“Ah, darling, it’s been too long,” she said, illuminating with her presence a room not unlike one dreamed up by a kindergartener in their geometric phase who wanted to capture the informed nostalgia of life as depicted in vintage photographs but whose understanding of both causality and color-negative film left something to be desired.

Aileen really popped from her foyer—designers will tell you things Really Pop if they’re in a central area or done up in a contrasting color, though beings who aren’t traditional interior design elements can achieve poppiness through other means, like moving, which is what Aileen was doing now. To pop. She could also make sounds such as “Yeah, I don’t know why we don’t see each other more often. We’re right across the street.”

“Oh, you know,” Claudia shrugged, “busy.”

Summer Lookbook, L to R: this summer, highlight your great bladder control or Queer Eye binge-watching

Clearly ambiguous, Aileen thought, priming herself to extract whatever hid behind Claudia’s shadow of a smile like she would a cockroach from the ear: the harder she tried, the further inward it’d go. Or at least that was the take of the guy who everyone at Aileen’s elementary school loved because he floated through classrooms delivering cautionary tales of horrible fates met by children just like Aileen etc. for fairly innocuous reasons. What stuck with Aileen was a story about a little boy who stuck his oil-and-breading-covered finger in his ear after eating fried chicken, which, while he was sleeping, attracted a cockroach who’d been tricked into thinking there was fried meaty goodness at the end of that organic tunnel rather than the brain and eardrum of a newly traumatized child, and it took several hours and cotton swabs and adults and tears and ounces of rubbing alcohol to coax the bug out. “The cockroach really wanted that fried chicken,” the guy would say, dragging out the word fried and condensing chicken to where it was almost monosyllabic. That line always got delivered at the story’s climax, where both parents were on the case but the roach had dug past cotton-swab-able range. Eventually the roach floated up and out of the ear canal in a sea of rubbing alcohol, but what the alcohol couldn’t do was it couldn’t scrub the memory from the roach-eared boy’s brain, like how Aileen had to live into her forties with the mental image of a scrambling otic roach who really wanted that fried chicken.

“Let’s move to the living room and you can tell me about your trip.” When Aileen walked, the way the legs of her jumpsuit sheared past each other was satisfyingly hypnotic. Matt’s at work, if you’re curious.

Claudia took the scenic route through the bedroom.

“Oh, Aileen, how beautiful! I love what you’ve done with the place.” Claudia was the only burst of summer in a room so quintessentially Aileen it made her feel like a bacterium in a sterile dish. To comment on the living room was mandatory given its shared Jeong-Espinosa-Liu-Jensen history: initially purchased by Mike and Xiyuan, eventually plus Claudia, plus Aileen, plus childproofing, eventually minus half the population to make it a single-family house again; multiple rounds of de-Xiyuan-ification later it had been fully reclaimed by its sole owner. This was a missed opportunity for a white couch, Claudia noted with jealousy. Her couch only escaped becoming a collaborative mixed-media art piece (Juice, Spaghetti, Dog Spittle) because any entropy-increasing addition was covertly soaked in vinegar by the person who would have otherwise ruined Aileen’s.

“Can I get you anything?” Aileen had picked up on Claudia’s discomfort but didn’t try to guess at the source. She wasn’t supposed to project a source, she remembered.

“No.” Yes. Notable in its absence was the bar; no matter how many times Claudia’s eyes found the room’s southeast corner where the bar used to be, it refused to materialize.

A little light pink is ok as long as it’s sparse and minimalist

“So, Selvadorada. Is it as pretty as it is in the pictures?”

“Oh, much more beautiful.” Selvadorada had some personality that couldn’t possibly be communicated by a visual medium, plus the visual medium itself was limited at best: the blues weren’t as heavy and greens weren’t transcendent enough. Selvadorada’s market had conflicting smells that Aileen could replicate at home if she wanted—here outside there’s a bunch of dirt so you can smell dirt, but it’s different dirt, and of course Claudia can eidetically rattle off the ingredients and preparation of every local dish. Claudia’s eyes continued to dart from barless corner to barless corner accompanied by an endless stream of superlatives. Selvadorada reminded Claudia of home in a good way. Her panicky tic didn’t go unnoticed by Aileen. Selvadorada was full of things Aileen would find interesting and inoffensive, and not much else—the fewer close friends one has, the greater the risk of coming off as a sad sack and not being invited to their house anymore.

