by Christine Olivas
When Karen arrived, she responded to her client through the app—In line at Tim Ho Wan. You have nothing to worry about. Enjoy your afternoon! She then went to the end of the already-long queue, opened her portable chair, and sat down. Her legs were tired from the rush to arrive, and it was a temporary relief to be off her feet. To her right, a couple waited. Even though their hands interlocked, they were in the midst of debate, loudly whispering back and forth.
Just an hour before, when she had arrived at home after a longer-than-usual work day, she considered staying put, but when her phone flashed with a familiar icon, she was compelled to look, so she kept her shoes on and swiped to view the details of the possible assignment.
Task from Rebecca J.: Wait in line for us at Tim Ho Wan
Description: Please wait in line for us at Tim Ho Wan starting at 3pm (they open at 5).
Text us when you are about 20 minutes from the front (5 or so deep).
Karen had never accepted a task to wait in line, even though it was the most commonly requested. She worried it would trap her, forcing extended interactions with others. But she was restless, and constant activity had become her default, so she overcame her hesitations by humanizing Rebecca J. Perhaps she was someone in need. Maybe she and her husband were industrious people with a large family, this was their anniversary dinner, they couldn’t afford to leave work early. Maybe she was older and she couldn’t be on her feet for such a long time.
Convinced, Karen tapped to accept the job and gathered her things. As she headed back out, she exchanged texts with her mother.
Dinner with dad and me tonight?
I can’t…I’m working
Still at the office?
No I’m doing TaskRabbit
Karen! you never make time for fun
In fact, while the whole world brunched, Karen got paid for rote jobs. As her friends painstakingly photo-documented their outings, curating collages of promiscuous egg yolks and kissy faces, Karen ran around New York, completing tasks for people she barely knew.
Hey! Bottomless mimosas this weekend? her friend would text her.
Ugh! I wish, Karen would respond. I have too much to do.
Of course she needed extra money for her age-appropriate commitments—student loan payments for a degree she never used, an apartment in a decent neighborhood, sufficient contributions to her 401k—but her side gigs served another purpose. By doing one-time work for others, she could participate in their lives without engulfment or loss.
Early one recent Saturday morning, she had accepted a task to help two adult siblings empty out their deceased mother’s home. The brownstone was palatial, with fresh flowers cascading down the stairs, but the walls were mottled with tobacco stains and the closet corners damp from mouse urine. As they opened each dusty box, the siblings bickered out loud as if she were invisible.
“Wear a mask,” the brother said. “You’re so stubborn.”
“It won’t help,” said the sister, rubbing reddening eyes. “That’s not the problem.” “The fact that you were closer doesn’t make you better.”
She sneezed violently. “No. But it means I tried.”
The brother drew closer with extended arms, and the sister tentatively accepted his embrace. Karen watched them from the other side of the couch and imagined squeezing between them, their bodies securing her in place.
The sister turned her head. “Oh, sorry. You can leave now. Thanks for your help.”
Karen stopped staring. “I’ll be on my way,” she said. “Best of luck to both of you.”
An hour later, Karen delivered diapers to new parents. She stood in their doorway while the visibly exhausted mom fished in her purse for a tip, cursing under her breath, and the dad clutched the baby in his arms. Before Karen turned to leave, he let his eyes land on her chest, then lowered his gaze to the floor, narrowly escaping his wife’s observation. When Karen took the elevator to the lobby, she glided past the doorman with a light step, affirmed and invincible.
After sitting down in line outside Tim Ho Wan, Karen texted her mother back, evading her critique.
Where are you guys? want to stop by and say hi?
Soon, Karen confronted her mother’s disapproval. “You’ll never find a husband if you’re always running around,” she said, balancing a Styrofoam container with greasy beige selections and one small compartment with salad greens. Her mother was a thin woman, but her eating habits were excessive, and Karen wondered whether she would eventually explode.
“We went to the deli so we could come see you,” her father said as he sipped a club soda with a straw and held out his hand to keep his wife’s tray from tipping. “Your mother was worried.”
Her mother dug her fork into her piled-high starches. “I mean, Karen. You’re almost forty. You shouldn’t let what happened with Josh keep you from settling down.”
In the beginning, Josh, her boyfriend from her 20s, challenged her in unfamiliar ways. When she’d create distance in dramatic ways, delaying responses to his texts or loudly flirting with other men at a bar, he’d call her out. “I know you’re scared,” he’d say. “But pushing me away won’t help.” In other moments, she would react to a perceived slight with disproportionate tears, and Josh would respond with compassionate firmness. “Karen. I’m guessing this is about something else. Would you like to talk about it?” After each interaction, she wanted him more, erotically charged by his strength.
Over time, though, Josh lost his edge, and Karen grew tired. She asked him where they should go to dinner, and he responded, “Wherever you want.” On long car trips, when she complained about being stuck in a closed space, he squeezed her knee in a grandfatherly gesture. Soon before they broke up, she lay there after their first sexual encounter in a long time, legs splayed open, letting out farts. “You’re adorable,” he said.
