Fiction: Add to Cart by Natalie Serber

Female touching a surface of water in a hot tub with the tips of fingers on her foot

The storefront windows were covered with brown paper, the floor littered with nails, chunks of drywall, screws, and smears of wall mud. Breathing the limy dust left a bitter tang on the back of Trina’s tongue, and yet. Construction detritus always filled her with anticipatory pleasure, even hope. Something was to be made better. She watched Brody take possession of the unfinished space, kick at small triangles of wood—remnants from a cut.

“What happened?” he asked without turning to face her. Brody was tall. His black t-shirt snugged his shoulders and wide back. He gripped a wall stud and jiggled.

“Owners ran out of money. They’d been building a communal workspace, you know, gig workers who want noise and people around?”

“Like WeWork?”

She nodded. “No one wants to be home alone all the time.” This was certainly true of Trina. Since she’d invited Lewis to divorce her (his affair providing an offramp from their stagnant marriage), since her daughter extended her Birthright trip to Israel indefinitely, since her son had a new girlfriend, home was oppressively empty.

Brody twisted at the waist like a pit-bull reaching to bite an itch, sturdy yet agile. His time-released grin took up half his face. “Trina, this could be it.”

She hooked her hair behind an ear, exposing cheek and neck. Over the course of their professional relationship—she’d sold him two commercial properties and his condo—she’d developed a crush. She dressed carefully for their appointments, all the way down to her lingerie. Brody paced about ten feet, wiping an imaginary bar with an imaginary rag, his confident shoulders drawn back as if he had nothing to protect.

“The bar goes here. A banquette there.” He pointed to the corner near the windows. “The location is perfect.”

It was—on a busy and gentrifying street. Overflow diners from the woodfired pizza spot a few doors down would keep his place busy. An abandoned movie theater would be bought up and converted to an arthouse cinema soon enough, a vegan restaurant anchored another corner, with a VW repair shop across the street. It was an urban weird mix, like Brooklyn, only in their small beach town.

“Bar Norma,” he said.

“After your daughter?” Trina was conscious of her laugh, light, high, trembly—the jingling of a pretty earring. She felt crisp and new as if she’d just peeled a dry cleaner’s plastic sheath off her body.

Brody ripped down a strip of the butcher paper. The sound surprised and satisfied her, like a sneeze, or an orgasm. Bright afternoon light sliced across the room and fell onto her face. Trina held up a hand, shading her eyes. “Shall we go for a drink and write an offer?”


Brody slid the passenger seat all the way back to accommodate his legs. Already he had two successful restaurants in town, this was to be his passion project. “Bar Norma,” he tried it out again.

“I like it. Will she?”

“She’s unhappy with me, that girl. She tells me I have two speeds, anger and love.”

Trina turned to look at him, but he didn’t meet her eye. Maybe it was a red flag, but she liked him even more for exposing himself. “How old is she?”

“Twenty-four going on forty.”

“She only thinks she knows everything. The good thing about being our age is we know everything we don’t know, right? I feel like I’m forty-something going on twenty-four.”

“Forty something?” His voice was wrapped in a wink. He squeezed her shoulder, and his hand lingered. “You doing okay? I heard about the divorce.”

The sting in her eyes was swift and brief. It wasn’t that she missed Lewis. The Lewis she would have missed was long gone. Trina missed what her life was supposed to be at forty-something, well fifty-one. “A month ago the only time I didn’t have to cry was when I was crying.”

“That’s how I feel about peeing.”

Her laugh was a bright, hatchet chop. She missed their exit from the traffic circle and spun around again. The tip of Brody’s finger now traced a spiral on her neck.


Her deal-closing spot was an oak bistro with a hammered tin ceiling. She and Lewis used to come here. Now she and Lewis only saw each other at mediation. Currently he was on his boat, The Tonic, in the Santa Cruz islands, poaching abalone, getting stoned, watching Fox News and fucking his thirty-two-year-old girlfriend. The boat, or yacht, as Lewis seriously called it, was his passion project. What was hers? Her grown kids would recoil at being ‘projects,’ though she still believed she knew what was best for them. She didn’t garden or knit or nurture a sourdough starter. She had neither houseplants nor a rescue pet. She didn’t volunteer. She may not use the word passion for her work, but it was her project. She excelled at her job, and yes, loved it. But it didn’t float her boat. Hahahaha.