“I’m going to stop you right there.” Claudia stopped. “It seems like there’s something else going on? Something you’re not telling me?”

“Nothing you need to worry about, darling.”

But Aileen really wanted that chicken. “Look, Claudia—this is my house, and in my house, you don’t have to pretend to be happy all the time. I’m not going to berate you for complaining. You’re allowed to have a crappy time on vacation and not be shamed for it, you know.”

“No, trust me, you don’t want to hear about it. It’s just going to make you unhappy.”

“Well, the only way to make me happy is to tell me what’s going on.”

This caught Claudia off-guard, which let Aileen know she was actually listening. She could converse without speaking where others could speak without conversing. That is, both Aileen and Claudia had been in plenty of so-called exchanges where their conversational partner was happy to simply project on either woman what they believed she would say, freeing them from having to listen to what either woman actually said. Aileen took to writing books so no one could interrupt her. Claudia found her role as a conversational mannequin freeing, in a way, and her vocabulary ran the gamut from ‘oh, how nice’ to ‘ah, que linda.’ But now she was stuck with having to think about what she was saying. Instinctively she suppressed her next breath, a privilege she alone could deny herself. “Aileen, let me ask you something.”

“What?”

“Have you ever seen Mike flirting with anyone?”

Aileen twisted her face in almost comical disgust, remembering years of borderline-inappropriate comments Mike had made on her appearance. She hadn’t said anything. She hadn’t said anything because there are two possibilities: the statements were innocuous or they weren’t. And as long as the first possibility existed, the glass-half-full types had hope to latch onto be it a teaspoon or ocean. That was the problem—not optimists, not pessimists, but people who declare the glass half-empty or half-full before checking the water level. Glass-eighth-empty or -eighth-full, those. “Oh, hell, Claudia, what did he do?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” When Claudia was frustrated, she put more stress on her syllables as well. “What I know is, in Selvadorada, he was flirting with other women right in front of me.”

Getting a direct admission out of Claudia modulated Aileen’s mood up a half-step and generated a radial burst of joy that flung her arms to the sky, which relief she disguised as anger by converting her open palms to fists halfway through their downward arc. “That bastard!” Her fists landed on her thighs. “In front of you? And Hector? On a family vacation?”

“I know, right?” Claudia’s voice was re-rising in audacity, the sheer audacity. “They were two random strangers! Right in front of my eyes. I just started thinking, what does he do when I’m not there? You know? You know what I’m saying?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more you don’t know about. That’s not unlike him.”

“Well—” here Claudia self-interrupted, “—he’s not all that bad. He’s been such a good husband and father for a very long time.” Mike had told her this, and Mike’s experience was valid. So to speak, her ear was half-full of roach. Filled with half a roach. “But I tell you, Aileen, something changed. You went through this with Xiyuan, right?”

“Kind of, if you ignore temperament and gender.”

“So like, were there signs? Did he start behaving differently?”

“I mean, Claudia, you’ve heard the story, and your situation is totally different. What do you get out of understanding what happened with that man?”

Information our magpie-brains compel us to collect. The peace of mind that comes from knowing a situation is well-studied. “I’m just trying to learn in order to come up with a plan.”

“Oh! That, I can help with.” If Claudia really wanted, she could take one of Aileen’s texts from the bookshelf on the right. Claiming Control: How to Regain the Reins and Reap your Gains was stuffed with empowering language to compel her out of her seat. Or there was He Said, You Said, encouraging her to trust her perception at least as much as she does Mike’s, ideally higher if she updates her prior to reflect one party’s unreliable narration. Absent from the shelf was How to Fix Your Relationship with Mike Jeong Specifically: Claudia This is for You Read This One, but if there were something akin to zodiac signs for jackass husbands she might have been able to use it. “I have the guest room upstairs—if you need it—and of course, I’m always here to listen.”