A few weeks later, when her period was late, he wrapped her in a familial embrace, whispering sickly condolences—“I’m here for you no matter what” and “It’ll work out as long we’re together.” Even though the test was negative, she vomited to exorcise the idea.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said one word at a time, leaving space for Josh to fight back. Instead, he leaned back against the kitchen counter, crossed his arms in defeat.
She pleaded. “I just don’t feel anything anymore.”
“I don’t understand. We’re closer than we’ve ever been. But if that’s what you want.”
Since then, she intentionally kept her romantic encounters brief, soaking up the adrenaline rush of new-skin contact. Because of Josh, she had decided that the high of shared unfamiliarity would always transform to grotesque, familial intimacy.
Her mother moved closer to Karen in line, nearly bumping into a man who had queued up behind her. She leaned over and craned her neck toward Karen as if to reveal a secret. “You know, it might help if you didn’t sleep with every guy you met right away.”
“What the hell?” Karen yelled. The couple in front of her turned around, distracted by someone else’s drama. Her father, always content to avoid conflict, had moved to the street corner, where he stood still, observing passerbys.
“Sorry,” her mother said. “Look, it’s not about sex. Just let people get to know you.”
“I don’t want to be like you and Dad.”
Her mother backed away a step. “Alright, alright. I give up.”
“How’s your lunch?” Karen asked.
“This is delicious,” her mother said, macaroni gobbed with cheese teetering from her plastic fork. “What a treat. Well, I guess we’ll be on our way now.”
She blew a kiss in the air as she floated away. “Good luck, sweetie.”
“You too,” Karen said, turning her attention to her phone, which lit with dating app notifications, tasks to be competed for.
“Excuse me. Have you been here before?”
Karen looked up to her left at the man leaning against the restaurant window, his Kindle in the crook of his arm. With combed hair and slender arms, he was neither handsome nor offensive; his only standout feature was the crimson in his cheeks, which spread into mottled pink as she looked at him like food coloring in water.
“I haven’t,” she said. “But I hear it’s great.”
“It’s the only dim sum restaurant in North America with a Michelin star,” he said wide- eyed. His hair was flecked with gray, but Karen guessed he was no more than thirty. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Seems like you’ve had enough excitement for the day.”
“Not at all.” Karen looked down at her phone. “I hope you enjoy.”
She put in her earbuds but didn’t turn on any music. This way, she could hear but not participate—an auditory voyeur. On her right, the couple argued again, this time about the translation of dim sum.
“It means ‘touching someone in their heart,” the woman said, her face close to his.
“That’s a stretch,” the man said. “It’s just the act of ordering small snacks.”
“But the Mandarin characters literally mean ‘point’ plus ‘heart.’ I like how intimate it is.”
The man made a scoffing noise. “Only forty-five more minutes. I’m starving.”
The blush-face man to her left spoke once again. “I shouldn’t have apologized for talking to you before.”
“I’m sorry?” Karen asked. She forgot to pretend that music was playing.
“I’m not,” he said. “You made me feel like a weirdo.”
Karen felt a jitter rise in her chest. “I’m not here to make friends.”
His eyes wandered to her mouth, as if to name her a fraud. For the first time in a while, she was conscious of her presentation. She let her lips separate, then close again to hide her teeth, then fall back apart. “Do what you have to do,” he said. “Seems you want to be alone. I won’t stand in your way.”
She watched him turn away and open his book. Even though he was no longer watching her, she felt exposed, so she turned her attention to her phone and a recent text from last night’s date.
Last night was fun…
That time, it was tall Tom, with a light scent of fabric softener. From his online profile— Likes: whiskey, traveling, my English bulldog, no bullshit—Karen knew he would share her distaste for closeness. When they finished their first round and asked a few boilerplate questions, they grew restless. She moved her barstool closer, and he whispered in her ear, “I want to fuck.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s all I want.”
They climbed the narrow stairs of her apartment and had foreplay-free sex on the couch. It was focused, mechanically perfect, his condom-sheathed penis in and out, even when her phone dinged and buzzed on the coffee table.
“I’ll call you?” he asked as he dressed to leave, hopping up and down on one leg.
She fiddled with her phone, her bare breasts spread across her chest. “Sounds good.”
“You look hot lying there,” he said. “Want to do it again?”
Karen watched his face, observed his unthreatening charm. “Alright,” she said and pulled her skirt up around her waist.
He climbed on top of her and entered her, this time without protection, his head above and behind hers, so she could focus on the sensation. As she built toward climax, Karen noticed his natural scent breaking through, saccharin-sour, like sweet grilled onions. Then he began to moan, submissive sounds, needier than the first time. “That’s enough,” she said, wriggling out from underneath him.
“What? What just happened?” he said, voice strained like a pitiful, pleading child. Karen scrolled through her alerts: messages from other men, a voicemail from her mother, five possible tasks. “You’re a nice guy,” she said. “But please leave.”
When the restaurant opened, the line started moving, snaking around the building, and soon, Karen could only see the couple, and a few other people, in front of her. She messaged her client: Down to 7 or so. Are you close?
