Excerpt

Touch

Courtney Maum

May 26, 2017 
The following is from Courtney Maum’s novel, Touch. Touch follows Sloane Jacobsen, one of the world's most powerful trend forecasters, who believes that having children is an extravagant indulgence. Courtney Maum is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. She currently works as a product namer for companies like M·A·C cosmetics and Target.

Sloane Jacobsen was living in a world without peanuts. As the Air France hostess busied herself in the first class cockpit tipping prosecco into plastic flutes, Sloane bemoaned the protocol keeping her from her favorite snack. Someone had an allergy—might have an allergy—so it was a no-go on all nut products. Normally, her future-focused mind would have started speculating—how would the normalization of food sensitivities impact consumer habits in the coming years? But instead, she just felt saddened that the current state of geopolitics expected people’s worst. Someone might also use their wineglass to puncture the pilot’s jugular so airlines had banned all drinkware made of glass, too.

The stewardess, not French—“Carly,” read her nametag—served Sloane a drink along with a single slice of cucumber and a mauve wedge of something masquerading as foie gras. Yes, the world was a simpler, kinder place when Sloane could still eat nuts in public.

She peered into the confines of the egg-shaped bunker where her companion, Roman, was reading an article in the travel section of a newspaper: “The Mediterranean: Is There Anywhere Safe Left to Go?”

“Is there?” Sloane asked, toeing his heel to get his attention.

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“Is there what?” he said, looking at her through the eyeglasses he wore more for aesthetic reasons than anything having to do with sight.

“Anywhere safe left to go?”

“Oh,” he said, giving the paper a shake so it stood with better posture. “Portugal, apparently.”

She scoffed. “But that’s not in the Mediterranean.”

“That’s true.” Roman shrugged. “Then I guess not.” He flipped the page over as if to inspect it. “It’s not a very good article,” he said, continuing to read it.

Sloane reclined her seat and stared at the domed ceiling, beyond which was pure, unoxygenated sky. Flying wasn’t easy when you were a trend forecaster. Sloane had a spongy sensitivity to her environment that only deepened when she flew. She felt itchy, ill at ease. It annoyed her, that article. Although she was in the business of looking for the next big things, it was nonetheless exhausting, the greed for the undiscovered, the novel, the new new. Lisbon wasn’t “new” of course—it was one of the oldest cities in the world, predating even Paris—but it had been anointed by travel editors as the new Berlin.

Sloane tried to calm herself, quell the negativity—she could watch a movie too. Given the excessive in-flight entertainment selection, she could watch anything she wanted. But she couldn’t rid herself of a snaking anxiety. Something was wrong. Not wrong like the last time she’d been airborne, when she’d felt such a current of foreboding she wondered if “see something, say something” could include “getting a bad vibe,” and thirty-three minutes into the flight plan, the plane was hit by lightning. It shook, it nosed. People screamed. It righted. No, this offness was nothing like that. This was internal, a mechanical error inside of her. She needed more vitamins, probably. Vitamin D.

Beside her, Roman had given up reading about the travel impacts of the European debt crisis and was scrolling through the airline’s film choices, his finger guiding him to “New Releases.” Sloane knew with neon certainty that Roman would pick Pitch Perfect 3. His Americaphilism was nondiscriminatory: fleece sportswear, SUVs, Sub-Zero refrigerators, discount superstores, the viralism of American patriotism (flags sprouting up in window boxes and front lawn patches after grim events), pop culture, online culture—he was taken by it all. To someone like Roman, trained to look for signs and signifiers in every experience, romantic comedies held the key to understanding the American way of life. Being inordinately excited about a cappella music was apparently step one.