While she typed on her iPad, she and Brody talked inspections, terms, and escrow. He read over her shoulder, interjecting dates and requirements, his breath lifting the hairs on her neck.

He touched her screen. “How long has it been empty?”

“Eight months.”

“Knock twelve Gs off the offer.”

“You’re Tony Soprano now?” She adjusted the number, dropping it by five and a half.

He kept his finger on the screen, objecting. Brody was used to getting what he wanted at a discount.

“Really?” She cocked an eyebrow, fingered the stem of her martini glass. “You’re going to insist?” This was her favorite part of her job—being the one who knows best.

He clasped his hands behind his neck, leaned back like a stargazer, nodding as she read aloud the stipulations, 30-day escrow, cash offer, inspections completed in 14 days. He typed in his e-signature, pressed send, and gestured the bartender for another round.

Trina zipped away her iPad, felt his relaxed gaze on her body. “Now, we wait.”

“You don’t mind waiting, do you?”

She did relish the high pitch of anticipation. “What about you, is it the chase that you love?”

“Sure. Pretty much. Maybe with Bar Norma I won’t get bored.”

“It’s sweet,” she teased, “that you believe that.”

Brody pressed his lips into a droll smile. “You think you’ve got me figured out.”

She ticked her eyebrows up, retrieved her lip gloss and stroked the wand over her mouth.


In anticipation of tonight Trina had waxed and trimmed, but when she’d glimpsed the landing strip of hair as she slid on her lingerie, she felt a little mortified, announcing as it did her intentions. She still liked to think of sex as something of a fan dance, even if there was a tacit agreement between two consenting adults, in a car together, heading to one of the adult’s beds. Her hand on the gear shift knob grazed Brody’s thigh. She did not want to go home, to wake up alone and be mocked by a pointless Brazilian wax. This was what she’d been thinking when she ran the stop sign, causing angry horns and a trio of goth cyclists to flip her off and scream obscenities.

“Whoa!” Brody gripped the dashboard. “Do you always do that?”

“Only when I’m nervous.”

He grinned. “Nervous? Lucky me.”


He held the door, followed Trina inside, lobbed his keys into a beaten pewter bowl that looked as if it once held holy water. She stepped down into his living room. All the furniture seemed to have been repurposed from an ancient church or cattle ranch. Dark wooden pews and hide rugs, soft tan leather chairs, a stump on wheels for a coffee table. Out his bay windows the sky was smeary with pinks and oranges. Twinkling lights from the roller coaster across the street bejeweled the view. “This never gets old, does it?”

He pulled her against his solid body, exactly where she wanted to be. “I should thank my realtor.” She tilted her head up, he swanned his head down, lips met lips. She peeked her tongue out and met a solid line, chaste as Ken and Barbie. It was a lie of a kiss if his warm body—chest, biceps, thighs—was the truth. Was Brody the type to make her beg? Bubbles that fizzed and flitted in her body moments ago vanished as in champagne gone flat.

“Be right back,” he said into her hair.

She toured the periphery of the room, touching knick-knacks. Masculinity throbbed from every esthetic choice, stout legged dining table, a rearing brass horse on a stand, a wooden bowl filled with pool balls, an abstract lithograph of dark green triangles crushing pale yellow circles. How could triangles look so triumphant? Trina smoothed her hands over her waist. “Can I help?” she called.

“No. Please. I have snacks,” he answered from the kitchen. “Make yourself comfy.”

The giant couch was a conundrum. When she slid all the way back, her feet dangled like a child’s. With her feet on the floor she had to remain upright as a Lego man and after two martinis she wanted to recline. She unzipped her suede boots, arranged her legs beneath her. The growing dark lowered like a shade toward the horizon. Faint screams from roller coaster riders pierced the quiet.

Brody’s condo triggered the desire for her own new start, but Trina couldn’t, not yet. No matter how old, children were a tether. Melody still would not let her touch anything in her bedroom. Vince finally had his GED and black belt. He worked as a teacher’s aide in a fourth-grade classroom, which surprised Trina as he’d never seemed to like kids. But he wasn’t moving toward a future that didn’t include living under her roof, rummaging through her refrigerator, leaving his clothes to molder in the washer for days and then tossing them into the dryer anyway. Vince often smelled faintly of mildew. She reached for her phone to send him a text.