The answer to a question no one asked: yes, I did pull both self-help book titles out of my ass in under a minute. Another answer: yes, there are a bunch of those in every chapter. Another answer: ‘Steaming some hams’ for checking out someone’s butt. How did that not catch on? If not The Watcher, let that catch on. What a damn shame.

“Guest room?! Thirty-five years*, Aileen! We’ve been together for thirty-five years*!”

“So?”

“You really think it’s unfixable after thirty-five years*?”

“I didn’t say ‘unfixable.’ I’m just saying, I have extra space if you need it.”

If I need it. That would be my absolute last resort.” Her voice softened. “Ok, look, I’m not an idiot. I know I can just leave. What I’m asking, what I’m really asking, is what the steps in between are. What I can do to fix things.”

“Claudia, please. That’s not your responsibility. You’re not the one causing problems. You can’t fix them alone.”

“So you’re saying there’s nothing I can do?”

“No, just that you can’t control him. You can only control yourself.” Aileen’s input got less specific as she started to lean on previous works. “You’re thinking about what’s best for you and Mike as a couple. Is Mike doing that? If not, there are two people looking out for him and only one looking out for you. And if he’s flirting with other women he’s clearly not. You want to even things out, either he has to give up the benefits of this one-sided relationship or you have to stop making excuses for him.”

Even things out. The words rang in Claudia’s head. “Ok, I see what you’re saying—I have to accept that I can’t control everything—“

“—Yes!”

“And I can’t control him—“

“—Yes!”

“And I can’t trust that he has my best interests at heart—“

“—Yes!”

“And so then what’s the best thing for me to do?”

“That’s what I can’t tell you. You know who tells you what to believe?” Claudia shook her head. “Manipulators. Manipulators like Mike whose biggest threat is you acting in your own interest. People who respect you trust you to choose what’s best.”

New or intermittent readers, only one converser is on the very, very short list of adult main characters who *haven’t* cheated

“But aren’t you a self-help author?”

“Yes—and that’s why it’s called self-help, not giving advice from on high.” Two book-related data clicked in Aileen’s mind. “Oh! I forgot! I have this present for you.”

Claudia perked up at the word ‘present’ and was surprised when Aileen dropped a book in her lap. She wouldn’t admit it but her archetypal image of a present was a cheerfully wrapped cubeish box with a loopy ribbon. This wasn’t it. Hardcover, no title, nondescript. Black, of course, if it was one of Aileen’s. “What’s this?”

“It’s called the Book of Life, and it’s bound to only you. A compendium of Claudia.” She’d already delivered the Showcase of Shu, and was secretly glad she and Xiyuan were on shaky terms because she couldn’t come up with anything for that. “If you’re ever feeling alone, or worthless, or like no one cares for you, read this. There are so many people who love you. This is proof.”

“Aileen, how beautiful. Thank you.” Claudia caught a tear on her left pointer knuckle. “I love it, but I don’t know how it’s going to make this any easier.”

“And I’m doing my best to make this as easy as possible for you—but just like you can’t control Mike, I can’t control how you feel. Just think about it. Or, I mean,” she scoffed, “you can also ask my ex. The expert cheater.”

“That’s all you can do?”

“That’s it.”

“Then tell me this, Aileen. What would you do if you were me?”

“Easy,” she said, drawing on years of adultery experience. “Dump the bastard.”


*converted from Sim time to human time

Enjoy the half-chap, folks. As we reach the end of the year, I want to say how grateful I am for each and every one of you. I can’t express how honored I am that even one other person would spend time reading this. CT truly does have a special place in my heart: I laugh uncontrollably while writing it, I break down; I knock myself back and build myself up. It’s given me purpose on my worst days. No matter how you got here or why you read, thank you. Thank you for joining me in this messed-up world. May your holiday be the exact opposite of Guide Me, North Star.

Unlike Mike (Part I)
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15 thoughts on “Unlike Mike (Part I)

  • December 25, 2019 at 9:33 am
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    This story brings me many happy hours… the hours I read it, the hours I think about it, and the hours I anticipate the next chapter!