While Roman went starry-eyed at the Universal Pictures logo spinning on his screen, Sloane pulled the customs immigration forms out of her seat pocket, remembering how the stewardess’s eyebrows had arched when she had asked for two. One per family, Carly had repeated, certain that the polished people before her were espoused. Yes, well. In Paris, traditional marriage was about as popular as private health care. Roman and Sloane had been together ten years. His name was on her electric bill, but they were never having children; their careers were their children, there you had it. In fact, their careers had been boosted by their joint decision not to breed. The famous American forecaster and the Frenchy intellectual—“The couple who has everything, except kids” (Le Figaro, July 2013); “The Ultimate Anti-Mom” was the headline of a recent profile of Sloane in British Vogue (“Reproduction is akin to ecoterrorism,” she’d been quoted in that particular mag). It had been the interview hour’s fault—three p.m., her worst time. Low blood sugar, doldrums. She and the bouncy journalist, the chardonnay had been cheap.

Ecoterrorism. Yeah—it was a good thing that Sloane’s family didn’t read much. Or maybe they’d developed an interest in European fashion glossies since she’d last seen them three years ago—she wasn’t in a position to know. But per her sister’s annual Fourth of July newsletter (yes, she actually did this), Leila was pregnant with her third kid. In the wake of their father’s death when Leila was eighteen and Sloane twenty-two, Leila—not Sloane—Had turned out to be the family success story. She’d fought back death with birth.

Sloane had made predictions that had revolutionized the tech industry—she’d presaged the symbolism of roots to the food industry before 9/ 11, predicted the now ubiquitous touch–​screen gesture, the swipe. She’d lectured and consulted and symposiumed in thirty-seven countries to date, she owned an apartment in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, had the kinds of friends known by their first names only. A lot of people cared about the life that she’d constructed. She used to, too.

Roman tapped the screen to pause the inanity before him. “Did you do this?” he asked too loudly, headphones still on.

Sloane put a finger to her lips before she answered; passengers were sleeping. “Do what?”

“Sing with girls?”

She narrowed her eyes. “No.”

“And the boys sing, too? And they’re popular?”

Despite herself, she laughed. “A cappella wasn’t cool when I was in college,” she said. “It was made cool by a TV show called Glee.”

Roman’s eyebrows arched. “Everyone knows Glee.”

Sloane bristled against this new dismissiveness. Roman knew everything about everything now that he was a cyber star. For a trend forecaster, it was unfortunate that she preferred the old version of her boyfriend to Roman 2.0.

When they’d first met, Roman had been a brainy market researcher for the consumer goods company Unilever in France. She’d been immediately taken by his inventive wit and a kind of bemused composure that she’d later identify as optimism, unusual for the French. They’d met at a focus group for a new line of male soap. The consumer feedback had been useless (“I want something that smells like charcoal, but also good, like soap,” was one example), but when Roman bid the industry suits good​bye, he did so with a perfectly delivered antanaclasis: “I don’t know what I’ll wash with, gentlemen, but I wash my hands of this.” He’s a little pompous, Sloane remembered thinking. But he sure seems like fun.

These days, he was mostly pompous. Roman had transitioned out of market research into professional punditism: delivering lectures across Europe on the shifting paradigms of touch. He’d even coined a term for his research: neo–sensualism. Making him a “neo-sensualist”—the term had stuck. Between his op-eds on how physicality was changing in a digitalized world and his increasingly colorful online presence, Roman had claimed a place for himself among Europe’s intelligentsia. But once he incorporated the Zentai suit into his social media feed and presentations? The match of Internet stardom was lit.

The first time Sloane saw Roman in the seamless bodysuit that hallmarked the Japanese practice, it had been in their Paris kitchen, and the only word for what came tumbling out of her mouth was a guffaw. The bodysuit was integral—there weren’t any holes for the eyes or the mouth, the whole thing was entered into by a tiny little slit. When it was put on properly, it looked like the wearer’s body had been dipped in liquid pewter.

“You look like a superhero,” Sloane had said, glancing up from her work at the freaky figure by the fridge. “What’s it for?”

What’s it for? The phrase chagrined her now, she’d been so sure that the donning of the suit was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Something for a panel. A crowd-pleaser. Clickbait.

“The Zentai suit is fascinating,” Roman had said, gliding his hands down his body. “It’s an invitation—and a refusal, no? It presents the body as an anonymous thing that can be contemplated, but never truly accessed.” He moved his arms behind his weirdo head. “I’ve found my avatar.”