–I’m with a client. Be home late.

It wasn’t a lie. Three dots blinked as he typed back:

–all good postmating rn

He included a smiley face in a cowboy hat and a thumbs up. She read it; snort laughed, read it again. Hopefully she’d be post-mating soon too.

She texted her best friend, Pamela.

–I may get lucky! Hopefully postmating later!

She included a fingers-crossed emoji and a smirking cat. When nothing came back, she double checked. Oh crap! She’d sent it to Vince. Heat flared across her cheeks. Then again, the excruciating three blinking dots.

–u know postmate is like uber for food?

–haha! Of course. LOL!

She sent a crying/laughing emoji and silenced her phone, shoved it in a boot.

“I heard you laughing.”

“Just my kid.”

Brody set a wooden tray on the stump. Soft cheeses, cornichon, pear, baguette, and a small cheese cleaver, all arranged around a pile of almonds and two chilled martini glasses with olives on toothpicks.

“It looks as if you brought in supplies.”

“Do you know how hard it is to find Époisse? I went to three stores.”

“I’m touched you remembered.”

Brody handed her the drink then sat, patted his lap, and when she extended her legs, he cupped one heel and began to rub. The martini was cold, the Époisse runny, the olives briny. The couch no longer felt awkward.

“Nice?” he asked.

She moaned her assent and closed her eyes, letting the drink perform its magic of chilling and warming all at once. Through her socks, Brody squeezed up the length of her calves, found pressure points in her foot, gently pinched the intimate places between her toes. She let her head drop back on the cushion. This would be the first time Trina undressed in front of another man in twenty-six years. The looming move to his bedroom rattled and aroused her. It was not the same delicious vulnerability she’d felt as a young woman. She and Brody were middle-aged, this wasn’t their first barbeque. Removing her clothes in front of someone wouldn’t be new, but her body beneath the clothes was changed, soft, saggy in unflattering places. She had a divot and a pucker in her left breast, and even all these years post-treatment, her body didn’t respond in the same way it had before. It took coaxing. It took products and toys. Did he even have lube? How would she ask? Did she need to start carrying some with her? And a condom? She felt herself growing tense, which certainly wouldn’t help. Breathe. Sip the martini. Breathe. His thumbs kneaded her high arches, then he paused to lean forward for his drink.

“Phew,” he said, pinching his nose.


He smiled, waved his hand in front of his face.

Trina pulled her feet away. “They smell?” She sat straighter. “They don’t. It’s the cheese!”

“It’s not a big deal.” He laughed. “We’ve known each other for what, six years?”

But she was now kneeling on the couch, a flush rising from chest to neck. It was the Époisse.

He watched her reaction, bemused, sipped again. “I won’t hold it against you. Honestly. If I were you I’d be more embarrassed about your driving.” He patted his lap. “Bring them back. You have aristocratic feet.”

But Trina would not. She could not put smelly feet back in his lap. If they even did smell. “They don’t!” she said, trying to laugh, trying to sound light, but anxiety constricted her body like ugly black compression socks. She stood from the couch. Why would he bring up her driving? Had she misread him? First the chaste kiss, then the long wait alone in his living room, and now the insults? Perhaps Brody wasn’t interested in anything aside from Bar Norma and humiliating her.


In his bathroom she peeled off her socks and rolled up her pants. Her feet? Maybe they smelled faintly sour, but certainly nothing to say out loud, especially if you wanted things to heat up. She perched on the edge of the tub and stuck her toes, ankles, and shins beneath the gushing faucet. Her ankles were slender, and her feet, yes, she supposed they were aristocratic. She held her hand in front of her mouth, huffed out and quickly inhaled. Was her breath okay? She raised an arm and sniffed, fine. Faintly citrus even.

“Trina? Are you coming back?” He called from the living room.

