Photo: Adrien. Free to use under Unsplash licence.

As soon as he was in Divij knew it was a lemon. The woman, whose name he avoided looking at, had $28.44 in her current account and $143.16 in savings. A quick scan of transactions showed a prodigious book-buying habit – online, he noticed – and the social habits of a middle-thirties, middle-income, middle-everything woman.

He was about to hoover her savings into Catfish’s bitcoin fund when he noticed a purchase from a bookshop in Portland: Bogar’s Vintage Sci-Fi specialists. He had bought stuff from them. They had a good selection of Thomas M. Disch books, which were hard to get in Uttar Pradesh.

Divij looked over to Catfish’s wrapper-strewn desk. Catfish, whose real name was Saluja, was staring at one of his screens with an avidity which suggested porn. Divij decided to have a quick snoop in the woman’s inbox. He found receipts from more bookshops. She bought science fiction of the pessimistic kind – global pandemics, unpeopled earths, nuclear holocausts. Logic textbooks. Some poetry in Latin. Equally dark-grey philosophy: Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been, Emil Cioran’s The Temptation to Exist, Schopenhauer, Mainländer, Zapffe.

This was a woman who spent $40-50 each Friday night in – he consulted Google Maps – bars and clubs near her work, drinking with colleagues. He checked the transactions again. No spending after 10:30pm, when she paid for a frugal train ride home. No taxi or Uber with someone from a club. No pit-stop at a late-night store for a toothbrush. No breakfast the next morning in cafes distant from her own apartment.

She worked, she went out as expected, she left at the earliest opportunity, she went home to one – no, two – cats, and she read about not existing.

He looked through her emails. Spam from bookshops, animal charities, annual hellos from distant relatives. About every two years, evidence of a relationship which began cordially and petered out.

A hand fell on his shoulder. ‘Anything?’

He hated it when Catfish patrolled the room. It was like being at fucking school. He shook his head. Catfish leaned over his shoulder, reeking of Red Bull, Pringles, and BO. ‘Fuck. What a lemon. Clean sweep and go.’ He landed another clap on the shoulder and slouched off.

Divij watched Catfish’s back with dislike, then opened another tab. He went to the Portland bookstore and, with Catfish’s bitcoin, bought a copy of Disch’s children’s book The Brave Little Toaster. He sent it to her with a card: Lemons like us, it said, are bitter but beautiful.

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