And so it seems he had. At an American university, Roman probably would have been fired for delivering a lecture in fetishwear, but in Paris he was celebrated: the form of it met his new function, which was to speculate about sensuality in the digital age. He presented the suit as a conduit for temptation and refusal. “You can see how far the implications could go,” he was fond of saying. “Birth control, affairs.”

“Affairs?” she remembered asking.

“If it’s nonpenetrative, nontactile, can it be considered cheating?”

Sloane rested her head against the airplane window, ice-cold to the touch. If anything, Roman was being unfaithful with his telephone. Right before they’d left for America, the popular French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur had done a profile on him: “Touché: A Day in the Life of the Neo-Sensualist, Roman Bellard,” and his cell phone had been ringing and pinging and vibrating ever since. A six-page photo spread accompanied the write-up, Roman doing the daily things of any working Parisian: reading the news at a kiosk, sniffing melons at the outdoor market, strolling through a park. Difference here was that Roman was doing these things in a skintight Zentai suit.

Traipsing about town in his metallic gold one, riding the metro, contemplating the Seine. The alleged elegance and nonchalance with which Roman appropriated fetish custom thrilled the bougie masses. Overnight, his Instagram account became supercharged. Two hundred thousand, four hundred thousand: Sloane had stopped checking before she saw it reach a five.

Back in Paris, they’d often consulted together (the local media referred to them as a duo de choc! which struck her as a charmingly juvenile way of saying “power couple”), but she’d been covetous—and secretive—about her assignment at the tech giant Mammoth that had summoned her back to the United States for half a year. Discretion was tantamount in the trends industry, that was part of her reticence, but there was something else. The hot flush of her instincts told her not to bring Roman into Mammoth’s fold.

Sloane knew the key clause to her work contract by heart; she was proud of the things she’d done to be the person who could accept such an assignment, and for the first time, she found that she didn’t want to share:

With your global expertise in trends across the fashion, beauty, tech and entertainment industries, you’ll help our creative teams sculpt their visions for our ReProduction summit in June.

Every year, the electronics juggernaut ran a three-day summit about consumer trends that brought the world’s visionaries and tastemakers together to consult on a different theme. They’d gone big with this one, polemic. What will we make when we stop making kids? Daxter Stevens, Mammoth’s CEO, needed someone with global name recognition. Someone with vision. Someone empathetic. Someone without kids.

Enter Sloane Jacobsen: progenitor of ideas, soothsayer of the swipe. Instincts, accounted for; maternal instincts, nil.

It takes a while to figure out your specialty when you work in trends. Although she’d started out in beauty (quickly going from an American-in-Paris entry leveler to the unofficial creative director at the French cosmetics giant, Aurora), what Sloane excelled at was mapping out what the wired rich wanted next.

And it currently wasn’t children. Over the last two decades, the upper-​middle-class American ego had wanted global positioning systems and wearables; it hadn’t wanted kids. For the various companies she consulted with, Sloane sketched out a world viewpoint that had become increasingly self-centered, forecasting a rise in personal electronics and personal improvement, and a downtick in the birthrate because it’s selfless to have kids. Did she regret the articles she’d published in which she’d called breeding shortsighted? Listen, there were nuances. She probably could have used a kinder word. But she’d never retracted her opinions or apologized. To the world outside of her, she was successful, influential, unapologetic: the uber anti-mom.

So be it. If Sloane had to judge from her emotional incompatibility with her own mother (an obsessive nurturer), she would have been terrible at parenthood. She just didn’t have it in her to be giving. Also, she wasn’t a fan of being scared, and it had to be petrifying to love someone more than yourself.

Beside her, Roman laughed at something in the movie. She craned her neck to see at what, but his screen was tilted in a way that all she saw was darkness.

 

From TouchUsed with permission of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Courtney Maum.


  • Somebody should tell Sloane peanuts are not nuts. They’re legumes. As in: Yes, the world was a simpler, kinder place when Sloane could still eat nuts in public.



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