As he drove, Dex instructed me on how to behave at the MacPherson’s. “Today you get to really understand your role in supporting our system,” he said. “You should look around, take it all in.” He had thoughts on what I should and should not touch, who I should speak to, where to find a suit if I wanted to go swimming, how much I should eat and drink. “Not more than a few canapes,” he said. “No more than two drinks.”
“Okay,” I said. “I understand.”
“This family depends on you. Their house, their grounds, all of it.”
“I understand,” I repeated. I looked out the window. I had the feeling, sometimes, of being made a child when Dex spoke to me. He would be thirty soon, he was almost a decade into his career. Sometimes I backtracked our ages, wanting—in some sick, difficult way—to confirm I’d been in the eighth grade when he clocked in at the car dealership for the first time or that I was learning to parallel park as he divorced his first wife. There were times, like this, I worried Dex liked the distance between our timelines, how he could win any argument simply by pointing to the extra years appended to his words.
For a while, he was quiet. The MacPherson house was in Vero Beach, a ninety-minute drive, and almost immediately we had passed protestors on our way out of Orlando. The police had pressed around them on one block, compacting the protestors together, but then the light changed and they were stripped from my view. I-95 was crowded with other cars on their way to beachfront mansions, signs strung from the overpasses: No More Regressive Taxes and Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death and Reclaim your $$$ from the 1%.
“At least they could be accurate,” he said. It was the 0.01% who took our tithes on Saturnalia. “Some of these tithers,” he said, “the one-percenters, wait till you meet them. They earn millions.”
He had told me as much, so many times since we’d learned I was also assigned to the MacPhersons. This type of matched assignment was usually the case for couples. If you were married or in a relationship, it would strengthen your bond to be tithed together. But we had only been dating for a year since just after the previous Saturnalia, when Dex had appeared at ICEBAR flush with cash from the three car sales he’d closed that day. He had been making this annual drive for almost a decade now, and he understood how to behave in the house. I couldn’t even find the correct way to hold my hands on my lap.
He said, “I want you to enjoy the day. Explore the house and meet some people. It’ll be good for you to experience it on your own. Your first time.”
Sweat threaded down my back and gathered in the folds of my thighs. I couldn’t find a route to a full breath. He had promised his ex-wife wouldn’t be at the MacPhersons, but it was hard not to imagine how the two of us compared. My dress was built of multi-colored crocheted squares with a polyester back, it was a size too small, but it had been marked down to $27.89 from $140, $22.38 with my employee discount. Just over three hours of work, but handing my credit card to one of the other Womenswear cashiers I had figured I would more than eat its worth in food—I would have a few glasses of wine—I could equal it out, justify its expense. Dex was always saying clothes were an investment, you needed to look the part. He had a drawer just for pocket squares, a startling and alluring fact when I’d first visited his apartment.
“If anyone asks,” he said, “tell them you’re an Administrative Assistant. Tell them you’re ready to move up the ladder.”
“I don’t want to lie.”
“It’s not a lie, it’s an exaggeration.” He tapped the blinker, moved us into the exit lane. “It’s saying where you’re going to be in a year, just shifting the timelines a little.”
I tried to follow the path of Dex’s thinking. He was good for me. He was experienced and worldly, he understood how to behave around wealth. These were important things for me to learn.
He glanced at me after we left the highway. We sat frozen in a column of cars. Flashes of color hinted at some commotion in the distant intersection. “Just carry a glass of wine with you if you’re feeling nervous. It helps to hold something. But don’t drink too much. Two glasses, max.” He touched the back of my hand.
We rolled forward in halting increments. We moved so slow a policeman walked past with his hand on one hip. He held a radio to his face and stopped at the edge of the intersection. We passed through, inching—another policeman waved us forward—with protestors to either side of the car. A man banged his fist on the hood and Dex jerked as though he’d been hit. “They don’t even know us,” I said, but I watched them recede in the side mirror and a part of me, a small one, wondered what it would be to stand in that intersection, shouting and waving my arms.