Huian strode across the kitchen, ripped off her blouse, and descended into the basement.








coffee shops, and live/work art-studio spaces emerged from the urban jungle. This was the Fringe, the area hugging the perimeter of the Green Zone that relied on its proximity for relative stability. Residents were former Greenies fallen on hard times, students, creatives, and hipsters too cool for the Green Zone, but too timid to venture far beyond its borders.

Lilly drove straight through the Fringe and under the freeway overpass at MacArthur BART Station, which marked the border in this area. The bumpy ride turned smooth as the Land Rover emerged onto fresh pavement on the other side. A uniformed Security officer sipped a coffee and leaned against his
as he watched her pass from behind aviator sunglasses that were doubtless displaying her profile and the vehicle tags on a heads-up display. Lush oaks lined either side of the street, and bright California poppies highlighted the landscaped median. She braked for a stop sign, and a blonde jogger pushed a ruggedized baby stroller across the street, sculpted muscles shining under a sheen of sweat. The next block over, a group of kids played catch with a Frisbee in the street.

The neighborhood transitioned from quiet, leafy residential to bustling, yuppie commercial, and back to quiet, leafy residential as Lilly drove due east. After five minutes, the rational grid of the urban flats devolved into a tangled web of small streets leading up into the hills. The engine growled as she downshifted to get up the steep slope. The road zigzagged up the hill, the houses getting larger and larger the higher she went.

BOOK: Cumulus
2.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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