Perhaps she’d stay in the bathroom until she was sober enough to drive home. Extending her legs further beneath the water, she slipped, and shit, now her pants were wet. The tub was giant, with severe sides. There was a perfect slice of white soap, thin Turkish towels, and a book of matches on the back of the toilet. She picked it up and struck one, focused on the flame, which fizzled and smoked. It was incense. Of course it was. Brody was offended by smells. Maybe he had superhuman olfactory abilities. She shut her eyes. The water poured down, hot as she could stand. Her toes clenched, and then, slowly unfurled.

“I’m sorry,” he called. “I didn’t mean it.”


When she was seven her father managed their apartment building in North Hollywood. He rented a one-bedroom apartment to a girl and her mother—no father—which was scandalous to Trina’s religious mother, who was aloof to both the beautiful mother and the girl, Natalie. A woman living alone, hence lonely, was a threat. Natalie, petite and enthusiastic, constantly tagged behind Trina, asking to jump rope, play jacks. She made small gifts—a doll from knotted string, a drawing of a unicorn, colored seeds glued to a piece of construction paper—which she would press into Trina’s hands, for Trina to later throw away.

Out of curiosity and boredom, Trina invited Natalie to spend the night. She watched Natalie’s face, touched with awe, as she poked her finger into Tinkerbell the canary’s cage. The apartment was spectacular to Natalie, and Trina remembered guiding her through the rooms, pointing regally toward the faux-satin pillowslips insisted upon by her mother to prevent split ends, and how Natalie stroked the white chenille bedspread.

Outside after dinner, Natalie ran around barefoot. Trina, whose mother was afraid of disease and injury, never let her go shoeless like a waif. In the growing dusk they scared pigeons skyward, looked for coins in a phone booth. Natalie coaxed Trina to play cigarette tag, yelling out, Parliament! Winston! giving Trina the pleasure of refusing. “How dumb. There’s only two of us.”

When the girls were called inside, Trina’s mother pressed her hand into the center of Natalie’s back. “Those feet cannot touch my sheets.” She steered her to the tub. Trina waited just outside the bathroom door, her lips, like her mother’s, tightly pursed.  Remembering, she felt her lips tighten in the same way now, in Brody’s bathroom.

Her mother raised soapy lather on a cloth and scrubbed Natalie’s feet, pushed them under the steaming hot water. Trina’s own toes had curled inside her shoes, as if hers were the offending feet. When Natalie stepped from the tub, she looked very small beside Trina’s mother, who thrust a towel in her hands. Natalie avoided eye contact with Trina and her mother. She dried her feet, which were pink from friction and heat, then claimed a stomachache and went home.

When Trina’s mother came in later to wish her sweet dreams, Trina turned away. It was the first time she’d felt confused and worried over her mother’s behavior. When would her mother humiliate her? Because surely she would.

The next day, when Natalie called out to Trina as if nothing had happened, Trina turned away. Except, really, that isn’t all she did. Natalie persisted. She wanted to make flower soup, to swim in the doughboy pool, dress up as old ladies, and rather than having to consider the tub, the soap, the hot water, her mother’s fussy unkindness, Trina slugged her. Natalie clutched her middle, sucked air. That was when Trina turned away.


Leaning forward, she closed Brody’s drain, and nearly swooned. She’d had too much to drink and she didn’t care. Beneath his sink she found only a bag of Epsom salts, no tampons, no lavender bubble bath, which was a good sign. She waterfalled the salts into the tub, stripped. It wasn’t until she was submerged that it occurred to her she’d made herself vulnerable. Did she really even know Brody? Her phone was all the way in the living room, inside her boot. She stood, dripping water over the floor, and shut the door, nearly locked it, but then felt ridiculous. What she’d wanted, until he mentioned her feet, was their bodies pressed together. All that nervous anticipation about undressing in front of Brody, and she’d undressed alone.

She tried to settle in the uncomfortable tub, neck bent at an awkward angle, water filling her ear canals. What would she say when she emerged from the bathroom? Was the evening recoverable? Face it, she still wanted to fuck. Why couldn’t she just set her mind on the goal and surge forward? That was how she conducted business.

“I see it worked.” Brody spoke from the other side of the bathroom door.

“You had a plan?”

“A nefarious one, to get you in the tub. May I come in?”

“It’s your bathroom.”