    And, Claudia! Geez! I thought you already decided to leave him already! Wasn’t that the big thing of the vacation? Well, I guess life’s not like a novel. We don’t just have a revelation and get over it.

    You know what would help Claudia? If she forgot about Mike and went off to find Charlie!

    Happy holidays! Hope the wit and humor and intelligence of your writing fill every day with, well… wit, humor, and intelligence, and all the love you feel for these beautiful confused characters!

    Reply
    • December 25, 2019 at 8:44 pm
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      Yeah, she didn’t decide on any course of action during the vacation. She’s just not turning a blind eye to Mike’s cockwombelry anymore.

      And happy holidays back! Thank you for all your priceless comments and loving these guys as much as I do. (Though I think they’d love you more; if they met me, they’d probably ask what the hell is wrong with me.)

      Reply
      • December 26, 2019 at 9:00 am
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        I’m not so sure…. They’d probably be wondering why I was unsure of what to do with my hands and why I was watching the wren flitting in the bushes instead of looking at them when they talked.

      • December 26, 2019 at 11:00 pm
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        Nothing wrong with that! None of them are particularly judgmental, either—unless the Lius find out that Wicked Whims and Basemental exist and their jerkass creator refuses to download either.

      • December 27, 2019 at 9:37 am
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        LOL! I’ve seen Wicked Whims lead astray many a legacy! Oh my. Remove the pixelated nudity filter, and I quickly lose one more work-break reading source!

        And, on a different note, your latest chapter identified for me a dominant theme in this series, which is the effect of projections on relationships. This is intensely personally relevant for me, as I’m in the process of calling back and integrating the projections I’ve heaped on others. For a native Romantic like me, removing those rosy glasses and striving to clearly see the other as Thou, to discover who they are without the shades of my projection, is quite a startling and sometimes frightening experience, and to discover the actual nature of love, not romance, that exists beyond projection has became remarkably liberating. And I realized yesterday that reading Chaos Theory has been, perhaps, an instigator of this very profound, and much needed, experience.

      • December 29, 2019 at 12:37 am
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        This is seriously amazing to hear and, I swear, you’re the ideal reader. “Why the heck are these Sims making so many bad decisions? Oh, wait… I do that…”

      • December 29, 2019 at 9:27 am
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        LOL! Yes, that moment of self-recognition… I’m finding it often in your story!

  • February 9, 2020 at 7:43 pm
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    I’m back in the swing of things! And first, let me say, that cockroach/fried chicken imagery is going to stay with me forever. Second, I love the description of the lifecycle of Aileen’s house. And third, I am so here for Aileen’s real talk, my god Claudia, WAKE UP HUNTY.

    Alright, I’m done screaming at fictional characters that I am way too invested in.

    Reply
    • February 9, 2020 at 10:33 pm
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      Well, you’ve got a couple more people in-universe who’ll join you in screaming at Claudia!

      And welcome back! I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS ON THAT BAKING SHOW.

      Reply
  • June 16, 2020 at 12:34 pm
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    “What stuck with Aileen was a story about a little boy who stuck his oil-and-breading-covered finger in his ear after eating fried chicken, which, while he was sleeping, attracted a cockroach who’d been tricked into thinking there was fried meaty goodness at the end of that organic tunnel rather than the brain and eardrum of a newly traumatized child, and it took several hours and cotton swabs and adults and tears and ounces of rubbing alcohol to coax the bug out.” – This is literally my nightmare, oh my god. And it’s not even an earworm but an actual fucking cockroach, the animal I fear the absolute most in the whole fucking world… nah, man.
    Man, that living room evolution made me realize just how far you already got with these families. Isn’t that the awesome part about stories like ours that have actual gameplay value and aren’t just all about poses and screenshots and nothing more? I love these kinds of stories infinitely more… they feel much more alive to me.
    Also love how you’re allowing these ladies to age. Makes me feel much more like I’m on an actual journey with ’em! Such is the con of having a whole bunch of (basically only) immortal Generation 1 Sims, because you’re too weak to watch them grow old and die. I applaud you for not being a wussy like me! Do you play on a Normal or Long lifespan?
    I thought it was interesting to get to see Claudia’s perspective as she related the whole Mike thing to Aileen. Theyve been together for 35 years… man, I applaud this woman so fucking much to have dealt with a man like that for 35 fucking years. I always do wonder if at some point, you just like, get used to living like this and even though you know you would be much happier with someone else you just, like, can’t be bothered to go through the hassle of change to get there. What’s that word, again? Routine. It’s the thing that frightens me most about like, actual proper adulthood. Guess I’m not totally unlike Shu in that regard.
    Bro, did Aileen really just give Claudia the Book of Life?! That is some gift, holy fucking shit. That is not the actual Writing aspiration reward Book of Life, is it? Man… I need me an Aileen in my game that can give out that kinda shit to my own Sims… that’s cool as fuck.

