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An extract from Love at First Like by Hannah Orenstein

love at first like cover hannah orenstein

Tonight’s date was the kind of disaster that makes people give up on finding love forever. For starters, I had eyeballed his height from his Tinder photos; I had guessed he was about six feet, maybe four inches taller than me. Instead, I arrived at the bar, Golden Years, to discover that he was approximately five-foot-four. When I ordered a whiskey, he made fun of me for being the kind of girl who orders whiskey to impress a man. (It stung because he’s half right; that’s why I first started drinking it, before I developed a taste for it on my own.) He spent the first round of drinks quizzing me: had I been to this restaurant, or that museum, or that new club that had just opened up downtown? My plans to excuse myself were dashed when he insisted the bartender bring us a second round. It turned out his alcohol tolerance is much lower than mine, and by the time our glasses were empty again, he slid off his bar stool and tottered toward the door. “Eliza, you got the bill, right?” he called over his shoulder. “That’s what the feminists always say they want!”

Now, alone at the bar, I wince at the check: sixty dollars plus tip for my hot date. I lock eyes with the bartender, a guy with a mop of dark hair wearing a gray hoodie with the sleeves crunched up. I lean over the bar.

“Can you believe that guy?” I mutter, shaking my head. I toss him a flirty smile and cross my arms under my chest to give him a better view of my cleavage. “Hi, I’m Eliza, by the way.”

The bartender glances up from polishing a glass.

“Raj. Hi. Sorry about your date,” he says. For a split second, his dark eyes flash sympathetically. But then he shrugs. “Better luck next time,” he says, returning to his task.

So I’m stuck with the bill. I slide my credit card across the bar. While I wait for the bartender to run it, I pull my phone from my purse and begin deleting the neat row of dating apps from
my home screen. Enough is enough. Muscle memory triggers a spree through my phone: I toggle through my work email, personal email, and Instagram. I’m scrolling through my feed when my heart drops.

Holden is engaged. Holden, engaged? Holden, my on-again, off-again ex whose birth name is Hayden but who goes by a J. D. Salinger reference because he thinks it makes him sound smarter. Holden, the one who used to say that monogamy isn’t natural and that he would always want the freedom to pick up and move to Borneo or Mexico City or wherever else pops into his head. Holden,
the guy with a Bernie Sanders tattoo who forgot to register to vote. I repeat, Holden is engaged.

Right there, at the very top of my feed, a photo of him kneeling in front of his girlfriend, Faye, who appears as if she’s based her entire personality off a Free People catalog. A fringed, floor-length robe slides artfully off one shoulder as she claps a hand over her mouth in surprise.

“Two souls became one today,” Holden solemnly captioned the photo.

I navigate to Faye’s profile, where she’s posted not only that photo, but also a close-up of the diamond ring on her hand against a backdrop of lush green trees. Her caption: “I went hiking with the love of my life today . . . and I said YES!!!” She geotagged a misspelled version of the Appalachian Trail.

I sign the check and get the fuck out of the bar. My apartment is just across the street. It should be an easy walk—except, of course, it’s suddenly pouring. Water squelches into my shoes as I break into a sprint. My purse slaps against my side.

Holden and I were caught in flash floods like this once. We were on vacation in Nashville for our one-year anniversary (if you didn’t count the three-month break we took halfway through), and the sky just opened up. We huddled under a tiny awning while he scrolled through Yelp reviews of nearby restaurants. I had begged him to just pick a restaurant, any restaurant.

“Eliza,” he said slowly, clearly annoyed. “I can’t eat just anywhere. I’m a chef, all right?”

He was not a chef. He was a cook at a second-rate grill on Long Island during the summers and was looking for a full-time job at a restaurant in Brooklyn. My shoes were waterlogged for the rest of our trip.

Fucking Holden. Engaged. I’m not like some of my friends who, at twenty-seven, are still deeply shocked whenever people our age announce they’re getting married. I acknowledge that twenty seven is a perfectly reasonable age for Holden to propose to Faye. And fine, whatever, maybe he’s changed. It’s not exactly like we’ve been in touch often during the past four years since our final, brutal breakup. And more than anyone else I know, engagements are my bread and butter. Ever since my sister Sophie and I opened up Brooklyn Jewels last year, diamonds have become my world. I guess I just always assumed that between me and Holden, I would pair off for good first. I’m not good at losing; I’m not used to it. And his engagement means that I’ve officially lost the breakup.

I reach the door of my building and I’m home. I live in a secondfloor walk-up on top of the shop. I dig my keys out of my purse and jam the right one into the lock. I know before I’m even inside my apartment that I won’t want to stay. From the sound of it, you’d think my neighbor was personally hosting New York’s most crowded EDM festival. I can feel the bass of his soundtrack vibrating in my chest. My walls are so thin that I need noise-canceling headphones just to sit in my own home.

I drop my rain-soaked purse on the floor of my bedroom, strip out of my damp clothes, and pull on my oldest sweats. Then I grab my phone, swing by the galley kitchen to pick up my bottle of Jack Daniel’s and the cleanest glass from the cupboard, and head downstairs to the quiet shop. Holden and Faye may have a diamond ring, but I have an entire store full of them. It’s not a huge space, but we have a storefront in one of the most coveted parts of the city with a stable of chic customers to match. And it’s ours. Sophie and I opened it last year after years of planning; I handle the business side while Sophie masterminds our jewelry design. Running our own business felt like a natural choice after growing up underfoot in Mom and Dad’s store, the largest boating shop in Portland, Maine. When we were young, we loved to hang out after school at the jewelry boutique next to Mom and Dad’s place. Helen, the owner, was like the eccentric, indulgent
aunt I always wanted. She’d let me try on every sparkly thing in the store and tell me stories about her two failed marriages and her romantic dalliances in far-flung destinations. As I got older, I started asking more serious questions about the jewelry: the story behind why she acquired each piece, how she works with customers to create bespoke works of art, and what makes each item so valuable. She taught me that jewelry isn’t just a product; in order for a customer to make a purchase, they have to develop a sentimental attachment to it that goes far beyond the price tag.