He stuck his head around the door, sheepish smile. God, he was good looking. “I bring a peace offering.” Her martini glass, still half full, a small plate of the snacks, plus chocolate. “For blood sugar.” He sat with his back against the tub, legs stretching toward the hallway. It was comfortable, speaking without making eye contact. This is how she talked with her children throughout their teenaged years. Driving them to volleyball, lacrosse, whatever other lessons she lavished upon them, they would answer questions about school, friends, anything. It seemed no eye contact was the key to intimacy.

Every once in a while Brody reached up and over his head offering a nibble—pear and cheese, bread and chocolate.

“Norma will see the bar as a bullshit ploy.”

And just like that, she liked him again. “What do you mean?”

“She’s been angry with me for eight years, ever since I left. Her mother poisoned the well.”

“Really? You left and her mother was the well poisoner?”


“I’m sorry.” She splashed water onto his neck. “Really, just too close to home. For all practical purposes Lewis left us and according to my daughter, I’m the shrew.”

The water made pleasant sloshing sounds in the ensuing quiet. Lewis was part of both the best and the worst in her life—the falling in love, her children, and the falling apart. “Do you have someone knit to the most disappointing part of your life? Even though there’s other, better memories with them, you wish they didn’t exist?”

“Can we stop?” He turned to face her. “Can we stop, please, talking about kids and spouses and feet?” He was kneeling now, leaning into the tub and kissing her. This time not at all chaste. His tongue made forays around her mouth, aggressive and hot, thrusting toward her throat, licking her teeth. She tasted cheese and wine, hints of chocolate. His stubble chafed her cheek. Now he was opening and closing his mouth, sucking, leaning farther over her, nearly driving her under with his force.

“Wow,” she pushed him off, leaving wet handprints on his shirt. “You really know how to shut down a conversation.” She inhaled, steadied herself, and stood.

Brody watched, lips parted and deeply red from the friction of their kiss, hair mussed, eyes focused upon her as if seizing her body—her shape, her pink and glistening skin—yet also focused inward, toward his own desire. Desire she inspired. She stepped out, draping her hands across her body. The bathmat became her own Botticelli scallop shell.

He wrapped her from behind in one of his thin towels, rubbed at her breasts and between her legs. She didn’t know whether to feel sexy or like a child.


In the bedroom Brody’s agile Pitbull nature exposed itself once again—he was quickly naked, the tip of his eager penis bobbing in front of him as he tossed pillows aside, yanking covers down, they tumbled onto his bed. He kissed her toes, inhaling and sighing deeply like a lovesick cartoon skunk, and she laughed. His kisses swept up her body, to her clavicle, her neck, he twisted the rope of her hair around his hand, pulled it tight at the base of her skull. She liked that. He held her head still as he traveled down her body. Neck. Throat. Space between her breasts, her nipples. “What’s this?” he asked about the scar.

“Ancient. Tiny-cancer.”

“You okay?”

“I’m great.”

He reached between her legs, stroking, circling just as he’d done to her neck in the car. She didn’t even need lube, but then he removed his hand too soon. He asked her to tear the condom open with her teeth and place it on him, a reversal of the way she’d rolled up her pants in the bathroom just a little bit ago. He nudged her body onto her side and slid behind her, poking and prodding. He’d thrust a few times, his mouth puckered and hot against her shoulder, then he’d rearrange her, on her back, on her front, a pillow beneath her ass, his cheeks turning red as if moving heavy furniture.

“Shh, slow down,” she said. She guided his head back between her thighs, adjusting her hips, but he kept slipping off. It went on for so long she became a spectator rather than a participant, found herself staring up at the recessed ceiling while he rooted around trying to please her. There was a name for that kind of ceiling. Now he was moving back and forth as if gumming a corn cob. Box beams? He stood, hooked her legs over his shoulders. No wonder he had no bubble bath or tampons in his bathroom.  And he kept up a constant stream of words; Do you like it? How’s this for you? You’re so good. This is what I want. Yes. Naughty! Do you like this? What about this, Baby. Baby. Baby.

Coffered! That’s what it was called. A coffered ceiling! Finally shuddering and spent, he collapsed beside her, nuzzled her neck, fit his body to her curves. “Mm.” He purred in her ear.