    Reply
    • June 17, 2020 at 2:19 pm
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      Yep, the Book-of-Life Book of Life! The real deal. Aileen’s a Bestselling Author and she won’t be the only one.

      You know, I’m hoping the Sims format lets me break even further away from traditional story structure than I’m already doing: like, you can imagine a whole spin-off series where Shu and Chantel and Kendra have young-people adventures and it ends on a high note, but this is a story about trying to build a narrative around something that doesn’t fit into a narrative structure. It’s explicitly about each of the characters’ relationships with death. The plan is to end it when the last character in the original six dies, and because Shu is the youngest, the last chapter of the whole thing is most likely going to be his death. Which means I have to write Shu not only as his current self, but as a middle-aged man, and possibly an old fart. Can you imagine old Shu?!

      That’s why I’m leaning on the gameplay for clues, which, as you said, is a good strategy for these idiots. Catastrophe Theory wouldn’t even be here if SOMEONE with a very specific fetish and zero self-control had free will turned off. And I’m digging your relationship with Shu in particular, how you keep identifying with the guy but also can’t bring yourself to like him. Yes! Bring the readers into the disaster relationships!

      What’s funny is I play so rarely with everything else going on that I have to update the game basically every time I open it. And when I update the game, it messes up the aging. So currently I have aging turned off because (a) Book II happens over the span of a couple months and (b) at some point, switching from Long to Normal and back and forth (not by me) chewed 4–6 weeks off of everyone’s life.

      Good call on Mike’s treatment of Claudia becoming routine—but more on that later. This story has a lot to say about the nature of abuse. “Routine” works, and “sunk cost fallacy” may also have been at the tip of your tongue.

      Reply
  • August 15, 2020 at 1:42 am
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    Ha, silly me would have thought the near death experience would be the life changing experience rather than the flirting husband that she’s had this barely existing relationship with for years. But I’m going to say that it was the near death experience that actually made her take a step back and reevaluate her marriage – though of coirse having your husband hit on someone right in front of you would do that to. Either way, Claudia has returned from Selvadorada a little bit different, and I’m glad for that.

    I’m enjoying seeing more of Claudia and Aileen together, I feel like they have more in common then they realise. Let’s hope this is a beginning of a beautiful friendship, Grace and Frankie style. (I know they’ve known each other for years, but based on their exchange here it doesn’t look like they haven’t gone beyond surface layer much up till now).

    The self help book titles made me laugh.

    “you can’t control him. You can only control yourself.” Sound advice Aileen. I’m hoping her words and the house remodel mean that she’s actually in a better place these days, not that she’s even better on outting on a mask and continues to distract herself.

    Reply
    • August 15, 2020 at 1:44 am
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      Oh, I forgot to mention the books of life – that’s awfully nkce of Aileen. I wonder what significance they’ll have as the story continues.

      Reply
    • August 20, 2020 at 1:35 pm
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      Hahaha, you can blame the friendship on my still-developing narrative style; Aileen’s finally breaking through Claudia’s defenses! And yes, a Grace-and-Frankie-style spinoff would be awesome—and a little on-the-nose, given their ex-husbands’ relationship.

      Reply

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