Helen retired and shut down her boutique during my senior year of high school. She said she was too old to run the business anymore, and I knew she was right, but I was upset. I missed spending time in the shop with her. It was a pivotal year for me; I was applying to colleges and browsing course catalogs, dreaming up a future for myself. That’s when the first seeds of my idea to open my own jewelry shop began to sprout. Eight years later, Brooklyn Jewels was born.

Grandma and Grandpa each left money for me and Sophie in their wills when they passed. We pooled it to open this store. The first year for any small business is notoriously make-it-or-break-it. We just hoped to stay afloat. We never expected to land the occasional celebrity client or build such a massive following on Instagram (100,000 strong and counting). I use @brooklynjewels as both my professional and personal account—it’s 90 percent jewelry shots with a few personal photos thrown in. Sophie never wanted to be the face of the brand, so I’ve gladly stepped in. We’re even doing well enough that we could afford to hire Jess, our resident sales specialist/ office manager/all-around wizard. She’s Helen’s grandniece. When she got laid off from her position assisting a fashion stylist, we stepped in to hire her as a favor to Helen. The store’s back room is a combination of an office for me and a small production studio for Sophie. My favorite item in the room is Helen’s old leather armchair, and I slump into it. I use a heavy hand to pour myself a drink, and then I pull up Faye’s ring shot again. It looks like an old European-cut diamond on a gold band—small, but surprisingly expensive, since that cut is no longer made. The only available stones in that style are antiques. I try to zoom in to get a better look at the diamond’s quality, but my finger slips and I accidentally graze the “heart” button. Fuck. I liked it. I liked Faye’s engagement announcement.

In desperate times like these, I have a game I like to play. I unlock one of the TL-30 safes in the back. (You can’t get insurance for a fine jewelry business without them. The safe’s door is six inches thick and can survive a continuous half hour of destruction by every imaginable thief’s tool before it’ll break—and the minute it senses damage, it triggers a call to the police.) I select a three-carat, roundcut ring with side stones. It’s not what I’d ever choose for myself, were I really to get engaged (too glitzy, too heavy, too trendy), but I slide it onto my left ring finger anyway. Here’s my dirty secret: when the irony of being a single girl who sells engagement rings for a living becomes too much, I blow off a little steam by making fake engagement announcements. I stage ring shots and pair them with overwrought captions like, “I can’t wait to marry my best friend!” or “ ‘You don’t know how long I’ve waited for you.’ —Stephenie Meyer, Twilight” and pile on hashtags like #engaged, #isaidyes, #waitingforthewedding. Of course, I never actually post any of them; I save them as drafts. It’s like writing a nasty letter to an ex to unload all your feelings, then ripping it into pieces.

But now I need a backdrop—the shop feels too stale. I fling open the front door, stepping out into the twinkling darkness. I splay my left hand out in front of me and use my right hand to snap a picture. The rain has stopped by now, leaving a glinting sheen to the street. Behind my hand, pretty string lights pop. The streetlights cast an angelic glow. Perfect.

I shut the door and return to the cozy armchair. Even after all this time, it still smells faintly of Helen’s perfume. I take a hearty swig of my drink and pull up the photo on Instagram. I up the contrast and saturation and take a second to dream up a schmaltzy caption: “They say when you know, you know . . . and I know I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” I add a red heart emoji for good measure and jab my finger at the screen to triumphantly save the post to my drafts.

It’s silly, but the pressure that’s been building up behind my eyes ever since I left the bar seems to ease up a tiny bit. It’s not fair—I spent the first three years of my twenties in a joke of a relationship, and the next four completely single. It’s not that I’m a leper. But running a business doesn’t exactly leave me with tons of free time or energy to bother much with dating apps. When I do go out on dates, they either fall flat or they just don’t blossom into real relationships.

I have a Word document on my laptop that I’ve been keeping since college, titled “LIL BLACK BOOK <3.” The name seemed cute at eighteen. It’s organized by year, a chronological list of every single guy I’ve gone on a date with. A name gets italicized if we sleep together and bold-faced if I actually like him. Only one name is highlighted in pink: Holden. It means he was actually my boyfriend.

The list is too depressing to look at for long, but I like to keep it up to date so I can scroll through it when I’m old and married and nostalgic for the adventures of my youth. There haven’t been any pink or bold names in ages. Instead, recent dates included Todd, the startup engineer who drinks Soylent instead of having real meals because he claims eating food tanks his efficiency; Marcus, the guy who rambled for four hours straight and then texted that he didn’t feel chemistry because I was “too quiet” for him; and Zachary, who mentioned after we ordered forty dollars’ worth of oysters that he’s saving himself for marriage.

And meanwhile, Holden has apparently found the person he wants to spend the rest of his life with. I was in love with him, once upon a time. It’s not so easy to remember now; so many years
have passed that it feels like recalling the hazy details of a movie I fell asleep halfway through watching. I believe that what I had with Holden was real at the time. But that doesn’t mean it was good, or right, or the kind of love that should last forever.

The music is no longer blasting from upstairs. I lock the ring back in the safe, trudge up to my apartment, and flop down on my own bed. The whiskey lulls me to sleep.