She woke alone in his bed. The covers tangled and tossed aside. Out his window the dark sky, the boardwalk now dark as well. Only the pulsing green glow from the lighthouse on the breakwater persisted. Faint screams from the roller coaster had been replaced by the low, intermittent moan of the foghorn, a sort of taunt. No such moans had come from Trina tonight. She once had known the pleasure of sex with someone you loved and who loved you back. This wasn’t that. Tonight didn’t even hold possibility. It had been neither liberating nor fun. Maybe, there had been a time when she wanted a man to use her body, but that time had passed. Sex with Brody was an exhausting act of accommodation.

Her mouth dry, her head feeling stuck in a too tight hat, Trina wanted her own bed. She tiptoed to the bathroom to retrieve her clothes. Water in the tub had gone cold. The tray of ravaged snacks was abandoned on the sink. Her damp jeans lay in a heap. The room smelled like dirty feet. Of course it had been the Époisse and yet she’d been embarrassed, blamed herself. Trina cut a smidge of the cheese, bent to smear it behind the toilet tank, exactly in the center, where no one ever cleaned.

In the living room she found Brody at the monolithic dining table, wrapped in a soft gray robe, a glass of milk luminous beside his open laptop. He was watching porn—a woman on her knees, bookended by two men, one with his ass in the frame, the other behind her, thrusting, hands clamped on her bare shoulders.

Trina cleared her throat. “Hi,” she said, which really meant, I’m leaving. She promised herself she would not thank him for the evening.

Brody snapped shut his laptop. “Email! It never ends.”

She placed a hand on his wrist.

“I was just coming back to bed.”

“I’m going home. My son—” she started to make excuses, then said, “I like my own bed. I’ll let you know what I hear about Bar Norma. I’m confident.”

“I had a great night.” He caught her in a hug.

“Thanks.” Shit. She’d said it. And then she thought how earlier inside a hug was just where she wanted to be. How she’d stepped from the tub into his weird yet still welcome towel embrace. “Thank you. For the bath and the cheese. I really love your ceilings.”

He laughed and she smiled.

“I’ll be in touch with any news.”


On the way home, instead of driving straight past, she turned into the harbor parking lot and stopped at Lewis’ dock. Her head vaguely throbbed from the martinis, as if she were being tapped with a hammer wrapped in fur. She pressed her fingertips to her eyelids, yawned, and then stepped from her car.

Wires clanged softly against masts; boats creaked with the undulating tide. The dock gate was locked, but there was the gap amidst the other boats, Lewis’ slip empty. In the before time when she thought they might be on the boat together once in a while, she’d wanted him to name it Sea-Rena. His choice was a micro-stab against their marriage. The Tonic suggesting a restorative as it did. He wouldn’t tell Trina his girlfriend’s name, just that she was thirty-two, childless and enthusiastic.

Cool night air laced with fish and brine drifted her way. If Trina had dressed and left for home right after the bath, right after Brody had seen her naked, her night would have been perfect. It turned out what she’d wanted most was to be seen and desired. But bad sex wasn’t the end of the world. Every substandard moment in life was a commercial for something better. At least that’s what she told her kids. Fog would soon creep in. She wished she hadn’t put cheese behind the toilet tank. She wished she hadn’t punched that little girl. Tomorrow, by noon, the sun would appear.


Her bed. Vast. Clean. Crisp. After checking on Vince—and yes, he was home—after a shower, and drawing tight her blackout shades, she sprawled on her bed like it was her own spacious country. A steamy mug of chamomile tea on her bedside table perfumed the air. She slid beneath her gravity blanket, meant to hold her body in a comforting way. Trina opened her laptop. Zappos. Why yes, she did want those red sandals. And the clogs with heels. And the blue leather handbag. Add to cart. Add to cart. Add to cart.

Natalie Serber is the author of Shout Her Lovely Name, a New York Times Notable Bookand Community Chest, a memoir of her experience with breast cancer. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Zyzzyva Magazine, and others Essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Today Show, San Francisco Chronicle, The Rumpus, Oldster, Salon, and Fourth Genre. She’s seeking a home for her novel-in-stories, Must be Nice, which includes “Add to Cart” and more stories about Trina. She’s also writing a memoir about growing up with a single mother in the 60s, Go Back to Sleep. Find more of her work, as well her newsletter at

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