| Catapult Alumni
Fiction Excerpt from ‘American Cheese’
This novel excerpt was written by Winshen Liu in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator.
American Cheese is a story told through the alternating perspectives of three college roommates, reuniting years after graduation for a mutual friend’s wedding in Napa Valley. Each of them dread the reception but attend out of politeness: Yunhua Chen is suddenly dateless after her college sweetheart ends their eight-year relationship; Dani Martinez is seated at the same table as her boss for the startup job she wants to leave; and Grace Olatunji misses a key weekend with her husband, who remains in New York uninvited. Over egg white omelettes and vegetarian canapés, their unspoken rivalries and blurted judgments force them to reconcile their newfound privilege—and guilt—from finance and tech careers with their backgrounds as first-generation Americans. Generous pours of Zinfandel at the reception raise a sobering discussion on how to be a good person and lead a fulfilling life in an increasingly unequal society—the very one they helped create.
Grace Olatunji charged up First Street with the tote of books bulging at her side. She huffed every few steps, when the pointed corners of the hardcovers jutted into her waist again, prompting her to readjust the canvas straps. If this had been Manhattan, she would have been embarrassed that other pedestrians, boasting their Saturday crosswords and coffee, turned their heads at her exhales. But she was on vacation so she didn’t bother wiping away the net of sweat on her forehead, nevermind that it was late September. She wanted only to be at the bakery as quickly as possible, to be farther from Dani sooner.
Grace wasn’t hungry, not after a brunch like that, and she wasn’t keen on snacking, but Dani’s words had triggered a craving. She thought of her mother, who always had room for dessert and treated lemon ones on a menu as the most luxurious, because they turned something so sour into something sweet. She wanted the mouthfeel of tender, moist cake, a bite of soft sweetness to brush her tongue and the insides of her cheeks, stroking her tastebuds as if to say she was in the right. Proven stood four blocks ahead, painted in pastel blue, like the cupolas in Santorini through a camera filter. She had noted the bakery on the way to brunch, the “o” on the sign drawn as a bread roll. The glass windows were decorated with white painted letters and realistic flowers, the whole place generically quaint the way shops in rich, white towns often were. She hoped they sold lemon desserts, like lemon icebox cake, lemon chess pie, lemon bars—something that could deliver the joyful comfort she associated with that signature tartness.
The flashing hand across the street grew still. Grace sighed, resigned to stopping at the corner and unable to think of anything but the gall Dani had. As if buying a few books caused homelessness! Dani was the techie gentrifying the Mission District, nevermind that she was Latina. Her money still worked the same way when spent on rent, a bargain that must have been no more than a quarter of her income. It was hard to believe this was the same Daniela Martinez who had been her bridesmaid, who had ordered cupcakes to her office after her first promotion, and taken her out in search of cheesecake at midnight in Harvard Square, when her boyfriend broke up with her the week before college formal season.
It had been seven years since graduation, eleven since they met as roommates, naively believing they would major in music or romance languages instead of biology and economics. After graduation, Dani had hopped from marketing to product to engineering jobs in Silicon Valley, while Grace had climbed the finance ladders, from investment banking to private equity on Wall Street. Although they were not friends who texted incessantly or saw each other more than once a year, sharing that particular period of life ensured that Grace would always name Dani as her best friend and assumed, confidently, Dani would do the same. The previous evening, Dani had picked her up from the airport and driven them to Napa Valley two days early for their friend’s wedding. Their excitement to see each other had rendered music and podcasts unnecessary for the drive, with conversation pouring out of them as easily as the mimosas went down the next morning.
After their brunch of egg white omelettes and avocado protein bowls, she had strolled into a local bookstore and Dani had followed, roaming through the shelves empty-handed. Dani was the type of person who left her mattress on the ground to “avoid the scam that was bed frames” and stacked shoeboxes as a modular dresser. It was charming, and possibly clever, until it became excessive, as Grace found it now, with Dani trailing her through the bookstore while diving into a new title, for which she was #124 on the waitlist at the library.
“Just buy it,” Grace had said.
“I’m getting it from the library,” Dani said without looking up.
“Yeah, a year later, when we’re all reading the next bestseller,” Grace had said, her arms holding a stack of books as if each one was a dear friend she had been meaning to see for months, but had been too occupied with work to message.
Dani had met her at the checkout counter as she slipped the last title into her new Catalogue Bookstore tote, proud of her selections.
“Wow. Why don’t you just buy the whole store?”
“Excuse me?” she had said, daring Dani to repeat something so crass and unjustified. Dani had said this within earshot of half a dozen patrons, who darted their eyes at Grace but tried to pass off their glances as spontaneous.
“Oh, don’t go pretending like you can’t. This frugality show you put on doesn’t make you a better person, you know. Just own the fact you’re a millionaire and stop acting like you’re one of us!”
Grace had such a loaded quiver of thoughts in her head, she felt exhausted before she fired any of them. She rushed to the exit and pushed hard on the glass door, setting off for the first place that came to mind without turning to see if Dani had followed, the worn-down soles of her ballet flats slapping loudly against the cement.
The rest of the way to the bakery, Grace realized that was the thing about Dani: Everything was about money to her. Grace may have made more, how much more she wasn’t sure exactly, but Dani had lived a richer life, exploring different companies and jobs. Hadn’t they each pursued what they found at the intersection of desirable and practical? No one was pretending or acting like anything. If anything, Dani was the one acting like she didn’t earn six-figures. Like she wasn’t rich. And what was this frugality show? Was the sale section restricted to certain income levels now, or did she just want Grace to buy the book for her? She would have been happy to. And for the record, not that she cared nor would ever say this out loud, she was a multi-millionaire, and had been even without Matthias’s savings. When did this become something to be ashamed of?