Within seconds, a response appeared on her screen: Rebecca J.: Thanks! We actually had people waiting in a ton of different lines but thank you. Will tip well.
Karen grabbed her chair and tucked it under her arm, preparing to leave. The back of her eyes began to well up, which surprised and confused her. She was used to being abandoned by strangers; why was this time different?
“You’re not going to give up now, are you?” said the man beside her. “You’ll really be missing out.”
She avoided his glance. “I was waiting for someone else.”
“Go in,” he said, smiling in anticipation. “Just try the barbecued pork buns. Then you can leave. You can leave once you try the buns.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said, tears still building behind her eyes. “I don’t even know if I like dim sum.”
“How could you?” His voice was tender, self-assured.
“I guess I couldn’t.”
He locked eyes with her as a single drop escaped, then turned to enter the restaurant. “Good choice,” he said. “See you inside.”
Karen rested the folding chair against the wall in the waiting area. The hostess returned from seating the man and looked her up and down. “Three? Yes?”
“It will just be me,” Karen said.
“Oh,” the hostess said, with a look to her assistant. “Next time, you have to tell us.”
The assistant walked Karen to her table, positioned right next to the man, who had already placed the menu on the corner of the table. “Well,” Karen said, as she sat down, leaning her chair against the table leg and unfolding the maroon napkin into her lap. She needed to re- assemble, to regain her composure. “Looks like us singles get our own section.”
He laughed like a burp. “We’re eating alone together.”
Around them, the restaurant was teeming with life: bartenders pouring carafes of steaming sake, large groups reaching over each other to get the last piece of something, old women with carts who lifted the lids of their baskets to reveal steaming wares. One of them passed by and the man flagged her over.
Her mother always over-ordered, leaving the family with a fridge full of leftovers. Once, she and her parents had gone to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant to celebrate her high marks in tenth grade. Karen had gotten her favorite—Moo Shu pork—and her dad, trying to manage heart problems, had ordered steamed broccoli and white meat chicken with no oil.
When the waiter got to her mother, her list of items was so long that he grabbed his notepad and scribbled to keep up. Thirty minutes later, he was still scrambling, packing up every item to go, including delicate sauces in tiny plastic containers. Karen was embarrassed by her mother’s excess, but her father was impressed, beaming. “You always enjoy yourself, honey,” he said as he leaned over to give his wife wet kisses.
The man noticed Karen’s hesitation. “Four orders of pork buns, please. Two for her, two for me.”
Karen studied the buns, globes on the plate, gleaming with glaze.
“Try them,” he said, cheeks flushing again. “But don’t eat too fast. You’ll miss something.”
She opened wide, biting off half of the first bun. She experienced the tastes in order— sweet, shiny coating, fluffy warm dough, then tender pork bits floating in tangy barbeque sauce—and when she finished, she sighed. Her stomach had rounded over her waistband and she tugged at the elastic; she wasn’t used to feeling this full.
The man smiled. “I’m glad you liked them. But there’s more.”
“I can’t imagine what’s next,” she said.
He nodded towards her phone on the little table. “You’re going to want to move that. You’ll need the room.”
So they ate, side-by-side, him choosing the plates and directing her what to try in what order. She tried delicate Har How, cellophane skin tearing at the slightest touch, and wrinkled Siu Mai, bursting with pure, sweet shrimp. Then she tasted floral-scented lotus-wrapped rice, and chicken feet, chewy, collagenic, forcing her to slow down. And just when she thought she would burst, he ordered a variety of desserts: French toast with custard, steamed egg cake—light, subtly sweet and so fluffy it seemed still to be rising. They spoke only to comment on a flavor or texture, but Karen felt him freeing her, felt herself letting go.
When she had taken her last bite and their tables were empty, save stains of grease and speckles of sauce across the tablecloths, she asked a passing server for her check.
“Someone already paid,” the server said. “Thank you again, sir.”
“Thank you,” Karen said to the man, and she wondered for the first time what he expected in return.
“It’s my pleasure,” he said. “I’m glad we had this time.”
She studied his face, crumbs beneath his nose, brown sauce smeared on his cheek and a slick of oil across his chin. What would it mean to accept him at his word?
“You should stay a little longer,” he said.
“I have to go. I have work to do.”
He swiped the back of his hand across his lips and laughed. “Always racing to the next thing.”
“That’s how it is,” Karen said, standing to collect her things and checking her phone. “We don’t have a choice.”
“It’s just a few minutes,” he said. “Let it settle.”
She lowered herself back down, feeling her weight on the chair. She thought of Rebecca J. and her dining partner, successful and unstable, wondering all night if they had chosen the right restaurant. She smiled at the idea of the man, still there by her side. Leaning back, she placed her palm on her rounded belly.
Christine Olivas is an emerging writer who completed her certificate in fiction from UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, as well as workshops offered by Catapult, Sackett Street and Blue Stoop. She served as a judge for the Scholastic Teen Writing Awards, and her short fiction can be found in Paper Darts, Breakwater Review, Alternating Current, Aptly and Pure Slush. See more of her work at www.christineolivaswriting.com.